As the internet evolved into a source of mobile activity of all kinds, you probably lamented the lack of unlimited data plans but were still searching for a good cell phone plan. As Fortune Magazine pointed out, cellular carriers began to rein in their unlimited offerings around 2010.
Unfortunately for consumers, this was also a time when mobile entertainment was exploding. Frustration with high cell phone bills grew and increasingly data-hungry applications continued to flood the mobile market.
Fortunately, there's now good news for heavy data users. Cell phone companies are bringing back phone plans with unlimited data (including unlimited call and text features). It all seemed to come to a head in fall of 2016 when several major providers began phasing out lower tier data buckets. The best part of this trend is that overage fees have all but disappeared.
The resurgence of free-flowing mobile data in the wireless industry does come with a few caveats. It's not all sunshine and roses, but if you use a lot of high-demand apps on your mobile devices you'll likely find the changes pleasing.
Key Considerations When Comparing Unlimited Data Plans
Before you rush off to find an unlimited data plan and sign up without a second thought, there are a few factors that you should consider:
Monitor Your Data Usage
How much data do you need? It's a good idea to monitor your data usage for a billing cycle so that you can see whether or not you actually need an unlimited option. There's no point in paying for more if you're not going to use it. If you would like to know how much data you'd need to determine whether or not you should opt for an unlimited plan, then you should take a moment to calculate your amount of consumed data using our data usage calculator.
If you find that you do need unlimited data, then you can always use our comparison tables below to find out which provider offers the best unlimited plans.
While comparing unlimited cell phone plans, pay attention to the terms and conditions. Some providers default video streaming to SD (standard definition) and charge extra if you want HD (high definition) quality. You should also watch the pricing. Deeply discounted rates are often limited time offers, so be sure you read the fine print on how long that rate lasts.
Unlimited doesn't mean endless high-speed access. Nearly all providers throttle speeds after you've reached a certain number of gigabytes. Using WiFi whenever possible to conserve your high-speed allotment is still the best course of action. The good news is that throttling has virtually replaced overage charges throughout the wireless industry.
"The resurgence of free-flowing mobile data does come with a few caveats. It's not all sunshine and roses, but if you use a lot of high-demand apps on your mobile devices you'll likely find the changes pleasing."
Each carrier differs a bit in the way their unlimited data plans are delivered. Be sure you know exactly what you're getting for your money before jumping on board. Even if you don't need it now, however, unlimited data is arguably an inevitability. As Time Magazine reported earlier in 2016, Americans look at their phones an average of 46 times per day. That's a lot of looking - which means a lot of data. And content and apps are only getting higher and higher in quality as technology develops.
Overall, there are several unlimited data plans available. There are full-blown unlimited data plans (complete with fine print that explains that you will experience the throttling of data after a certain amount) and then there are plans complete with a set number of GB before you experience a slowdown of data speeds. These are typically included in both postpaid or prepaid cell phone plans. For example here are just a couple of monthly plan types that you can consider that fall into the prepaid category:
Phone Plans with Unlimited Data
By the end of 2016, only three carriers provided unlimited data plans: AT&T (on one condition), Sprint, and T-Mobile. However, as of mid-February of 2017 (according to The Verge), Verizon joined the fray with its own unlimited plan. Since then, other carriers, especially T-Mobile (referring to The Verge's recent report) and AT&T (again, referring to The Verge's report on AT&T) have only become more competitive, trying their best to rope in customers.
However, which unlimited cell phone plans are the best? I will, of course, delve into each and every one of these unlimited plans to help you determine which unlimited plan is right for you.
Who Has the Best Unlimited Data Plan?
Determining the best unlimited data plan isn't the easiest task. There are several factors to take into consideration, such as the price, the amount and type of restrictions the plan may have, the coverage of the carrier, additional features, and more.
For instance, the providers with the cheapest unlimited cell phone plans happen to be Straight Talk, Sprint, and T-Mobile; but Verizon and AT&T offer greater and more reliable coverage; though admittedly, Straight Talk offers coverage from all four major carriers. So just who has the best unlimited data plan? Well, when it comes to coverage, Verizon is the carrier to go with, but the T-Mobile network is a strong contender if you're looking to spend a little less (and if you don't happen to live in remote/rural areas). Plus, T-Mobile includes all tax and fees in its advertised prices.
