Best Low-Cost Cell Phone Plans
Consumer Reports checks out the latest from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon
The pricing practices of the major cell phone carriers can be so convoluted that you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them.
Plan costs vary widely depending on the number of lines and the amount of data you need. There are different thresholds for data throttling, international service, and hot spot usage. And some plans offer a smorgasbord of free content from streaming services, which can be hard to value.
AT&T has three levels of service that include unlimited data. And all of them feature access to what AT&T says is now a national 5G network (you can check the carrier's maps to see how much coverage there is where you live).
The least expensive plan, Unlimited Starter, will run you $75 per month for one phone. As you add more lines, the per-phone rate drops from $70 ($140 for two lines) to $55 ($165 for three) to $45 ($180 for four).
The plan offers unlimited talk, text, and data in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It includes unlimited texting from the U.S. to more than 120 countries. And now you get a six-month trial of the gaming service Stadia Pro, too.
Video streams at DVD quality, and AT&T reserves the right to slow your data speeds when the network gets busy.
The next step up, Unlimited Extra, costs an additional $10 per month for one line. A four-line bundle will cost you an additional $20 per month, for a total of $200.
For that you get 15 gigabytes of mobile hot spot data per line and 50GB of “premium data” to share. You aren’t subjected to slower data speeds until you go through all that data in a month.
But it's the Unlimited Elite plan that now includes some really big carrots. AT&T recently updated it to include streaming in super-sharp 4K ultra HD. The feature doesn't work everywhere, though. And you need to be viewing content shot in 4K and have a device with a display that's nice enough to make that worthwhile.
On top of that, AT&T has raised the plan's limit on hot spot data allowance by 10GB to 40GB per line. Better yet, it removed the cap on high-speed data, which means no matter how much you use, you're never going to get throttled.
And, just like before, the plan includes access to HBO Max, which could be nice if that's something you'd be paying for otherwise.
All those extras don’t come cheap, though. That package will cost you $95 per month for one line and $240 for four.
But AT&T will now let you mix and match levels of service on multiline plans. So you may be able to shave a few dollars off your monthly bill by choosing lower-tier options for a family member or two.
Don’t need unlimited data? Like the other carriers, AT&T has scaled back its options. Right now there's just one choice that provides unlimited talk and text with 4GB of data per line. That plan starts at $60 per month for one line and goes up to $200 for four.
But, these days, that’s not a lot of data. And if you exceed that allowance, AT&T will charge you $10 for each 2GBs of data you use before your billing cycle is up.
Needless to say, this is a bare-bones plan. Streaming is at standard definition, and 5G connectivity isn't included.
If you need several lines, it's actually cheaper to just sign up for Unlimited Starter (which includes 5G and doesn't involve overage charges). For example, four lines with 4GB plans will cost you $200 per month before discounts, but four lines with Unlimited Starter service costs $180.
And don’t forget that whichever AT&T plan you choose, if you sign up for automated payments and paperless billing, you get a $10 monthly discount for each of your lines. Those savings aren't reflected in the table below.
|Number of People||4GB of Data Per Line||Unlimited Starter1||Unlimited Extra2||Unlimited Elite|
As part of the merger deal with Sprint, T-Mobile has pledged to not raise prices for at least three years. Meanwhile, its nationwide 5G network continues to expand. This map provides specific details.
The carrier offers a trio of unlimited talk, text, and data plans but no way to share a bundle of data with family members. The most basic service, Essentials, costs $65 for one phone and $100 for two. A four-line bundle will run you $140.
That gives you unlimited talk, text, and data on the T-Mobile network. Mobile hot spot data is unlimited but capped at 3G speeds. The plan offers unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico, too (though data moves at a turtle-slow 2G speed). Texting is free in about 210 other destinations.
The company now reserves the right to slow your data speeds once you hit the 50-gigabyte mark. Previously, it reserved the right to throttle Essentials customers' speeds at any time.
