The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices have become so convoluted, you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them. They continually shift prices up or down on their cell-phone plans 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 when we evaluate offers because of their extremely short life span and their fragility—the benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes. Here we take a look at AT&T's Next on Mobile Share Advantage; Sprint's Family Shared Plan and Unlimited Plan; T-Mobile's One; and Verizon's Simple Plans.

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.

If you're contemplating a move to another carrier, 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; check our cell phones and services buying guide for tips for choosing a plan.

No-Contract Plans

One bright note from the “cell war” chaos between the Big Four carriers, where more than 80 percent of our survey responders get their cell service, is the appearance of no-contract plans. No-contract plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges. This effectively gives you an interest-free loan for the smartphone that 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.

More good news, at least for heavy data users, is the return of unlimited data plans. These plans, which carriers started to pull when smartphones like iPhone actually started using data, can be a respite for a new wave of consumers hooked to streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. As of February 2017, all of the major carriers have unlimited plans.


Read our review of the best cell-phone carriers to find out whether small providers outpace the big companies.

AT&T Next on Mobile Share Advantage

AT&T, following the other carriers back on the trail it helped blaze, in mid-February 2017 reinstated unlimited plans on Feb. 15. The plan has already been tweaked to add 10GB of free device tethering at rates slightly lower or higher than the rates announced with the plan on Feb. 15, depending on the number of phone lines.

New and old AT&T customers can enjoy unlimited, sharable data for movies, music, video chats, and picture uploads. Pricing starts at $95 for one smartphone; the second line is $60, and additional lines are $25 each, up to 8. Customers can further reduce their bill by $5 per phone line if they sign up for automated credit-card payments and paperless billing.

The plan is pretty close in pricing to Verizon’s, except in some instances. And it's more expensive than the unlimited plans from T-Mobile and Sprint (see tables below).

Like Verizon, AT&T says it might reduce data-connection speeds for any user who consumes 22GB of data in any given billing cycle. (That's very hard to do.)

There's some more fine print. By default, AT&T will slash the quality of video streamed to customer phones to 480p. But according to the two sales associates we spoke with, you can actually turn off this data-saving feature, called Stream Saver, without paying more.

Some AT&T customers might want to skip the new offerings. First, the unlimited plans will cost households $10 to $100 more a month than the company's Mobile Share Plans, which are still available. This depends on how much sharable data you consume. Also, AT&T will charge a $25 activation fee for the unlimited plan for new and existing customers.

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone2GB of Data per Phone4GB of Data per Phone

Unlimited Plan Plus1

1

$50

$60 (3GB)

$80 (6GB)

$95

2$80

$100 (3GB)

$120 (5GB)

$155

3

$100

$120

$150 (5.3GB)

$180

4

$140 (1.5GB)

$160 (2.5GB)

$170

$205

5

$160 (1.25GB)

$180

$210 (5GB)

$230

  1. Prices exclude $5 discount per phone line for customers who sign up for automated credit-card payments and paperless billing.

Sprint Family Shared Plan and Unlimited Plan

In reaction to the recent surge in unlimited plans from competing carriers, Sprint also slashed prices on its Unlimited plan in late February.

Prices were cut by as much as 50 percent, depending on the number of phones you have. For instance, a family of five on the old unlimited plan paid $215; the family would now pay only $115 for those lines.

Also, Sprint tweaked its throttling policy. Customers can now stream video at up to 1080p HD rather than 480p under the old Unlimited plan, and stream music at 1.5 Mbps rather than 512 Kbps. Gamers can stream at 8 Mbps now rather than 2 Mbps.

Caveats? You bet. These rates end in a year (on March 31, 2018). After that, they go back to the old rates, which we’ve left for you as a comparison.

Another point of caution: For customers with traditional cellular plans, Sprint earned some of the worst customer-satisfaction scores in a survey completed by 100,000 Consumer Reports subscribers. The study asked about customer support, value, voice quality and connection, texting, internet reliability, and data service. (AT&T fared no better in the survey, and Verizon did only slightly better.)

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone2GB of Data per PhoneOld Unlimited Data per Phone (not always at 4G speeds)

New Unlimited Plan1

1

$45

$55 (3GB)

$65

$50

2

$80 (1.5GB)

$95 (3GB)

$110

$90

3

$105

$120

$145

$90
4

$145 (1.5GB)

$160 (3GB)

$180

$90
5

$170 (1.2GB)

$185 (2.4GB)

$215

$90
  1. Rates expire on March 31, 2018. After that, they go back to the old rates, according to Sprint.

T-Mobile One

T-Mobile doesn't offer data-sharing cell-phone plans. You have to purchase data separately for each phone in your household.

Recently, the carrier dropped its Simple Choice plans. These plans provided unlimited voice calls and text, among other freebies, and also allowed you to tweak your phone bill to choose how much data you fed each phone (3GB, 6GB, etc.). They have been replaced by T-Mobile One plans, which charge one fee for unlimited data, voice minutes, and texts. The price breakdown goes like this: $70 for the first line, $50 for the second line, and lines three through eight are $20 each.

These plans are more expensive than the Simple Choice plans, which didn't count streams against your data allowance from prime music and video content providers such as Spotify and Netflix. But the new rates are still better than the high-end data plans from Verizon and AT&T, and on par with the unlimited plan from Sprint.

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone 2GB of Data per Phone

Unlimited Data per Phone (not always at 4G speeds)

1

NA

NA

$70

2NA

NA

$120

3NA

NA

$140

4NA

NA

$160

5NA

NA

$180

Verizon Unlimited Plans

Big Red recently introduced an unlimited sharable data plan, replacing the larger “finite” sharable data plans (larger than 8GB) it had previously offered.

The new Unlimited plans, which replace Simple plans, appear to be a good deal for Verizon customers who use more than 4GB per line, which in itself is an ample amount of data for smartphone users to consume in a month, particularly if they take advantage of WiFi networks to conserve their data allowances.

The Verizon Unlimited plan is comparable to T-Mobile’s new T-MobileOne unlimited plan (see above), but the Verizon version is slightly more expensive. It could also prove pricier for some Verizon customers than the older plans.

For instance, under the old plan it would cost three people $140 a month to share 12GB of data (averaging 4GB per line). The new unlimited plan would cost them $160 a month. You don't have switch to an Unlimited plan.

But for other consumers, the new plan is cheaper. For instance, a family of five sharing 24GB under the old plan pays $210 a month. With the unlimited plan, the cost is $200.

But the plan isn’t quite “unlimited.”  While there’s no official data cap, in the event of network congestion, Verizon does reserve the right to deprioritize network access for any customer who uses 22GB of data during any billing cycle. You'd have to be an insomniac hooked on Netflix to burn through that kind of data.

Where Does Verizon Rank Among Carriers?
While the new Unlimited plan rates might appeal to new and existing Verizon customers, the company itself might not. In our recent survey analyzing overall satisfaction among 100,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, Verizon ranked near the bottom of providers, just above AT&T and Sprint, the lowest-ranked provider. T-Mobile surpasses its biggest competitors in our survey, while going neck-and-neck with Verizon on measurements of speed, according to outside research

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone2GB of Data per PhoneUnlimited Data per Phone1
1

NA

$55

$80

2

$75

$90

$120

3

$110 (1.3GB)

$130 (2.7GB)

$160

4

$130

$170 (Unlimited data per phone)

$180

5

$170 (1.6GB)

$200 (Unlimited data per phone)

$200
  1. After 22 GB of data usage on a line during any billing cycle Verizon might "prioritize usage behind other customers in the event of network congestion."