The Big Four cell carriers’ pricing practices can be so convoluted you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them.

Prices on cell-phone plans vary widely with the number of lines you need and the amount of data you’re purchasing. There are different thresholds for data throttling, international service, hot spot usage, and speed, and some have perks such as free content from streaming services.

Carriers further complicate matters with special short-term offers to lure customers from rivals.

We 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 unlimited and more modest plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

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To make sure your needs are covered, the tables below present 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 and what you’re using it for the most. It’s important to note that some carriers are now making you pay extra if you want high-definition-quality video streaming or high-speed mobile hot spot service. Some also make you buy a more expensive plan if you want overseas service included. Check our buying guide for cell phones and service for tips for choosing a plan.

We focus on the Big Four because they dominate the market. But consumers looking for a good deal or great customer service should also check out smaller companies. Our ratings of 20 providers are based on the experiences of about 100,000 Consumer Reports members. The Big Four are all near the bottom of the chart, though T-Mobile rates somewhat higher than its competitors. (Ratings are available to members.)

No-Contract Plans

One bright note from the “cell war” chaos among the Big Four carriers in recent years has been the rise of no-contract plans. They separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, and they’re the rule now. Consumers who want to pay off their phone over time can effectively get an interest-free loan that usually runs 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 rise of unlimited data plans. These plans, which carriers started to pull a few years ago when smartphones such as the iPhone started using substantial amounts of data, can be a respite for a new wave of consumers hooked on streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify. All the major carriers now offer unlimited plans, but they come with catches. More on that below.


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

AT&T Unlimited &More and Mobile Share Flex

AT&T has updated its unlimited plans to reflect the wide array of TV content obtained through its acquisition of Time Warner.

Pricing for the new lower-tier plan, Unlimited &More, starts at $80 for one smartphone line. As you add more lines, your per-phone rate drops: $145 for two lines ($72.50 per phone); $165 for three ($55 per phone); $180 for four ($45 per phone); and $215 for five ($43 per phone).

If you sign up for automated payments and paperless billing, you still get a $10 monthly discount for one line and $20 for two or more lines.

For most existing AT&T customers, the end result is a $5-per-month increase over the cost of AT&T’s old basic unlimited plan.

So what do you get that wasn’t there before? Most notably, it’s access to 30 channels of live TV, including AMC and CNN. You can binge-watch a lot of old stuff, too, from Time Warner’s library of 15,000 movies and TV shows.

And you’re not stuck doing it on your tiny phone screen. AT&T will let you use your favorite streaming device. Need help finding one? Check our ratings of streaming media players.

For those who don’t mind missing out on local channels and sports (sorry, no ESPN or Fox Sports included), this plan could go a long way toward helping you save money by dumping your cable service.

But like the Unlimited Choice plan that preceded it, the Unlimited &More plan comes with a few big catches. Video streaming is limited to standard-definition quality, with the speed capped at 1.5 megabits per second. The plan doesn’t provide mobile hot spot capabilities, so no tethering your computer to your phone. (Verizon has similar restrictions.) And people who subscribe to the cheaper unlimited plan no longer get free HBO.

So if you rely on AT&T service to satisfy your “Game of Thrones” fix, not to mention to provide you with HD-quality video streaming and tethering, you’re going to have to pay for the new Unlimited &More Premium plan, which is similar to the old Unlimited Plus Enhanced plan.

The prices haven’t changed. You’ll still pay $90 for one phone and $170 for two. The same autopay and paperless billing discounts apply, too.

The Unlimited &More Premium plan includes 15 gigabytes of mobile hot spot service per line, the same as before. If you use that up, AT&T will limit your hot spot speed to 128 kilobits per second. 

Data throttling rules haven’t changed, either. As with Verizon’s higher-end unlimited data plan (see below), AT&T might reduce data-connection speeds for any user who consumes 22GB of data in any given billing cycle. With AT&T’s cheaper plan, the company reserves the right to slow speeds any time it wishes.

