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 prepaid 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.
In This Guide
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. MVNOs, such as Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Consumer Cellular, feature affordable and valuable plans that are considerably lower compared to the plans offered by any of the "big four" carriers.
- 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 a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) - and it is highly recommended to do so if you want to save money - you may have to be prepared to choose from a smaller selection of older devices. However, many MVNOs allow you to bring your own phone to connect with the service offered. For a full list of MVNO providers, 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 services. It's important to note that these days the difference in coverage is tiny - a couple of percents or less. This means T-Mobile and Sprint are very competitive even though they come in behind the other two. Smaller prepay phone providers like Straight Talk run off of the major networks, although some MVNOs' coverage may be slightly more limited. However, many MVNOs' coverages are not restricted, so you're often receiving the same exact network quality that is offered by the big four.
- 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's and Sprint's networks have both gained strides against giants Verizon and AT&T. So know that your selection of the network won't make a hefty difference in terms of speed (unless you happen to live in an area that may not be covered adequately by the network, so be sure to do your homework).
- 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 service providers 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.
Most MVNOs allow you to prepay for your phone plan, and even though the differences in prepaid and postpaid plans are now minimal, so you're guaranteed peace of mind with no strings attached (unless you finance a phone).
By the same token, carriers are also offering more flexible upgrade options. Depending on the cell phone provider, you need to have between 50 percent and 80 percent 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, even for the cheapest cell phone they carry.
Next, I'll take a look at some of the most popular cell phone companies and their MVNOs. It's important to know that if you want to save money and receive the best value for your dollar, then you should look into an MVNO, which allows you to stay on any of the four major networks.
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. However, there are also plenty of MVNOs available that offer AT&T's fantastic coverage. But first, let's delve into how AT&T's coverage actually is:
When it comes to coverage, AT&T excels here. AT&T wireless service is available to over 99 percent of the U.S. In addition, the company's customers have 4G LTE coverage more than 82 percent of the time, according to mobile data aggregator OpenSignal. In fact, the service and speeds reach hundreds of millions of people residing in both the United States and Mexico.
Related: Switching to AT&T? Here's everything you should know.
Sure, you can have access to all of the features offered by AT&T, but why not go for a service that offers a better value? With an AT&T-based MVNO, you'll have access to AT&T networks for a fraction of what you'd pay for with AT&T. Several AT&T MVNOs include H2O Wireless, Cricket Wireless, Pure TalkUSA, and SkyView Wireless. Here are just a couple of MVNOs that run on AT&T's network:
Cricket Wireless is considerably cheaper compared to what you'd find with the big four major carriers, featuring an unlimited plan for much less than what you'd pay for with AT&T's Unlimited and Unlimited Plus cellphone plans. Embedded in the two available unlimited cell phone plans are access to international texting for select countries, as well as talk, text, and data usage to and from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.
ROK Mobile is a unique no-contract carrier due to the fact that you have access to various insurance options alongside ROK Mobile's phone plans. Insurance plans include accidental death and final expenses coverage, ID theft insurance, and roadside assistance.
Furthermore, there are various phone plans to choose from, but it is dependent on your phone. For instance, if you have a Sprint phone, you'll be able to purchase an unlimited plan for cheaper than what you'd pay for if you had another type of CDMA or GSM phone. Furthermore, their customer service is known to be rather excellent.
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. However, while the available Sprint service is more affordable compared to the other major carriers, there are MVNOs that offer prepay plans with more value, like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile.
However, if you're looking for cheap cell phone plans from one of the big name providers and live in an area Sprint covers, then you'll find Sprint to be the best value.
Coverage is where the Sprint network has suffered from a less than stellar reputation, although their networks are improving. According to recent data from Nielsen (which has been flaunted on television), Sprint's network reliability is now within one percent of Verizon, but overall, its CDMA network (you can learn more about CDMA networks vs GSM networks here) falls behind in terms of performance.
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.
Overall, Sprint's coverage area captures the majority of the United States, barring several areas.
Related: Switching to Sprint? Here's what you should know.
Just like with AT&T MVNOs, there are various Sprint-based MVNOs available to you for cheaper than what you'd pay for with Sprint (even though Sprint offers the cheapest plans among the four major carriers). With a Sprint-based MVNO, you'll have excellent Sprint coverage and speeds without paying an arm and a leg.
Sprint MVNOs include the following: Boost Mobile, FreedomPop, RingPlus, Virgin Mobile, Charge, Chit Chat Mobile, and Tello. Here are just a couple of popular MVNOs that are guaranteed to save a few dollars monthly:
Tello is a wireless provider with a highlight on simplicity. You're offered either a prepaid plan or pay-as-you-go option. If you go prepaid, you can create your own plan based on your usage, so you can select unlimited texting, only a few minutes of talk, and 5GB of data, if you'd like. However, if you feel as if you need more data, you may want to instead turn your attention to an MVNO that offers unlimited data.
However, what comes with the Tello service is free tethering. You can also adopt several modern cell phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge or the S7. Unfortunately, if you want the latest phones, you won't find the latest Samsung Galaxy devices with Tello, but you will be able to purchase the latest iPhone, so the carrier does appear to favor the iPhone over the Galaxy lineup.
Ting is a cell phone service that is committed to simplicity by offering no-contract plans, complete with no hidden fees, and GSM and CDMA network compatibility. According to Ting, the average cell phone bill is only $23 per month, but be aware that there are no unlimited cell phone plans available.
