Are you looking to get a new phone plan? As new smartphone models hit the market and providers offer new deals, you might be looking to save money. There are more cell phone plan options than ever, which makes it a lot more difficult to choose what’s right for you.
In this article, we plan to discuss how to find the best cell phone plan for your specific needs. We’ll also cover:
Data plays the biggest role in today’s phone plans, as data allows your smartphone to the internet without wifi. Data usage is only going up. According to Ericsson Mobility, data consumption per smartphone is expected to go over 19 GB per month in 2023. However, plans that offer large quantities of data are much more expensive, so it’s important to do your research on what you need out of a phone plan.
Most providers offer unlimited data plans, but these often come with drawbacks. Unlimited plans are almost never truly unlimited, as providers often deprioritize or throttle their users that utilize too much data. Others offer full speed, or prioritized data. So, if you find yourself using a lot of data, make sure to choose your plan carefully!
Throttling severely limits your network connection when you reach your data cap, making it very slow.
Throttling occurs when you reach your plan’s data cap, which depends on your provider. This severely limits your data speeds and connection, causing your phone to work much slower. Your connection will return to normal once the next month of coverage starts. Plans will often specify that your data will slow once you reach this cap in the fine print. Data caps are usually 512 kilobits per second (kbps) – which is equivalent to 3G speeds – or slower.
When being throttled, your connection will allow you to do basic tasks, such as sending emails and text messages. Social media will also work, but at much slower speeds.
For example, a plan that throttles data is Red Pocket Mobile’s $30 20GB per month plan. They slow data to 64 kbps after 20GB.
Deprioritization occurs when your network slows down your connection speeds temporarily during times of high traffic to make room for other users.
Deprioritization only happens in times of high network congestion, such as concerts, sporting events, and other events with large crowds gathering in the same area and using the same network. Deprioritization might not even happen, as it depends on network congestion. While the network may slow down your connection, you will still be able to call, text, use the internet, send emails, and use social media.
Some plans are always deprioritized, while others are only deprioritized after a certain data threshold.
For example, the Verizon Unlimited Welcome plan is an unlimited plan that deprioritizes users at points of heavy traffic.
Prioritization occurs when a user receives higher priority on their network, even during times of heavy traffic and congestion.
Premium data is cellular data that receives higher priority on the chosen network, even during times of high traffic. On a premium data plan, you’ll have faster data speeds than other users, even in heavily populated areas. Some plans give you an allotted amount of premium data, while others give you unlimited premium data. The only truly unlimited data plans are these premium plans without a cap. An example of a truly unlimited plan with premium data is T-Mobile’s Magenta MAX Plan.
Networks have different levels of priority for their users, called QCI values. Different QCI values correspond to different levels of priority. For example, QCI values 1-5 are reserved for video calls, video streaming and group messaging, while QCI values 6-9 are reserved for data plans. QCI 9 is deprioritized, while QCI values 6 and 7 are often considered premium. Depending on the network, priority levels change and some plans are prioritized higher than they would be on other networks. For example, Verizon MVNOs are QCI 9, while AT&T MVNOs are QCI 8. First responder, government and business plans always get the highest priority on networks.
If you have WiFi available consistently and don’t use a lot of data, a limited data plan may be beneficial. Plans with limited data cost much less, usually at least $20 per month. With a limited plan, you could save hundreds over time if you don’t use a lot of data.
But if you go over your data allotment, you may be able to buy extra data for the month. depending on your provider. Otherwise, your data will be cut off – often called a “hard data cap” – until you start your next billing cycle.
Limited data plans each divide their data in different ways among multi-line plan users. In a shared data plan, each user on a group plan has access to a shared amount of data. This kind of plan is useful when members of the group use different amounts than other users. Shared data plans are also cheaper than individual data plans With individual data, each user of the plan gets a separate, specific data allotment to use each month.
When trying to figure out what plan works for you, it’s important to know how much data you currently use. Unsure of how to check how much data you use per month? Follow these steps below:
For Apple go to the Settings app, then to Cellular. The section that says current period is your data usage. To reset these statistics each billing period for more accurate numbers, scroll to the bottom of the page and click reset statistics.