The downside? Unlike with T-Mobile’s other plans, the monthly rate doesn't include taxes and fees or Netflix. Video streams in standard definition.
If you’re looking for a more traditional T-Mobile service, the company’s Magenta plan starts at $75 for one line and $130 for two. That includes the taxes and fees, which alone make this plan a better deal for many families.
T-Mobile throws in a basic-level Netflix plan, provided you sign up for at least two lines of service and 5GB per month of 4G hot spot data (3G hot spot data remains unlimited). You also get 5GB of high-speed data when traveling in Canada and Mexico (in addition to unlimited talk, text, and 2G-speed data). In other countries, texting and 2G-speed data is free.
For those racking up frequent-flyer miles, T-Mobile also includes free texting and 1 hour of free WiFi on flights equipped with the Gogo service.
Those looking for the highest level of wireless service, including 4K ultra-HD streaming, can sign up for Magenta Max, which replaces the previous Magenta Plus service. It still starts at $90 for one phone and $150 for two.
For customers with one line of service, just a basic Netflix subscription is included. But for those with two or more, it gets bumped up to a standard subscription that can stream in up to 4K ultra-HD.
Best of all, T-Mobile says it won't slow your speeds no matter how many gigabytes of data you chew through. And the plan includes a whopping 40GB of high-speed mobile hot spot service.
International data is faster, though still technically at 2G speeds, and your Gogo service includes unlimited texting and WiFi.
Like the other carriers, T-Mobile offers a discount for enrolling in autopay. In this case, it’s $5 per line per month for a maximum of eight lines. Those savings aren't reflected in the table below.
|Number of People||Essentials1||Magenta2||Magenta Max3|
Verizon offers four kinds of unlimited plans. All come with unlimited talk, text, and data (in Canada and Mexico, too, along with unlimited texting in an additional 200 countries).
After that, the perks vary with the plan.
The least expensive option, Start Unlimited, costs $80 for one phone and includes DVD-quality streaming and six-month trials of Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Discovery+, Disney+ and Google Play Pass.
You get access to Verizon's "Nationwide" 5G network, but not its "Ultra Wideband" network, which uses faster millimeter wave technology. (See coverage map.) And Verizon reserves the right to slow your data speeds when the network gets busy.
With Verizon’s more expensive plans, that’s not the case. If you choose one of those three options, both kinds of 5G service are included and the carrier won’t slow your speeds until you go through 50GB of data in a given month.
There are different extras for each plan, though. Play More Unlimited, which starts at $90 per month for one line, throws in HD video streaming, 15GB of 4G hot spot data per month, and full subscriptions to Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. You also get six months of Apple Music and 12 months of Apple Arcade, Discovery+, and Google Play Pass.
The Do More Unlimited plan also starts at $90 per month, but it’s designed with the multitasking worker in mind. You get HD streaming, 15GB of high-speed hot spot service, a 50 percent discount on a tablet or jetpack (mobile hot spot device) unlimited plan, and 600GB of Verizon cloud storage.
What’s the trade-off? Instead of free Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu subscriptions, you get six-month trials of Apple Arcade, Apple Music, Discovery+, Disney+, and Google Play Pass.
For the person who wants everything, Get More Unlimited starts at $100 per month for one phone. It bumps your high-speed hot spot allowance to 30GB per month. And HD streaming, Apple Music, Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu are all included, along with 12 months of Apple Arcade, Discovery+, and Google Play Pass. You also get the 50 percent discount on a tablet or jetpack plan and 600GB of Verizon cloud storage.
Don’t need unlimited data? Verizon still offers plans with shared bundles of gigabytes. Right now your options are 5GB and 10GB. We’ve priced those out in the table below.
With any plan, Verizon will give you a $10-per-device discount each month if you set up automatic bill payments. That discount isn’t reflected in the rates listed in the table.
|Number of People||5GB of Shared Data||10GB of Shared Data||Start Unlimited1||Play More Unlimited2||Do More Unlimited2||Get More Unlimited2|