Get the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family—and Save up to $1,000 a Year

CELL PHONE PLAN COMPARISON

Get the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family—and Save up to $1,000 a Year

We compare cell phone plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

Last updated: August 19, 2016 07:00 PM

The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices have become so convoluted, you need an accounting degree to decipher them. They continually shift prices up or down according to the number of phone lines you need and the amount of data you're purchasing. They further complicate matters with “special” short-term offers to lure customers from rivals. We’ve decided to omit most of these specials from our calculation tables because of their extremely short lifespan and their fragility (deal benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes). The good news: Some of the wilder, very short-term pricing deals seems to have abated—at least for now. And in some ways, comparison shopping has become a tiny bit less onerous.

Here’s a short rundown of the major carriers, which we update periodically. (Read our review of the best cell phone carriers to find out whether the small providers outpace the big companies.)

Sprint

Sprint is among the lowest rated carriers in our Ratings for both monthly billed service and prepaid service. But its new Unlimited Freedom plan offer seems like a tempting deal for heavy, and even moderate-data users: unlimited talk, text, and streaming video, gaming, and music at prices starting at $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each one after that (up to 10 lines). They’ve also dropped the access fees for this deal. Wow! Those prices are comparable to what the other carriers typically charge for 4 to 6 GB of 4G data per phone.

Sounds too good to be true? It is—especially if you’re heavily into gaming or streaming high-quality video. While 4G LTE data connections promise download speeds of 5 megabits per second (mbps) or more, Sprint says, in the fine print of this offer, it’s trimming download speeds for music and video streams to a maximum of 500 kilobits per second (kbps). That’s 2G, a good data speed in 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, but rather slow in today’s higher-bit-rate, higher-definition world.

Music streamers may not notice a quality drop, since most music-streaming rates—even for Pandora’s premium service—rarely go much beyond 300kbps. But if you’re planning to watch an HD episode of Game of Thrones on your new Samsung Note7 smartphone, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

For Internet gamers, the limit will be 3G speed (2mbps), which could mean fatal reaction times in fast-paced racing games like Asphalt.

On the positive side, the Sprint plan also includes 5GB of high-speed mobile hotspot usage and unlimited international text messaging at no extra cost.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile doesn't offer data-sharing cell phone plans. You have to purchase data for each phone in your household. The carrier’s plan calculator has been tweaked to present your options more clearly than before, showing you the immediate impact on your total monthly bill as you add or subtract phone lines and experiment with the data allowances for each phone. T-Mobile’s plans are only slightly cheaper than those offered by telecom behemoths Verizon and AT&T, but the carrier does have an edge for media streaming enthusiasts: Content from Spotify, Netflix, and a plethora of other popular music and video providers doesn’t count against your data allowance. Recently, the carrier lowered pricing for people buying 6GB or more of data for each phone, which means significant savings for households with four or more phone lines. For instance, the monthly rate for four phone lines using 6GB of data each dropped from $160 to $120.

AT&T

AT&T stubbornly clings to variable-rate access fees that can mislead customers into spending more money when they’re trying to save. For instance, it charges less per phone ($15 instead of $25) when you buy more than 5GB of sharable data. And that kind of pricing could lead a data-frugal family of five to pay more a month ($225) for sharing 5GB of data if they don’t have the math skills to see that splurging on a 15GB data bucket would actually lower their monthly bill to just $175. One saving grace: AT&T's customers gave it good marks in our survey for voice, text, and Web service.

Verizon

Big Red keeps things simple: It charges a flat $20 for every phone tapping into its sharable data plans. And like AT&T, it has received good marks for voice, text, and Web service in our survey. Recently, the Verizon site proclaimed its new plans offered "30 percent more data, with carryover data you can keep." Being able to roll over unused data is a good deal, though you can't save it like money in a bank. You have to "spend" it by the end of the next month. When we analyzed the plan rates, the differences amounted to paying slightly more or less money ($5 to $10 in either direction) for slightly bigger or smaller chunks of data. And sometimes that meant getting a lot less data for only slightly less money. For instance, a family of two used to pay $120 to share 12GB of data. Under the new plan, the couple would pay $110 to share just 8GB of data.

Have your own ideas on how to save on cell service?

Leave a comment below.

One bright note from the “cell war” chaos between the Big Four carriers is the appearance of no-contract plans, which separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges. This effectively gives you an interest-free loan you can pay off over about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

In our survey of about 90,000 subscribers, nearly half of the people who switched cell phone carriers in the past year saw their monthly rates drop by $20 or more, which is why, perhaps, more should consider shopping around. 

The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in our "Tips for Choosing a Plan."

—Mike Gikas

T-Mobile Simple Choice

Number of people

1GB of data per phone 

2GB of data per phone

6GB of data per phone

1

$40 (prepaid only)

$50

$65

2

NA $80

$100

3

NA

$90

$120

4

NA

$100

$120

5

NA

$110

$140

 

Sprint Unlimited

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

Unlimited data per phone  (not always at 4G speeds)

1

$40

$50 (3GB)

$60

2

$70 (1.5GB)

$85 (3GB)

$100

3

$90

$105

$130

4

$125 (1.3GB)

$140 (3GB)

$160

5

$145 (1.2GB)

$180 (4.8GB)

$190

 

AT&T Next on Mobile Share

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

NA

$55

$65 (5GB)

2

$80

$100 (2.5GB)

$130 (7.5GB)

3

$105 (0.67)

$125 (1.67GB)

$145 (5GB)

4

$150 (1.25GB)

$160 (3.75GB)

$200 (5GB)

5

$225

$175 (3GB)

$215

 

Verizon Simple Plans

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$50

$55

$70

2

$85 (1.5GB)

$90 (3GB)

$120 (6GB)

3

$105  

$130 (2.7GB)

$150 (5.3GB)

4

$140 (1.5GB)

$150

$170

5

$160 (1.2GB)

$190 (3.2GB)

$210 (4.8GB)

 

If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

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