There's nothing simple anymore when it comes to finding the best cell phone plans. 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. Of the major carriers, Sprint still offers that as an option with a limited number of devices, but tacks an added access fee onto your monthly charges that largely negates the savings on all but the carrier's largest (unlimited) plan.
Instead, you can pay for your device in full at the time of purchase, or opt to pay for your phone on installment plans that will increase the cost of your monthly bill. Sometimes that only means paying a few dollars more per month, but for the newest, hottest phones, it can mean a significantly larger bill. Though these installment plans are not "contracts" in the sense that the term was used in the past, if you discontinue service before the phone is paid off, you will be required to make a lump sum payment to cover any outstanding installments.
Early phone-upgrade plans are available from some carriers, but the terms can be complicated, so it pays to read the fine print. All require you to trade-in your existing phone -- and that can make these a not-so-great deal if the phone you are trading in is an older "flagship" model; many can retain a surprising amount of resale value even one to two years after they were new.
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 of some are based on the size of the data pool, while others -- including T-Mobile and Sprint -- are once again offering unlimited data plans. To that, you'll typically add a line access charge for each device, which can include smartphones, basic phones, tablets, mobile hotspots and more. Some carriers still market single-line plans, but, in reality, these are shared plans with smaller data pools and the line access charge included in the overall cost.
The phasing out 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, limit 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.
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. Crowd sourced coverage mapping, such as that provided by Open Signal and Sensorly, can also help you zero in on which networks provide the best local coverage.
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.
When it comes to call quality, data speed and coverage, Verizon Wireless (Est. $35 per month and up) wins awards in nearly every test and survey we spotted. It's simply the best performer in most regions that it serves. However, when it comes to costs and customer satisfaction, things aren't as rosy, and some other carriers perform just as well, if not better, in some locales, especially in metropolitan regions and along major highways. Still, for rural and suburban dwellers, those who travel to different parts of the country, or those who want to be as sure as they can be (given the patchwork nature of U.S. cell service) that they'll have a phone that works wherever they are, Verizon gets the nod.
Verizon offers a single plan, called the Verizon Plan. For all phones, each line of service is subject to a $20 access line. To that you add a shared data pool (all devices on your account use the same data pool) that starts at 2 GB for $35 per month, and goes up to as much as 100 GB per month for $450. In addition, for plans of 12 GB and above (dubbed the Large plan by Verizon) users get a 2 GB per month bonus per line. Unlimited talk and text are included in these plans. Unused data is rolled over to the next month but expires at the end of that. Safety Mode allows you to stay connected after any plan and carryover data expires, but at greatly reduced speeds (128 kbps). Additional LTE data can be purchased at for $15 per GB.
In terms of performance, Verizon shines. It sweeps all six regions in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of user satisfaction with network quality. That's buttressed by testing by PCMag.com and RootMetrics, which reveals that Verizon delivers top performance in more regions than any of its competitors (though some are closing the gap). In nearly 500 markets (as of May 2016) Verizon performance has been enhanced by its XLTE service, a new wireless band that allows for increased capacity and data speeds with compatible phones (most newer devices are compatible).
Phone selection is excellent as well. Nearly all flagship phones and a good number of mid-priced and budget devices are offered. Verizon also has a handful of carrier-exclusive devices, though none that experts say would be compelling enough on their own to tip the balance toward choosing Verizon as a service. International travelers should note that Verizon uses CDMA technology, one of two wireless technologies in use in the U.S. CDMA is not used in most other countries, however; instead, GSM, also used in the U.S. but by other carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile), is the prevalent worldwide technology. To get around that, some Verizon devices are world-ready with built-in GSM radios for use internationally.
The downside to Verizon is that it's customer service and satisfaction don't rate as highly. "Verizon Wireless receives the highest marks for calling coverage and speed and reliability of the data network, but respondents gave it an abysmal satisfaction rating for fees (5.3)," Ben Z. Gottesman reports in explaining the carrier's low ranking in PCMag.com's 2016 Readers' Choice award survey. That's confirmed in surveys that measure user satisfaction with customer service and with the buying experience conducted by J.D. Power and Associates; in those surveys, Verizon Wireless earned below average scores.
