The coverage information for Chicago is rated as high confidence.
The predictions likely reflect reality. However, small areas of Chicago may have sub-standard coverage.
Network-Supplied Coverage Data
The data above is based on extrapolations from information network operators shared with the FCC about coverage in Chicago. Values in the table indicate the percent of Chicago's population expected to be covered by each network (not the percent of land area covered). Please be aware that network operators often report coverage inaccurately (usually overstating coverage).
5G Coverage In Chicago
The FCC collects data about 5G coverage, but it's likely unreliable since networks are rapidly deploying 5G coverage. A table based on the out-of-date FCC data can be found in a footnote.
Millimeter Wave 5G
Most 5G services will use the same spectrum traditionally used for 4G, but some areas will have coverage from a new technology called millimeter wave 5G. Service using millimeter wave 5G is extremely fast, but coverage is limited. Millimeter waves aren't well-suited for traveling long distances.
Networks that offer millimeter wave service in Chicago are likely to have sparse coverage (mostly limited to dense, outdoor areas).
Cell Tower & Base Station Map (Beta)
Dots mark cell towers and other base stations. Dots are colored by network.
If you frequently travel outside of Chicago, especially to rural areas, you may want to give substantial weight to the National Coverage Scores.
Verizon takes the top spot, followed by AT&T, then T-Mobile at both the national level and in Chicago.
Niche Plan Recommendations
Carriers and cell phone plans listed below aren't recommended for everyone, but they may be great options for a subset of people in Chicago.
Best Low-Cost Unlimited Plan
Visible is a cell phone service owned by Verizon. Visible offers two plans that both include unlimited minutes, texts, and data. The standard plan costs $30 per month. The premium, Visible+ plan, costs $45 per month and comes with 50GB per month of high-priority data and a few other perks.
Xfinity Mobile runs on Verizon’s network. The service is well-priced, but it's only available to Xfinity Internet customers. Xfinity Mobile’s plans include unlimited minutes and texts at no charge. Subscribers only pay for data.
Xfinity Mobile has two kinds of plans: (a) unlimited data plans and (b) pay-by-the-gig plans. Prices can be amazing for pay-by-the-gig customers that don’t use much data. Unlimited plans start at $45 per line each month but drop as low as $24 as more lines are added to an account. Within a family plan, Xfinity allows mixing and matching between by-the-gig and unlimited plans.
While Xfinity Mobile’s prices are excellent, subscribers should be cautious about indirect costs from being locked into Xfinity-branded services. If an Xfinity Mobile subscriber ceases paying for another Xfinity service, the subscriber will be charged an extra $20 per line each month.
The best cell phone plan for one person in Chicago won’t be the best plan for everyone in Chicago. People vary in the amount of data, minutes, and texts they use each month. Further, people differ in how they want to make tradeoffs between prices, coverage quality, and other factors.
For those struggling to choose between two cell phone plans, I often suggest trying the cheaper option first. If you have a good initial experience with a cheap phone plan, you can stick with it and save month after month. If you have a bad experience in the first month, you can switch to another phone plan.
Switching between cell phone plans is getting easier. Most carriers have phased out long-term contracts. Phones also tend to have better compatibility across networks than they used to. Just beware of installment plans. Cell phone carriers often run deals that entice people to purchase expensive phones on installment plans that last two or more years.
Data Priority In Chicago
Network operators assign different levels of data priority to different users. When cell towers are not congested, priority levels are unimportant. However, during periods of congestion, subscribers with high-priority data may experience better speeds than subscribers with low-priority data. Congestion varies by location, and I don't have good data on congestion in Chicago.
Priority Among Cell Phone Carriers In Chicago
Below, I share my impressions about prioritization policies among the three major networks and other cell phone services I recommend in Chicago. Carriers often aren't transparent about prioritization policies, so some of the information is speculation based on my research.
Verizon: Most postpaid subscribers get some high-priority data. Start Unlimited subscribers and customers on prepaid plans get lower priority.
AT&T: Most postpaid and prepaid AT&T plans include some high-priority data. The Unlimited Starter plan and the Unlimited Prepaid (not Unlimited Prepaid Plus) plans do not include any high-priority data.
T-Mobile: Most postpaid and prepaid plans (including T-Mobile Connect plans) include high-priority data. The Essentials plan has low-priority data.
Mint: Subscribers have low-priority data.
US Mobile: Subscribers have low-priority data. High-priority data options may be coming for the Super LTE service.
Visible: Subscribers have low-priority data on Visible's standard plan. The Visible+ plan includes 50GB of high-priority data.
Xfinity Mobile: Subscribers on by-the-gig plans have high-priority data. Most subscribers on unlimited plans have low-priority data.
Carriers with low-priority data usually receive Coverage Scores slightly lower than the Coverage Scores received by their host networks.
About The Coverage Model
Coverage Critic’s predictive model crunches tens of millions of rows of data to assess cell phone coverage quality in cities throughout the U.S.
