When you're ready to compare cell phone plans you need all the information you can get. There are so many different options as far as data allowance, devices, and price - it can be difficult to decide which carrier and cell phone plan best fit your needs.
You may need only one line, which could make the best mobile phone service for you different from someone who needs a family plan. Or maybe you have a small business and are looking for a way to control overage charges on employees' mobile phones. A prepay cell phone plan can be a good choice for small businesses because you only get what you pay for.
In this guide, I'll help you compare monthly plans among major providers.
Key Considerations When Comparing Cell Phone Plans
Making a wise choice among cell phone plans is especially important in this high-tech era because many people rely mainly on their smartphone for internet access. If you're in this group, you need reliable service and enough data to be able to read email, watch videos, and even access job search tools. You may also need to consider family cell phone plan options in order to get the best deal on service for multiple devices.
Choosing a cell phone plan means comparing various aspects of the carrier's offerings. These include:
- Price: Your plan's price may include the monthly fee, plus other costs like activation, early termination, and data overage charges.
- Features: Things like unlimited text messages may not matter as much to light cell phone users, whereas international calling may be a must for others. Other features you might consider include early upgrade options or the number of phones you can have on one plan.
- Devices: Are you an Apple or Android? Or maybe you're a flip phone devotee looking for the cheapest cell phone to use just for emergencies. In any case, you'll want to evaluate the mobile device selection from the various cell phone carriers. If you're considering a smaller provider from an MVNO, you may have to be prepared to choose from a smaller selection of older devices. For a full list of MVNO providers (and to learn what an MVNO is), you can check out our buyer's guide.
- Coverage and Reliability: You know the frustration of dropped calls and "dead zones". You'll want to be sure that your carrier has complete coverage in your area and that their cell phone service has a high reliability rating. Use our coverage maps to view the range of the big four - AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. It's important to note that these days the difference in coverage is tiny - a couple of percent or less. This means T-Mobile and Sprint are very competitive even though they come in behind the other two. Smaller prepay phone service carriers like Straight Talk run off of the major networks, although their coverage may be slightly more limited.
- Speed: Just because a carrier advertises 4G LTE speeds doesn't mean you'll get that speed everywhere. PCMag.com has performed speed tests on the big four in 30 major cities, noting that T-Mobile and Sprint have both gained strides against giants Verizon and AT&T.
- Customer Support: It's important to have peace of mind in knowing that if you do have an issue, your carrier is willing and able to resolve in a prompt, friendly manner.
One thing to keep in mind when comparing cell phone plans is that the days of subsidized phone purchase are largely over. Most carriers have moved to a system of monthly device payments on no-contract plans, even for the cheapest cell phone they carry. This practice essentially replaces contracts in many cases, although it functions as a contract in that you must pay off the phone whether you stay with the cell phone carrier or not. You can take a look at the differences between prepaid and postpaid phone plans for more.
By the same token, carriers are also offering more flexible upgrade options. Depending on the cell phone provider, you need to have between 50% and 80% of your payments completed before trading up to a new phone. This means on a 24-month repayment plan, you could potentially upgrade after just one year, simply by trading in your old phone. Some smaller no-contract plans like those offered by Republic Wireless and Consumer Cellular also offer installment payments. Others, including Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, still require you to buy a phone outright.
One thing to keep in mind when comparing cell phone plans is that the days of subsidized phone purchase are largely over. Most carriers have moved to a system of monthly device payments, even for the cheapest cell phone they carry.
Next, I'll take a look at some of the most popular cell phone companies and do a phone plan comparison among their offerings.
AT&T Plan Comparison
AT&T is the second largest cellular carrier in the U.S. With solid coverage and a range of plans, this service provider enjoys a hefty following to the tune of 133 million subscribers. This section covers the traditional postpaid plans, although AT&T does offer the option to prepay phone service.
AT&T isn't the highest priced carrier, however, they aren't the lowest either. Prices range from $50/month to $155/month for their most popular plans. The cost of your monthly plan depends upon the amount of data you want.
Any plan can be made into a Mobile Shared Advantage plan in which the mobile devices share the data allotment. Each additional line incurs a $20 per month access fee.
The two best features of AT&T data plans are the rollover data and the fact that there are no overage charges:
- Rollover data - Any unused data from your current month carries over to the next month. This benefit only lasts for one month, however, meaning you cannot accumulate unused data over a period of time.
- No overages - You won't be charged extra for using up all of your data and then some, however, your speeds will be throttled to 2G once you hit your data limit.
