Now that two-year contracts are a thing of the past, you have a lot more freedom to get the cell phone plan that actually works best for your needs. This guide can help you figure out which network offers the best coverage where you need it and pick a plan on that network that meets your needs at the lowest total cost. We crunched numbers, pored over price plans and their fine print, quizzed experts, and wrestled with complex pricing schemes to make the process as painless as possible.
Unlike most of our reviews, this guide is less about picking one product than it is about helping you make your own pick. We’ll walk you through determining which network will work best for you, deciding how much service you need, and selecting a plan (either pre- or postpaid) based on those usage requirements.
Although we didn’t start working on this review with the intention of recommending a single best carrier, judging from what we’ve researched about typical phone usage in the United States, we’re confident that most people who follow the steps laid out below will find Verizon Wireless (or its prepaid offshoot) waiting for them at the end of the path. It’s still the most reliable network in most parts of the United States, according to multiple third-party tests and surveys (including those of PCMag, OpenSignal and RootMetrics), yet it’s often cheaper than the competition.
But Verizon isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone. In particular, its high-profile unlimited-data plan doesn’t offer the same value as T-Mobile’s, its phone options are fewer, and its international roaming plans aren’t as generous. We also cover AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, plus a variety of popular prepaid and resold options for common situations in the Our picks section.
I’ve been covering the wireless industry since the late 1990s. (My first guide to cell phone service, written back in 1998, devoted much ink to comparing analog and digital cellular.) I’ve tested smartphones and cell phone plans from all four major carriers for Boing Boing, CNN Money, Discovery News, PCMag, VentureBeat, The Washington Post, and others, and I now cover telecom-policy issues that shape this industry for Yahoo Finance and answer telecom questions in a USA Today Q&A column.
Picking a network is the trickiest part of picking a plan. Given that coverage can vary from block to block or even building to building, no one can say for certain that a given network will work best for you. Carrier coverage maps can be a good starting point if you zoom in to the street level, but they say nothing about network capacity and consistency. OpenSignal, PCMag, and RootMetrics all publish independently sourced network performance metrics, but they come at it from different angles and are good for different purposes. (Don’t forget to check coverage in any frequent business or vacation destinations.)
RootMetrics uses cars set up with “leading Android-based smartphones for each network” to gather figures on data, talk, and text performance throughout the country. Its coverage map encompasses basically every major US city street, boulevard, and highway, as well as all the towns and thoroughfares that connect them. You can also get reports tailored to specific metropolitan areas. This amount of detail makes RootMetrics a great source for gauging overall performance by region.
PCMag takes a similar approach but looks more specifically at network data speed and reliability. The majority of those efforts, however, focus on metropolitan centers and suburbs, leaving entire states out of the analysis (sorry, South Dakota!).
OpenSignal’s network tests rely on crowdsourcing: Anyone can download the OpenSignal app and run tests. But that also means anyone (i.e., the vast majority of people) can opt not to do so. As such, its data skews heavily toward densely populated, urban areas, yet in those regions it has block-by-block information. If you live in a city, you can use OpenSignal’s data to check all the spots you frequent, including your home, your workplace, and any favorite bars and restaurants.
If you want to go a step further, you can buy a prepaid SIM card and test-drive a network yourself in all your key locations. That’s what I did before switching to T-Mobile back in 2013; taking that step helped me confirm that T-Mobile worked not just at home and around Washington, DC, but also down into the entrance of my Metro stop.
When we looked at all this data, we found that Verizon won or ranked near the top in most areas. Verizon has swept RootMetrics’s automated tests in the categories of overall performance, network reliability, network speed, data performance, and call performance in the first and second half of 2014, the first and second half of 2015, and the first and second half of 2016. RootMetrics also judged Verizon best at text performance in its last two surveys; AT&T had tied Verizon in the prior report and had won three times before then.
In addition, Verizon was the overall winner for data performance in PCMag’s 2016 “Fastest Mobile Networks” tests—as well as in its 2015 and 2014 tests. According to PCMag’s findings, Verizon got the nod for coverage in four of six regions across the US, but at the city level, Verizon led in 12 of 30 cities, T-Mobile in 10, AT&T in five, and Sprint in three. This is a nontrivial dip from 2015, when the PCMag report had Verizon first in 16 of 30 cities, T-Mobile in eight, AT&T in seven, and Sprint in one (there were a few ties). Verizon remains the clear winner overall.