I believe the model is better than anything else on the market, but it’s far from perfect. I plan to make improvements to the model, and I expect the underlying data collected by the FCC will improve over time.
The Coverage Scores assess the quality of networks' cell phone service in Chicago. The Coverage Scores don’t account for other factors like prices or customer support quality. Here’s an outline of what different Coverage Scores mean:
8.5+ – Nearly all subscribers using a network with a score above 8.5 in Chicago will experience a strong signal in outdoor areas by their residences. The large majority of people will experience a strong signal inside their homes. Few if any dead spots will be found when out and about in Chicago.
7-8.5 – The large majority of people will experience a strong signal in front of their residences. Most people will also have a strong signal inside their homes. Dead spots may exist within the city or town, but most people won’t encounter dead spots often.
5-7 – Most people will experience acceptable signal strength at their homes, but a substantial portion of people won’t have adequate service. In most cases, people should opt for a network with a higher Coverage Score. People who aren’t adamant about having high-quality service and/or lack other options may still have a satisfactory experience with networks that score between 5 and 7. I strongly recommend looking at coverage maps and talking with neighbors before choosing a network that scores in this range.
0-5 – If possible, opt for a network with a higher score. Consult carriers’ coverage maps if you have no better options.
The Price Ratings and Support Ratings aren't specific to Chicago. The ratings give a quick impression about factors other than coverage quality. I don’t pretend there’s a sophisticated or scientific process behind the ratings. These simplistic ratings ignore nuance and collapse complex realities. For example, it’s tough to come up with a single price rating for a carrier that has great prices on some cell phone plans and terrible prices on other plans. The Support Ratings reflect both the helpfulness of customer support agents and the overall quality of the user experience (including the quality of carriers' websites, apps, and support documents).
Catches & Gimmicks
Cell phone carriers are notorious for putting annoying catches in price structures and service agreements. In the spirit of shedding light on what's normally hidden, here's what I view as the worst catches involved with the cell phone plans and carriers recommended in Chicago. I've roughly ordered the listings by a combination of (a) how annoying I find the catches and (b) how poorly the catches are disclosed.
A $35 device-activation fee is common.
US Mobile charges a $2 per month service fee on many plans (unlimited data plans excluded).
Customers on "unlimited" plans can only use 75GB in a month before speeds slow to a crawl.
Customers on "unlimited" plans can only use 35GB in a month before speeds slow to a crawl.
New customers have to pay about $10 for a SIM card.
Most T-Mobile plans have international roaming options. Connect plans do not.
Subscribers that don't maintain another Xfinity-branded service (e.g., Xfinity Internet) will be assessed fees.
Mobile hotspot use is allowed and unlimited, but Visible may cap hotspot speeds to 5Mbps and limit subscribers to connecting one device at a time.
Many carriers (particularly Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) entice customers with deals for phones purchased on multi-year installment plans. These deals may look great on the surface, but they often make switching carriers difficult. Promotional offers are often unavailable for customers that want to purchase phones upfront.
Nearly all carriers charge taxes and some kind of "Regulatory Recovery Fee" on top of advertised prices.
Coverage Critic has financial relationships with many companies in the cell phone industry, including almost all of the biggest carriers. Rather than insist that I'm unbiased, I try to disclose my conflicts of interest and let my visitors decide for themselves whether to trust my recommendations. Here's a breakdown limited to carriers listed on this page (as of 12/9/2021):
Financial Relationship Exists:
No Substantive Financial Relationship:
A more thorough list of companies I have financial relationships with, along with details about the nature of many of the relationships, can be found on my transparency page.
Feedback On Cell Phone Coverage In Chicago
If you have feedback about the coverage ratings or opinions about the best cell phone plans in Chicago, please reach out!
1. The data comes from the December 2019 release of the FCC’s Form 477 data on cellular coverage. 🠕
2. When calculating Coverage Scores for Chicago, adjustments are made for potentially misreported data. Additionally, some weight is given to coverage quality in other parts of Illinois and the wider United States. I don't make similar adjustments to the coverage data in the table.
The underlying data is at the census-block level. In census blocks where carriers report partial coverage, I multiply the reported coverage level by the portion of the block that is covered. My approach isn’t perfect. Covered portions of census blocks may be more densely populated than uncovered portions of census blocks.🠕
3. 5G coverage estimate based on FCC data from 2019:
5G Coverage In Chicago
Again, the data in the table is unreliable for assessing 5G coverage today.🠕
4. Network operators usually publicize when they bring millimeter wave 5G to new cities. I keep tabs on these announcements and maintain a database of cities where major networks offer millimeter wave 5G. I last updated the information in May 2021.🠕
5. Red marks Verizon, blue marks AT&T, and pink marks T-Mobile. Gray dots mark base stations from other networks.
Medium-sized dots mark 4G base stations. The largest dots mark 5G sites. The smallest dots mark older cellular technologies.
The underlying data comes from the OpenCelliD Project and is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. My maps of base stations are in an early stage. Location data about base stations don’t directly impact Coverage Scores at this time.🠕