In fact, after reaching the limit of 4800 global texts, 2100 global minutes, and 2GB of data, you'll be paying 1/4 cents per text, 1.9 cents per minute, and $10 per GB of data. With that being said, it unlikely you'll run out of minutes and text, so unless you are constantly on the move and require plenty of data, Ting should certainly be considered as your cell phone provider.
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. While Verizon offers postpaid and prepaid plans, the company is known to be a little bit more expensive. Instead, you can adopt an MVNO that offers Verizon coverage.
Speaking of coverage, 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.
Overall, you can expect most of the United States to be covered unlike the coverage of Verizon's competition. Unfortunately, Alaska, some of Maine, West Virginia, and the Western U.S. do not have access to 4G LTE network.
However, and even though it is not expressed on the coverage map, the network covers a grand total of 2.4 million square miles, meaning that the provider does indeed focus on rural wireless coverage. In fact, Verizon Wireless has been touted as the number one major rural wireless provider in the United States. It is important to note that, T-Mobile, which is another major carrier, covers only 1.4 million miles.
Related: Switching to the Verizon
Unfortunately, there are few MVNOs that rely on Verizon as its sole network. However, there are plenty of MVNOs that offer not only Verizon as a network but also AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint simultaneously. There are plenty of networks that rely on Verizon, which guarantees you top-tier speeds and coverage for a fraction of what you'd pay for with Verizon (considering you'd pay hefty amounts for the service). Here are just a couple of them:
Twigby is an MVNO that offers great coverage at an incredibly affordable price. Better yet is the fact that plans are incredibly affordable. By incredibly affordable, I mean the plans begin at $12, which includes 100% unlimited text messages, 200 minutes, and 150MB of data, which is slightly more or less than a month of Netflix - depending on the plan you select.
Even better is the fact that you can customize your plan - you can choose an unlimited amount of minutes and 4GB of data, but you can also select 200 monthly minutes and 4GB of data. So unless you gobble up data like its a feast, Twigby may be the perfect MVNO for you.
With US Mobile, there are now a variety of unlimited plans, including unlimited data plans, but be careful, because US Mobile's unlimited plans are a tad on the expensive end. However, other data plans are plenty affordable and you can opt for unlimited texting at just a few dollars. US Mobile also features a Student Discount service, which can earn you - if you're a student - a free SIM card.
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. However, while T-Mobile offers prepay wireless and postpaid cell phone plans that come with a variety of incentives, these plans are more on the expensive end. It's better to adopt an MVNO that offers T-Mobile's coverage.
As far as coverage goes, if you live in an urban location, then you'll be able to enjoy high-quality coverage and rapid speeds from T-Mobile. In fact, T-Mobile touts the fastest 4G LTE speed in the east. However, its 4G LTE upload and download speeds are not as fast as Verizon's speeds on the western side of the United States.
With all that being said, if you live in a rural area, then you will find that T-Mobile coverage is rather shoddy, though the company is working to improve connections in these particular areas.
While the available T-Mobile offers are enticing, they are rather quite expensive, even if you adopt a family cell phone plan (i.e. purchase multiple lines at a discount). T-Mobile MVNOs ensure that you'll be receiving coverage that is fantastic in urban areas, though rural areas may suffer in terms of connection quality.
However, the company has been making significant leaps to improve its quality and coverage. Nevertheless, here are just a couple of T-Mobile MVNOs to give you an idea of how affordable they are by comparison:
Otherwise known as The People's Operator, TPO Mobile is a cellphone plan provider that runs on both Sprint and T-Mobile networks. It is known to be one of the more unique MVNOs in the United States, offering plans at significantly cheaper prices. Even better is that portions - 10 percent, to be exact - of your cell phone bill, as well as 25 percent of the company's profits, are directly distributed to charities and organizations in need.
While there is no unlimited data plan - you'll still receive unlimited talk and text - you'll be satisfied knowing that part of your phone bill is supporting a cause you admire. 4GB, the maximum amount you can adopt without paying extra, should be plenty for usage, and even then you're paying $25 less than what you'd pay for T-Mobile's ONE plan.
Mint SIM is an MVNO that is exclusively BYOP (bring your own phone) and can only be purchased in bulk. How do I mean by bulk? You select your package and pay either pay for three months, six months, or nine months at a time.
While there is a three-month introductory rate which allows you to save quite a bit of money, you'll be able to save in the future by purchasing larger packages. For instance, while you'll pay $300 for the 12-month bulk package of 10GB and unlimited talk and text, you'll be essentially saving, as you'll technically be only paying $25 per month. In other words, much more affordable than T-Mobile, and you'll have up to 10GB to use, which is plenty of data.
Related: Making the Switch to T-Mobile
Types of Plans to Compare
Do keep in mind that as you're selecting your new cell phone plan that the big four certainly aren't the only choices when it comes to mobile service. For instance, you may have needs that aren't met by these major providers. One good example is the need for a senior mobile device. Older individuals often simply want a way to talk to friends and family without the need for unlimited texting and data.
A basic senior cell phone with a prepay cell phone plan may be plenty sufficient in this case. Check out my analysis of the best senior cell phones 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.
Related: Be sure to check out our cell phone guides, which will help you save on your monthly bill!
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 wireless plan like Straight Talk or Republic Wireless, 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.