What Is an MVNO Cell Phone Carrier?

The acronym MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. Like a prepaid wireless carrier, an MVNO is a mobile carrier that essentially lacks its own network infrastructure and a licensed radio frequency. MVNOs operate ‘virtually’ on other network carriers. Typically, MVNO partners with a network carrier to operate. It sources minutes from network carriers and then resells them at retail prices under its own business brand.

The US has four major network carriers (MNOs) currently operating: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. These US Mobile Network Operators are sometimes referred to as ‘the big four’. Elsewhere, some of the well-known MVNOs include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Straight Talk, and Consumer Cellular.

oost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Straight Talk, and Consumer Cellular.

Types of MVNOs

MVNOs are clustered into three types; namely, resellers, full MVNOs, and enhanced service providers (ESPs).


MVNOs resellers lack a network infrastructure and are completely dependent on MNOs brands to sell their service plans. MVNOs enter partnerships with MNO, giving them an opportunity to expand their reach in areas they haven’t explored. These virtual carriers use CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) based devices and apt SIM cards.

Enhanced service providers (ESPs)

ESPs provide their own SIM cards to their users. They often offer strategically unique services to consumers, a formula that helps their network somehow excel. ESPs have the capacity to manage more back-office work compared to resellers.

Full MVNOs

Full MVNOs are a unique type of virtual actually who provide their own SIM cards as well as a range of mobile numbers. These MVNOs own their networks and offer services through towers, base stations, and other cellular units. Additionally, Full MVNOs rely on their own OSS/BSS (Operational Support Service/ Business Support Service) criteria to provide beneficial services.

They mostly perform a market analysis before launching a service – have to consider the client-base in a region. Full MVNOs have the capacity to switch to switch host regular carriers, considering their large customer base.

Different categories of MVNOs

MVNOs are classified into these categories listed:

  • Discount MVNOs; offer law call rates to a specific market segment
  • Lifestyle MVNOs; their focus is on a niche market demography
  • Business MVNOs; offer tailor-made services to business enterprises
  • Ethnic MVNOs; offer long-range calling services
  • Advertising-funded MVNOs; generate income through advertising, offering free voice, text, and material to several subscribers.

What meaning does an MVNO hold to you?

While an MVNO is a reseller of MNO’s mobile plans, you might be driven to think their rates are higher. However, MVNO offers the cheapest mobile plans when compared to the US carriers. Moreover, MVNOs mostly offer prepaid services, so they don’t prioritize contracts. But we have to warn you that MVNOs don’t suit everyone. Look at this pros and cons we compiled from a consumer’s point of view:


  • Low price rates: MVNOs offer some plans at a substantially low price rate. For instance, if you are a user who needs mobile plans for emergencies only, then you can opt for MVNOs, and get plans for as little as $10 to $15 every month. We’ve come to realize that this type of plans are normally available on cheaper phones.
  • No contracts required: MVNOs offer services without contracts. Whenever you want to purchase an MVNO plan, then you don’t need to be bound to a contract of say, months or years. MVNOs offer prepaid services, making it easier when purchasing their plans.
  • A wide range of plans: Like the ‘Big Four’, MVNOs offer a range of mobile plans as well as some unlimited options. Ideally, the name resellers don’t suit them, because MVNOs end up offering cheaper plans compared to the US carriers.
  • Support a wide range of phones: Most MVNOs support the ‘Bring Your Own’ mobile device. Their services mostly work with a variety of phones, regardless of the operating system or features. This is a big advantage to you, since you can now purchase a device you desired before, but were always restricted with carriers. However, you will need to know which network your preferred MVN O is using. Most US phones are tied to specific network carriers, and that could affect your buy.

Pro tip: All network carriers are required by law to unlock your device, once your contract with them comes to an end. You will just need to ask, and they will unlock your device. For instance, if you own a GSM device, it will only work AT&T, T-Mobile and any other MVNO that resells the two network carriers. Nonetheless, some phones can work on both networks.

Therefore, before you choose the MVNO to use, understand the type of device you have to make sure it will work with the supported network. Don’t hesitate to contact your MVNO, before purchasing their plans. Always know your device’s IMEI code before calling your MVNO, because they’ll always ask for it; helps determine the compatibility of your phone.


  • Limited features; Most MVNOs have fewer features compared to their affiliate network carriers. For instance, most MVNOs don’t the support for big scale roaming, hotspot tethering, and their data doesn’t roll over to the next month. Virgin Mobile is a good example, considering they don’t support national-wide roaming like its carrier affiliate Sprint does.
  • Throttling speeds: Several MVNOs tend to throttle connection speeds the moment they hit a set threshold. And others like Cricket, which is are affiliated to AT&T network, throttles data speeds even for its unlimited plans, once a certain limit is reached.

We advise you to always consult with an MVNO before considering buying their plans. Consulting with their customer service will help you know their fine prints regarding throttling and its other limitations.

Why MVNOs are good for the Cellular Industry?

Regular carriers own a network infrastructure, which they have to pay in order to operate and expand – an expensive cost of production. Therefore, it’s logical for these MNOs to enter partnerships with MVNOs, in efforts to expand their market reach and acquire a larger client base. Moreover, if a specific MNO has an extra network infrastructure that is untapped, then they can lease it out to either ESPs or Full MVNOs and generate more income, rather than leave it idle.

Elsewhere, some Big Four network carriers actually have full ownership of MVNOs, such as Cricket Wireless, which is completely owned by AT&T. Additionally, from the perspective of an MVNOs, these virtual carriers can startup faster and earn huge profits within a short period. This is because, most of the MVNOs, especially resellers don’t need an infrastructure to startup.

List of MVNOs and Their Affiliated MNOs

With the dawn of each day, a new MVNOs emerges into the market, therefore, keeping an actual track of them is a challenge. Nevertheless, we tried to compile a list of top-ranking MVNOs and their current affiliated MNOs.

MVNO Carrier MNO Network
Airvoice Wireless AT&T
Boost Mobile Sprint
Consumer Cellular AT&T, T-Mobile
Cricket Wireless AT&T
MetroPCS T-Mobile
Net10 Wireless AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
Project Fi (Google) Sprint, T-Mobile
Republic Wireless Sprint, T-Mobile
StraightTalk Wireless (Tracfone) AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
Virgin Mobile USA Sprint



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