The Big Four carriers’ shell-gamelike pricing practices can be so convoluted you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them. The prices shift up or down on their cell-phone plans, changing 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.

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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.

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, based on the experiences of about 100,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, are available to members. The Big Four are all near the bottom of the chart, though T-Mobile rates somewhat higher that its competitors.

No-Contract Plans

One bright note from the “cell war” chaos among the Big Four carriers, is 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 like the iPhone actually started using substantial amounts of data, can be a respite for a new wave of consumers hooked on streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix. All of the major carriers now offer unlimited plans, but they all 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 and Mobile Share Flex

AT&T introduced new versions of its unlimited plans on March 1. Like Verizon, it uses a two-tier system. Pricing for the cheaper plan, Unlimited Choice Enhanced, starts at $75 for one smartphone, while two lines will run you $140. Additional lines are $20 each.

Customers can further reduce their bill if they sign up for automated payments and paperless billing. You can get a $10 per month discount if you have one line and a $20 discount if you have two or more. That's up from discounts of $5 and $10, respectively, under the previous plan.

But the Unlimited Choice plan comes with a big catch. 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 Enhanced plan, which starts at $90 for one phone. (That's actually $5 per month cheaper than it used to be.)

That plan includes 15GB of mobile hot spot service per line, up from 10GB under the old version of the plan. If you use that up, AT&T will limit your hot spot speed to 128 Kbps. 

But as with Verizon's higher-end unlimited data plan (below), 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. But that's better than with AT&T's cheaper plan, where the company reserves the right to slow speeds anytime it wishes.

Just a heads-up for "Game of Thrones" fans: Both unlimited options include free HBO.

Note that these unlimited options aren't right for all AT&T customers. For light data users, the company's Mobile Share Flex plans, which allow you to share a set amount of data between lines, might be a better deal.

It just depends on how many lines you have and how much data you consume.

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

Unlimited Choice1

Unlimited Plus1

1

$55

$80 (5GB)

$80 (5GB)

$75


$90

2

$100 (5GB shared)

$100 (5GB shared)

$125 (10GB shared)

$140

$170

3

$120 (5GB shared)

$145 (10GB shared)

$170 (20GB shared)

$160

$190

4

$140 (5GB shared)

$165 (10GB shared)

$190 (20GB shared)

$180


$210

5

$160 (5GB shared)

$185 (10GB shared)

$210 (20GB shared)

$210

$240

  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 2016. Though the rates have been adjusted over the past two years, they still amount to a bit of a discount from what you would have paid back then, at least for households with several phones.

The current rates are set to end in about a year, (on March 31, 2019), though Sprint has pushed this date back more than once. After that, Sprint reserves the right to go back to the old rates, which we’ve left for you as a comparison in the chart below.

It's also worth pointing out that the potential rate jump only really affects customers with three or more phones. Rates for one or two lines under Sprint's new unlimited plan have ticked up in recent months and are now identical to the old ones.

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. Right now, it's throwing in access to the Hulu streaming service, too.

But the company 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 $65 per month, and the discounts rise when you start adding lines to your account.

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

Like other carriers, Sprint will give you a monthly discount of $5 per line, per month if you sign up for AutoPay. While this may seem like a no-brainer for many people, that discount isn't reflected in the prices in the table below.

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

$65

2

NA

$90

$110

$110

3

NA

$135

$145

$115

4

NA

$180

$180

$120

5

NA

$230

$215

$125

  1. Rates expire on March 31, 2019. After that, they go back to the old rates, according to Sprint.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile doesn't offer data-sharing cell-phone plans. You have to purchase data separately for each phone in your household. And you can't just buy a handle of gigabytes of data for each phone. The company now only offers T-Mobile One unlimited plans.

Under T-Mobile One plans, you pay $75 for the first line, while two lines will cost you $130 per month. Add more lines and your per-line cost will drop even more. The company currently has super-cheap deals for new customers who set up four lines, while current customers have the option of adding a line and getting another for free. 

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. The company is also currently throwing in free access to Netflix for customers with two or more lines.

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 50GB of data, the company reserves the right to slow down the data speeds during times of congestion. On the upside, that's easily 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.

And T-Mobile will give you a $5 device discount each month if you sign up for AutoPay. That discount isn't reflected in the rates listed in the table below.

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

Unlimited Data per Phone

1

NA

NA

$75

2NA

NA

$130

3NA

NA

$155

4NA

NA

$1601

5NA

NA

$185

  1. The four-line rate quoted is only available for new customers. But current customers have the option of adding one line and getting a second for free. 

Verizon Unlimited Plans

Verizon offers two different sets of pricing for its unlimited data 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 sharper, HD-quality streaming and 15GB per line of full 4G LTE mobile hot spot use. (After that, your speeds are capped at 600 Kbps.)

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. 

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.

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

$140

$170

3

$110 (1.3GB)

$130 (2.7GB)

$165

$195

4

$130

$150

$180

$220

5

$150 (0.8GB)

$170 (1.6GB)

$225

$275

  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."