Apple also breaks down how much data each app uses, and you can turn off data for apps you don’t want to use data for.
For Android, open the Settings app, then network & internet, then SIMs.
In the following menu, click App Data Usage.
You can also check your data usage through your current provider:
For AT&T, dial *3282# (*DATA#).
For Verizon, dial #3282 (#DATA).
For T-Mobile, dial #932# (#WEB#).
You can also check how much data you use per month through your online account with your service provider.
Streaming TV shows and movies utilizes much more data than social media sites and even streaming Youtube videos. This is because the total bandwidth used to stream video is much greater than other apps. If you stream a lot of TV and movies while away from wifi, expect to use much more data and possibly face throttling or deprioritization.
The faster a website loads, the less data it uses. Depending on what browser you use on your mobile phone, you may be using more data than you realize. Research shows that Apple’s Safari browser is both the slowest and uses the most data, while Puffin is the fastest and uses the least.
AT&T created a data calculator based on average file sizes to allow people to calculate what they use their data on.
Prioritizing the price per GB among phone plans is the quickest way to find the best deal. For example, Mint Mobile offers a 5GB plan for $15 per month, which equals $3 per GB. They also offer a 15GB plan for $20 per month, which is $0.75 per GB. Both plans offer similar features, such as unlimited data at slow speeds after using your initial allotment.
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are the most common phone providers – and often the most expensive.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are the three national carriers, as they own infrastructure, or cell phone towers, across the entire country. T-Mobile merged with the fourth biggest network, Sprint, in 2020, which combined their infrastructure. T-Mobile discontinued Sprint in August of 2020, with all infrastructure and network coverage within the company moving to T-Mobile. Plans with the big three often include more features and offer postpaid options.
Phone plans on the three major networks are more expensive than MVNO plans, as priority coverage is given to those users.
MVNOs offer cheaper plans with coverage on the big three networks, but with limited data plans and slower speeds.
MVNOs buy access to service from one or more of the three major networks – or even smaller networks, as long as they have infrastructure – at a wholesale price, then sell it to consumers at a discounted price. MVNOs are completely virtual, meaning they don’t build their own network and they operate virtually on networks built by the big 3. When you buy a plan from an MVNO, you will still receive coverage from one of the major carriers for a much more affordable price. Several MVNOs also offer service from multiple networks, and customers can choose what network they want to use when they sign up.
MVNOs also offer bulk pricing, where customers can buy service for several months at a time. These plans often include reduced rates. For example, Red Pocket Mobile – a MVNO that utilizes service from all three major networks – offers an annual plan of 25 GB of data for $30 per month, or $360 per year.
However, several MVNOs don’t offer unlimited data plans. Most plans have a set data amount, ranging from 1 GB up to 50 GB and more. Data from an MVNO is also deprioritized, while data directly from a major network will have faster speeds.
MVNOs are also known to have lower quality customer service and less features included with their plans.
AT&T’s MVNOs include:
T-Mobile, since they merged with Sprint in 2020, has the largest number of MVNOs. Their most well known MVNOs are Boost Mobile, which also uses AT&T’s network, and Mint Mobile.
Their other MVNOs include:
As your phone ages, you may notice decreased internet speeds. Several factors may cause these problems, but many of them are fixable.
An older model’s incapabilities may make you decide to get a new phone, but older phones can be fixed.
Newer phones come with more internal storage.
Older phone models are built with less internal storage than newer models. For example, the iPhone 8 base storage increased from 32GB to 64GB, and later the iPhone 13 base storage increased to 128GB. All newer models have at least 128GB as base storage.
Older phones eventually stop receiving software updates from their companies.
Depending on your phone model, you may have stopped receiving software updates. For example, iPhone 6 and older no longer receive updates. These old models also do not have access to newer versions of Apple’s latest operating systems, such as iOS 16. Without the latest updates, your phone may run much slower than newer models. If this is the case, you may want to invest in a new phone.
Phone battery quality diminishes over time, making their lifespan limited.
Your phone’s amount of charge it can hold will diminish over time, which means it’ll need to be charged more often, according to Apple. All phones use lithium ion batteries, which means all phones eventually face this issue. As a phone battery ages, the peak power a phone can use decreases, which makes it work slower as well.
