The best cell phone plans offer a wide selection of the most popular phones, provide excellent coverage in your area, and have several features packaged together at an affordable price. However, there are many factors to take into consideration when upgrading or purchasing a new mobile phone.
Should you choose Verizon Wireless, which is top dog in speed and reliability according to RootMetrics, or opt for the latest T-Mobile offer? There are also solid offerings from Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and much more. From the big four all the way to smaller companies like Airvoice Wireless, the choices can get overwhelming. If you need help sorting it all out, you're in the right place.
In my research, I made sure that cost, coverage, and contract terms were at the top of my list. Because everyone uses their cell phone differently and for different reasons, I have reviewed the top cell phone companies to help you find a company that best suits your needs.
In This Guide
Compare Cell Phone Plans to Find the Best Deal
There are so many different options for cell phone service right now and so many factors to consider to get the very best deal for you. Most people now buy and pay for phones in monthly installments in lieu of paying the full price of the phone upfront.
You can also bring in a used device, such as one from a friend or family member who has upgraded to a newer model. As for calling and text messaging, most plans now include unlimited talk and text, even long distance, making it easy to avoid extra charges for these features.
This table provides a breakdown of the average plan the top cell phone providers might offer at the time of this writing. For more information, or to see how these cell phone service providers stack up against the competition, check out our compare cell phone plans tool.
Cell Phone Plans
Key Considerations When Choosing a Cell Phone Plan
Americans use their cell phones a lot. According to Digital Trends, Americans spend an average of 4.7 hours every day on their phones.
Before making the switch to a new cell phone plan, you should first take a look at your and your family's cell phone usage habits. How much data do you spend in a month?Use our handy data calculator here. How many text messages do you send, and do you need unlimited call length?
A plan that is too expensive can obviously put unnecessary strain on your finances while a cheaper plan may not have the features you need. To make matters more confusing, most carriers fail to make it clear exactly what you're paying for - particularly with the added cost of phone payments.
We've broken down the details for you in so it's easy to see if you're getting the cheapest cell phone - and cheapest cell phone plan - for your needs.
If you are looking for the best cell phone deals, here are a few considerations that should be at the forefront of your mind:
Before you sign up for a new cell phone plan, you'll need to be sure that the provider covers your area. The best deal in the world is useless if your calls don't connect and downloads take forever. However, when it comes to the top cell phone carriers, there is a lot more to consider than the splotchy coverage maps that providers like to show in their commercials. You can glance at the cell phone coverage maps of all the major carriers here.
First, you have to consider your specific area. One cell phone provider might serve your neighborhood better than another. This can be hard to determine but there are ways to get an idea of what sort of coverage you might be facing. Check to see if there are towers in your area or check local coverage maps. You can ask friends or check local user reviews to hear from people in your area that actually use the service. OpenSignal provides information on 4G coverage in major metros, plus ratings on things like latency and download speed.
When it comes to phones, you'll have a wide selection from which to choose with most carriers, from the most expensive down to the cheapest cell phone made. Device types available include:
- Smartphones: These include flagship models like the Apple iPhone and Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy, as well as lower-end smartphone versions like the LG G3.
- Feature Phones: A feature phone is a basic phone with some advanced capabilities, like internet access. If you opt for a feature phone you won't have the same flexibility and speed as with a smartphone, but you'll get some limited web functionality and an affordable price.
- Flip Phones: This old standby is known for its popularity as a good senior cell phone option. Some models have text messaging capability, however, this choice is best for low-use consumers who mostly need the calling feature.
The least expensive phones tend to go along with plans that allow you to prepay phone service. For example, Straight Talk offers a generous selection of affordable devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Core Prime for just $50.
Streaming music and videos, playing games, uploading photos to social media, and using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot can use a lot of data. According to Time Magazine, the average cell phone user eats up about 3GBs of data every month. Fortunately, the day of the data overage charge is virtually done. Most major carriers have moved to throttling speeds as opposed to hitting you with an overage charge.
Read More: Mobile Hotspots are really helpful when using your phone on-the-go. Learn more about them by reading our mobile hotspot buyer's guide.
Still, information regarding your cell phone usage habits comes in handy, whether you're choosing a prepay plan or a postpaid plan. Compare your usage to the terms offered by your current cell phone provider. Do you have the options of unlimited talk, text, and data? The good news is that, following a six-year hiatus, unlimited data plans are back. T-Mobile and Sprint led the charge by offering an unlimited plan in mid-2016, with AT&T and Verizon Wireless joining them in early 2017.
If you find that you use minimal data or don't use your mobile phone for anything more than calling, checking email, and light web browsing, you won't need the add-ons some cell phone providers advertise. If you can choose not to pay for the features you won't use or can find a more basic plan, you could save quite a bit of money.
The way people are paying for cell phone service has been changing in the past few years. Although you might still be on your typical two-year contract, all but one of the big cell phone providers have phased them out. There are several benefits to choosing a no-contract plan. Consumers are offered a greater degree of flexibility when choosing to forgo a contract with one of the major cell phone providers.
Now, cell phone companies allow you to choose or bring your own phone when signing up for their service. You may also be able to select from a wider range of plans that cover the general data usage habits of the average cell phone user without paying hefty fees every month. Some plans even allow you to pay-as-you-go.
The only downside, however, is that if you plan on upgrading to a new phone when switching to one of the best cell phone providers, you may have to pay more upfront for your phone in exchange for smaller monthly plan fees. If that is out of your budget, find a cell phone service that offers a payment plan. Keep in mind that even on a no-contract plan, paying for your phone in installments means that you'll be tied to that carrier until your device is paid off. While carriers do offer affordable devices, you'll be hard pressed to find a free cell phone these days.
