Ah, the Windy City. Ever-resilient pearl of the Midwest, standing majestically along the shores of Lake Michigan, home to the world champion Chicago Cubs, Willis Tower, deep dish pizza, and a river that turns green on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Chicago is a city with one foot in traditional midwestern values, and another in the latest technology trends. While its 2.7 million residents may convey old-fashioned politeness, Chicago's residents are very much up on what’s new in wireless, and expect great coverage.
The major cell carriers have recognized this, and have gone to great lengths to implement a very solid network infrastructure. As a result, coverage is generally excellent from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side, from Comiskey Park to Soldier Field.
Good News in Chicago
- All four carriers offer great coverage
- Competitive market with lots of choice
- 4G LTE widely available
Things to Know
- Coverage tricky between some buildings
- Population density can sometimes affect network availability
- Coverage sometimes tricky outside of town south of Interstate 80
What's the best cell phone plan for me in Chicago?
To find out which plan is best for you, it helps to start thinking about three important things:
- How do you use your phone--particularly away from WiFi?
- How much you want to pay for your monthly service?
- Do you want a new phone or are you happy to take your phone to a new carrier?
The answers to these three questions will help you to find the best plan:
Usage: Thinking about how and how much you use your phone will help to guide you to an appropriate plan. For some, the cheapest cell phone plans will offer just the right bang for the buck; for others, they won’t.
Budget: For many, budget is the most important consideration when choosing a plan. Figuring out what you’re willing to pay and what sorts of features you can get for that price will go a long way to narrowing your choices.
Device: While most consumers buy or lease new phones when they sign up for a plan, others are willing to bring their own phones. If you’re happy with your current device, this latter option will save you money.
To summarize, there is no one-size-fits-all plan; the best cell phone plan for one person may not be the best cell phone plan for someone else. To jump run in, you can run a full plan comparison here, or check out the litany of new devices using our phone finder.
There's Great Coverage in Chicago
The metro areas are well-covered by all of the providers, and it is only in the fringe areas where coverage starts to dwindle. This means that you can use one of the cheaper carriers that utilize the networks from the big four carriers, increasing your options for a great deal.
The good news is that you can go with any carrier in Chicago and enjoy good coverage. All four networks offer great 4G LTE coverage, and this also powers smaller carriers that run on these networks. View the coverage breakdown below.
Do I need unlimited data?
The answer to this question depends largely on how and when you use your data. If you tend to use your phone away from the home or office—in other words, without a WiFi signal—you’ll need a plan with enough data to avoid overages or throttling. For some, that will mean an unlimited plan. Similarly, if you're way into Facebook, YouTube and all things streaming, or you have a family plan with Instagram-addled teenagers, unlimited data will mean that you never have to worry. Fun fact: the average smartphone user consumes about 2GB of data per month.
Here are some things to keep in mind when searching for unlimited data plans for in Chicago:
- Unlimited data with a catch: this where you get only a small portion of data at full speed (say 2GB/mo); after 2GB your plan slows down to a crawl on 2G speeds but you have no overages. These plans are marketed as unlimited data but they are throttled plans.
- Unlimited data with decreased video quality: where the video you stream on your phone is in standard definition.
- Wholly unlimited data: where the video is in high definition.
If you listen to radio stations in Chicago like KISS-FM or Newsradio 780 you'll hear unlimited data advertised for a low price, but that unlimited data comes with a catch: a portion of it will be a full-speed, while the rest will be “throttled” to slow speeds with no overages.
How much does unlimited data cost?
Unlimited data plans for a single line typically cost between $50 and $100 per month (we've compared all of the line options here). Adding more lines will reduce the price of each one; the best deal we’ve seen is five unlimited data lines for $100. WhistleOut allows you to compare unlimited data plan prices on a single line, two lines, three lines and four lines.
What can I do about my bad coverage?
