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Best cell phone plans in 2021: The best options for your monthly smartphone service

best cell phone plans
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

A new year could be the right time to jump to one of the best cell phone plans, especially if you're picking up a new phone any time soon. You certainly have plenty of new phones to switch to these days, whether it's Apple's latest iPhone 12 models or the Galaxy S21 that's coming later this month.

But even if you're sticking with your current phone, you should review what you're paying for wireless coverage. Phone carriers are constantly reshuffling their offerings, and a better plan may already be available from the company that provides service to your smartphone.

A lot of criteria goes into finding the best cell phone plan to fit your needs. 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 area where you’ll use your phone the most. With Sprint now completely absorbed by T-Mobile, there's been a further shake-up of cell phone plan prices.

To make the decision easier, we’ve gone through each carriers’ plans to figure out which one is the best cell phone plan for your particular needs.

What are the best cell phone plans?

As you’ll see, there’s no one-size-fits-all for cell phone plans. All the different wireless providers have different options for both individual users and families, and there’s different tiers of data as well (though these days, the Big Four carriers are emphasizing unlimited data plans). We take a deeper look at the different options for the best family cell phone plan, best unlimited data plan for individuals and best prepaid phone plans elsewhere, but here’s our summary of the best cell phone plans overall.

T-Mobile's Magenta unlimited data plan is the best family plan, offering better value than what you'll find at AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile's $70 plan is also the best unlimited data plan for individuals, though you can get a bare-bones unlimited data plan from T-Mobile for $10 less. 

If you don't find yourself using much data these days, T-Mobile's new T-Mobile Connect plan lets you spend just $15 a month for 2GB of data. But if you'd prefer a plan without as many restrictions, Verizon offers a more compelling individual cell phone plan, costing $55 a month for 5GB. 

Prepaid customers should take advantage of Verizon's supersized prepaid plans, which deliver 15GB of data for $45 a month and include loyalty discounts the longer you stick with the carrier. Visible's discounts on multiple lines of unlimited data should appeal to families looking for a low-cost plan. And Metro by T-Mobile offers the best unlimited plan for individual prepaid customers.

The best cell phone plans

best cell phone plans: T-mobile family plan

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

1. T-Mobile Family Plan

Best cell phone plan for families

Name of Plan: T-Mobile Magenta | Monthly Cost: $160 (for 4 lines of data) | Amount of Data: Unlimited | Special Features: 3GB of LTE hotspot data; 480p video streaming; Netflix included

Attractive perks
Affordable price
5G coverage included
Can’t mix-and-match unlimited plans
HD video streaming costs extra

Even as carriers offer multiple tiers of unlimited data plans, T-Mobile Magenta is still the best choice for families. It gives a family of four unlimited data for $160 a month, though occasional discounts to additional lines sometimes lower that cost. As of this writing, T-Mobile is waiving the $20 monthly cost of a third line of data, bringing the total bill for a family of four down to $140.

We wish T-Mobile let you stream HD video as part of its Magenta plan, but for most users, 480p video on a smartphone-sized screen will be good enough. (Families can pay an extra $10 per month per line for Magenta Plus if they really want HD streaming.) T-Mobile’s Magenta plan includes other nice perks like LTE hotspot data and a free Netflix subscription if you have two lines or more on your plan.

T-Mobile's network delivers comparable performance to Verizon, which charges more for its best unlimited plan. Verizon does let you mix and match its different unlimited offerings, though, and its best option — the Play More plan — now bundles in Disney Plus, Hulu (with ads) and ESPN Plus on top of your wireless services; it just added a year's worth of Discovery Plus, too.

best cell phone plans: T-mobile unlimited plan

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

2. T-Mobile Unlimited Plan

Best cell phone plan with unlimited data

Name of Plan: T-Mobile Magenta | Monthly Cost: $70 | Amount of Data: Unlimited | Special Features: 3GB of LTE hotspot data; 480p video streaming; Unlimited 2G data overseas

Attractive perks
Affordable price
5G coverage included
HD video streaming costs extra

All four major carriers offer different tiers of unlimited data plans. We think T-Mobile's $70 option provides the best mix of value and performance. 

AT&T's entry-level unlimited plan costs $5 less each month, but carries too many restrictions, though it now includes 5G access. (If you don't mind restrictions, T-Mobile Essentials is cheaper still at $60 a month/) 

T-Mobile Magenta features a good price on a strong network, and if you want to upgrade from 480p video streaming to HD, it's just $15 more per month for individuals; if HD streaming is what you prize, though, consider Verizon's $80-a-month Play More plan, which also includes an Apple Music subscription along with 720p video support.

best cell phone plans: verizon tiered data plan

(Image credit: Verizon)

3. Verizon 5GB Plan

Best cell phone plan with tiered data

Name of Plan: Verizon 5 | Monthly Cost: $55 | Amount of Data: 5GB | Special Features: Carryover data; Safety mode

Safety mode prevents data overages
Affordable plan if you don’t need unlimited data
Unused data carries over
No 5G coverage

While wireless carriers are pushing unlimited data plans these days, not everyone needs to pay for that much data. If you don’t do a lot of video streaming, 5GB of LTE data is more than enough to get you through each month, while keeping your monthly cell phone bill down.

