Finding the best cell phone plans
Choosing a cell phone carrier is not as simple as it first seems. You have to consider the cost, the geographic coverage, the actual performance of the service and even how helpful the carrier's customer support is in order to make the right choice for you. With myriad plan options and the fact that those options are shifting quickly, almost daily it seems at times, it's tougher than ever to compare cell phone plans and services.
We've split our coverage of cell phone plans into two reports. This one compares traditional postpaid cell phone plans; that is, you are billed for the service at the end of the billing cycle. You may also want to consider a prepaid wireless plan in which you pay for service in advance. Once considered a last resort for people with bad credit, prepaid wireless plans have evolved into a good option for anybody, experts say, even if you want a smartphone. See our report on prepaid cell phone plans for more information. If you are interested in a new smartphone to use with your cell phone plan, we cover those in a separate report as well
Cell phone plans have changed
In the past, most postpaid cell phone plans offered -- or insisted on -- a contract that bound the user for two years in exchange for a reduced price (subsidy) for their phone, but that's now ancient history. Instead, carriers have embraced a model that eliminates contracts as well as discounted hardware. T-Mobile and, as of mid-August 2015, Verizon, no longer offer subsidized phones and contracts to their new subscribers. Other carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, continue to offer contracts, but expect to pay more -- sometimes substantially more -- per month for your service if you accept a subsidized phone.
Early phone-upgrade plans have become commonplace, but complicated, so it pays to read the fine print. Some plans, such as T-Mobile's Jump! and Sprint's Annual Plan Upgrade require a monthly fee. AT&T Next spreads the payments over a term of 20 to 30 months, but lets you upgrade your phone after 60 to 80 percent of the payments have been made, depending on the term, and forgives the balance. Verizon eliminated early upgrade options as part of its August 2015 plan overhaul. Each plan has its twists and turns, though the AT&T (no extra charge) and the T-Mobile (device insurance is included) look to be the best values. However, all early upgrade programs require you to trade in your existing phone, and that can be costly as some smartphones, especially flagship models, can retain a bit of resale value even if they are two years old or even older.
Lease plans are available from Sprint and, since late June 2015, T-Mobile. The monthly cost is lower than purchasing the phone outright and/or paying its costs in installments, but the phone remains the property of the carrier. At the end of the lease term your options include returning the phone or paying a lump sum that represents its residual value (the difference between the payments and the retail value of the phone). T-Mobile's new program, called Jump! Unlimited, allows up to three exchanges over 12-month period while the lease is active. With either lease plan, ending the lease early requires making all remaining lease payments in one lump sum and returning the device.
All major wireless network companies now offer shared plans that include unlimited talk and text and a pool of data that's used by all the devices on your account. Pricing is based on the size of the data pool plus a line access charge for each device, which can include smartphones, basic phones, tablets, mobile hotspots and more. Smartphones carry the largest line access charge -- typically $40 per device -- but carriers discount that heavily depending on whether or not the device is subsidized (no discount), purchased outright, bought on an installment contract or leased, as well as the size of the data pool (with larger plans getting the biggest breaks). Some carriers still market single-line plans, but, in reality, these are shared plans with smaller data pools. Others, such as AT&T and Verizon, as of mid-August 2015, don't offer them at all to new subscribers.
Postpaid vs. Prepaid
The end of long-term contracts and subsidized phones may have blurred some of the distinctions between traditional postpaid cell phone plans and prepaid ones, but there are still a number of differences that could make one or another the better choice. Postpaid plans typically require a solid credit rating (since you are paying for service after it is delivered). If your credit is shaky, or if you are just starting to build your credit history, you may need to subscribe to a prepaid plan to get service. That's not all bad news. Prepaid plans are sometimes cheaper than postpaid plans with equal service terms, and all ride on the same networks that carriers use for their postpaid offerings. While most postpaid plan users are now being funneled into shared-data plans, individual lines are available on prepaid, and can save a few dollars as well. If all you want is talk and text on either a monthly or pay as you go basis, prepaid is also likely to be your most cost-effective option.
However, postpaid plans have some powerful pluses as well. While some carriers will activate most phones, including flagship phones, on prepaid, some reserve the hottest new devices for their postpaid customers. Also, prepaid phones use the same networks as postpaid ones, but carriers will sometimes cap maximum data speeds for prepaid users (though still at levels that are fine for almost all uses, including streaming). Some carriers reserve or charge extra for some features, such as device tethering (which allows you to use your smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for connecting laptops, tablets, etc., to the Internet) or voice over LTE (VoLTE) calling (also called HD voice, which allows for higher quality voice calls), to their prepaid customers as well.
The bottom line is that the decision as to whether a prepaid or postpaid plan is best will depend almost exclusively on your circumstances and needs, and both are fine choices. This report focuses exclusively on postpaid cellphone plans; as noted earlier, see our separate report on prepaid cell phone plans for more information on that option.
All coverage is local
In this report, we name the best cell phone plans based on many factors, including coverage. However, keep in mind that even those networks that perform the best on a national, state-wide or even regional basis will still have local coverage gaps, while a network that might not perform so well elsewhere, will be gangbusters in those spots where you use your phone most often. Coverage maps provided by most carriers are optimistic, at best, and based on theoretical coverage without regard to things like hills, buildings, trees and the like, all of which can impact performance. T-Mobile breaks from the pack a bit by supplementing its coverage maps with information on signal strength drawn from its users' phones.
While we can provide guidance on which cell phone networks have the strongest reach on a national level, the best way to find out which carriers perform best where you live, work and play is to talk to your neighbors, work colleagues and friends to find out which carriers they use and how happy they are with the service. Crowed sourced coverage mapping, such as that provided by Open Signal and Sensorly (see Our Sources for more information on those), can also help you zero in on which networks provide the best local coverage.
Finding the best cell phone plan
To create this report, we considered the key factors that separate plans and carriers, including pricing, performance, and customer service. To learn how the carriers stack up on those counts, we look at major customer satisfaction surveys. We also consult expert reviews as well as user feedback, which can be especially helpful in finding out how happy users are over the long haul. The results are our recommendations for the best cell phone plans, and the best values.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Nationwide Cell Phone Plans | Best Value Cell Phone Plans | Buying Guide | Our Sources