Cell Phone Plan Comparison
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 plan best fit your needs.
Making a wise choice among the best 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 plan options in order to get the best deal on service for multiple devices. In this guide, I'll help you compare cell phone plans among major providers.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: What to Consider
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 payment, plus other fees like activation, early termination, and data overages.
- Features: Things like unlimited texting 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 who only uses your device for emergencies. In any case, you'll want to evaluate the device selection from the various providers.
- 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 service has a high-reliability rating.
- 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. 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 service or not.
By the same token, carriers are also offering more flexible upgrade options. Depending on the 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.
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.
Next, I'll take a look at some of the most popular cell phone companies and do a phone plan comparison among their offerings.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: AT&T
AT&T is the second largest cellular carrier in the U.S. With solid coverage and a range of plans, this provider enjoys a hefty following to the tune of 133 million subscribers.
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 plan depends upon the amount of data you want.
Any plan can be made into a Mobile Shared Advantage plan in which the 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 talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico for Unlimited Plan subscribers.
AT&T Unlimited Plan
As far as unlimited data plans, AT&T does offer this option. The catch is that you must have either DirecTV or U-Verse television service in order to subscribe to unlimited cell phone service. The cost is $100 per month, plus $40 for each of the next two additional smartphones. The fourth smartphone gets free access. 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.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: Sprint
Sprint is known for its reasonable pricing and solid plan selection. The carrier offers both traditional contract as well as some of the best-prepaid cell phone plans. For purposes of this guide, I'll be focusing on the company's traditional 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. The second line is $40/month, and additional lines after that 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 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 option includes free talk and text 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 smartphones to mid-range Motorolas and low-tier flip phones. The 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 Sprint 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 are only getting 4G an average 70% of the time.
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, Sprint is a solid choice.
When it comes to customer service, J.D. Power rates Sprint at below average. This may be a minor concern for the budget-conscious consumer, however, it is something to keep in mind.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: Verizon
As you do your cell phone plan comparison you'll find that Verizon, 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.
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 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.
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 will cost you $5 per month unless you're on the XL or XXL plan. 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 free calling and texting 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.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: T-Mobile
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 offers a range of pricing options under two different plans.
The One plan is T-Mobile's newest tier and is the plan you're most likely to see the carrier pushing in their marketing materials. It offers unlimited everything, to an extent.
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
- Free calling, text, and data in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
- More international options for other countries
- Unlimited tethering (at 3G speeds)
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 still available - at least for now. 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 Simple Choice 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.
Compare Cell Phone Plans: Recap
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. For example, the best tablet data plans are typical $10/month. These devices count toward any limits put on the number of devices you can have attached to your account.
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. The right plan is out there, it's just a matter of deciding which one fits your needs and budget.