In contrast, OpenSignal’s latest results show a much closer contest between Verizon and T-Mobile: Verizon’s nationwide LTE network averaged downloads of 16.89 megabits per second, while T-Mobile’s was barely behind at 16.65 Mbps. OpenSignal’s report, released in February, had AT&T trailing at 13.86 Mbps and Sprint farther behind at 8.99 Mbps. Those crowdsourced results also show similar levels of LTE availability for Verizon and T-Mobile: 88.17 percent and 86.6 percent. AT&T’s LTE percentage of 82.2 was about the same as last year’s, while Sprint’s 76.8 percent still represented a notable upgrade from last year’s comparatively woeful 70 percent.
Why would these results vary so dramatically from RootMetrics’—something T-Mobile keeps pointing out in cranky blog posts? One possible factor: OpenSignal users tend to skew away from rural areas, where T-Mobile doesn’t fare as well.
Once you’ve determined which network will work best for you, the next step is to figure out how much you actually use data, voice, and texting. If you feel more comfortable going with one of the big four carriers, you can focus exclusively on how much data the plans provide, since all of their postpaid plans now include unlimited voice and text. Most prepaid and resold services, however, can yield decent savings for people who don’t need unlimited calls and texts.
You can, in fact, have too much data, since wireless services often jack up their rates for the top third of data use. You shouldn’t pay a premium for gigabytes you don’t use—or for service advertised as unlimited that comes with serious restrictions. Finding out how much data you actually need is easy for Android users, since that OS automatically provides a clear and correct estimate of current data use, broken down by apps (the counter resets on a monthly basis). iPhone owners are better off consulting their phone bill statements, since iOS provides only raw totals (go to Settings, then Cellular) that can go back years if you don’t manually reset them (scroll all the way to the bottom of Cellular settings).
Once you know how much data you’re actually using, it’s easier to make a decision about what to spend. If you’ve been paying for 3 GB of data per month while using only 1 GB, you can save money by going with a cheaper plan. But if you find you’re using more—say, 3.25 GB in a given month—things get a bit less cut-and-dried, because some plans let you roll over unused data from months when you don’t hit your maximum. And with all four nationwide carriers and most prepaid and resold services providing unmetered slow 2G service once you exhaust your high-speed data, your phone should always allow basic Internet access.
Meanwhile, unlimited data plans—we like the term “unmetered”—have become a lot more attractive since Verizon started offering one again after some five years. Verizon’s $80 unlimited plan includes high-definition video and a 10 GB mobile-hotspot allowance for sharing your data connection with a laptop or tablet via Wi-Fi (after that, your tethering drops to 3G speeds).
Sprint and T-Mobile quickly revised their own unlimited plans, followed haltingly by AT&T, to match most of the Verizon offer. Now all three offer a 10 GB hotspot allowance and allow HD streaming video instead of their previous DVD-grade limits on resolution. Sprint’s $50 plan and AT&T’s $90 plan1 limit you to 2G tethering after you hit that 10 GB limit, while T-Mobile’s offering allows 3G tethering past that cap.
What about talk and text usage levels? All of the postpaid plans from the major carriers provide unlimited calling and messaging, so you in theory don’t even have to compute those numbers. But many prepaid and resold services allow you to save money if you’re willing to stay within certain limits. The best way to figure out how many texts or calls you send or make is to consult your billing statement.
If you want unlimited calls and texts, more attentive customer service, and phone financing through your carrier, you should stick with a traditional postpaid plan. Postpaid costs a bit more, and you need decent credit to qualify, but it will work exactly as you expect it to, and you won’t have to worry about running into any unexpected roaming charges. However, for many people, switching to prepaid can be an easy way to save $10 to $20 a month or more. The idea of a smaller cell phone plan provider beating one of the big carrier’s prices while reselling that same larger company’s own network may seem bizarre. But it happens, and it works.
“The four major carriers cover as much of the market as they can, but they’ve left holes,” explained Sascha Segan, PCMag’s lead mobile analyst, in a 2015 email conversation. He cited infrequent users, customers with thin credit, immigrants, and frequent international callers. “They basically subcontract acquiring those customers to smaller organizations who target them more closely.”
