Cell phone plans – can any other three words in the English language make you shudder so?
Well – undoubtedly there are worse things in life. But even so, comparing cell phone plans to figure out the best one for you and/or your family? Probably not high on your list of the ‘top 10 fun things to do with your time.”
Sp we did the work for you, digging through the mounds of providers and figuring out which ones are best for things like: best overall wireless carrier, best unlimited plans, which ones have the best cell phone coverage, family or prepaid plans, best budget options, and even which ones have the best international plans.
Best cell phone plan overall: Verizon Beyond Unlimited
Verizon Beyond Unlimited, Verizon Wireless’s middle-tier option, takes the cake for us. With exceptional coverage and speeds thanks to the #1 network in the U.S., plus some extras, it was easy choice.
You get the best wireless network in the nation according to most studies, plus a solid hotspot allowance on top of the competitive data deprioritization threshold at 22GB – on par with AT&T.
And unlike some other competitors who perform great in the cities but begin to peter out when you go far beyond (ahem, Sprint; ahem, T-Mobile), Verizon will give you a strong signal just about anywhere you go. That makes Verizon perfect for those who don’t want to be restricted by city and suburban limits.
That price tag a bit too high for you? Try T-Mobile One or Sprint’s Unlimited Basic plan on for size.
- T-Mobile One gives you a 50GB data threshold versus Verizon’s 22GB, plus a free Netflix subscription and lots of other perks – and at just $70/month. They’re a little more spotty in non-metro areas, though.
- Sprint’s Unlimited Plus is another solid contender. You get 1080p HD video streaming, a massive 50GB mobile hotspot, and extras like Hulu and Tidal – all for $70/month.
Best unlimited plan: T-Mobile One
T-Mobile comes in as our choice for best if you want unlimited data without every being throttled. With a 50GB data deprioritization threshold, you’re pretty unlikely to ever hit it in a month — which means high-speed internet everywhere you go, no slowing down.
Plus, that cap is the highest standard cap in the cell phone industry — you’d have to pay the $95/month rate for Verizon’s highest-tier plan to get anything better.
If you live in a more rural area, you just don’t get T-Mobile’s network where you live, or you really want that HD streaming quality, check out Verizon’s Beyond or Above Unlimited plans, or take a look at Sprint’s Unlimited Plus.
- Verizon Beyond Unlimited gives you smaller data cap, but HD video and the best network performance money can currently buy. And if you need a bigger data cap than 22GB, upgrade to Above Unlimited to get a monster 75GB.
- Sprint Unlimited Plus gives you the HD streaming, plus a 50GB hotspot, as well as some good perks for a similar price.
Best coverage: Verizon (any plan)
|Plan||Features||Price (1 line)||View Plan|
When it comes to coverage and overall performance, there can be no doubt about the winner: Verizon is king (or queen) here. When it comes to coverage, it matters less which plan you pick here, so long as it’s Verizon plan.
But, if we had to pick, we’d say go with at least the Beyond Unlimited plan, because you have a 22GB data threshold – so your data won’t face throttling until that point. Compare that with the first-tier Go Unlimited plan, which can be throttled whenever there’s congestion.
While Beyond Unlimited isn’t the cheapest, it does come with most features prominent in unlimited plans (HD video, mobile hotspot data, Mexico & Canada T&T&Data included, etc). And of course, most importantly it’s on the #1 network in the country, as ranked by sources like OpenSignal, Speedtest.net, and Rootmetrics.
Thinking cheaper? Try out AT&T’s Unlimited &More Premium. While Verizon has traditionally held the top rank for coverage (and in most studies, continues to do so), AT&T has consistently come up close behind, particularly in the category of latency.
And for a little cheaper, you get a lot of the same features as Verizon.
Best international plans: T-Mobile ONE
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Currently, T-Mobile and Sprint are the only major carriers to include international services standard in their plans. Others typically rely on expensive add-ons. And of these two, T-Mobile is the better one, giving you unlimited texting and data (at 2G speeds) in 210 countries.
You can also upgrade pretty easily to faster speeds for an extra $15/month if you travel internationally often.
If you can’t get T-Mobile, why not check out some other options?
- All of Sprint’s plans included free text and basic data with Global roaming in 200 worldwide destinations. For just $60 or $70 bucks a month.
- If you can afford them, Verizon’s international options included a $10/day International Travel Plan, including talk, text, and data in 100+ countries. They also offer monthly international coverage in 140+ countries, but prices vary from $15-$40 per device for a capped allowance.
