If you're searching for a new phone this holiday season, depending on which device you choose, you may also have to pick a new cell phone plan too. Finding the right phone plan to fit your calling, texting, and data 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 area where you’ll use your phone the most. Throw in carriers’ near-continual plan changes — including multiple tiers of unlimited plans — and it’s a recipe for confusion.
To make the decision easier, we’ve gone through each carriers’ plans to figure out which one is the best for your particular needs. Even after introducing a lower-cost, stripped-down plan, T-Mobile's T-Mobile One unlimited data offering is the best family plan; it offers better value than AT&T and Verizon (though bargain hunters may be tempted by Sprint's discounted family plan and AT&T includes a new streaming TV service with its unlimited plans). T-Mobile's $70 plan is also the best unlimited data plan for individuals, though you can now get a bare-bones unlimited data plan from the carrier for $10 less.
If saving money without compromising too much on data is the most important thing to you, Republic Wireless offers a decent amount of data for less than $20 a month, especially after tweaking what it charges for LTE data. Otherwise, Verizon offers the most compelling individual cellphone plan, costing $50 a month for 22GB. Metro by T-Mobile — the new name for the old MetroPCS service — still offers the best prepaid plans for both individuals and families thanks to a strong network and appealing perks.
Note: T-Mobile and Sprint have announced plans to merge. While major changes are unlikely until the merger goes through (and that requires regulatory approval), it could mean less aggressive pricing promotions from the two potentially future partners.
These are the best cellular plans available right now.
Best Cellphone Plans: Our Top Picks
In evaluating plans, we looked at the four major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — and what they offer. We also evaluated five discount carriers: Boost Mobile, Cricket, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin, and to help you stretch your dollar even further, we looked at plans from several smaller discount carriers. In addition to price, we considered network coverage and performance, including results from our own 4G network testing in half-a-dozen cities. In some cases, total savings on one carrier’s plan outweighed the performance edge another carrier might enjoy; other times, network performance was a deciding factor in our choice.
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, the major carriers are all willing to pick up some of the cost to get you to switch. Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all offer up to $650 for each phone you switch over to pay off your phone purchases and early termination fees; AT&T offers a $100 bill credit for switching over plus $200 for trading in an eligible smartphone. Note that this money will come in the form of prepaid gift cards and that every carrier requires you to trade in your existing phone.
Before you decide whether to switch your cellphone plan, make sure to check carriers’ websites for any special offers. In recent years, carriers have gotten aggressive in trying to lure new customers, and that figures to continue into 2018, with switching deals popping up from time to time.
As of this writing, Sprint still offers a particularly attractive incentive to leave your current carrier behind: It will give you free unlimited data for the next year, though you're still on the hook for taxes and fees. After March 31, 2020, your bill reverts to Sprint's standard rate for unlimited data, which is listed as $60 for a single line. The big caveat: You need to bring over an eligible phone to qualify for free data. (Since the deal is geared toward AT&T and Verizon customers, there's a better chance your phone is eligible if it came from those carriers.) The offer is listed as a limited-time deal, but Sprint has kept it around for more than a year now.