Verizon is one of the few wireless carriers to still offer tiered data, and its Verizon 5 plan offers the most data at a discount from one of its pricier unlimited plans. AT&T offers more data with its 9GB Mobile Share plan, but that plan will set you back $60 a month; Verizon’s plan costs $55 after a $5 autopay discount. If you need to double your data at Verizon, the 10GB tiered plan costs $65, though that's bumping up against the cost of one of Verizon's unlimited plans.

If you’re worried about data overages, Verizon offers a Safety Mode, which lets you slow down data speeds after you use up your 5GB allotment, without incurring any charges. Unused data gets carried over to the next month under Verizon’s tiered data plan. 

best phone plans: Verizon prepaid plan

(Image credit: Verizon)

4. Verizon Prepaid Plan

Best prepaid data plan

Name of Plan: Verizon 15GB Prepaid Plan | Monthly Cost: $45 | Amount of Data: 15GB | Special features: Additional discounts the longer you stay with plan

Lots of data under current promotion
LTE hotspot data
Speeds can be throttled if Verizon’s network is congested

Verizon's regular $45-a-month prepaid plan used to get you a decent amount of LTE data — 8GB. But now that's swelled to 15GB, which is a tremendous amount of data. (Alas, you used to get 16GB with this plan, but Verizon adjusted it downward.)

The $45 rate reflects a $5 autopay discount, but Verizon's prepaid discounts don't stop there. Hold onto your Verizon prepaid plan for three months and you'll save another $5. At nine months, Verizon takes off an additional $5. That means in 10 months, you're paying $35 a month for the same 15GB of data. Bring your phone number to Verizon's prepaid service, and you also qualify for a one-time $60 rebate from the carrier in a current promotion.

The advantage to going with Verizon’s prepaid service is you benefit from the carrier’s extensive LTE network, which outperformed others in our last round of testing to see who had the fastest wireless network. Prepaid customers will see their speeds slowed down if Verizon’s network gets congested, though.

Should Verizon tinker further with the size of its data allotment, AT&T just came out with a prepaid plan that matches the 15GB Verizon offers but for $5 less each month. As nice a price as AT&T's $40 plan is, though, you won't receive the discounts that Verizon offers over time.

best cell phone plans: Metro by T-Mobile

(Image credit: Metro by T-Mobile)

5. Metro by T-Mobile Unlimited Prepaid Plan

Best prepaid plan with unlimited data

Name of Plan: Metro by T-Mobile Unlimited Plan | Monthly Cost: $50 | Amount of Data: Unlimited | Special features: 5GB of LTE hotspot data, 100GB of Google One storage

Hotspot data and cloud storage included
Works on T-Mobile's network
Includes 5G coverage
More expensive than other prepaid unlimited data plans
Video resolution capped at 480p

Metro by T-Mobile offers the best choice for prepaid customers who want the most data possible. Metro's plan costs $50, and in addition to unlimited data, you get 5GB of hotspot data and 100GB of cloud storage via Google. What's more, since Metro uses T-Mobile's network, you have access to 5G coverage at no additional cost, provided you're using a 5G-ready phone.

Visible and Mint offer better priced unlimited plans, though Visible lacks Metro's perks and Mint requires you to commit to a year of service for its best price. We think that makes Metro the more appealing option if you want unlimited data without any long-term commitments.

best cell phone plans: T-Mobile connect plan

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

6. T-Mobile Connect

Best cell phone plan under $30

Name of Plan: T-Mobile Connect Plan | Monthly Cost: $15 | Amount of Data: 2GB | Special features: Plans grows by 500MB every year

T-Mobile adds 500MB of data to allotment annually
Low cost
Once you hit 2GB cap, you're out of data

We won't really know the true impact of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger for years. But one short-term effect has already seen T-Mobile introduce one of the best cell phone plans for under $30. The T-Mobile Connect plan, launched right before T-Mobile completed its merger with Sprint, gives you 2GB of data each month for just $15.

Need more data than 2GB? Upgrade to the 5GB T-Mobile Connect option for $25 a month.

There's a big limitation to T-Mobile Connect plan, as you might imagine. Once you use up your 2GB (or your 5GB), you're out of data for the rest of the billing cycle. Many rival plans simply slow your speeds when you hit your monthly limit.

