Now that you’ve chosen AT&T as your carrier, it’s time to pick a phone. Choices are broader than ever, as AT&T has largely gotten rid of phone subsidies. Most people still buy their phones from their carrier with the help of monthly payment plans or fast-upgrade plans such as AT&T Next Up. But there’s no overall cost penalty to buying an unlocked phone anymore, and AT&T supports more unlocked devices than any other US carrier. That puts a lot of choices at your fingertips, so we’re here to help narrow them down.
AT&T placed second in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests this year, with an excellent 4G network held back a bit by a muddled 5G situation. AT&T customers are getting excellent LTE performance, as long as they ignore the icon in the status bar: AT&T sells its 4G network as 5G Evolution or “5GE” (though it isn’t 5G) and also runs a “nationwide 5G” network that is, in general, no faster than its 4G network. We were also impressed by AT&T’s performance in rural areas.
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Even though AT&T lacks good 5G, you still need a relatively recent phone to take advantage of AT&T’s high-quality 4G. Most phones produced since 2019 have 4×4 MIMO antennas and 256 QAM encoding, key elements of the 5G Evolution experience.
If you want your phone to be a long-term investment, keep an eye out for models that support C-band 5G. AT&T bought a swath of these fast 5G airwaves, which will become available for use at the end of 2021, and it says it will cover 70 to 75 million people by the end of 2022. If you think you’ll hold onto your phone through 2023, getting one with C-band now is useful for future-proofing. Almost all new phones you buy in 2022 and beyond will have C-band on board.
Remember, all the phones on our list of the best unlocked phones work on AT&T.
The Best 5G Phone for AT&T
Right now, there are no good 5G phones for AT&T, because AT&T doesn’t have a 5G network worth talking about. Looking to the future, the iPhone 12 and 13 series, the Google Pixel 5 and 5a, and the Samsung Galaxy S21 series all have C-band and are thus more future-proof than other phones.
The Google Pixel 5a is on our list here even though it doesn’t currently support AT&T’s 5G. We think that will get straightened out in the future, and meanwhile, AT&T’s 4G performance is just as good as its 5G performance (and sometimes better).
AT&T uses two forms of 5G right now. If your phone says “5GE,” it’s actually on 4G. Low-band “5G” uses a tiny slice of set-aside, former 4G airwaves for 5G, and doesn’t make an appreciable difference in performance. AT&T’s high-speed “5G+” is available in small parts of some cities and has dramatic speeds up to 2Gbps, but it’s extremely hard to find.
For now, don’t fear you’re missing out on too much if you don’t have AT&T 5G. For more, see our list of the best 5G phones right now.
The Best Flip Phone for AT&T
If you’re interested in a flip or voice phone, you should be buying one that supports voice over AT&T’s 4G network, as the carrier is no longer investing in improving 3G service. We prefer the Kyocera DuraXE Epic. It’s rugged and has excellent voice quality, which helps make up for its relatively high price. The unlocked but very inexpensive Nokia 6300 has some limited smartphone features, such as WhatsApp and social media access, while still feeling like a voice phone.
If you need more help buying a cell phone, check out our story on the best cheap phones. While you’re at it, take a look at our lists for the best phones on T-Mobile and Verizon.