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MVNOs: Everything There is to Know About Mobile Virtual Network Operators

Date Published:  November 30th, 2021Date Updated:  September 25, 2023

Summary: If you’ve researched different ways to save money on your cell phone bill, you’ve probably heard of an MVNO. Or, at the very least, the ads have followed you around the internet after you’ve started that research. But what does MVNO stand for? And what actually makes it different than one of the big 3 carriers, like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile? Let’s find out!

Mobile phone plans have been getting more robust — and more expensive — year after year. In 2020, the average U.S. monthly cell phone bill was $127.37. And if you’re trying to save money, you may have looked for ways to shave down your bill and considered switching to a mobile virtual network operator, or an MVNO. You might be confused as to what that actually means for your service — will your speeds be slower? Your coverage more limited? Are these reputable companies?

The short answers are: no, no, and yes. But let’s dive deeper.

What Exactly is an MVNO?

An MVNO stands for a mobile virtual network operator. The big 3 providers — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile — are technically MNOs, or mobile network operators. The “virtual” is what makes the difference here.

An MVNO is a smaller provider that uses the network of a larger provider. Essentially, they purchase minutes, texts, data, and other pieces of service at a wholesale price from the network they’ve partnered with, which allows the MVNO to resell to consumers at a lower price.

You can think of the difference between MNO and MVNO like Costco — its Kirkland brand is actually manufactured by big-name retailers (Kirkland coffee is produced by Starbucks), but because it purchases in bulk and changes the name, consumers save money.

Text reads: 3 mobile network operators (T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T). These each are connected to a text box that says: 139 mobile virtual network operators.

And who doesn’t love saving money on a monthly bill?

What are the Types of MVNOs?

Now that you know what an MVNO is, we can explain the different types. Some MVNOs partner with multiple carriers to expand their coverage. Others partner with one carrier to better focus on the customers who are serviceable in that area.

But it’s important to note that Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all have MVNOs that use their network. In other words, if you’re using any of the major carriers, you’ll be able to find an MVNO that has the same service coverage you’re used to.

MNO vs. MVNO — What’s the Difference?

The difference between an MNO and an MVNO is right there in the name. An MNO is one of the three large providers who own their own network and equipment. They can also be thought of as the wholesaler. An MVNO is a virtual network provider — they don’t own the network that they use, but instead, buy coverage wholesale from the mobile network operator.

What does that mean for you, as a consumer?

Well, for the most part, it just means that you’re able to save money while still having the same coverage as you would on a big network. If you’re currently using T-Mobile and know that you get great service, stick with an MVNO who uses T-Mobile’s network.

The only difference you might see is during peak usage times (or in crowded areas, like a sporting event or concert, where thousands of people are trying to use their phones at the same time). The MNO carrier might prioritize their customers ahead of any MVNO customers. You’ll still be able to access the network, you’ll just have to wait a little bit longer.

While longer loading times can be a downer, this happens fairly rarely, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be affected in your everyday life. (Psst — this happens with some internet providers, too. Cable internet users will often see slower speeds during peak usage windows because the network becomes congested.)

Benefits of Using an MVNO

Using an MVNO can have a lot of benefits, especially because there are so many to choose from! There are roughly 139 MVNOs, but only 3 network operators since T-Mobile and Sprint merged in 2020. Many MVNOs have a specific audience that they’re marketing to, but nearly all of them provide some similar benefits, like:

  • Reduced Pricing: Whether you only need a few gigabytes of data to get you through the month or you’re looking for an unlimited plan, MVNOs are often cheaper than the parent network.
  • Prepaid Plans: While this might remind some people of the early cell phone days, prepaid plans have benefits like no overage fees and no credit checks.
  • Bring Your Own Phone: If you’ve got an unlocked mobile phone that you love, you can bring it with you. That way you don’t have to buy a new phone or be stuck in an endless contract where as soon as you pay your device off, it’s time to buy a new one. However, if you’re in the market for an upgrade, most MVNOs offer devices and payment plans.

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Of course, different MVNOs have different benefits, so be sure to do your research before signing up. Our favorite things to look for? A variety of plans to fit your needs, no contracts, no activation fees, and 5G speeds.

MVNOs sound great, right? So where do you get one?

Where to Get an MVNO Plan

If you’re ready to stop overpaying for wireless service and switch to an MVNO, the process might be easier than you think! Once you’ve done your research and chosen a provider and mobile plan, you’ll want to gather some information from your current carrier, like your account number, PIN, and billing zip code.

Be careful not to cancel your current plan until your new one is up and running — otherwise, you might feel like you’re stuck in the 80s without a working phone.

When you decide to switch phone carriers you’ll also need to decide if you’re keeping your phone or bringing a new one, and if you’re keeping your cell number or having a new one assigned. Once you’ve made those decisions, you’ll know if you need to swap out your SIM cards (if you’re keeping your phone) or if you’ll be able to use your new phone right away when it arrives.

After your new plan is activated, you can sit back and enjoy paying lower rates on your mobile bill while still enjoying the coverage and benefits you know and love. Cha-ching.

Switching to an MVNO is one of the easiest ways to save money on your monthly cell phone bill while still enjoying a wide range of options. MVNOs are a reputable way to use your cell phone and put the choice back in the hands of you, the consumer. And any way you slice it, choice is a great thing.

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker is the Content Marketing Manager for EarthLink. She's an internet expert who loves to break down why connectivity topics are relevant to everyday life. With more than five years of writing experience, she thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She graduated with her M.A. from the University of Cincinnati but currently lives and works in Atlanta.

See all posts from Michelle Ricker.