Fairly or not, AT&T (Est. $30 per month and up) has taken some knocks over the years for the quality of its service. However, recent testing says that those interested in a cellphone plan that covers most of the country with good to great performance should give that carrier a second look.
When it comes to performance, AT&T still trails Verizon, but the gap isn't that large, and AT&T is judged to be the fastest performer in the Southeast and Southcentral (albeit in a three way tie in the latter region) in the latest round of testing by PCMag.com. RootMetrics names AT&T the number two performer on a national level, finishing second to Verizon in five of the six categories it tests. This is the sixth consecutive test period in which AT&T "has remained a strong number-two performer," Dave Andersen reports.
In terms of customer satisfaction, surveys are a mixed bag. AT&T fares poorly in the Readers' Choice poll conducted by PCMag.com, finishing behind Verizon, but shines in two surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, finishing first in customer care and in satisfaction with the buying experience (among postpaid carriers).
Like Verizon, all plans are shared data plans and include unlimited talk and text. Pricing starts at $30 for 1 GB of shared data and goes up to $450 for 100 GB of data per month. Regardless of whether your phone is a basic model or a smartphone, access charges are $20 per line ($40 per line for those still on two year contracts, which are no longer offered to new customers). Like Verizon, if you go over your data limit, speeds will be reduced to 128 kbps, or you can buy additional high-speed data. Also like Verizon, unused data can be rolled over to be used the following month.
Phones can be paid for in full or financed on the carrier's AT&T Next program. Terms are set at either 30 months or 24 months. For frequent upgraders, the plan allows you to turn in your device early -- when the phone is 80 percent paid off (at roughly 24 months) under the 30 month plan, or 50 percent (at roughly 12 months) on the 24 month plan, called AT&T Next Every Year -- and purchase a new device on the Next plan. For those with shaky credit, or those trying to develop credit, a down payment of 30 percent may be required.
AT&T's phone selection, like Verizon's (and most postpaid carriers, for that matter), is first rate. All flagship phones are available or supported (AT&T makes it easy to bring your own compatible device to the service), as are many budget and mid-range devices. AT&T also has some exclusive devices, but, as was the case with Verizon, none that wowed critics to the point where it might be the deciding factor in your selection of providers. AT&T uses a GSM network, the type that's prevalent in most of the world -- a plus for those who travel internationally.
Led by its colorful CEO, John Legere, T-Mobile's (Est. $50 per month and up) "uncarrier" philosophy has been the driving force behind some of the more dramatic changes in cell phone plans in recent years. It was the first carrier to do away with contracts and subsidized phones, and to introduce other concepts, such as rollover data, that have been adopted by many of its competitors. By introducing plans with soft caps, eliminating data overages, offering roll over data that's good for up to a year and adding perks such as free streaming music and video, there's little doubt that T-Mobile offers the best bang for the buck among the big four national carriers. It also offers some of the best capacity and highest speeds in many of the areas it covers. The downside is that the carrier falls behind its competition when it comes to reach; while things are improving, getting service outside of metropolitan areas and away from major highways can sometimes still be a challenge.
Be that as it may, if you live, work and play in areas where T-Mobile's network is robust, it can be a very good choice. In PCMag.com testing, T-Mobile is rated the second fastest network on a nationwide basis, following Verizon. It's competitive in most regions, especially on the East Coast, where it finishes in a three way tie for first place in the Southeast region, and wins the population dense Northeast outright. RootMetrics places T-Mobile narrowly behind AT&T in its tests of data and network speed, and notes that as in the past, "T-Mobile typically performs much better in metro areas compared to state or national levels."
Survey results indicate that T-Mobile customers are largely a happy bunch. T-Mobile is the second place finisher in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates surveys of satisfaction with mobile provider customer care and satisfaction with the purchase experience. It also does relatively well in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice poll, finishing stronger than the other "big four" carriers on the basis of higher satisfaction with fees and customer service. Survey respondents also said that they were also more likely to recommend T-Mobile to a friend than were customers of the other major carriers.