With these considerations, you can find the best prepaid or postpaid cell phone company for your area and your specific needs.
Types of Cell Phone Plans
Cell phone companies offer multiple different plans to cater to the personal preferences and data usage habits of nearly anyone. The only exception is that the sole T-Mobile offer available to new customers is their unlimited T-Mobile One plan. If you're interested in switching to one of the top cell phone carriers, here is a comprehensive list of what options may be available to you.
No Contract Phone Plans
While it used to be that no-contract phone plans were only available from prepaid providers, the big four carriers have joined the fray, with Sprint being the only major provider to still offer a contract cell phone option. Whether you're opting for a prepaid no-contract cell phone plan or a traditional postpaid, there are considerations to keep in mind.
- Cost: You'll either pay more up front for your phone, or you'll make monthly installment payments. This varies from provider to provider so check with the particular company before making a decision.
- Selection: No contract plans may not offer cheap high-end smartphones when you sign up, because (unlike with a contract) they can't inflate the price of service in order to cover the cost of the phone. Even the main carriers have done away with free cell phones.
- Network: Some no-contract carriers, (typically prepaid) known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), provide service via an arrangement with one or more of the four main carriers. For example, Airvoice Wireless provides service through the AT&T network. Your coverage won't be quite as good as if you actually subscribed to a service with one of the four main carriers, but it will still be solid.
Even though contracts are a thing of the past, you can still get the most popular flagship phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S series or the Apple iPhone. Your monthly payments will be higher with these models, so if cost is a concern, check out lower-end model Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy J7 (which is a $250 T-Mobile offering with their unlimited plan).
Bring your own phone plans allow you to buy a service plan and apply it to a device you already own. Many of the top wireless carriers will offer discounts and special perks if you sign up for their service when bringing your own phone.
If you like your current phone but still plan to switch to a different cell phone provider, you should be aware of SIM cards. These cards contain your subscriber profile and are what activates service for your phone. However, different phones require different SIM cards. Check your phone's compatibility with a provider before you purchase a plan. For example, Straight Talk can activate certain phones on both types of wireless technology (CDMA and GSM).
Sometimes you may be asked to unlock your phone so it can be compatible with another carrier's service. This isn't as simple as swiping the lock screen to access your phone. Our guide on how to unlock a phone will take you step-by-step through the process to activate your phone for a new service.
Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
For folks who only need a basic wireless plan or don't like the idea of a credit check, finding a prepaid cell phone plan may be ideal. When you prepay phone service, you get many of the same discounts and services a BYOP plan offers, such as unlimited call and text features. The difference is that you purchase a new phone (usually available at very reasonable prices).
One of the greatest advantages of a prepay cell phone plan is that it's excellent for budgets. Because you don't accrue charges and don't typically have to worry about unexpected or unauthorized fees and overages, you know exactly what you're going to pay. Another reason you may choose a prepay plan is that unlike with a postpaid cell phone plan, there's usually no credit check involved.
If you're unhappy with your current plan or are looking for a service not offered by your current cell phone carrier, then you may be interested in a cell phone provider that offers some of these specialized services.
- International Calling: International plans are great for lengthy vacations or for contacting friends and relatives overseas. There are also unconventional options, like the Vonage Mobile app. This app allows free text messaging and long distance calls with other Vonage Mobile users anywhere in the world.
- Family Plans: Family cell phone plans offer better deals, discounts, and perks than single plans. If you find that your children use a lot of data, or are constantly texting and talking, a family plan may be right for you.
- Senior Plans: A mobile phone is a personalized choice at any age. If you or a loved one needs a senior cell phone plan, we can find the best cell phone service for you. One of the most popular senior cell phone plans available is Consumer Cellular, which offers both prepaid and postpaid options.
- Cheap Cell Phone Service: If you're on a tight budget or don't need the latest and greatest phones, you can still get quality service when searching for cheap cell phone plans.
There may be an overwhelming amount of options and services to choose from when looking for the best cell phone provider. We evaluated cell phone providers from large to small to see who offered the best combination of coverage, plans, and features for its cost. You can review our findings from the following carriers we researched:
- Boost Mobile
- Consumer Cellular
- Republic Wireless
- Straight Talk
- Verizon Wireless
- and Virgin Mobile
To determine the best plans, we looked at monthly plan prices, options for BYOP, speed (check your carrier's rating for your area on PCMag), and extra features such as senior plans and international calling. All plans we researched have unlimited talk and text messaging options. Lastly, we checked with each carrier to see how easy and painless it is to switch.
Some were better than others, unsurprisingly, but the top four cell phone carriers make it a breeze to get a new phone (or activate your old one) when subscribing to their service. Additionally, you can almost always keep your own phone number.
Customer service, legitimacy, and company reputation are three important factors to consider when doing business with any of the companies reviewed in this article. Check out the American Customer Satisfaction Index to find out how the major carriers measure up in terms of customer service (T-Mobile and Sprint are at the top and bottom, respectively).
Just because the cell phone provider you subscribe to currently isn't on the list, that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. Keep in mind that each individual cell phone provider on this list can be a great choice if you find a plan that works for, and most of the time you can keep your own phone number.
Whatever kind of service you choose, whether a prepay cell phone plan or a postpaid plan, make sure it is the best cell phone provider for your area coverage-wise. You should also investigate local options as well as the ones on this list.
The best cell phone plans offer a wide selection of the most popular phones, provide excellent coverage in your area, and have several features packaged together under an affordable price.
Cell phones can be a costly expenditure to make, and more often that not, people spend way too much money without realizing there are better alternatives. If you're looking for a new phone, check out our buyer's guide to buying used cell phones for a cheaper option. If you're unhappy with your current phone or plan to purchase a new one, knowing how to sell a used cell phone might be helpful to you.