AT&T Unlimited Plans
AT&T, unfortunately, may be the worst option to go with, even with its new unlimited plan. Though it was once only offered to customers with DIRECTV or AT&T U-verse, it has opened up its data plan to everyone, including new customers. The new AT&T Unlimited Plan offers unlimited data, calls, and texting, as well as HD video.
Not only that but you'll also receive unlimited talk and text, including calls to Mexico and Canada. You can get talk, text, and data use in Canada and Mexico only when you add the AT&T Roam North America feature to eligible devices (which is free); and Stream Saver - which allows you to save data by streaming higher definition video at standard definition quality (480p). But wait, why would you need to save data if you have the AT&T Unlimited Plan?
Well, as it will be explained later in this review, data isn't 100 percent unlimited. After 22GB of data is used, you may experience reduced speeds.
Unfortunately, the pricing for one line is rather extreme, much higher than all of the other options available - even the Verizon unlimited plan. Furthermore, mobile internet in the form of tethering or hotspot use is prohibited except for when your phone is connected to your car. Despite that, AT&T offers strong coverage, only second to Verizon.
Verizon Unlimited Plans
Announced in mid-February of 2017, Verizon has realized that unlimited is the way to go for a lot of customers. After all, streaming video consumes a lot of data - even Apple Music eats data alive. So unlimited data may be best.
So the Verizon unlimited plan may be the best for its value due to its coverage. This Verizon plan also includes 10GB of mobile hotspot tethering data per line, giving you mobile internet anywhere. With music and movies, you will face an HD streaming cap. Finally, you'll also get unlimited calls and texts to and from Mexico and Canada.
My analysis reveals that if the reliability and coverage ratings are a higher priority for you over budget, Verizon's new plan may be your best bet.
Sprint Unlimited Plans
Sprint has stepped up to the plate with its unlimited data. Not only is its pricing the cheapest among the four major carriers (especially for one line) but you also won't face reduced speeds until you surpass 23GB of data. Currently, Sprint is offering a limited-time deal (amazing pricing, as you can pay for five lines for the same price as two lines), but the prices are only good until March of 2018.
Furthermore, Sprint allows unlimited video in high definition (up to 1080p video streaming, 8Mbps game streaming, and up to 1.5Mbps music streaming), as well as mobile hotspot access with up to 10GB per line per month of LTE data. However, after your data has been exceeded, you'll face 2G speeds. Not only that but unlimited talk and text are included.
Unfortunately, Sprint's coverage and phone selection may deter people from the service. Sprint is actually fourth when it comes to coverage, though it boasts its reliability of being within one percent of Verizon's reliability.
T-Mobile Unlimited Plans
Finally, we have the T-Mobile ONE Unlimited Data plan, which is rather fluffier compared to all of the other unlimited data plans. T-Mobile's ONE plan may come with a limited time offer, such as two unlimited lines for $100 with terms and conditions like required auto pay. Another benefit? Tax and fees are included in these prices already.
What comes included with the basic T-Mobile unlimited data plan is 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot tethering data, the ability to activate HD video streaming. Not only that but you can receive unlimited texting and one hour of free data on Gogo-enabled flights. Finally, you'll be able to enjoy unlimited access to talk, text, and data throughout Mexico and Canada. However, those who use more than 28GB of data may face reduced speeds during network congestion periods. It's worth noting this T-Mobile plan is the only postpaid option available to new customers.
T-Mobile One Plus
You can also add T-Mobile ONE Plus to your unlimited plan for just $5 more per line per month (the price has been reduced by $15 as of recently). With T-Mobile ONE Plus, you'll receive everything in the T-Mobile ONE package, plus unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights, visual voicemail, and name ID.
You can also opt into T-Mobile ONE Plus International for $25 per line per month on top of T-Mobile ONE. You'll have not only the features within T-Mobile ONE and T-Mobile ONE Plus, but also unlimited calling to landlines in over 70 countries and mobile numbers in over 30 countries, as well as unlimited access as a 4G LTE mobile hotspot.
Straight Talk Unlimited Plans
Straight Talk doesn't feature full unlimited data like the big four carriers, but it does offer some enticing plans with unlimited nationwide talk and text, as well as unlimited 2G speeds. The plans range in price from $10 (add-on) to $495 (extended plans). As far as data goes, plans range between 100MB and 10GB of high-speed data. You can also sign up for auto-refill, which allows you to save $1 every 30 days.
Furthermore, Straight Talk relies on all four major carriers to bring you 99.6 percent coverage.
Unfortunately, while the plans and phone selection may seem enticing, these plans aren't truly unlimited.
