In the 1990s, choosing a cell phone carrier was all about finding a plan with enough minutes at the lowest cost, and perhaps a phone that could be unlocked. Today, most carriers offer unlocked phones and unlimited plans, so people choose their carrier based on monthly cost and available devices. For instance, if someone wants an iPhone, they’re going to choose a carrier that offers the iPhone even if it costs more each month.

For those living in rural areas, the device is important but coverage is the most important part of the deal. What good is the latest iPhone and an unlimited plan if you can’t use it? When you can’t use your cell phone, you’re throwing money down the drain. The right carrier for you in the city won’t necessarily be the right carrier for you in the country.

If you don’t use the carrier right for you – based on where you live – it’s going to cost you more than money. You’ll end up frustrated with dropped calls, spotty service, or no service at all. If you rely on your phone for business, you might even lose clients.

Independent contractors take a big hit with the wrong provider

For those who rely on cell phones daily for work, like independent contractors, not having the right cell phone carrier can cost clients and harm their reputation. For instance, if a contractor needs to make a call and can’t get reception, they can’t just find the nearest payphone like they could twenty years ago. They have to drive all the way home to use their landline, or stop somewhere in town with internet access and try to connect with clients that way.

This is a hard lesson many people learn after moving from the city to the country. It’s a shock to discover that national carriers like Verizon and AT&T don’t work in their new town. When that’s the case, the only option is to go with a regional carrier.

How to find regional carriers

People who have lived in a rural area for a while are usually aware of regional carriers, but those new to town may not be. If you’re new to town, a quick way to find out what carriers others use is to perform a cell phone carrier lookup with the cell numbers of the people you know. You could call people to ask them what they use, but if you don’t feel like having a conversation, it’s faster to look it up online.

Smaller carriers work on major networks

If you’re with a major carrier, for example, and you can’t get service where you live, it doesn’t always make sense to jump to a smaller carrier or the first prepaid service you can find. Smaller carriers operate on the larger networks. If you can’t get reception with AT&T, for example, you don’t want to switch to Cricket Wireless because Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T and runs on the AT&T network.

Verizon has been the number one national carrier for years

Although Verizon is probably the most expensive cell phone carrier around, they’ve been at the top of the list for years. Verizon doesn’t offer the same kind of unlimited plans other carriers offer, but they do have more affordable individual plans if you’re willing to accept a cap on data.

Verizon has always offered the most coverage across the nation, even in rural areas. Their network has been consistently fast over the years, too. People don’t seem to mind paying more for their cell phone service considering the coverage provided is highly reliable. Most business travelers choose Verizon to ensure they’ll get reception wherever they go. For these reasons, Verizon is almost always given the title of best overall cell phone provider.

Do you really need a cell phone?

If you need a cell phone, then choosing the right carrier is important. However, if you don’t need a cell phone, then any carrier you choose will cost you money you don’t need to spend.

If you can get away with using a landline, you’ll save yourself nearly $100/month. Or, if you don’t use many minutes, switching to a prepaid service might be the right move. There isn’t one carrier that’s right for everyone. Choosing the right carrier depends on how often you use your cell phone, and what features you truly need.