New School Year, New Ways to Save
Whether you're an 18-year-old heading off to college or a parent sending your teen to high school, the ins and outs of picking a wireless carrier and smartphone plan can seem needlessly complex. But carriers know that heading back to school in the fall is prime time for teens and parents to re-evaluate cellphone plans, and they really want your business.
There are three options when it comes to picking the best cellphone plan as a student or for a student: a prepaid plan from a budget wireless carrier, a post-paid individual plan from one of the big four carriers, or adding a line to a family plan to reduce the costs for everyone.
Family plans once forced everyone on the plan to share from a limited bucket of data, but carriers are now focusing on unlimited data plans. That means everyone on the plan gets unlimited data — though your speeds could slow if you go over a set amount during a month — and that often makes them the best choice if a data-hungry student is joining your cellphone plan. Students going it alone can get their own unlimited data plan or select a cheaper, smaller data bucket, depending on how often they use your phone.
Here are the best student cellphone plans you can sign up for right now.
Plan: 6GB of LTE data with unlimited talk and text
Price: $40/month (prepaid)
Phone selection: 32 mostly low-cost models from brands like Samsung, LG, Alcatel and Motorola, as well as exclusive phones like the new $130 ZTE Blade Z Max. You can also bring your own phone.
Coverage: MetroPCS uses the network of its parent company T-Mobile, which is consistently ranked one of the best in the U.S. According to OpenSignal's most recent report, T-Mobile's network is the fastest and offers the most widespread 4G availability of the big four carriers. T-Mobile prioritizes its own traffic over MetroPCS's, but we didn't notice a drop-off in speed when we tested 4G networks.
Perks: T-Mobile's network is a huge plus, but MetroPCS also offers some advantages of its own. A Data Maximizer feature allows you to dial down the resolution on streaming video so you don't blow through your allotted amount. You can also stream music from Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio without it counting toward your 6GB cap. You can turn your phone into a hotspot if Wi-Fi in the dorm or coffee shop is spotty.
Drawbacks: MetroPCS's customer service leaves a lot to be desired, ranking seventh out of nine wireless carriers in our test earlier this year. If you need tech support, reaching a rep by phone or social media could take awhile. MetroPCS's $40 plan normally offers 3GB of data, so this 6GB offer could disappear.
MetroPCS's plan is best for college students who stream a lot of music but don't use their phone as their main internet connection. Being able to turn the device into an LTE hotspot is a compelling feature — you never know when the Wi-Fi will cut out just as you're cramming for a quiz.
Plan: 2GB of LTE data with unlimited talk and textPrice: $30/month (prepaid)
Phone selection: You won't find the latest flagships here, but you will find some solid older Android phones, like Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge, Google's Nexus 6P and the Moto Z.
Coverage: Republic Wireless's big selling point is its use of Wi-Fi to keep your data usage low. Republic will default to Wi-Fi whenever possible. In the event it can't find a Wi-Fi network to join, Republic will rely on Sprint and T-Mobile's networks. T-Mobile's LTE coverage is ranked among the best in the country, while Sprint's is improving.
Perks: Republic blends Wi-Fi and cell coverage to provide the best reception and save you from data overages. You can also use your phone as a hotspot, and Republic gets bonus points for its online technical support. Unlike other discount carriers that can place limits on the number of texts you send each month, texting is unlimited at Republic.
Drawbacks: There aren't many phones to choose from when it comes to Android devices, and Republic doesn't offer iPhones at all. Some customers say the handoff between Wi-Fi and cellular isn't always a smooth one. This plan is best for price-conscious college students who live on campus where Wi-Fi is free and plentiful.
Plan: Unlimited talk, text and data
Price: $50/month (promotional pricing that lasts until Sept. 30, 2018, also reflects a discount for enrolling in Sprint's autopay program)
Phone selection: You can get the newest Android flagships, like Samsung's Galaxy S8 and S8+, as well as the latest iPhones, in addition to budget devices. You can also bring your own phone.
Coverage: Sprint's 4G coverage is… not great compared to other major carriers. But, it's getting better. OpenSignal's most recent report says Sprint's LTE speeds have improved and its 4G availability is improving.
Perks: You can use your phone as a hotspot and tether for up to 10GB a month.
Drawbacks: Sprint's network. That $50 price reverts to $60 after Sept. 30, 2018, when Sprint's pricing promotion ends.
Unlimited data and 10GB of tethering every month: What's not to love? Students on this plan won't have to keep an eye on their data usage while trying to make it through classes on no sleep. Sprint is also offering a steal of a deal for families: unlimited data across four lines for $90 through September 2018 (the plan goes back up to $160 per month after that).
Plan: T-Mobile One with unlimited talk, text and data for a family of four
Price: $160/month (includes autopay discount)
Phone selection: 35 phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, LG G6, and several refurbished, pre-owned flagships (if you want to keep your up-front costs low).
Coverage: Excellent. T-Mobile ranks among the best wireless carriers for speed and 4G availability, and just surpassed Verizon for the top spot in Open Signal's rankings, though RootMetrics doesn't rate T-Mobile highly. (T-Mobile and Verizon are typically neck and neck in terms of availability.)
Perks: Unlimited texting and 2G data in more than 140 countries — good for students who go abroad — unlimited hotspot use, and great coverage.
Drawbacks: Hotspot data is capped at 3G speeds and streaming video is restricted to standard-definition 480p, unless you pay an extra $10 a month per line.
This plan is best for parents who want their students on a reliable network with good coverage. For students, it's a great deal — even if they have to chip in, that's only $40 a month. For more perks, like free in-flight Wi-Fi and 10GB of LTE hotspot data, you can bump up to T-Mobile's One Plus plan for an extra $10 per month per line.
Plan: Family plan with unlimited talk, text and data for 4 lines
Price: $180/month (includes autopay discount)
Phone selection: 34 smartphones, including the latest from Apple, Samsung, Motorola, LG, and even Google, which offers its Pixel through Verizon exclusively.
Coverage: Verizon's network is incredibly reliable, ranking at the top or close to it for 4G availability and speed.
Perks: 10GB of LTE hotspot data, HD streaming video, a pre-loaded NFL Mobile app that allows you to watch local and prime-time football games, and an international plan called TravelPass that lets you use your normal plan for $2 a day when traveling to Mexico or Canada.
Drawbacks: Verizon charges you $30 every time you upgrade to a new device. Sprint and T-Mobile offer cheaper options.
Verizon's family plan isn't the cheapest around, but when it comes to network reliability and a wide variety of phones to choose from, it's a solid option with plenty of perks. This plan is best for families who don't want to think too much about mixing and matching plans or hunting for deals.
You can snag two prepaid family plans with unlimited data at a discount that is, quite frankly, bananas.
MetroPCS is currently letting users add a second line to its $50-a-month unlimited data for $25 per month, while Boost Mobile is offering four lines with unlimited data for $25 apiece — $100 a month total for a family plan.
That Boost deal lasts through Sept. 7 and is only for new customers switching from Cricket or MetroPCS.
But be careful: Boost's deal may sound better, but its coverage on Sprint's network isn't as widespread or reliable as MetroPCS, which relies on T-Mobile's network.