Can you hear me now? Getting adequate cell phone coverage in our homes, offices and surrounding areas can be a challenge, and indeed this may be the
If you've already got a plan in Austin where the coverage is questionable, the first thing to know is that your phone model can play a massive role in this. The newest devices typically get far better coverage than the older models as the newer ones have the tech specs and network frequencies to tap into new coverage signals that carriers roll out.
Generally speaking, coverage from most carriers is pretty good in the top 50 U.S. cities. Still, there are always “dead zones” here and there—every carrier has them—and it helps to know where they are. We recommend taking a look at the provider coverage maps for your city before signing up. That way, you can ensure that the supplier whose plan you’re interested in provides a good signal to your area.
- T-Mobile offers free in-home extenders on your WiFi, so coverage inside of your house will be excellent, even if there are dead spots via the mobile network
- Equipment-free WiFi calling is available from a number of carriers; your phone uses WiFi to route the call, so as long as you have a good signal, you’re good to go
- 30-day money back guarantees from carriers like Sprint mean that you can sign up for a plan and if the coverage doesn’t work for you, you can cancel without any penalties
Each carrier says they are the best--which one should I go with?
Cell phone companies spend millions of dollars in Chicago to create TV commercials that promise the "latest and greatest" for an amazing price. With all of those different ads telling you different things, it's hard to keep track of all the deals out there. WhistleOut’s search tool cuts through the noise and presents the carriers’ offers simply and transparently, on one screen.
Every day at WhistleOut we gather the latest prices across thousands of plans. Just let us know what you need and what type of customer you are, and our comparison engine will do the rest.
There are only four carriers in Chicago, right?
When it comes to choosing a cell phone carrier, most people immediately think of the big four: Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile.
In fact, there are dozens of smaller carriers who offer excellent plans and incentives that are worth taking a look at. WhisteOut’s comprehensive comparison tool allows you to search through them all, some of which you may not recognize—MetroPCS, Ting, FreedomPop, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, for example. While these providers are smaller, they utilize the major carriers’ networks, so you’ll be getting similar coverage. Also, their small sizes allow them to offer plans at prices the big guys wouldn’t touch—which is to say, they’re extremely motivated to earn your business.
Before you go with one of the majors, check out some of these lesser-known carriers, verify that they service your area, and compare their respective offers—you may be pleasantly surprised.
Cell Phone Carriers in Chicago
Here's the full list of wireless carriers (big and small) in Chicago, and the networks that each belongs to. Note that the smaller carriers—Cricket, Metro, Boost, etc.—utilize the networks of the major carriers.
|Carrier||Network||Available in Memphis||Price Range|
|CREDO Mobile||Sprint||Yes (online purchase)||$$$$|
|FreedomPop||Sprint, T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$|
|GreatCall||Verizon||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|H2O Wireless||AT&T||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|Mint SIM||T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|Pix Wireless||T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$;$|
|Project Fi (Google)||Sprint, T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|Red Pocket||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T||Yes||$$$|
|Republic Wireless||Sprint, T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|RingPlus Mobile||Sprint||Yes (online purchase)||$|
|Rok Mobile||Verizon, Sprint||Yes (online purchase)||$$$|
|Straight Talk||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T||Yes||$$$|
|Tello||T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|Text Now||Sprint||Yes (online purchase)||$$|
|The People's Operator||T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase||$$|
|Ting||T-Mobile, Sprint||Yes (online purchase)||$$$|
|TracFone||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T||Yes||$$$|
|U.S. Cellular||US Cellular||Yes||$$$|
|US Mobile||T-Mobile||Yes (online purchase)||$$$$|
What do I need to know about switching providers?
The process of switching carriers isn’t as arduous as it once was. These days, the FCC mandates that your new carrier port your existing number within 24 hours, so your number won’t be suspended in mid-air. Depending on how many lines you have, flipping the “going live” switch can take between 10 minutes and 24 hours.
- Be aware of the ETF (early termination fee), if any, with your current provider.
- Do not cancel your current service until you’ve contacted your new service. Your new service provider will help you make the switch.
You will be able to make and receive calls during the transferring / porting process, but not all of your phone’s features will be working during this time.