Luckily, there are several ways to increase your phone’s speeds.
Deleting apps, photos, videos and background activity or returning your phone to factory settings can help speed up your phone.
Your phone speed can be severely slowed down if your storage space is too full. Checking your storage lets you know what’s taking up the most storage, as well as what apps use the most storage. Depending on your model and operating system, directions may vary slightly.
To check your storage space on an Android, go to Settings, then “Device Care”. Then, click “Storage”.
On an iPhone, go to Settings, then “General”, then “iPhone Storage”.
Once you know how much storage you’re using, deleting apps, photos, videos or messages can help open up more storage and speed up your phone.
Resetting your phone can also help with speed issues, as well as updating to the latest software.
A locked phone contains a software code that prevents you from using the phone on another network other than the network that sold and activated the device. Choosing a locked phone means signing a long term contract and limited choices of phone types and plans. This means you are unable to use other networks as long as your phone is locked. However, a user with a locked phone can roam on other networks. A user with a locked phone cannot swap SIM cards or switch networks while using it, which means your phone will need to be unlocked. An unlocked phone can be used with any provider and any network, which allows you to switch providers much easier.
There are several methods you can use.
Method #1 for iPhones:
Go to Settings then Cellular. If you see “Cellular Data” under the Cellular menu, you have an unlocked phone. If you don’t see this, your phone is locked.
Go to Settings, then Connections. Select Networks, then Networks Operators. If any available networks appear, the phone is unlocked. If one result appears, or the Search Networks option is unavailable entirely, the phone is locked.
You can also check whether your phone is locked by switching SIM cards. First, you must have two separate SIM cards for the same phone type from separate carriers. For example, if you have an iPhone, you’ll need a SIM card that's size compatible with an iPhone.
First, turn off your phone’s power, then open your phone’s SIM card slot with a removal tool. You can also use a paperclip. Next, remove the phone’s SIM card and replace it with the other card from a different carrier. Then turn on the power again. You’ll see that the provider’s name at the top of the screen changed. Call someone with your new SIM card in. If the call goes through, the phone is unlocked. If the call does not go through, you’ll likely see a message on your screen stating that the phone is locked.
If your phone is from AT&T, submit an unlock request.
If your phone is from Verizon, your phone will unlock automatically after 60 days.
T-Mobile has several requirements you must meet to unlock your phone. On a postpaid plan, your device must be active for 40 days, your device payments must be paid in full if it’s leased through T-Mobile, and the account balance must be zero if the device is associated with a cancelled account. On a prepaid plan, 365 days must have passed since the device was activated with T-Mobile. If the device was activated less than a year ago, the account associated with the device must have more than $100 in payment refills for each line, and 14 days must pass since the device’s purchase. No more than 2 device unlocks can be completed in a year. T-Mobile may also request proof of purchase.
Once these are reached, T-Mobile will unlock your phone automatically if your device is compatible.
Several providers offer a free phone when you switch to one of their plans from a different network. If you trade in your current phone, several providers will allow you to upgrade to the newest smartphone models – including the latest iPhone.
Some providers will advertise that they give you a “free” phone when you switch to their network, but you will be made to purchase the phone on an extended payment plan.
Depending on your area, cell phone providers may not have sufficient coverage. This could lead to dropped calls and slow internet speeds. This is especially important in rural parts of the country, as coverage can be a lot weaker in these areas.
Coverage always comes from one of the major networks, whether your plan comes from an MVNO or not. Coverage maps allow you to compare data coverage in your local area.
A phone line is a single cell phone with a phone number. Some cell phone plans only offer one line, but others include several as a group or family plan. In some cases, a tablet or a mobile hotspot can be added as a line to the plan. Family plans are also cheaper than single line plans, and the discount steepends with each line added.
Providers often showcase their best per line price rate, usually around $30 to $45 a month. However, phone plans are often a lot more expensive than this. A plan at this rate usually includes at least four to five different lines on the plan, and does not include taxes or fees.
AT&T’s Unlimited Premium Plan – which they name their best plan – costs $85 per month for one line. The same plan costs $50 per line per month with 4 lines.
So, if you’re looking to save extra cash, share a phone plan with friends, roommates or family members to save hundreds per year.
