Finding the right cellular plan to fit your needs is tricky. Beyond just dollars and cents, you need to consider which phones are supported by which wireless carriers and what coverage and data speeds are like in the areas where you'll be using your phone the most. Throw in carriers' continual changes in their plans, and it's a recipe for confusion.
To help make your decision easier, we looked at the plans from the four major carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — as well as offerings from five prepaid carriers — Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile. We broke things down into six different kinds of plans, for individuals, families and prepaid customers. To arrive at our choices, we considered pricing, value, network coverage and performance.
For performance, we looked at our own test results in six cities, along with reports from firms that specialize in network testing. In some cases, total savings on one carrier's plan outweighed the performance edge that another carrier might enjoy; in other cases, network performance was a crucial factor in our choice.
These are the best cellular plans available right now.
Best Cellphone Plans: Our Top Picks
Should You Switch?
If these are the best plans, does that mean you should drop your current carrier for one of the above plans that best covers your needs? (That assumes, of course, that the carrier we recommend provides ample coverage for your area.) Yes, but only if you can switch without consequences.
If you can't wait until your deal is up with your current carrier, both Sprint and T-Mobile offer nearly consequence-free switching alternatives. T-Mobile will compensate you for your early-termination fees (ETFs) — up to $350 each for up to five lines. If you still owe money on your old phone, you can pay it off yourself and T-Mobile will reimburse you, or you can give it to T-Mobile and the carrier will subtract what you owe on it from the cost of your new T-Mobile phone. If you own your phone, you can sell it to finance a new phone, hand it down to someone else, or trade it in to T-Mobile, which will apply the phone's "book" value toward your new T-Mobile device.
Sprint first unveiled its "Cut Your Bill In Half" ads last year, offering give AT&T and Verizon subscribers a rate that's half of what they're currently paying. In November, Sprint extended that offer to T-Mobile customers, no doubt responding T-Mobile leap-frogging over Sprint to become the third biggest wireless carrier. The offer only applies to T-Mobile’s tiered-data Simple Choice plans — T-Mobile customers with unlimited data plans aren’t eligible — and there are a few noteworthy catches. There’s a $36 per phone activation fee, and T-Mobile switchers who go over their data limit will be throttled to 2G speeds. (AT&T and Verizon switchers are charged 1.5 cents per MB if they use more data than Sprint’s giving them.) On the bright side, Sprint says it will pay up to $650 per line to cover any switching costs in the form of a reward card; you’ll have to trade in your phone, though.
Verizon has jumped into the switch incentive game a $300 hardware reimbursement offer. Once you buy a new phone from Verizon, if you send in your old phone, you'll get $200 back plus a $100 credit on your bill processed within two to three business cycles, regardless of your old phone's actual value. That's what makes Verizon's offer so compelling, as only relatively new phones would resell for more than the $300 Verizon is offering. You're still on the hook for any early termination fees you may incur, however.