Most resellers use Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks, not AT&T’s or Verizon’s. CNET’s Marguerite Reardon noted that AT&T and Verizon don’t need the money as badly as the other two: “It’s like asking why someone of modest income is renting their spare bedroom and why the investment banker who lives in a mansion isn’t renting out any of the 20 rooms he has vacant.”
For the resellers, to beat the major carriers on price while using their networks, some trade-offs are in order. Some carriers prioritize their own customers over prepaid traffic—as T-Mobile does with its MetroPCS subsidiary. A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed that policy, saying that while postpaid and prepaid T-Mo service had the same priority, MetroPCS and other resellers “may notice slower speeds in times of network congestion.” However, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon said they don’t impose any such prioritization, and one reseller of Sprint and T-Mobile told us that even T-Mobile’s policy has yet to show any effects. “We have done our own testing,” Ting marketing vice president Michael Goldstein wrote in an email. “We have never detected any difference.”
In other cases, the carrier might throttle prepaid service to a lower speed by default, as AT&T does with Cricket. Slower data or occasional hiccups might not be dealbreakers for you, but other unexpected service lapses might be. Indeed, we wouldn’t recommend switching to prepaid unless you meet most of these criteria:
Note that many of these requirements favor an advanced user who doesn’t mind buying a phone and then picking a carrier, instead of buying their phone from their carrier. Unfortunately, that demographic is also likely to use more data than many of these services offer at reasonable prices.
If you’ve determined that prepaid isn’t a good fit for your needs based on the above discussion, your choice is easy: Pick the most affordable postpaid plan that fits your needs on the network that best covers your key areas. If you think prepaid might be a better option, things get a bit trickier.
We opted to limit this guide to the most widely used national options—the big four and their prepaid services and subsidiaries, then TracFone and its Straight Talk and Net10 sibling brands—as well as services ranked in the top three in reader surveys of two sites we trust, PCMag and Consumer Reports (subscription required). That left us with:
We then computed the cost of a few typical bundles of smartphone service, setting light use at 1 gigabyte of data, average use at 3 GB, and heavy use at 5 GB. This setup is in line with NPD’s average data-use figure of 2.9 GB for April 2015, which NPD analyst Brad Akyuz said in August 2016 had inched up to 3.2 GB.
Since, unlike postpaid services, many prepaid and resold services keep the meter running on voice and text, our cost estimates assume 400 voice minutes and 500 texts a month. Those numbers fall roughly in the middle of usage data we saw from the Federal Communications Commission (PDF) and a 2013 PwC study (PDF), among others.
We also calculated the costs for two other situations: a minimal-talk scenario assuming 50 voice minutes a month plus 500 texts and 3 GB of data, and a Wi-Fi–first situation in which a smartphone sees typical talk and text usage but relies on Wi-Fi for data.
We then redid that math for family plans with multiple lines for two and four people.
Our estimates included only sales and discounts without expiration dates (“for a limited time” vagueness qualified) and open to any new customer (those that required trading in a phone or porting over a number didn’t). If a plan offered a lower rate for automatic payments, we factored that in, too. We also allowed for regular purchases of an extra data pack or per-megabyte overage fees of $15 a gigabyte or less to meet data-use scenarios, but only up to $30 a month.
Some prepaid services offer service only in 30-day increments; to avoid a punitive level of math, we treated that as a month in our calculations. (TracFone’s legal department—we’re not making this up—did not want to vouch for monthly calculations based on the 90-day terms of many of its prepaid cards.)
Finally, we didn’t factor in taxes and regulatory fees, since they vary by jurisdiction (on my own T-Mobile plan, for example, they added up to 10.07 percent of December’s bill). But wherever you live, taxes and fees should hit you equally across all your options—save T-Mobile’s new T-Mobile One offering, which sweeps them into the advertised cost.
If you don’t fall into our predetermined categories, you can do your own calculations using WhistleOut’s carrier-comparison tool. It even lets you filter by network, so you can ask it for only prepaid options that resell AT&T service, say, or hide results that depend on Sprint’s network. But this comparison tool requires careful reading: Like Google searches, it shows featured (aka sponsored) results before organic ones. It also includes far more services than we cover here and shows not just plans with the required amount of data/minutes/texts but also those that exceed your needs, producing a cluttered presentation overall.
