The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices can be so convoluted that 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 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 HD-quality video streaming or high-speed mobile hot spot service. 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, but they all come with catches. More about that later.


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.

But AT&T's cheapest option for unlimited data comes with a big catch. Data speeds are capped at 3 Mbps and video streaming is limited to standard-definition quality, with its speed capped at 1.5 Mbps. The plan also doesn't include mobile hot spot capabilities, so no tethering your computer to your phone. (Verizon has similar restrictions.)

If you want HD-quality video streaming and tethering, you're going to have to pay for the company's "Unlimited Plus" plan, which starts at $95 for one phone. That plan includes 10GB of mobile hot spot service per line. If you use that up, AT&T will limit your hot spot speed to 128 Kbps. As a bonus, this plan also includes HBO.  

But as with Verizon's higher-end unlimited data plan, AT&T says that for this plan it might reduce data-connection speeds for any user who consumes 22GB of data in any given billing cycle.

Note that these unlimited options aren't right for all AT&T customer. For light data users, it's less expensive to use Mobile Share Advantage plans, which are still available. It just depends on how much sharable data you consume.

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

Unlimited Choice1

Unlimited Plus1

1

$50

$60 (3GB shared)

$80 (6GB)

$65


$95

2$80

(3GB shared)

$100 (6GB shared)

$120 (10GB shared)

$120

$145

3

$100 (3GB shared)

$120 (6GB shared)

$160 (10GB shared)

$140

$165

4

$140 (3GB shared)

$160 (10GB shared)

NA

$160


$185

5

$160 (6GB shared)

$180 (10GB shared)

NA

$180

$205

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

Sprint Unlimited Freedom

Sprint slashed its unlimited plan prices in late February. Though 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 Oct. 31, 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 right to cut speeds for customers who use a lot of data—in Sprint's case, that means more than 23GB per month.

On the flip side, unlike Verizon and AT&T, Sprint doesn't make you pay for a premium unlimited plan if you want HD-quality video streaming. But it micromanages your data speeds in other ways, capping gaming streaming at 8 Mbps and music streaming at 1.5 Mbps. 

Sprint's unlimited plan also includes 10GB per line of high-speed mobile hot spot usage. If you burn through that, the company will drop you down to 2G speed. 

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. Though the rates are significantly cheaper than comparable plans from Verizon and AT&T, they will jump significantly after Oct. 31, 2018.

Don't need unlimited data? The only other Sprint option is a 2GB plan that will run you $45 per line, per month.

Another point of caution: For customers with traditional cellular plans, Sprint earned some of the worst customer-satisfaction scores in our most recent cell-carrier survey, which was completed by about 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 Oct. 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 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. You pay $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.

With its base plan, T-Mobile says its video typically streams at DVD quality. There's no extra charge for using your phone as a mobile hot spot, but speeds are capped at 3G. Want more? You can pay an additional $10 per line, per month and get HD-quality video streaming, along with 10GB per month of 4G mobile hot spot usage and other extras. 

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

It's also worth noting that unlike the other carriers, T-Mobile's prices include all taxes and fees, so your monthly rate is basically what you're going to end up paying.

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

Unlimited Data per Phone

1

NA

NA

$75

2NA

NA

$110

3NA

NA

$155

4NA

NA

$180

5NA

NA

$205

Verizon Unlimited Plans

After rolling out an unlimited sharable data plan in early 2017, replacing the larger “finite” sharable data plans (larger than 8GB) it had previously offered, Verizon is changing them up again.

Though your monthly cost might drop a little bit, you're getting less for that money, especially if you like high-quality video and the ability to tether your other devices.

What Verizon is doing is splitting its unlimited data option into two different plans. The lower-priced plan, known as "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 Kbps.

For $10 more per month, for a one-phone plan, the company offers its "Beyond Unlimited" plan. That plan offers HD-quality streaming and 15GB per line of full 4G LTE mobile hot spot use.

One other factor to note: Verizon previously said that during times of congestion it reserved the right to slow data speeds of customers that have already used more than 22GB of data during a given month. That still holds true for "Beyond Unlimited" customers, but for customers who opt for the cheaper plan, it now reserves the right to slow speeds anytime the network gets busy.

Though 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 Phone'Go Unlimited' per Phone1

'Beyond Unlimited' per Phone2

1

NA

$55

$80

$90

2

$75

$90

$150

$180

3

$110 (1.3GB)

$130 (2.7GB)

$180

$210

4

$130

$150

$200

$240

5

$150 (0.8GB)

$170 (1.6GB)

$250

$300

  1. Verizon reserves the right to at any time "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."