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Verizon Wireless: Best nationwide cell phone plans

Verizon Wireless (Est. $40 per month and up) wins awards in nearly every test and survey we spotted. Its call quality, 4G data speed and coverage are tops in most regions that it serves. The carrier offers a full array of plans, including a talk and text only plan that doesn't require you to bundle data with it. U.S. Cellular is the only other carrier to offer a similar plan. With Verizon you can elect to go month-to-month and pay the full retail price of a new phone (or activate your own phone with Verizon), or receive a new phone at a subsidized price with a two-year contractual agreement. Regardless of whether you go month-to-month or agree to a contract, the price of service is the same.

Verizon's postpaid plan is called Share Everything. With a basic phone only, you have the option of selecting a 700-minute shared plan with no data. Otherwise, all plans have unlimited talk and text. You can add up to 10 devices, including basic phones, smartphones, tablets, hotspots and more. The access charge varies depending on device, from $5 for a connected device such as a digital camera to $10 for a tablet to $40 for a smartphone. Shared data starts at 500 MB per month (Est. $40 per month) and goes up to 50 GB per month (Est. $375 per month). These plan prices are slightly more expensive than some of Verizon's competitors, namely T-Mobile, and there is no unlimited data plan.

Verizon's free Edge phone upgrade plan lets you purchase a new phone after six months and again every year, but there are some catches. Phones are not subsidized -- you pay full price, spread out over the life of a two-year Edge purchase agreement -- and the phone has to have been at least 50 percent paid for and be in working condition to be eligible for an upgrade. There's no long-term service agreement and service is month-to-month, but if you drop Verizon service, any balance left on your phone becomes due immediately. For those who like to have the latest phones, it could be a worthwhile but pricey option, but critics say there are better deals to be had from other providers. Notably, Verizon is the only national carrier that does not offer lower service prices for those on an early upgrade program.

In the past, Verizon Wireless phones did not have removable SIM cards, but now all 4G LTE devices including smartphones and tablets come with those. Since your account and subscriber data are tied to the SIM card rather than a specific device, you can swap your SIM card between devices for use on your plan. You can also use a device not purchased from Verizon, as long as it is one that Verizon supports.

According to reviews, Verizon's weak point is its customer service. While several large customer surveys award Verizon Wireless above-average scores for customer support, others give it a low rating. User complaints include long wait times and condescending service.

T-Mobile plans are worth considering

T-Mobile (Est. $50 per month and up) has completely done away with contract agreements. Instead, the only postpaid plan T-Mobile now offers is its no-contract Simple Choice plan. In most cases, it is cheaper than the equivalent contract plans of its competitors. The exception is at the cheapest levels of service (a basic phone) since at least a small data package of 500 MB per month is required.

The trade-off is that the company no longer offers subsidized phones. Instead, you pay the full retail price, spread out over the life of a purchase agreement. If you cancel your service, you are not subject to any fees but the balance owed on the phone is immediately due. All new phones also require a SIM starter kit (Est. $10).

T-Mobile is one of only two service providers, along with Sprint, to offer unlimited data plans, and it's the cheaper of the two. On capped plans, you don't incur added charges if you exceed your data allotment, but data speeds are throttled to 2G levels, which can be painfully slow. Off-network (roaming) data is capped at 10 MB for the company's 500 MB plan, and at 50 MB for all other plans, including unlimited data.

Jump! (Est. $10 per month) is T-Mobile's early phone-upgrade program. It lets subscribers purchase a new phone after only six months of enrollment, and allows up to two upgrades per year. Reviews are mixed on the program's value, but most say it's a better alternative than some competing offerings like that of Verizon. T-Mobile's $10 program fee is offset by the carrier's lower plan costs. In addition, the fee includes handset insurance that lets you replace a lost or damaged phone, although a deductible applies.

An extensive selection of phones is another notable plus. However, T-Mobile doesn't fare particularly well in reviews and surveys. The company often receives below-average marks for network performance and call quality, and really poor ratings for customer service.

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