T-Mobile offers two plans. Its major new offering is called T-Mobile One and is completely uncapped, though with some caveats. Video, for example, is streamed at DVD resolution (480p). Tethering (the practice of turning your phone into a hot spot for other devices) is permitted, but capped at 3G speeds. But that's largely it; data, talk, text, music, etc., are all unlimited, and perks such as unlimited data and talk in Mexico and Canada, one hour of free data on Gogo enabled flights, and more are part of the package.
Pricing is fairly straightforward. The first phone on the account is $70 per month, the second $50, the third is $20, and the fourth is free, which translates to $35 per line for a family of four -- a relatively great deal for a typical family.
Though it expects to eventually discontinue them, T-Mobile continues to offer its Simple Choice plans. These plans are capped, but you can continue to use data at 2G speeds once that cap is reached, and there are no overage charges. Prices range from $50 per month for 1 GB of LTE data to $80 per month for 10 GB for a single line, with additional lines (up to four) available at a reduced cost. These plans retain many of T-Mobile's perks, including unlimited music and video streaming (video again limited to DVD resolution), data rollover (up to 20 GB for 12 months), free calls, text and data in Mexico and Canada, and more.
T-Mobile doesn't offer quite as many phones as AT&T or Verizon, but most flagship phones and many budget devices are available. T-Mobile also welcomes any compatible GSM phone bought from third parties (such as Amazon.com) or transferred from other carriers. You can pay for your phone upfront, or spread out over 24 payments. T-Mobile Jump! is an early upgrade program that lets you trade in your device after it is 50 percent paid off and receive a new phone. It costs an additional $12 per month, but that sting is offset by the fact that it includes handset insurance and a security software subscriptions that would collectively cost $12 per month if purchased separately.
Borrowing a page from Sprint (covered next) T-Mobile also offers Jump! on Demand -- an in-store only program that lets users lease rather than buy a phone. The lease lasts 18 months, after which you must return the phone or pay its remaining value if you wish to keep it. You can also trade in your phone up to three times a year at no cost.
Sprint (Est. $20 per month and up) doesn't fare particularly well in large surveys that judge performance and customer care, in fact, it generally finishes dead last, but qualitative testing by PCMag.com and RootMetrics reveal a cellular network that's clearly on the rise. "This year's story is that Sprint is finally back," says PCMag.com's Sascha Segan. The improvement is largely the result of an upgraded LTE Plus network that's geared toward faster downloads rather than uploads, he says, adding "but the company argues that most smartphone users' lifestyles are, too." Segan concludes: "Factor in how cheap Sprint's service plans are right now, and it becomes a carrier worth considering again."
The carrier offers a virtual smorgasbord of options when it comes to plans and phone payments. When it comes to the hardware, Sprint has a good selection of phones, including flagship models, mid-priced devices and budget choices, along with a handful of carrier-exclusives (though once again none that should tip the balance toward choosing Sprint over a competing carrier). Sprint will let you finance, pay in full, or accept a subsidized phone with a two year contact (but offsets that with higher monthly payments for service). The carrier will also let you lease some handsets (notably the iPhone). Standard financing terms are for 24 months. If you finance the handset it's yours to keep at the end of the term, but you have to return leased smartphones when the lease is up. iPhone leases are for 18 months, but you can upgrade your phone after 12 months.
Sprint plans start at $20 per month for 1 GB of data, plus a $20 line access charge if you buy, lease or finance your phone. Once you hit your cap, data continues at 2G speeds, or you can add additional high speed at a cost of $15 per GB. Sprint has also introduced an Unlimited Freedom plan, similar to T-Mobile's T-Mobile One. Talk, text and data is completely uncapped, though there are, again, caveats, such as video being limited to DVD resolution. The first line of service costs $60 per month, the second costs $40, and all subsequent lines (up to 10) are $30 each, plus line access charges. Sprint continues to offer a promotion where it guarantees equivalent service at half the cost of existing service for AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile customers who switch (available to new customers only). Sprint OpenWorld adds free talk, text and 1 GB of data when travelling in Canada, Mexico and most Latin American countries, free talk and text to Mexico and Canada from the U.S., and free texts and discounted calling to other included countries. The service is free, and can be applied to all plans, but has to be added separately.