AT&T is no slouch in terms of international calling plans either. They have several options, including a discount rate plan called Passport, as well as free unlimited data, talk, and text in Canada and Mexico for Unlimited Plan subscribers.
AT&T Unlimited Plan
As far as unlimited data plans, AT&T does offer this option. This option was initially only available to DIRECTV or U-Verse television subscribers, however, AT&T now offers their unlimited cell phone plan to everyone. The cost is $90 per month for one line, $145 for two, plus $20 for each additional line. This option is a bit misleading, however, as the company reserves the right to throttle data speeds once you reach 22 GB in a month.
When it comes to comparing cell phone plans, AT&T shines in the area of available devices. The provider boasts the largest selection of flagship devices of any carrier. Whether you want the latest in the iPhone, Galaxy, or LG smartphone series, they've got you covered.
Time Magazine reported in early 2016 that AT&T has joined other major carriers in the practice of charging a monthly payment for a new phone. Yes, that means the days of the free or discounted phone are gone. But don't be too upset - you were paying for those phones in higher monthly fees anyway. Now you can choose from a range of options with payments lasting anywhere from 18 to 24 months. You can also choose to buy your phone at retail price.
Coverage & Customer Care
When it comes to coverage, AT&T excels here too. AT&T wireless service is available to over 99% of the U.S. In addition, the company's customers have 4G LTE coverage more than 82% of the time, according to mobile data aggregator OpenSignal.
If customer support is one of your main priorities, AT&T delivers in spades. The company earned J.D. Power's top spot for customer service ratings among cellular carriers in 2016.
Related: Switching to AT&T? Here's everything you should know.
Sprint Plan Comparison
Sprint is known for its reasonable pricing and solid plan selection, including the Sprint family plan. The carrier offers both traditional no-contract and prepaid plans. For purposes of this guide, I'll be focusing on the company's traditional postpaid cell phone service offerings.
Next, to other providers in this cell phone plan comparison, Sprint gives you very competitive rates. The pricing structure is set up in tiers of XS to XXL in order of data allowance. Any of these plans can be turned into a family plan for an additional $20 access fee per line.
Sprint Unlimited Plan
Sprint's version of the unlimited data plan is called Unlimited Freedom and costs $60 per month for one line. If you're looking for a Sprint family plan, the second line is $40/month, and additional lines are $30. Keep in mind that on the Freedom plan, video streaming is "mobile optimized", which is code for standard definition, or 480p. If you prefer your mobile video and games in higher resolution you'll pay an extra $20 per month per line for the Unlimited Freedom Premium plan.
As with most other carriers' unlimited cell phone plans, your data speeds may be throttled to 2G during times of peak network congestion.
Sprint wireless features aren't the most comprehensive when it comes to comparing cell phone plans. You don't get rollover data as you do with AT&T and Verizon. On the plus side, Sprint has a value-packed international service in its Open World plan. This Sprint service option includes free unlimited talk and text messages within 20 different countries including Canada and Mexico, plus discounted calling rates to other countries.
Sprint offers a respectable selection of devices, from the newest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy smartphones to mid-range Motorola and low-tier flip phones. This major carrier offers leasing, retail purchase, and discount rate phones on contract. For example, if you choose the iPhone 6s Plus, you can either pay around $26 monthly, $180 down and $0 per month with a contract, or full retail price to own your phone.
Coverage & Customer Care
Coverage is where the Sprint network has suffered from a less than stellar reputation, although their networks are improving. The carrier covers 94% of the U.S., according to a statement in U.S. News & World Report. The issue has been with Sprint's 4G LTE coverage - service at higher speeds is largely concentrated around large metropolitans, and even then subscribers on the Sprint network are only getting 4G an average 70% of the time, according to OpenSignal.
Still, if you don't do a lot of mobile HD video streaming, Sprint's lower pricing can outweigh any data speed loss. If you're looking for cheap cell phone plans from one of the big name providers and live in an area Sprint covers, they're a solid choice.
When it comes to customer support, J.D. Power rates Sprint service at below average. This may be a minor concern for the budget-conscious consumer, however, it is something to keep in mind.
Related: Switching to Sprint? Here's what you should know.
Verizon Plan Comparison
As you do your own research you'll find that Verizon Wireless, by most accounts, comes out on top in several areas. For starters, the carrier is the largest cellular provider in the U.S., with over 143 million subscribers. In addition, the company has what is considered the best, most reliable wireless network available. Let's take a look at their postpaid plans. Verizon also offer prepay wireless service for those interested.
