Choosing the right wireless phone plan used to be pretty straightforward: Pick your bucket of minutes and sign up for a two-year contract. But ever since T-Mobile blew up the subsidy game with its Uncarrier plans and other carriers followed suit, creativity has run wild: We now have shared data plans, installment plans, leases, and bring-your-own-device plans to reckon with. Choice can be paralyzing, especially when carriers seem hell-bent on making the process as complex as possible, but doing some research can help make those choices work for you. In this guide, we'll outline the strengths and weaknesses of specific carriers and the varied plan options on offer. Also, be sure to play around with the handy calculator and rate comparison tool above, which will give you a better idea of how each carrier compares for your purposes.
Carriers go out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to find straightforward prices for any plan on offer. Device access charges, contract-based subsidies, discounts for buying phones outright, and endless data bucket options all complicate the matter and need to be kept in mind whenever comparing an advertised plan. In many cases, the price you see on a fancy landing page will be much different than the price you see when you go to checkout. Our tool will help you along the way, but we also recommend going through the checkout process yourself to ensure the most accurate quotes.
On top of moving-target rates, it's also important to be mindful of coverage and network speed strengths. Lucky for you, we also compile a comprehensive survey of each major carrier's network strength across multiple cities throughout the U.S. For a close look at which network prevails where you live, head over to our Fastest Mobile Networks story.
First, let's break down the two types of wireless phone plan shoppers: individuals and groups. Individuals will find most plan options more straightforward, but adding additional devices to a single individual's plan tends to get complicated. Families and groups will typically find significant discounts by banding together, but the pricing becomes more complex.
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all offer individual plans that vary wildly in price and data allotments. As a rule of thumb, you'll spend more for less data on AT&T and Verizon, while you can get more data for less money on Sprint and T-Mobile. Both Sprint and T-Mobile also offer so-called "unlimited" data, but you have to be careful, since only the most expensive plans offer truly unlimited high-speed 4G LTE data. For T-Mobile, that's the $95/month Unlimited plan, and for Sprint, it's the $75/month Unlimited plan. For lower-priced unlimited plans, your speeds will be throttled once you hit your data cap.
Now choose your adventure.
Traditional two-year contracts: Your options for signing a traditional two-year contract are very limited at this point. T-Mobile was the first to lead the charge and abolish two-year contracts. Now Sprint and Verizon have followed suit, while AT&T has gotten rid of contracts through its local dealers and national retail locations. However, if you really want an AT&T contract you can get one through its site, by calling customer service, or through local dealers via Direct Fulfillment. New Verizon customers are unable to sign up for two-year contracts, though it remains in place for existing customers.
Fast-upgrade plans: AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile offer plans that let you pay off your phone in monthly installments in exchange for a discount, and get a new phone every year or so if you return the old one back to the carrier. AT&T's is called Next, Sprint's is called Easy Pay Early Upgrade, and T-Mobile's is called Jump. Verizon has eliminated Edge, replacing it with a device payment plan. Over two years, these types of plans can save you a significant amount of money versus the traditional subsidized route. Device subsidies are built into the monthly charges, so while you might not necessarily see the cost, it can often be quite substantial over the course of a two-year contract.
On AT&T, for example, buying a 16GB iPhone 6s requires you to pick from different AT&T Next plans (24, 18, or 12) or pay full retail price up front ($649.99). Opting for AT&T's Next 24 financing, you'll pay nothing up-front and $21.67 per month (for 30 months), along with $30 per month if you pick the 2GB data plan, and a $25 per month device access charge, bringing your total to $76.67 monthly.
In this scenario, you end up saving close to $360 over the course of a two-year period with Next. And once you complete 24 Next installment payments, you have the option of trading in your phone (as long as it's in good working condition) for a new model (with an upgrade fee of $15 per line), or you can pay the remaining six monthly payments and own your phone outright. Alternatively, if you don't want to wait you also have the option of paying the minimum number of installments early using AT&T's Pay to Upgrade option, allowing you to upgrade as little as two months into Next.
No-contract with an installment plan: T-Mobile has killed off contracts and subsidies altogether, instead moving to a strictly financed phone model. There is no "access charge" on your monthly bill. Instead, you pay off the full retail price of your phone in monthly installments. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, also offer financing options for buying your phone with monthly installments or leases.
Prepaid virtual carriers: Smaller carriers like Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, Consumer Wireless, and MetroPCS can save you a lot of money per month, if you can put up with their comparatively meager phone selections. All of these smaller outfits still piggyback on the major carriers' networks, meaning you get the same coverage and speeds, but at a sizable discount. For example, Cricket Wireless customers access AT&T's nationwide network and can choose a base plan that has nearly the same data allotment for around half the price of a comparable plan from AT&T. The biggest drawbacks are a much smaller selection of phones and higher up-front device prices. For more, see The Best Cheap Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of.
Groups and Families
Family plans have been picking up a lot of steam in recent years, especially now that larger carriers like AT&T and Verizon have moved toward shared data buckets. Pricing out the total cost for larger groups can be a chore, but the savings can be sizable depending on which carrier you choose.
AT&T and Verizon: Monthly bills are broken down into data charges and device access charges. Data bucket pricing favors larger groups on both carriers, as the price per gigabyte decreases as you move up the scale. For example, an individual 2GB allotment costs $30 on AT&T's Mobile Share Value plan with a $25/month access charger per device, while a family of five can choose the 15GB tier for $100 with a $15/month access charge. The device access charges vary in this case, but usually, they remain the same per device, so the key here is to pay attention to the price of data. In the aforementioned situation, the family of five is only paying $26 per member for 3GB each, whereas an individual would pay $30 for 1GB less. AT&T also recently brought back its rollover data offer, meaning you can keep the unused data from your previous month's balance.
On Verizon, an individual would pay a total of $50 per month for a 1GB data plan ($30) and single device access ($20), while groups can purchase a 12GB data bucket for $80 per month plus $20 per line. For a family of four, that works out to $40 per person for 2.5GB each, versus $50 for an individual buying less data.
Sprint: Sprint offers an unlimited plan for $75 a month for a single line, $45/month for a second line, $30/month for a third line, no additional cost for a fourth line, and $30/month for additional lines up to a total of ten. The tricky part to keep in mind when considering Sprint's plans are the monthly charges for financing your phone. Device access charges vary based on which data bucket tier you choose and whether you lease or bring your own compatible phone. The more data you buy, the less you pay per device. Sprint recently adjusted its data tiers to offer 12GB of shared data for $60 per month, plus device access charges ($20 or $45 depending on if you lease or do a 24-month agreement). That's more than double the data you'd get for a comparably priced plan from T-Mobile, and far more data per dollar than you get with AT&T or Verizon.
T-Mobile: Savings are even more substantial on T-Mobile, which only offers financing options and doesn't have the complexities introduced by device access charges and subsidies. A family of four can get 2GB of data each for a total of $100, which works out to $25 per person plus financing fees depending on the phone you choose, versus the $50 per month an individual would pay for 2GB of monthly data.
Now that you have the tools to choose the right carrier and plan pairing, your next task is picking an actual phone. For more, be sure to check out our picks for The Best Smartphones, as well as The Best Android Phones and The Best Unlocked Phones.