When Apple announced four new iPhones earlier this month, the company made it clear that 5G support was the line’s biggest new feature and one that could change how you use your smartphone going forward. However, Apple did not promise that the future would be free.
After a couple of years of slow expansion and regional rollouts, every major mobile service provider in the United States now supports 5G. Not every carrier’s 5G service reaches the same speeds or works in the same cities, but in the most technical sense, you can get 5G through all of them.
Unfortunately, not everyone believes 5G should cost the same as the 4G LTE service you’ve been using for years. If you happen to buy an iPhone 12 and are expecting to jack into the 5G signal right away, you might have to pay a little extra to make that happen. Here is how every major carrier handles upgrading to 5G:
Let’s start with AT&T, which was actually the original mobile carrier for Apple’s very first iPhone back when it was called Cingular. Takes you back, right? No? Well, anyway, let’s cover AT&T’s 5G data plans.
AT&T has three main unlimited data plans on its website right now. The good news is all three of them include 5G access:
Unlimited Starter, $65 per month for one line
Unlimited Extra, $75 per month for one line
Unlimited Elite, $85 per month for one line
If you pay for any of those, 5G should work on your new iPhone 12.
That’s great on paper, but we should note that AT&T’s 5G network isn’t in a great spot right now. Our friends at PCMag have extensively tested various 5G networks and AT&T’s actually grades out as slower than 4G LTE in many cities. That’s not ideal, but maybe it’ll get better in the future.
T-Mobile and Sprint
T-Mobile runs things similarly to AT&T. As of late 2020, the carrier lists three primary unlimited plans on its website and all of them can connect to T-Mobile’s 5G network:
Essentials, $60 per month for one line
Magenta, $70 per month for one line
Magenta Plus, $85 per month for one line
Again, anyone who subscribes to one of those plans can connect to a T-Mobile 5G network if they happen to be in the right place with an iPhone 12.
Now, you may have heard that T-Mobile absorbed Sprint in a big merger recently. That means Sprint doesn’t really have data plans of its own anymore; Sprint customers are part of the T-Mobile ecosystem now instead. T-Mobile says Sprint customers get access to T-Mobile’s 5G network, but PCMag’s testing noted that the two carriers are still in a transitional phase of merging networks.
Speaking of which, PCMag’s tests found that T-Mobile’s network has more nationwide coverage than AT&T and Verizon, but speeds are only a marginal upgrade over the 4G networks we’ve all been using for years right now.
Verizon is where things get a little confusing. We’re going to focus on the four main unlimited plans Verizon offers on its website, which all offer some version of 5G:
Start Unlimited, $70 per month for one line
Play More Unlimited, $80 per month for one line
Do More Unlimited, $80 per month for one line
Get More Unlimited, $90 per month for one line
Yes, the middle two plans are the same price. The differences lie in which perks you get (one offers Hulu, one offers Verizon cloud storage, for example), so 5G isn’t affected. All four plans get access to Verizon’s “5G Nationwide” service, which is a comparatively slower low-band 5G network with broader coverage. If you want access to Verizon’s “Ultra-Wideband” network (which is limited in coverage but offers higher max speeds), you need to pay for any of the three higher-priced plans.
In other words, Start Unlimited only gets you the slower 5G network. PCMag did name Verizon as the overall fastest mobile network of 2020, but you need to live in a supported major city to use Ultra-Wideband 5G.
As an aside, Verizon’s sub-brand Visible plans on offering 5G to its customers at no additional charge “in the next few months.” However, download speeds will be capped at 200Mbps, even though 5G can potentially go much faster than that.
The last major “carrier” we’ll cover today is Google Fi. The Google-branded mobile service offers solid nationwide 5G coverage according to our recent tests with the Pixel 4a 5G. There’s only one $70 per month unlimited data plan through Fi, and that includes 5G.
And now for the bad news. While Google Fi 5G works on Pixel and Samsung phones, iPhone 12 owners will not get 5G support at the time of writing, as first reported by 9to5Google. That may change in the near future. But for now, Fi subscribers need to wait to get 5G on their new iPhones.