While you may want to bring your old phone and number to your new provider, keep in mind that the device might not make the cut with your new provider’s network. If that’s the case, you might have to get a new phone when you sign up with them.
For more information on how the process of switching providers works, go here.
Cell Phone Coverage Areas Compared in Chicago
All of the major areas in Chicago are well-served by the major carriers, with 4G LTE (the best connection type) widely available across all regions. Remember that the smaller carriers all use the networks belonging to the big guys, listed below. If you’re interested in one of these smaller carriers, be sure to check which network they're using.
|Verizon Network||AT&T Network||T-Mobile Network||Sprint Network|
|North Side||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|Lincoln Park||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|South Side||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|River North||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|Lincoln Park||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|Harlem||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
|Brooklyn||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE||4G LTE|
Getting the Best Plan
How do you use your phone?
Whether you use your phone to stream Spotify and YouTube all day or use it primarily for talking and texting, the following rules of thumb can help guide you to an appropriate plan:
- If you're using your smartphone away from WiFi at least once a day for 10 minutes or more, we recommend signing up for a plan with at least 500MB
- If you're using 20 minutes per day we recommend a plan with 1GB at least per month
- At 30 minutes per day, we’d recommend 2GB of data per month. To read more about how much mobile data you need in your plan, check out our guide to mobile data.
How much do you want to pay?
The cell phone plan that will make you the happiest is the one that offers you the most features for the price. Signing up with non-traditional carriers who offer better prices than the majors can be a great way to save. Likewise, extending the life of your current phone by taking it to another carrier (called bring your own phone) can lower your monthly phone bills.
We present you with all of the carriers and plans offered in Chicago - just tell us how much you want to pay and which features you're looking for, and we'll do the rest.
Am I paying too much for my plan?
For many of us, monthly cell phone bills are complicated and mysterious documents that we blindly pay simply to avoid thinking about them. However, if you have a sneaking suspicion that you’re paying too much for your plan—or even if you don’t—taking a look “under the hood” of your bill can be an enlightening experience. You can do this by logging into your account on your carrier’s website, using a third-party usage app, or the old-fashioned way: taking a closer look at your paper bill.
Once you’ve done that, we recommend comparing your options based around your usage. While this task may seem similarly daunting given how much information is out there, rest assured that our comparison tool distills it down and presents it to you in simple-to-understand, transparent ways.
This way, you can decide for yourself whether you’re paying too much for what you’re getting.
Using Public WiFi in Chicago
Ranked as one of the most mobile-friendly cities in the U.S., Chicago offers free WiFi in a variety of public spaces, including libraries, museums, and parks. Check out some of the places offering free WiFi below.
Public WiFi hotspots in Chicago
|Chicago O'Hare International Airport||Yes|
|Midway International Airport||Yes|
|The Art Institute of Chicago||Yes|
|Chicago Public Libraries||Yes|
|Museum of Science and Industry||Yes|
|The Field Museum||Yes|
|Museum of Contemporary Art||Yes|
|The Cultural Center||Yes|
|Virgin Hotel Chicago||Yes|
|Hard Rock Hotel Chicago||Yes|
Local Cell Phone Carriers in Chicago
U.S. Cellular is the fifth-largest wireless telecommunications network in the U.S.
Formed in 1983 as a subsidiary of Telephone and Data Systems, U.S. Cellular now serves 4.9 million customers in 426 markets. Originally using analog, U.S. Cellular has now converted completely to EVDO / 3G networking speeds. Currently, they are implementing their LTE/ 4G network as well as VoLTE beginning 2017.
The U.S. Cellular headquarters are located in the U.S. Cellular Plaza Complex in O'Hare, Chicago. In 2010, PC Magazine awarded U.S. Cellular with a "Reader's Choice" award for customer service. In 2016partnered with U.S. Cellular for the Project Fi MVNO service along with T-Mobile US and Sprint to become the "network of networks". This is Google's attempt unify wireless networks.
Learn more about U.S. Cellular plans here.