Verizon is the nation’s largest carrier for good reason: it offers the best coverage in the most places in the US, so you’re more likely to have signal no matter where you are. Its pricing is competitive with its three chief rivals for the amount of data that most people actually use. You don’t want to worry about your phone connecting? This is the carrier for you. It’s not the best choice for people who frequently travel outside the US or who want an unlimited plan, but it’s the first carrier everyone else should look at.
The Verizon price-plan menu today leads off with an $80 unlimited plan—which most users don’t actually need, and which in some ways is Verizon’s weakest offer. A 4 GB plan, which gives enough data for most peoples’ needs, costs $70. That doesn’t beat T-Mobile’s or Sprint’s unlimited plans—but for the majority of users who don’t exceed 4 GB in a month, price should matter less than Verizon’s continued network advantage. The carrier’s $55 2 GB plan offers an even better bargain for many users with less intense data use.
|Your monthly data use||AT&T2||Sprint||T-Mobile||Verizon|
|1 GB||$50 (1 GB Mobile Share Advantage)||$50 (Sprint Unlimited)||$65 (T-Mobile One Plus with $10 credit for not exceeding 2 GB)||$55 (2 GB plan)|
|3 GB||$60 (3 GB Mobile Share Advantage)||$50 (Sprint Unlimited)||$75 (T-Mobile One Plus)||$70 (4 GB plan)|
|5 GB||$80 (6 GB Mobile Share Advantage)||$50 (Sprint Unlimited)||$75 (T-Mobile One Plus)||$80 (Unlimited)|
If you were about to say “$70 for 4 GB? Verizon’s site says $50!” you should note that $50 rate Verizon lists in bold type doesn’t include a $20 line-access charge, while Verizon’s $80 unlimited plan does include it. The same goes for its other limited plans—they’re all $20 more expensive than they look. We’d be tempted to call this intentionally tricky presentation a “dark pattern,” except it may lead angry shoppers into switching plans once they catch on—so let’s just call it pointless customer abuse. (This also means that Verizon’s 8 GB plan is more expensive than the unlimited plan if you have only a single line, so don’t get it.)
We are not very fond of Verizon’s $80 unlimited plan. Beyond reserving the possibility of “deprioritizing” your data if you exceed 22 GB in a month on one device and enter an area with network congestion (every unlimited plan comes with a similar caveat), it imposes three fine-print hangups. To avoid a $5 surcharge, you must enable automatic payments from a checking account or debit card—no running up points on a travel-rewards credit card. Unlike Verizon’s capped plans, it only offers 2G domestic data roaming, which one reader complained about while noting his experience having to roam in Alaska and Puerto Rico. And it excludes all of Verizon’s discounts except for its military and veterans offer.
Because everyone on a Verizon multi-line plan has to share the same data bucket, Verizon’s multiple-line rates have become less competitive now that your next step up after an 8 GB plan is the unlimited tier. Covering 5 GB each for four lines once cost $160 a month, but now that only the unlimited plan allows that much use, your cost is $180. That same change has raised the cost of 5 GB of use on two lines from $100 to $140.
Verizon’s CDMA-based network isn’t capable of simultaneous voice and data use (this means, for instance, that if you’re using your phone to navigate while you’re driving and you get a voice call where you don’t have 4G service, you may lose the call), but the company’s far-flung LTE deployment has addressed that problem in many areas.
If you use Verizon Wireless for your cell phone and Verizon FIOS for home internet and TV, you can stream live and recorded shows without it counting towards your data allotment. This is the same kind of zero-rating AT&T does for its DirectTV subscribers and could be a factor for you if you already have FIOS at home.
Verizon’s history of taking its time with software updates (going back to Palm OS updates) should worry Android users. But it isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker since you don’t have to buy your phone from Verizon as long as the model you get supports its network. More and more unlocked phones are compatible with Verizon nowadays, including iPhones, Google’s Pixel handsets, most Motorola models, and some Samsung phones, though as you can see at Will My Phone Work, this rules out GSM-only phones like the Blu models popular on Amazon and some LTE models with limited frequency support, such as OnePlus’s line of Android-based phones.
If you travel internationally, Verizon’s TravelPass can seem tempting. But while that option adds only $2 a day in Mexico and Canada to use voice, text, and data drawn from your domestic allowance, in much of the rest of the world you pay $10 a day. And it doesn’t cover most of Asia—just India, Indonesia, and Japan. But Verizon phones are all sold unlocked, so you can (and should) use a local prepaid SIM when traveling internationally.
