Keep your wits, and your calculator, about you when comparing plans
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
Verizon Wireless is still tops,
but the competition is close
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.
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).
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
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.
coverage, AT&T is worth considering
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
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.
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.
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
T-Mobile is a
great value, and coverage is improving
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Among regional carriers,
U.S. Cellular is worth considering
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.
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
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.
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.
scores high with seniors and others
(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.
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.
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.
Expert & User Review Sources
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.