If you haven’t compared your current bill to what it might be with a new plan or service, you should do so right away. Prices have decreased while data allotments have increased, especially among the hundreds of smaller carriers that resell services from the big three, despite the recent consolidation of the four national carriers into three and the transitions from 3G networks to 4G and now 5G. However, there is almost always a catch to most deals.
While there may not be a single carrier or plan that we can suggest for everyone, we do have suggestions for some of the most prevalent needs and guidance for those with more specialized needs.
Why you should believe in us?
Since the late 1990s, I have been writing about the wireless industry. In my first guide to cell phone service, published in 1998, I compared analogue and digital cellular in great detail. For the Washington Post, CNN Money, Discovery News, PCMag, VentureBeat, and other publications, I’ve tested smartphones and cell phone plans from all the major carriers—the historic foursome of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus Nextel before that—and I currently write about tech and telecom issues for Fast Company, USA Today, and other websites, including trade publications like Light Reading and FierceTelecom. And for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, I drove more than a thousand miles from Baltimore to Atlanta in July 2021.
How we chose?
The three largest national carriers, their prepaid services, and subsidiaries were the starting point for this guide’s selection of the most popular national options. Thereafter, we added services that had received high ratings in surveys from websites like PCMag, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and J.D. Power.
Additionally, we decided to omit competitors that were only offered in certain US states. That required ignoring regional carriers like U.S. Cellular and resold cable services from companies like Comcast and Spectrum, which demand residential broadband subscriptions to receive advertised pricing or to sign up at all. Finally, we stopped offering prepaid services where exceeding any of our monthly usage caps required separate purchases of data, texts, or voice minutes.
The services that were left for us to evaluate were as follows:
- Prepaid AT&T Wireless, its programme, and its brand Baseball Wireless
- T-Mobile, its Metro by T-Mobile service, and its prepaid plan
- Prepaid services provided by Verizon Wireless under its own brand
- Visible, Straight Talk from TracFone (the reseller Verizon acquired in November 2021).
- Boost Mobile, formerly a Sprint prepaid brand and currently a T-Mobile reseller through Dish Network
- A reseller for AT&T and T-Mobile named Consumer Cellular
- Google Fi is a service offered by Google that uses T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular’s resold coverage.
- A T-Mobile reseller named Mint Mobile
For each, we calculated the costs associated with three common smartphone service bundles: a moderate use scenario requiring 3 GB of data; a scenario requiring unlimited data for the phone but with a cap of 3 GB; and a heavy use scenario requiring unlimited on-phone data plus 10 GB of mobile hotspot use. Because typical data usage has increased significantly, these totals are higher than in previous editions of this guide: NPD Group analyst Brad Akyuz informed us in March 2022 that according to the company’s research, the median monthly US smartphone cellular data usage in the fourth quarter of 2021 was 12 GB, with an average use of 17.2 GB (skewed by extreme cases).
Due to the availability of unlimited messaging and calling on all services that qualify for inclusion, we no longer consider included messages or voice minutes.
It’s impossible to grade the quality of a wireless network with a single letter: By location, coverage and performance typically vary greatly. As anyone who used T-Mobile in 2011 and is still using that carrier today can attest, they also change over time. We consulted independently conducted surveys of wireless network coverage and performance from Opensignal, PCMag, and RootMetrics to try to get the most accurate picture possible of the big three carriers (and the services that resell their networks). If the coverage to access those speeds was patchy, we were less interested in having exceptionally fast download speeds; a higher priority was having consistently reliable performance in the areas where the majority of people live, work, and travel.
Our cost estimates were based on the assumption that anyone wishing to share their LTE or 5G bandwidth for any length of time would prefer to do so at full speed rather than being forced to use 2G-like speeds as some “unlimited” plans mandate. Since using this feature can seriously drain a phone’s battery, we also assumed that most users won’t use more than 3 GB of data each month. However, we do have an intensive scenario that assumes up to 10 GB of smartphone usage per month.
Because so many of you have stated that you want to compare your options for family pricing, we also crunched the same numbers for shared-use plans for two and four lines.
We took into account any plans that offered loyalty discounts that reduced your bill over time (a new feature at Verizon Prepaid starting in the summer of 2020) or lower rates for enabling autopay or paying for a year in advance. However, transactions that required exchanging a phone or porting a number were not included in our calculations.
What else do we overlook?
We paid no attention to the phones each carrier or service sells on its own website and in its own stores because almost all US-market phones will work on any of the big three carriers. We also neglected to account for the promotions wireless providers run in conjunction with every new iPhone.
We also left out the value of media tie-in offers like T-free Mobile’s Netflix subscription with two or more lines, AT&T’s $15 HBO Max service on its $85 Unlimited Elite plan, Verizon’s inclusion of Apple Music or a package of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ on some of its unlimited plans.
Finally, because they differ by jurisdiction, we didn’t take taxes and regulatory fees into account (in my case, with a legacy T-Mobile plan, for example, these fees added up to 7.4 percent of my October 2021 bill). The only exceptions to this rule are T-Magenta Mobile’s plan and the selections at Boost and Visible, all of which include taxes in their advertised prices. However, regardless of where you live, taxes and fees should affect you equally across all of your options.
I hope you are aware of the best cellular plans. If you liked the article, please spread the word to your friends and family and leave a comment below. If you also want to know about can you read text messages on spectrum mobile, Please read our article on it.