Verizon offers discounts to employees and members of designated companies and organizations—but aside from its military and veterans discount, none of them apply to the unlimited plan.
If you use more than 4 GB of mobile data most months, travel outside the country regularly, or want the greatest variety of phone options, you should consider T-Mobile One Plus. This is the only plan with unlimited data, talking, and text T-Mobile offers right now, and it costs less than Verizon’s 4 GB plan does after taxes and fees. So if you care more about using lots of data in fairly well-populated areas instead of having the best signal in rural areas, it’s the best choice.
For a single line, the Plus version of T-Mobile’s unlimited plan costs $5 less with taxes and fees included than Verizon’s $80 plan does without them (and the same as Verizon’s 4 GB plan, again before taxes and fees). We think you should pay the additional $5 for a 10 GB LTE-hotspot allowance, with unlimited 3G-hotspot use after that, and HD video (the standard T-Mobile One plan has only 3G tethering and SD video—a noticeable step down from Verizon’s offering). T-Mobile is also cheaper than Verizon in all of our multiple-line scenarios save two lines at 3 GB, where $10 separates the two. And should you use much less data than you expect—say, if you take a vacation and give social media a rest for once—T-Mobile will credit you $10 back if you use less than 2 GB in a month.
We still think Verizon’s network holds an edge, but that’s least noticeable in data use. Remember, the RootMetrics reports that rate T-Mobile so poorly include lagging grades for voice and text use, while in speed and data they show T-Mobile as a respectable third place. PCMag and OpenSignal put T-Mobile as a very close second for data. Note, however, that T-Mobile’s GSM-based network (one on which you can talk and use the Web simultaneously) still leans on higher-frequency bands that don’t reach as far inside buildings. That GSM network also means that it’s compatible with many more phones than Verizon is, including virtually every unlocked phone you can buy.
Frequent travelers will find other bonuses in T-Mobile’s unlimited plan. The carrier’s February upgrade to it doubled its free 2G international roaming to 256 Kbps. (I’ve found even the older 128 Kbps roaming quite adequate, but you can pay for high-speed data at $25 for 200 MB over a week) You also get free texting, 20¢-per-minute calling, and the ability to use your phone in Canada or Mexico as if they were the 51st and 52nd states, with no roaming charges even for LTE. Domestically, frequent flyers (on some airlines) can benefit from the one hour of free Gogo inflight Wi-Fi (that’s per flight, not per month).
Sprint offers cheaper pricing for unlimited data, but that doesn’t include taxes and does involve a bigger compromise in network quality.
AT&T no longer bans hotspot use, but it still charges $10 more for its unlimited plan than anyone else. And we don’t think anyone should get its $60-per-month, 3G-only Unlimited Choice option. Like Verizon, it requires automatic payments for you to get its advertised prices but won’t let you make those on a credit card, and it disqualifies all of its discounts save its military/veterans deal from that plan.
Prepaid or resold service will be cheaper, but not if it means living with a network that barely covers your home. That said, we like Verizon Wireless prepaid, which costs about a third less than Verizon’s postpaid service if you pick a $50 5 GB plan but gives you access to the same excellent network. The worst trade-off here: You get no international data roaming, and “international” voice and text roaming are limited to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which are US territories.
AT&T’s GoPhone and Cricket Wireless offer comparable savings, as do T-Mobile’s in-house prepaid service and its MetroPCS subsidiary. They’re a little better for world travelers than Verizon prepaid, but barely so: The AT&T and T-Mobile (PDF) house-brand prepaid services, as well as Cricket, allow international roaming only in Canada and Mexico, and MetroPCS’s $10 World Calling add-on offers it only in “select countries.” Sprint’s Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile USA in-house brands are even worse—the former limits your ability to bring your own phone, and the latter bans that entirely.
If Verizon doesn’t cover your most-frequented locations, or if you want a cheaper option that still has good customer support, Consumer Cellular is a great option. This reseller of AT&T and T-Mobile consistently tops customer surveys such as Consumer Reports’s latest. It’s marketed to seniors, but the things that make it good for seniors make it good for most people as well. Most important, it offers US-based phone support that caters to the non-tech-savvy and maintains an in-store presence in major retailers such as Sears and Target. And we also like that it allows you to specify an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM, whereas many other prepaid carriers, such as TracFone, will determine that for you unless you buy a SIM card in person.