Under the new plan, though, customers get to pick one free service from a list of seven movie, music, or entertainment options to customize their plans. Choices include Amazon Music, HBO, Pandora, Showtime, and Starz.   

Don’t use a lot of data or watch a lot of TV? No worries, AT&T’s Mobile Share Flex plans, which include fixed amounts of data, haven’t gone away. Depending on how many lines you have and how much data you consume, those might be a better deal for you.

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

Unlimited &More1

Unlimited &More Premium2

1

$55

$80 (5GB)

$80 (5GB)

$80


$90

2

$100 (5GB shared)

$100 (5GB shared)

$125 (10GB shared)

$145

$170

3

$120 (5GB shared)

$145 (10GB shared)

$170 (20GB shared)

$165

$190

4

$140 (5GB shared)

$165 (10GB shared)

$190 (20GB shared)

$180


$210

5

$160 (5GB shared)

$185 (10GB shared)

$210 (20GB shared)

$215

$245

  1. AT&T reserves the right to slow data speeds at any time.
  2. After 22GB of data usage on a line during any billing cycle, AT&T reserves the right to slow data speeds.

Sprint Unlimited Basic and Plus

After trying to position itself as the cheapest carrier for a few years, Sprint has resorted to offering two tiers of unlimited service—just like everyone else. That means you’re going to have to pay more if you want perks such as HD video streaming and faster music streaming.

The cheaper option—Unlimited Basic—starts at $65 for one line and $110 for two. As you add more, the per-line cost falls.

These rates are about the same as the ones in the company’s old Unlimited Freedom plan. But now video streaming is limited to DVD quality, music streaming is capped at a speed of 500 kilobits per second vs. 1.5 megabits per second in the former plan, and gaming streaming speeds have been cut from 8 Mbps to 2 Mbps. 

High-speed mobile hot spot usage is still included, but it’s capped at 500 megabytes per month. After you use up that data allotment, you get unlimited hot spot service at 3G speeds. The old plan gave you 10 gigabytes of high-speed service, then charged you $10 for another 10GB once you went over the limit. 

The plan still features Hulu. It also offers unlimited talk and text in Canada and Mexico, along with 5GB per month of high-speed data service in these countries.

The new Unlimited Plus plan—which more closely resembles the former Unlimited Freedom plan—starts at $75 for one line and $130 for two. It includes old perks such as HD video streaming, music streaming at 1.5 Mbps, and gaming speeds of up to 8 Mbps.

The plan also offers 15GB of high-speed mobile hot spot service—plus unlimited 3G service—and both Hulu and music streaming service Tidal. Just like the basic plan, this one delivers unlimited talk and text in Mexico and Canada, but your monthly data allowance in these countries doubles to 10GB.   

Heavy data users beware: Like its competitors, Sprint reserves the right to cut your speeds when data demand is high. In this case, that means for customers who use more than 50 gigabytes per month.

Don’t need unlimited data? Sprint has a 2GB plan that will run you $45 per line per month.

Sprint will give you a $5-per-line discount each month if you sign up for AutoPay. That discount isn’t reflected in the table below.

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone2GB of Data per PhoneUnlimited Basic

Unlimited Plus

1

NA

$45

$65

$75

2

NA

$90

$110

$130

3

NA

$135

$135

$165

4

NA

$180

$180

$200

5

NA

$225

$185

$235

T-Mobile

T-Mobile does not let you share data. You must purchase it separately for each phone in your household. And you can’t just buy a bundle of gigabytes; you need to go the unlimited route.

But the company has a new, stripped-down plan geared toward budget-conscious families.

Like the pricier plans, T-Mobile Essentials includes unlimited talk, text, and data. It starts at $65 for one line—$10 less than in the carrier’s regular T-Mobile One unlimited plan. You can add a second line for $35 and lines three through six are an extra $20 each.