At least your data pool gets larger over time. T-Mobile says it will add 500MB every year for five years while keeping that $15 price the same.

best phone plans: visible family plan

(Image credit: Visible)

7. Visible Plan

Best prepaid plan for families

Name of Plan: Visible Party Pay | Monthly Cost: $100 (for 4 lines of data) | Amount of Data: Unlimited | Special features: Hotspot data

Uses Verizon’s network
No caps on speed
Speeds can be throttled when network is congested

Visible, the Verizon-owned prepaid service, beats Metro by T-Mobile and Boost Mobile at their own game by offering very attractive discounts when you add multiple lines. 

Visible has just one option — an unlimited data plan for $40 a month — and adding a second line reduces the per-line cost to $35 each. Four lines of unlimited data cost $25 each for a total of $100 a month — $40 less than what four lines of unlimited data cost at Metro and Boost. Best of all, Visible doesn't cap data speeds at present, so you get the full benefit of Verizon's top-performing network. (Your speeds may be slowed if Verizon’s network is congested, but that’s common to all prepaid networks that use another carrier’s service.) Visible has now added 5G service, though it's limited to iPhone 12 users at the moment.

Visible offers a wide range of phones — both iPhone and leading Android models. But if you’re happy with the phone you have, you always bring it over to Visible, provided that the phone’s compatible with the company’s service. (That applies to the iPhone 6 or later, plus a number of recent phones from Samsung, Google, LG, OnePlus and Motorola.)

Best cell phone plans: Google Fi international plan

(Image credit: Google Fi)

8. Google Fi Unlimited Plan

Best cell phone plan for international travel

Name of Plan: Fi Unlimited | Monthly Cost: $70 | Amount of Data: Unlimited | Special features: Uses service from multiple carriers; Free texting and data when traveling

Great international coverage
Supports a wider variety of phones
Optimized features limited to select phones
Cheaper plans available elsewhere

Sign up for Google Fi, the wireless service from Google, and you need never worry about running out of data when you're overseas. The carrier offers a $70 unlimited plan that covers all of your talk, text and data needs and compares favorably to T-Mobile's best plan, at least for individuals. (Families should look beyond Google Fi for coverage; the multiline discounts aren't as generous.) Don't need all that data? Google Fi's tiered plans cost $20 a month for talk and text, plus $10 for each gigabyte of data you use (or, in other words, $1 for every 100MB).

When you travel, Google Fi lets you draw from your regular high-speed data in more than 200 countries with no roaming charges. Unlimited international texting comes with every plan and calls cost just 20 cents a minute — unless they’re over WiFi, in which case they’re free. Google Fi used to be limited to a handful of select Android devices, but now you can use it with just about any phone, including iPhones. (Fi-certified devices such as the Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 still enjoy some advantages, though, like the ability to switch seamlessly between T-Mobile/Sprint and US Cellular towers for the best signal at any given time.) 

If you'd prefer a different carrier, T-Mobile remains a strong contender for the best international phone plan, letting T-Mobile One subscribers use data in more than 210 countries, though at 2G speeds. You can talk and text for free in Canada and Mexico, though T-Mobile limits you to 5GB of LTE data in those countries. (Be aware that the carrier's lower cost T-Mobile Essentials unlimited plan doesn't include these international perks.) 

How to choose the best cell phone plan for you

Price is a big consideration when looking for the best cell phone plans, especially if you’re getting more than one line for other members of your family. Most carriers offer escalating discounts as you add lines, so you’ll want to compare the total cost of your plan based on the number of lines that require service.

Cell phone plans are about more than just the amount on your bill each month, though. You also need to consider who offers the best coverage in your area and whether they support the phone you’ll want to use. Our guide to the best phone carriers can answer some of those questions, but you’ll also want to ask friends, neighbors and co-workers about how a specific carrier’s coverage is at your home and office, if you’re looking to switch wireless providers.

Speaking of switching carriers, the major carriers are all willing to pick up some of the cost to get you to switch. These promotions can vary over time, so we'd suggest keeping an eye on the best wireless carrier deals when you're mulling a switch, as you could find extra ways to save money.

Wireless carriers have spent the past several years building out their 5G coverage, and if you’ve got the right 5G phone, you can benefit from faster speeds if a carrier offers 5G service in your area. T-Mobile includes 5G coverage with its Magenta Plan, and Metro By T-Mobile customers with unlimited plans can also access T-Mobile's 5G towers with a compatible smartphone. AT&T had required you to sign up for its most expensive unlimited data plan options for 5G, but now any unlimited plan qualifies for coverage. Verizon includes 5G coverage in three of its four unlimited plans currently, but the cheapest plan, Start Unlimited, costs an extra $10 per month on top of the regular $70 rate if you also want 5G coverage.