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In this report

Navigating cell phone carriers and service 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. A company's phone selection is another key consideration. Note that we don't address cell phones themselves in this report, but we do in our separate reports on smartphones and cell phones.

We've split our coverage of cell phone plans into two reports. This one compares traditional cell phone plans that are postpaid; 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.

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. While some carriers quietly also offered postpaid service without a contract requirement and with no phone subsidy, T-Mobile has made such a plan the centerpiece of its offerings.

Early phone-upgrade plans have become commonplace, and all four of the major wireless networks now offer them. Except for T-Mobile, which charges a monthly fee for a plan that also serves as handset insurance, these upgrade options come at no extra charge when you purchase your phone at full price on an installment basis. Early upgrade plans let you purchase a new phone at periods ranging from six months to a year, depending on the company, without incurring an upgrade or other fee. These plans also do away with the formerly standard two-year service commitment, although any balance due on your phone becomes immediately due if you drop the carrier. There's lively discussion among expert reviewers as to which plan offers the best value, or if any are truly a good deal.

The most significant change made by the major wireless network companies has been a move to shared data plans that include unlimited talk and text. Basic pricing is based on the number and types of devices on your account, which can include smartphones, basic phones, tablets, mobile hotspots and more. You complete the plan by selecting a pool of data that's used by all of your subscribed devices.

More and more carriers are forcing new customers into shared plans if they want mobile data, and in many cases, even if they don't. For example, with AT&T, even if new customers have just a basic cell phone, they will now need to purchase a shared plan that includes at least a small data pool. Existing customers can keep their current plan. Shared plans can be a good deal for those with several devices eating lots of gigabytes of data. For those with few devices and modest Internet usage, these plans are costly compared to previous options.

With myriad plan options and the fact that those options are shifting quickly, it's tougher than ever to compare cell phone plans and services. To create this report, we considered the key factors that separate plans and carriers, including pricing, performance, customer service and phone selection. 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.

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