There is a cost to Verizon's superiority in the world of phone plan comparison. They are the priciest of most wireless options. Like Sprint, Verizon Wireless organizes their cell phone plans by data allotment size.
Each additional phone line comes with a $20 access fee. The extra two GB per line makes Verizon's top three tiers some of the best family cell phone plans on the market. You can check out the Verizon family plans here.
Verizon has a number of useful features, although most of these do come with extra fees. While my cell phone plan comparison showed that most carriers offer unlimited 2G data after hitting your limit, Verizon charges extra for this feature. They call it Safety Mode, and this option is free. If you choose not to activate Safety Mode you will be charged overage fees at a rate of $15 per GB.
Other great features include:
- Rollover data that stays valid for one month
- Several international service choices, with unlimited text and calling throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico as long as you're subscribed to XL or XXL ($5/month on other plans)
- Unlimited streaming of video content on the Go90 app (shows, sports, and more)
Verizon offers plenty of devices to choose from, including exclusive access to the Motorola Droid series. They also offer a selection of tablets, mobile hotspots, and wearable devices. You can choose from monthly payments or buy your device outright at retail.
As you compare cell phone plans you'll find that service for devices like tablets and wearables (watches, fitness bands, etc.) runs between $5 and $20 per month.
Coverage & Customer Care
Verizon provides the widest 4G LTE coverage of all the big names - subscribers enjoy 4G service more than 86% of the time. The company garnered an "average" customer service rating in 2016.
Related: Switching to the Verizon
T-Mobile Plan Comparison
While the above three providers tend to be the most prominent in consumers' minds, there is another option that consistently maintains its contender status in terms of plans and features: T-Mobile.
T-Mobile offers a range of pricing options under two different plans.
The One plan is T-Mobile's newest tier and is the one you're most likely to see the carrier pushing in their marketing materials, as this is now the only postpaid plan the carrier provides new customers. This T-Mobile offer gives you unlimited everything, to an extent.
One to two lines cost $50 each, or $40 each for four. Additional lines up to eight total will add $20 each to your bill. The plan includes unlimited data, however, streaming speeds are limited to standard definition. With T-Mobile One you also get:
- Free unlimited in-flight texting and an hour of data
- Unlimited talk, text, and data in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
- More international options for other countries
- Up to 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot/tethering data
If you want to stream video in HD and have high-speed access for tethering, you'll need to pay $25 per month per line for T-Mobile One Plus.
T-Mobile Simple Choice
Simple Choice is the carrier's older set of plans and is no longer available to new postpaid cell phone customers. If you prefer a prepaid plan, you can choose this T-Mobile offer, however. Prices range between $50 for a single line with 2 GB of data, up to $220 per month for four lines with 10 GB of data. The beauty of the Simple Choice prepay plan is that data is not shared - the allowance is per line, not per plan. You will have to call or visit a T-Mobile store if you want to subscribe to a Simple Choice option.
Related: Making the Switch to T-Mobile
Types of Plans to Compare
The big four certainly aren't the only choices when it comes to mobile service. You may have needs that aren't met by these major providers. One good example is the need for a senior cell phone. Older individuals often simply want a way to talk to friends and family, without the need for unlimited texting and data. A basic device with a prepay cell phone plan may be plenty sufficient in this case. Check out my analysis of the best cell phones for seniors for more information. Data is also important to consider before buying a new plan. How much data do you need? Do you have family members that eat up all your data? Do you browse the Internet at all hours of the night or stream high-definition video? You can hear our thoughts about data usage and behaviors in our article.
In addition to all of the factors listed at the top of this cell phone plan guide, I'll close with a few more tips. As you compare cell phone plans you'll find that service for devices like tablets and wearables (watches, fitness bands, etc.) runs between $5 and $20 per month.
You'll also find that the prices that cell phone companies advertise are often contingent upon enrolling in auto-pay. If you don't enroll, plan prices are usually $5 more per month. There are other ways to save money on your cell phone bill as well. Not ready to give up your current device? Check out the best bring your own phone plans. BYOP is particularly easy if your phone has a SIM card. You can often simply get a new SIM card for your new network.
Don't forget to research consumer opinions as well. PCMag.com gives you insight into the reader choice of carriers. Learning about reader choice favorites can give you valuable perspective on real-life experiences with providers. Whether you're looking for traditional service with one of the big four, or a prepay plan like Straight Talk, the right carrier is out there. It's just a matter of deciding which one fits your needs and budget. Check out our top picks of the best cell phone plans here.