A hotspot is a wireless access point that allows you to connect your phones, tablets, computers, and other devices to the internet when you don’t have access to WiFi. Some plans include a hot spot, while others allow you to add one to the plan for an additional fee. Providers often limit the amount of data you can use on the hotspot, ranging from 15GB to over 100GB. Once you reach the cap, the hot spot’s speed will slow down. However, using the hotspot after reaching the cap won’t lead to extra charges unless you go over your data cap on your entire phone plan.
With a prepaid plan, you pay at the beginning of the month and often come with more perks than a postpaid plan. A postpaid plan is paid at the end of the month, and the provider often requires a specific credit score to sign up. MVNOs mainly provide prepaid plans. For example, Mint Mobile, Visible, and Boost Mobile only offer prepaid plans. Postpaid plans often require you to sign a long term contract, though contracts are becoming more uncommon. Postpaid contracts are also most often with unlimited data plans, such as Verizon’s Welcome Unlimited plan. However, Boost Infinite only offers a postpaid plan.
Some providers offer free additional months of service when you buy a plan. This is most common with prepaid plans. For example, AT&T offers 2 free months of service when you sign up for their AT&T prepaid plan. Mint Mobile, which first started this practice, offers 6 months of free service when you buy a new phone and a six month plan.
Phone plans allow you to stream video with quality ranging from a measly 480p to a high-quality 4k. The standard streaming quality is 720p. The streaming quality decreases during deprioritization.
Data roaming occurs when your phone leaves your primary network and connects with a different network to continue providing coverage. Almost all carriers have a roaming agreement, but roaming only occurs in areas where your provider doesn’t have connection, like a rural community. While a user with a locked phone cannot switch their plan to other networks, they can roam on other networks if their carrier has a roaming agreement. Roaming also includes Canada and Mexico.
Some plans include international benefits to allow you to call, text and use data outside of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, while others allow you international coverage with an additional daily fee. Providers also offer separate international plans for traveling. For example, AT&T offers an International Day Pass, which allows users to stay connected for $10 per day in over 210 countries.
Your provider may require you to sign a contract, which makes it much more difficult to get out of the plan for any reason. Several providers offer plans that don’t require a contract, allowing you to change your plan if needed. If you choose a postpaid plan, however, you will most likely need to sign a contract, since you receive the features and data of the plan before paying for it. Most MVNOs, like Straight Talk, only offer no contract plans. However, Mint Mobile offers 3 month, 6 month, and 12 month contracts, even though their plans are prepaid.
Providers often partner with streaming platforms to include a free or extremely cheap streaming subscription. These deals often include the most basic streaming plan, and the subscription often lasts for a limited time – usually about 6 months to a year – before becoming a regularly priced subscription. For example, T-Mobile will offer a free Netflix Basic Plan – which includes standard-definition streaming (480p) on one screen at a time – for Magenta Plans with two or more lines. A Magenta MAX plan with at least one line will get you a Netflix Standard plan, which includes HD streaming (720p to 1080p) and simultaneous streaming on up to two screens. The Magenta MAX plan also includes free Apple+ for no time limit. Verizon also has a prepaid unlimited plan that includes six months of free Disney+.
Are you still unsure of what plan you think would be best for you? Comparing plan features, data capabilities, and more allows you to truly understand what you want and need from a phone plan. Here, we’ll compare some of the most popular carriers and plans currently on the market.
The big three offer the most postpaid plans compared to other providers, as well as the most variety. Each carrier has several plans with both unlimited and limited data allotments to suit your specific means. In this comparison, we’ll be discussing what each carrier touts as their best plan.
No matter how much data you use, these plans will not slow down or deprioritize your data. Each plan offers unlimited premium data as well as hotspot data and 4k Ultra HD streaming. However, the hotspot data in each plan is subjected to deprioritization and slow downs after the allotted amount specified in the plan details.
Verizon’s new myPlan Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Welcome plans replace their previous six 5G plans. MyPlan Unlimited Plus is their new best plan, priced at $90 per month before their $10 Autopay discount. The plan offers unlimited premium data and 30GB of premium hotspot data. However, speeds are deprioritized after the initial 30GB. They also offer an add-on of an additional 100GB. As for its QCI, Unlimited Plus lands at tier 8.