Prepaid Unlimited Plans
T-Mobile Simply Prepaid
T-Mobile has three affordable options for unlimited data plans under its Simply Prepaid program, all of which grant you text, unlimited music streaming, unlimited mobile hotspot, and a certain amount of high-speed data on the T-Mobile network. The data amount ranges from 3GB to 10GB.
Boost Unlimited GiGS comes with mobile optimized streaming videos, games, and music, and unlimited high-speed data for everything else. Once you exceed 23GB of data, you may face reduced data speeds.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a mobile hotspot with unlimited - not truly unlimited data anyway. What I mean is that when you exceed a certain amount of data that you're presented, you will face reduced hotspot speeds. Sometimes the speed may prove to be absolutely unusable for some tasks. To recap, here are the hotspot amounts:
- T-Mobile: 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data, with max 3G speeds after
- Sprint: 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data, with max 2G speeds after
- Verizon: 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data, with max 3G speeds after
- AT&T: 0GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data
- Straight Talk: Whatever you choose for a plan you can use for mobile hotspot data
And yes, AT&T prohibits hotspot or tethering unless your phone is connected to your car. You can see all the mobile hotspot plans here.
Is Unlimited Data Really Unlimited?
Since all four major carriers have either brought change to their unlimited plans or introduced new plans, I can't help but ponder over the question: "Is unlimited data really unlimited?"
Well, yes and no. According to BGR, the phrases that contain prioritization of data and network congestion are just the carriers' ways of saying your speeds will be throttled no matter the case. So while you will receive unlimited data, you will not receive unlimited high-speed data. What you get is more of a blend between high-speed and slower speeds, whether the speeds are 3G or 2G. In other words, T-Mobile offers the highest amount of unlimited high-speed data on their LTE network, while AT&T and Verizon provide you with the lowest amounts.
In other words, I can say that these unlimited phone plans are actually unlimited, but with limitations.
How to Get Unlimited Data
So how do you receive unlimited data with your carrier? Fortunately, these unlimited phone plans are either on the front page or through the site's plans tab. If you are already with the carrier, then you can easily switch your plan using either the official website of the provider or the carrier's mobile app (like My Verizon).
However, if you're a new customer, you can check out the plan via the front page of the wireless carrier site or from the plans tab. From there, you can select your smartphone (based on credit), choose your plan, your accessories, etc., then check out! That simple.
Things to Know About Unlimited Plans
As with most things in life, what you see isn't always what you get. There are a few things you should know about the marketing of unlimited phone plans and how it affects your actual experience.
- Most of the monthly plans I've covered will allow you to save a few dollars with enrollment in the service's auto pay and paperless billing features. If you choose not to enroll in auto pay and paperless billing, you'll typically pay $5 more per month for your plan.
- Again, unlimited data isn't just unlimited high-speed data. The vast majority of unlimited cell phone plans come with fine print (usually extremely tiny fine print on the front page of the provider websites) explaining that for high data users, speeds will be throttled at a certain number of GB. This number ranges between 22 and 28 GB per billing cycle, depending on the provider. Still, throttling beats the dreaded overage fee.
- The days of the contract are almost over. However - providers have found a way to hang onto the concept. When you lease your phone or pay for it in installments, you are essentially roped into the length of the payment plan. If you terminate your service early, you are responsible for the remainder of what you owe on your phone.
Unlimited cell phone data plans are certainly not a bad approach. On the contrary; much of America has been eagerly awaiting this very trend. However, as with all of the other advice we offer, the important thing is to know precisely what you are getting for your monthly payment.
Pro Tip: If you choose to enroll in auto pay in order to receive a discount, keep in mind that most carriers require the payment to come from either a checking account or debit card. This means you won't be able to use your cashback or reward credit card to make these payments.
As the balance of internet usage has shifted in mobile's favor, consumers are demanding easier, faster, and more affordable access. In fact, according to market research firm comScore, 65 percent of the time Americans spend on the internet is now via a mobile device rather than a computer. This represents a huge difference in how we accessed most of our content even five years ago. Screens are getting bigger with higher resolution, and content is growing more comprehensive all the time.
If you're in the market for the best cell phone plans, the above information should give you a good start. Keep in mind that mobile providers are constantly trying to keep up with one another, which means plans and prices change frequently. With the two-year contract on its last legs, there's really no reason to stay married to a specific provider if you can get a better deal elsewhere, especially when there are providers that will certainly buy out your contract. So keep an eye out - the future is sure to bring interesting things!