Cell Phone Service Buying Guide

    Cell Phone Service Buying Guide

    If you haven’t looked for a new cell phone plan in a while, you may be paying a price for your loyalty—or your inertia.

    In a recent survey of over 61,000 Consumer Reports members, more than half of those who had switched providers in the previous year said they saw a drop in their monthly bill. After making the shift, some respondents said they got more reliable coverage, a bigger data allowance, and better customer service.

    If you’re considering a new plan, you might want a new phone as well. You can check our cell phone buying guide for information on that purchase.

    Before you choose a plan, think about how much data you need. If you don’t require much, you can save on a low-cost option. But if you stream a lot of music or movies over your cellular network, an unlimited plan may be a smart move.

    Provider: The First Choice You’ll Make

    Go Big or Go Small
    Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers—such as Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, Republic Wireless, and Ting—benefits people with modest data needs (web browsing, email, Facebook) because they have lower-priced plans for lower data allotments. Heavy data users, especially those who want three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with one of the big carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless).

    Confirm the Coverage
    To confirm basic coverage in your area, especially if you’re looking for 5G, use the ZIP code maps and other resources provided on the carriers’ websites. But those references don’t take into account small dead zones in your neighborhood or home, so try to ask local friends how well their phones work in those spots.

    You should also make sure you can cancel service and return any phone that you might have bought if a coverage problem crops up. For some carriers, the grace period is a brief 14 days. They also might charge a restocking fee.

    Count Your Phone Lines
    That’s easy: That’s pretty much you plus your immediate family, but it’s okay to cover people who don’t live with you, too.

    Do the Math
    For smartphone users, the biggest decision is whether to sign up for a monthly allotment of data or an unlimited plan. Generally speaking, the more lines you have, the more attractive the unlimited plan becomes. 

    The Lowdown on Data

    The amount of data you burn through each month depends on your WiFi access (the more you’re away from it, the more data you use), and how much you use a cellular connection to stream or download content, or play online games.

    While the smaller carriers, which lease network space from the three big companies, will sell you bundles of gigabytes each month (divvied up by line or pooled in one lump sum), AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have moved away from this in recent years in favor of unlimited plans.

    For many families with multiple lines and at least one or two heavy data users, the cheapest unlimited plans often offer consumers a better deal. Shared buckets of data don’t go very far. You can forget about extras like free subscriptions to your favorite streaming services, too.

    Cell Phone Carriers

    Odds are you haven’t made changes to your cell service in years. That’s too bad. According to Consumer Reports’ most recent member survey, 55 percent of the people who had recently switched cell phone carriers said they saved money. Many of them also said they now enjoy more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service. But only 5 percent of our members switched cell phone carriers in the past year—perhaps more should consider shopping around.

    Among the biggest brands, T-Mobile was the only one that received average marks for value, customer support, and data. Verizon received a below-average rating for value but scored average for customer support, data, and reception. AT&T was the lowest-rated provider, earning our worst rating for value and reception. For more, check out our cell phone service provider ratings. Smaller providers earned much higher marks.

    How to Pay for Your Phone

    With the demise of the two-year contract, the cost of your phone is now clearly separated from the cost of your service. That leaves you with two solid options.

    Pay Up Front, Keep Your Monthly Bills the Same
    Not a bad choice if the model you’re eyeing isn’t too expensive. It also makes sense if credit problems prevent you from buying a phone in installments.

    Pay for It Over Time
    This is a great way to purchase a phone, especially if you have expensive tastes. The full retail price is usually divided into 24 or 36 monthly installments. After two years, you can scratch that fee from your phone bill. Plans differ by provider, so read the fine print before signing up.

    If you buy the phone from your carrier, you’re going to have to commit to that carrier until the phone is paid off. If you leave, the balance will most likely be due immediately. Note that if you get a new phone at a discounted price from the carrier as part of a promotion or because you traded in an old phone, you might be required to pay the full price of the phone if you leave before the phone is paid off.

    Another option: Retailers like the Apple Store and Samsung also will allow you to finance your purchase. And they’ll sell you an unlocked phone, so you won’t be tied to any particular carrier.