Consumer Cellular’s costs aren’t quite as low as those of other resellers but still beat AT&T and T-Mobile’s postpaid rates in lower-data-usage scenarios—the service is $10 cheaper if you expect to use under 1.5 GB a month. Infrequent callers can further increase their savings by choosing one of Consumer Cellular’s lower voice allotments. And, as the website reminds visitors, the company offers a 5 percent AARP discount. It blocks tethering by default but will enable that feature if you ask.
Finally, Consumer Cellular now offers installment-plan purchase options on about the same terms as the majors do.
Assuming you make fewer calls than average, you’ll do better and save almost as much with Ting’s flexible billing and blended Sprint and T-Mobile coverage. Ting consistently ranks high in PCMag and Consumer Reports reader surveys. And with its recent addition of third-party device financing, you can even have some of the same low up-front phone costs as with the big four.
Due to constantly shifting promotions and terms, family-plan pricing is difficult to sort through. Excluding plans that don’t let you bring your own device, the lowest cost for two lines with 1 GB each is $50 a month at MetroPCS, followed by $55 at Ting and $60 at Consumer Cellular. With two lines at 3 GB each, MetroPCS and Cricket are the cheapest at $70 a month, after which Consumer Cellular and AT&T GoPhone tie at $80. Two lines at 5 GB apiece cost the least at MetroPCS ($80, although that “unlimited” plan bans hotspot use), then Net10 ($85) and Cricket ($90).
|Service||Price to cover 3 GB each on two lines||Plan chosen|
|AT&T||$80||6 GB Mobile Share Advantage|
|AT&T GoPhone||$80||6 GB plan per line|
|Cricket Wireless||$70||3 GB plan x2, $10 off second line|
|Sprint Prepaid||$65||3 GB plan x2, $10 off per line|
|Boost Mobile||$70||2 GB plan plus $5/GB add-on per line|
|T-Mobile||$120||T-Mobile One (unlimited)|
|MetroPCS||$70||3 GB per line, $5 off per line|
|Verizon||$110||8 GB plan|
|Consumer Cellular||$80||$20 1,500-minute plan + $40 unlimited-text/5 GB plan + $10/GB + $10 extra-line fee|
|Project Fi||$95||Fi Basics + $15 extra line + $10/GB|
|Ting||n/a||Would require excessive overage fees|
|Net10||$85||5 GB/line plan|
Note that although Net10 resells all four carriers, it will put you on the network it thinks will work best for you, as Prepaid Phone News editor Dennis Bournique explains in a helpful post.
In our scenario of four lines with 1 GB each, Cricket, MetroPCS, and Consumer Cellular each cost $100 a month. With 3 GB each, that unanimity vanishes: Cricket is cheapest at just $100, after which Sprint prepaid costs $135 and Sprint postpaid and MetroPCS run $140 each. At 5 GB per line, Cricket leads at $140, and Sprint, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS each add up to $160.
|Service||Price to cover 3 GB each on two lines||Plan chosen|
|AT&T||$170||16 GB Mobile Share Advantage|
|AT&T GoPhone||$145||6 GB plan per line|
|Cricket Wireless||$100||3 GB plan x4, $60 total off lines 2-4|
|Sprint Prepaid||$135||3 GB plan x4, $10 off per line|
|Boost Mobile||$140||2 GB plan plus $5/GB add-on per line|
|T-Mobile||$160||T-Mobile One (unlimited)|
|MetroPCS||$140||3 GB per line, $5 off per line|
|Verizon||$180||Unlimited (10 GB tethering); reflects $5 auto-pay credit|
|Consumer Cellular||n/a||Would require excessive overage fees|
|Project Fi||$185||Fi Basics + $15 extra lines + $10/GB|
|Ting||n/a||Would require excessive overage fees|
|Net10||$165||5 GB/line plan|
Plus, many of our scenarios leave the hypothetical customer with more data than they need. You may find it helpful to experiment with different usage levels at the plan-comparison site WhistleOut.