The plan costs $45 per line after 4 lines with the included Autopay discount. Image courtesy of Verizon.
The plan also features free talk, text, and data for Mexico and Canada. International texting is also available for free, but talk and data are add-ons for an additional fee. Adding a smart watch, cloud storage, Disney+ subscription, Apple Music subscription, Apple TV+ subscription, Apple One membership, or a Walmart+ membership are all add-ons that can be added to the plan for an additional fee. Each add on bundle is $10 per month.
AT&T’s Unlimited Premium plan first launched in 2022, costing $95 per month before their $10 Autopay discount. The plan offers unlimited premium data as well as 50GB of premium hotspot data. After 50GB, data is slowed to 128 kbps. The plan also offers free talk, text, and data to Mexico and Canada. However, they only offer international texting included. International talk and data requires purchasing an additional add-on. Its QCI tier is 7.
While the plan doesn’t offer any streaming service perks, AT&T offers their scam protection service — AT&T Active Armor — included. Smartphones and tablets can also be added to the plan for an additional $10-$20 per month. AT&T also offers an add-on for cloud storage.
T-Mobile’s GO5G Plus plan first released in April of 2023, giving users more hotspot and international data. As one of their newest plans, GO5G Plus is priced at $95 per month before their $5 Autopay discount. The plan offers unlimited premium data and 50GB of premium hotspot data. After 50GB, hotspot data is deprioritized. Its QCI tier is 6 – the highest tier out of all 3 plans.
The plan also features free talk, text and data in Mexico and Canada. The plan also provides international texting and 15GB of international data. However, international calling is pay-per-minute. The plan also includes Netflix and Apple TV+. However, the Netflix plan you get depends on how many lines your plan includes. If you have one line, you get Netflix Basic, while those with two or more lines get Netflix Standard. Spam protection, called Scam Shield Premium, is also included. Smartwatches and tablets can be included for an additional fee of $10-$20 per month. The plan also includes in-flight Wi-Fi, unlimited texting and streaming on eligible flights, as well as a free year of AAA.
With the amount of features the plan includes as well as the price compared to other two plans, T-Mobile’s GO5G Plus plan will give you the most bang for your buck. However, the other two plans also have their benefits with the unlimited premium data.
While the big three each offer their own prepaid plan options, MVNOs often specialize in prepaid plans specifically. Several of the most popular MVNOs, such as Boost Mobile and Consumer Cellular, only offer prepaid plans.
Boost Mobile and Consumer Cellular are both MVNOs that use the AT&T and T-Mobile networks to provide coverage for their customers – meaning you’d get similar coverage no matter which carrier you choose. However, that doesn’t mean they offer the same features.
With Consumer Cellular, you’ll get 50GB of full speed data. After the first 50GB, you’ll have connections up to 128 kbps, which is at 2G speeds. Sending text messages and emails will be much more difficult without WiFi. Your entire plan can be used as hotspot data, but data stops at 50GB. Any international texting as well as talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada is pay per use. An add on is available for international talk and data.
The plan is $55 per month before the $5 Autopay discount.
Boost Mobile offers 30GB of full speed data, then slows data to 3G speeds after. This allows you to send texts, send emails, and browse social media. However, streaming videos and playing games will be much slower. You can use all plan data as hotspot data, but the network stops allowing you to after 30GB. The plan is $35 per month before the $10 Autopay discount, and allows you to stream at 480p SD resolution. You can also buy an add on for text, talk and data roaming in Canada and Mexico.
Currently, Boost Mobile is running an offer where you can receive their Unlimited plan for half off the first month.
As Boost Mobile’s data caps are much faster than Consumer Cellulars, Boost Mobile is the better deal between the two of them. And since Boost Mobile currently offers the first month of service at half the price – $12.50 – it will be a much better deal.
With so many options available, finding the best cell phone plan can be a daunting task. But by identifying your needs, comparing plans and providers, and understanding the fine print, you can choose a plan that suits your budget and usage habits. If you need help comparing which plan suits your needs better, really.com allows you to compare phone plans based on your area and your needs. With the right plan, you can stay connected without breaking the bank.