The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices can be 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, changing them 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 omit most of these specials when we evaluate offers because of their extremely short lifespan 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.

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 buying guide for cell phones and service for tips for choosing a plan.

No-Contract Plans

One bright note from the “cell war” chaos among the Big Four carriers, where more than 80 percent of our survey responders get their cell service, is the rise of no-contract plans. They separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, and they're the rule now. You effectively get 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 a few years ago when smartphones like the iPhone actually started using substantial amounts of data, can be a respite for a new wave of consumers hooked to streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. All of the major carriers now offer unlimited plans.


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

AT&T Unlimited and Mobile Share Advantage

AT&T reinstated its unlimited plan in February 2017 and has continued tweaking its pricing structure and rates in the months since.

Currently, new and old AT&T customers can get unlimited, sharable data for movies, music, video chats, and picture uploads. Pricing starts at $65 for one smartphone; the second line is $60, and up to eight additional lines are $20 each. Customers can further reduce their bill if they sign up for automated payments and paperless billing. 

AT&T says it might reduce data-connection speeds for any user who consumes 22GB of data in any given billing cycle; Verizon has the same policy.

But some AT&T customers might want to skip the unlimited option. For light data users, going unlimited is pricier than the company's Mobile Share Advantage plans, which are still available. It just depends on how much sharable data you consume.

And there's another wrinkle if you're a "Game of Thrones" fan. AT&T also offers unlimited data plans bundled with HBO, along with DirecTV, which might help you save money if you were going to pay for those services anyway. (None of those bundled deals are covered in the chart below.)

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

Unlimited Choice1

1

$50

$60 (3GB)

$80 (6GB)

$65


2$80

(1.5 GB)

$100 (3GB)

$120 (5GB)

$120

3

$100

$120

$160 (3.3GB)

$140

4

$140 (1.5GB)

$160 (2.5GB)

$165 (unlimited data per phone)

$160


5

$160 (1.2GB)

$180

$185 (unlimited data per phone)

$180

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

Sprint Family Shared and Unlimited

In the face of competition, Sprint slashed its unlimited plan prices in late February. While the rates have been adjusted since then, they still amount to significant discounts from what you would have paid last year, depending on how many phones you have.

Is there a catch? You bet. These rates are set to end in about a year (on Sept. 30, 2018). After that, they go back to the old rates, which we’ve left for you as a comparison in the chart below. And heavy data users beware: When data demand is high, Sprint joins its competitors in reserving the the right to cut speeds for customers who use more than 23GB a month.  

Regardless, Sprint's current rates are some of the cheapest out there. For instance, a Sprint plan covering just one phone will run you $55 per month, and the discounts rise when you start adding lines to your account. While the rates are significantly cheaper than comparable plans from Verizon and AT&T, they will jump significantly after Sept. 30, 2018.

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 and T-Mobile did 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

NA

$45

$65

$55

2

NA

$90

$110

$100

3

NA

$135

$145

$110

4

NA

$180

$180

$120

5

NA

$230

$215

$125

  1. Rates expire on Sept. 30, 2018. After that, they go back to the old rates, according to Sprint. Rates are shown without $5 per line auto pay discount.

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 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: $75 for the first line and $35 for the second line. Add more lines and your per-line cost will drop even more. 

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 they're still competitive with those of the other carriers.

And like the other carriers, unlimited doesn't quite mean unlimited. After a customer passes 32GB of data, the company reserves the right to slow down their data speeds during times of congestion. On the upside, that's the highest allowance among the four major carriers.

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

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

1

NA

NA

$75

2NA

NA

$110

3NA

NA

$155

4NA

NA

$180

5NA

NA

$205

Verizon Unlimited Plans

Big Red introduced an unlimited sharable data plan in early 2017, replacing the larger “finite” sharable data plans (larger than 8GB) it had previously offered.

The Unlimited plans look like a good deal for Verizon customers who use more than 4GB per line. They're comparable to T-Mobile’s T-MobileOne unlimited plan (see above), but are slightly more expensive.

While the 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.

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

NA

$55

$85

2

$75

$90

$150

3

$110 (1.3GB)

$130 (2.7GB)

$170

4

$130

$150

$190

5

$170 (1.6GB)

$210 (Unlimited data per phone)

$210
  1. After 22GB of data usage on a line during any billing cycle Verizon might "prioritize usage behind other customers in the event of network congestion."