In comparison, a two-line T-Mobile One plan costs $130. Additional lines are $25 each. Another important detail to note when crunching the numbers: In the T-Mobile One plans, the taxes and fees are included; in the lower-priced Essentials plans, they are not.

So what are you missing out on if you sign up for Essentials? Well, for one thing, Netflix. It's usually included in T-Mobile One plans that have at least two lines.

Essentials customers also fall to the bottom of the priority list for data speeds during heavy traffic times. And Essentials customers who use more than 50GB per month may see their speeds dip even farther.

That's a lot of data, though, even for families that love to stream video.

For T-Mobile One customers, the company will only throttle your data speeds if you go over that 50GB-per-month threshold.  

Travel outside the country much? Essentials customers get unlimited talk, text, and 2G data in Mexico and Canada. Texting is unlimited in over 210 destinations around the world.

In comparison, T-Mobile One customers get unlimited talk, text, and 5GB of high-speed data per month in Canada and Mexico. In addition to unlimited texting in those 210-plus destinations, T-Mobile One also includes unlimited 2G data use.

And, just a heads up, under both plans, video typically streams at DVD quality. And, while there’s no extra charge for using your phone as a hotspot, speeds are capped at 3G.

Want more? You can pay an additional $10 per line per month above the T-Mobile One price and get HD-quality video streaming, along with 10 gigabytes per month of 4G mobile hotspot usage and other extras.

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone T-Mobile Essentials1

T-Mobile One2

1

NA

$65

$75

2NA

$100

$130

3NA

$120

$155

4NA

$140

$180

5NA

$160

$205

  1. Taxes and fees are extra.
  2. Taxes and fees are included.

Verizon Unlimited Plans

Verizon recently updated its offers to add a third set of pricing for its unlimited data plans.

The two lower-priced plans haven’t changed. Go Unlimited starts at $80 for one phone, gives you DVD-quality streaming, and restricts your mobile hot spot usage to a speed of 600 kilobits per second. And the company reserves the right to slow your data speeds any time the network gets busy.

For $10 more per month for a one-phone plan, the company offers its Beyond Unlimited plan. That plan offers sharper, HD-quality streaming and 15 gigabytes per line of full 4G LTE mobile hot spot use. (After that, your speeds are capped at 600 Kbps.) And Verizon promises to not throttle your data speeds until you use 22GB of data during a given month.

The big carrot included in the company’s Above Unlimited plan is that Verizon lets you use a whopping 75GB of data per month before throttling kicks in. You also get an extra 5GB of high-speed mobile hot spot usage, for a total of 20GB, along with 500GB of storage in Verizon’s cloud.

And while talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada are included in all three unlimited plans, Above Unlimited also gives you five Verizon TravelPasses per month. The passes, which normally cost $10, allow you to use your phone for a day in 130 countries.

But as mentioned above, T-Mobile includes unlimited texting and data (calls cost extra) in over 210 destinations as part of its T-Mobile One plans.

Interested in a premium plan for yourself but maybe not for your kids? No problem. Verizon will let you mix and match pricing options within one family plan.

Also, note that Verizon will give you a $5-per-device discount each month if you set up automatic bill payments. That discount isn’t reflected in the rates listed in the table below.

Number of People1GB of Data per Phone2GB of Data per PhoneGo Unlimited per Phone1

Beyond Unlimited per Phone2

Above Unlimited per Phone3

1

NA

$55

$80

$90

$100

2

$75

$90

$140

$170

$190

3

$110 (1.3GB)

$130 (2.7GB)

$165

$195

$225

4

$130

$150

$180

$220

$260

5

$150 (0.8GB)

$170 (1.6GB)

$225

$275

$325

  1. Verizon reserves the right at any time to "prioritize usage behind other customers in the event of network congestion."
  2. After 22GB of data usage on a line during any billing cycle, Verizon reserves the right to "prioritize usage behind other customers in the event of network congestion."
  3. After 75GB of data usage on a line during any billing cycle, Verizon reserves the right to "prioritize usage behind other customers in the event of network congestion."