Best prepaid plans: Simple Mobile Truly Unlimited
There are a lot of great options when it comes to prepaid plans. That said, we decided that Simple Mobile is worthy of your consideration for the spot. At just $50 per month, it’s the cheapest plan available that still has a decent amount of data included - plus, it’s on T-Mobile’s solid network.
Upgrade to the $60 Truly Unlimited plan, and you even get a 10GB allowance of hotspot data.
The best alternative to Simple Mobile is T-Mobile’s Simply Prepaid plan. Why? Well, for one it’s directly on T-Mobile’s network, so you won’t face quite the same deprioritization issues as with Simple Mobile. The big downside is the 10GB LTE data cap. Beyond that — all bets are off and speeds will crawl. But at $40 a month, it’s not a bad option as prepaids go.
Best family plans: Sprint Unlimited Plus
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Sprint just does family plans best – AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile just can’t beat ‘em on price-for-features.
For one, you get a huge 50GB data threshold – and for another, you get 1080p HD streaming. And if you like to travel to nearby sunny Mexico or wintery Canada? You get unlimited talk and text plus 10GB of data while you’re there.
Plus, check out Sprint’s Unlimited Plus page for more details, but you can grab 4 lines for just $140 bucks right now – that’s 4 for the regular-price of 2.
Boom. That’s not bad at all.
For other options, check out the multi-line discounts available with Verizon Go Unlimited and AT&T Unlimited &More.
- Verizon Go Unlimited gives you unlimited 4G LTE data, SD streaming, and a hotspot. With 4 lines, you get it for $40/line/month — $35/line in savings each and every month.
- AT&T Unlimited &More gives pretty similar features for the same kinds of rates as Verizon Go Unlimited.
Best low-cost plan: Sprint Unlimited Kickstart
$25 a month for unlimited data on one of the Big 4 carriers? Sign me up! Combine that price point, unlimited data, decent coverage for city folks, and this is the best value plan by far.
There are some other cheap options available, as well, but be warned: there are tradeoffs.
- FreedomPop offers a completely-free plan for the first year. But, data is ridiculously low at 200-500MB per month. It’s best for people who don’t use much data. Their best option is a 10GB plan for $19.99/mo — if you prepay for 12 months ahead of time.
- Total Wireless offer better data, but plans start creeping up — $35/month for 5GB, $50/month for 25GB, etc.
How to pick a cell phone plan
So, now that you’ve skimmed through those, how do you actually pick the right one for you? With all those details, it’s pretty overwhelming — believe me, I’ve been there. That said, you can use a handful of things to help narrow down your list. In the end, you should be down to one or two options.
Rural vs. metro coverage
Finally, perhaps most importantly -- what’s available in your area? It doesn’t matter a whit if your needs align with T-Mobile if you live in the middle of the desert in Utah -- you probably won’t have any coverage.
To that end, Verizon and AT&T are pretty good for most rural areas — particularly Verizon. T-Mobile and Sprint are less good out there; but they are pretty strong in metro areas and surrounding suburbs.
Check your coverage for each of these providers with these links:
How much data do you need? Consider two things: 1) the number of people on your plan, and 2) how much data you think each will use. It’s pretty simple when it’s just you — you can be pretty accurate. Multiple people makes things more complicated. Here’s a handy chart to help you out:
|Lines||1 line||2 lines||3 lines||4 lines|
|Light data use||1GB||2GB||3GB||4GB|
|Moderate data use||2GB||4GB||6GB||8GB|
|Heavy data use||4GB||8GB||12GB||16GB|
If you like to stream a lot of music or video, post to Instagram a lot, browser for hours — that’s a lot of data.
Unlocked or locked phone
Next, do you want a “locked” or “unlocked” phone? If you buy a phone from a carrier, that means it’s “locked” to that network. You’ll be locked into that carrier, and unable to just walk away at any time.
On the flip side, if you buy an unlocked phone, it’s 100% yours — you can take it to any carrier that has a BYO program and that it’s compatible with. So, if you want to be able to take your phone with you when you switch to another carrier, go unlocked.
If you decide to go with an unlocked phone, buy it direct from the company – i.e. Apple, Samsung, etc.
Switching carrier offers
Consider the different offers that major carriers give for switching to them. These often include paying off your phone payment balance and any early termination fees. Some even give you little extras.
- Best overall: Verizon Beyond Unlimited
- Best unlimited: T-Mobile ONE
- Best coverage: Verizon plans
- Best international: T-Mobile ONE
- Best prepaid: Simple Mobile Truly Unlimited
- Best family: Sprint Unlimited Plus
- Best low cost: Sprint Kickstart