If you need quality voice and text coverage but use little or no data, and if you’re willing to stick to a small subset of Android phones, consider Republic Wireless. At just $15 a month, it’s the cheapest way to get unlimited voice and texts, and adding 1 GB of data on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks tacks on only another $5. Republic also now includes hotspot use, a previously forbidden feature.
Google’s venture into resold wireless service—initially limited to Sprint and T-Mobile, though now including the regional carrier U.S. Cellular—has decent rates for moderate-usage scenarios, at 3 GB for $50. But it shines for international travel by providing free LTE roaming (not just the slow 2G that T-Mobile and Sprint offer) through most of the world. The catch: You’d better like not only Android but also Google’s Pixel and recent Nexus phones, the only models supported. You can use an iPhone if you set up service on a Nexus or Pixel phone and then move that Fi SIM to the iPhone, but users report that the experience remains awkward.
TracFone’s pricing is an unholy mess, but it hides a cheap way to get short-term coverage—say, if you’re traveling someplace in the US where your usual service has horrible reception. The trick is to get a SIM “homed” to use AT&T or Verizon, currently less than $10 at Walmart. Then, as Prepaid Phone News’s Dennis Bournique explains, you’d buy one of TracFone’s pay-as-you-go airtime cards (starting at $10 for 30 days of service) and top it off with a $10 1 GB smartphone-only data card. Your potential cost for 1 GB of data is $20, far less than prepaid service from AT&T or Verizon. At that low level, you’ll have only 30 minutes of voice calling—but we’re assuming you won’t call much on a random number.
The second-largest carrier offers a strong GSM network—so you get simultaneous voice and data use even outside of LTE territory—and good in-building coverage via its widespread low-band spectrum. But its pricing isn’t as attractive, even after recent price cuts. It gets even worse if you buy your phone on AT&T’s installment plan: Until fully paid off, the device will be locked and stuck with unfavorable international roaming charges. AT&T reduced those roaming charges recently to bring them more in line with those of Verizon and T-Mobile, but that change isn’t enough for us to make this carrier a pick—or for us to forget this carrier’s history of treating customers so poorly.
AT&T offers business and academic discounts, plus a unique 15 percent discount for union members. And if you pay for any of its TV bundles (DirecTV’s satellite service, U-verse TV in areas covered by its broadband fiber footprint, or the DirecTV Now streaming-video service) you now get a $25 monthly credit if you sign up for its unlimited plan. If you’re on a plan with a data limit, AT&T exempts DirecTV Now and the DirecTV streaming app from those caps—something that net-neutrality advocates have decried.
After the distraction of two self-inflicted wounds (a doomed purchase of its smaller competitor Nextel, followed by the wrong choice of 4G technology before a belated pivot to LTE), Sprint is finally making substantial progress with its network. If that coverage works for you, its pricing is almost as cheap as many prepaid and MVNO services but allows better data allotments—and Sprint’s incentives to customers who bring numbers from other carriers allow even greater savings. Note, though, that its CDMA technology permits simultaneous voice and data only if you’re on LTE.
Sprint is particularly confusing because of its frequent shifts in price plans—like Sam-I-Am in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, it’s always got a new marketing angle. Our least favorite among them: reviving two-year contracts, whose higher service rates almost always erase their up-front savings on phone costs. Fortunately, it quietly killed them again last year; we trust they will stay dead this time. As of late March 2017, Sprint is adopting a similar approach to T-Mobile One, leaning heavily on unlimited data and free global roaming.
T-Mobile’s coverage has improved considerably over the past two years, and over the past year Sprint’s has progressed as well; expect further upgrades. Those two carriers should also be deploying more lower-frequency spectrum, either purchased or “refarmed” from older services, that ought to improve their problematic in-building reach.
With phone subsidies and their two-year contracts now dead across the big four (Verizon even announced that it will stop renewing two-year contracts for existing customers), carriers retain other ways to keep you around. Watch out for new lease or early upgrade deals, and treat them with a fair amount of skepticism; buying your phone independent of service gives you far more leverage.
Voice-call quality should step up as the carriers build out Voice over LTE (VoLTE) service; at the end of July 2014, T-Mobile was first to claim nationwide VoLTE coverage. And across the board, data caps have risen to reflect customers’ increased demand for data—the plans AT&T and Verizon offered in 2013 look punishing next to their current offerings. All four major US carriers now offer unlimited data plans.
Originally published: March 16, 2017