Most of those who will sign on with a postpaid cellphone plan will select one of the big four carriers --AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile -- but those aren't the only choices. In addition to the aforementioned carriers there are a number of smaller, regional mobile phone companies that operate their own, much smaller networks, supplemented with roaming agreements that allow subscribers to use the networks of other carriers when out of their home area.
Among these, the largest and best regarded options is U.S. Cellular (Est. $50 and up per month). However, its limited reach (the carrier's home region now covers parts of just 23 states) and better performance among its competitors look to have reduced U.S. Cellular's former luster to mid-pack status in large surveys, such as the one conducted by PCMag.com.
Still, if you live within U.S. Cellular's home area, the service is worth considering. The selection of phones, while smaller than that of the major carriers, includes a good number of the best regarded high-end and budget devices. Rates are competitive and customer service continues to rate well -- though it's not available 24/7 as is the norm with the national carriers.
Plans follow the model set by other carriers. You can finance your phone over 24 months with no contract for service, or for a limited selection of older devices, accept a subsidized phone with a two year contract. Options for individual lines of service are limited, but well priced; $50 per month for 7 GB with unlimited talk and text. There are no line access charges, but device insurance (Est. $9 per month and up) is required. Shared data plans start at 2 GB for $30 per month plus a line access charge. Line access charges are $20 per phone, regardless of type.
An MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) is a mobile carrier that does not own its own network but instead provides service by buying capacity in bulk from one of the large national carriers and reselling it to its subscribers. Because MVNO's typically pay a much lower price than what's available to individual subscribers, they can often undercut carrier pricing and still turn a profit. MVNO subscribers use the same networks that subscribers to the major carriers use, and receive the same coverage, though some limitations (such as capped speeds) are sometimes applied.
Most prepaid cell phone providers follow the MVNO model, and those are covered in depth in our report on prepaid cell phone plans. However, some postpaid providers are MVNOs as well, and some are scoring highly in major surveys.
A case in point is Consumer Cellular (Est. $10 per month and up). It finishes near the top of charts among postpaid providers in one large national survey and is a Readers' Choice winner for the third year in a row at PCMag.com. "Consumer Cellular continues to receive excellent satisfaction ratings from its customers on nearly every aspect of wireless service with many marks of 9.0 or higher," says Ben Z. Gottesman. Formerly offering service via AT&T's national network, the company has now added T-Mobile to the mix, helping to fill in some performance gaps, particularly in larger metro areas.
Rates are a high point, especially for those who want a talk only plan from a postpaid provider. Talk plans start at $10 monthly plus 25 cents per minute, and go up to $50 per month for unlimited talk. Data and text are an optional add-on and start at $2.50 per month for 300 texts and 30 MB of data and run to $40 per month for unlimited texts and 4 GB of data. Additional data is available at a rate of $10 per GB, but that's capped at 10 GB, and any usage above 4 GB is subject to reduced speeds. You can add up to two additional lines to an account at a cost of $10 each and all lines share minutes, text and data allotments. In addition, calls between lines on an account are free. That kind of flexibility is rare among postpaid cell phone providers and lets users tailor an individual or small-family package with the right mix of talk and data for how they use their service. The company markets extensively to seniors, and AARP members get a 5 percent discount on service.
Phone selection isn't terrific: the latest Apple devices are offered, but the Android line up is limited to budget models. For users interested in talk only phones, a pair of flip phones are also available. If the selections don't include a phone you like or want, Consumer Cellular welcomes compatible phones from elsewhere, including unlocked phones previously used with AT&T or T-Mobile, or an unlocked GSM phone from a third party, such as Amazon.com.
Satisfaction with cell phone service is based on a number of factors, including performance, customer service and value. Because performance can vary so much depending on where you use your phone, we looked at sources that conducted testing in a wide variety of locales nationwide, including in cities, suburbs, rural areas, and along highways. Those include massive performance tests conducted by RootMetrics and PCMag.com. We also relied on large customer satisfaction surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, PCMag.com, ConsumerReports.org and others. While those also touch on performance, they are most valuable in assessing other aspects of whether or not users are happy with their provider, including measuring customer support, value, quality of the sales experience and more. Taken together, they provide a clear picture of which wireless providers are most likely to please, and which ones still have a little work to do.