Cell Phone Plan Reviews

By: Carl Laron on September 27, 2017

Editor's Note:
Our research finds that Verizon has the widest reach. However, if you are in an area where its service is strong, T-Mobile sets the standard in value and performance. Sprint is the cheapest carrier overall -- but mind the fine print. For seniors and casual users, Consumer Cellular's flexibility and excellent customer service earns it top marks, too.

Verizon Wireless Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Network type -- CDMA Coverage -- Nationwide Unlimited plans -- No

Best cell phone plan provider

Verizon Wireless provides the best call quality and the broadest 4G LTE network of any national carrier, and offers a wide selection of smartphones. In performance testing, it wins top accolades in almost every major city and region of the United States. Customers and experts report the best coverage and the fewest dropped calls with Verizon Wireless. Customer service and value aren't as well regarded, but if you need reliable service, period, Verizon remains your best bet.

AT&T Wireless Review
Also Consider
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM Coverage -- Nationwide Unlimited plans -- Yes

Nationwide cell phone plan provider

Don't look now, Verizon, but AT&T is hot on your heels. User satisfaction is still a bit wobbly in some surveys, but those users surveyed by J.D. Power and Associates give the carrier high grades for both customer care and the buying experience. The network isn't quite as robust as Verizon's, but the gap is quite small according to some independent tests -- to the point where it scores as well or better in some regions. Pricing and features are competitive with Verizon, too.

T-Mobile Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM Coverage -- Nationwide Unlimited plans -- Yes

Best value cell phone plan provider

T-Mobile's network coverage isn't as broad as Verizon or AT&T, but it's closing the gap, and the signal is strong and fast in many cities, towns, suburbs and along major highways. The carrier gets good feedback for customer service, and keeps pushing the envelope when it comes to perks and extras. All pricing now includes all fees and taxes -- unique among major postpaid carriers. In addition, all plans are now unlimited, use in Canada and Mexico is included, and a Netflix subscription is thrown in for free for accounts with two or more lines.

Also Consider
Specs that Matter Network type -- CDMA Coverage -- Nationwide Unlimited plans -- Yes

Cheap cell phone provider

Sprint still lags behind the other big four national cell phone providers, but the gap has closed somewhat in recent years. You'll need to investigate closely to see if performance is good in the places where you live, work and play, but if it is, Sprint's well-priced plans and promotions -- including one that cuts the cost of the third to fifth line on an account to free -- at least for the first year -- make it pretty much the cheapest of the big four major carriers.

Consumer Cellular Review
Also Consider
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM Coverage -- Nationwide Unlimited plans -- No

Cell phone plans for seniors

Consumer Cellular earns raves for its low pricing and great customer service. Its plans won't satisfy the needs of power users or large families, but it offers terrific flexibility to find the right mix of talk, text and data -- including the option to have a voice-only plan -- to meet the needs and budgets of most casual users. Its phone selection is broad enough that most users should be able to find something they like. Consumer Cellular is particularly popular with seniors, and offers a modest discount for AARP members.

Keep your wits, and your calculator, about you when comparing plans

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. That's over with for the most part. Instead you buy your phone outright upfront or sign up for an installment plan that spreads the cost out over a year or more. Sprint also offers a lease program that looks to be a good deal initially, but there's a bit of a catch at the end -- more on that when we discuss Sprint (Est. $22 per month and up) in more detail later on in this report.

Getting a phone on an installment plan (or lease) sometimes only means paying a few dollars more per month, but for the newest, hottest phones, it can mean a significantly larger bill. Also, while these installment or lease 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, so you could get more value if you just sold it yourself.

All major wireless network companies now offer shared plans that include unlimited talk, text and  data for each line, as well as capped plans that include a data pool that's shared by all devices on your account, But unlimited plans often will slow data speeds if you exceed a certain amount of data usage per billing period, while some capped plans have a provision that will let you continue to use data (at greatly reduced speeds) after you exceed your cap instead of automatically hitting you with a hefty charge for extra data. Shared data pool plans will also typically have 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.

Postpaid vs. Prepaid

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 readily 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 by far 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; 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.

Verizon Wireless is still tops, but the competition is close

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, 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 two unlimited data plans for consumers. Go Unlimited starts at $80 per month per line, with prices dropping to $45 per line for accounts with four to 10 lines. It includes unlimited talk, text and data, with the proviso that speeds may be slowed during times of peak demand if you use more than 22 GB of data in a billing cycle. There are a couple of additional catches. Video streaming is restricted to "DVD-quality," which Verizon says means typically 480p. Also, if you intend to use your mobile device as a mobile hot spot, anything you tether to it will be restricted to pretty pokey speeds (600 kbps). For $10 additional per line, you can opt for Verizon's Beyond Unlimited, which lifts the speed restriction on hot spot usage and gives you up to 15 GB at full LTE speeds. It also ups video streaming to "HD quality," but reviewers note that smartphone streaming is still limited to 720p. Finally, Beyond Unlimited extends free calling, texting and data to Canada and Mexico. You can save an additional $5 per month per line if you sign up for Auto Pay, paperless billing and don't use a credit card (pay directly from your bank account or using a debit card only).

Verizon continues to offer shared data plans as well. For these plans, 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 8 GB per month for $70. 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 for $15 per GB. Autopay discounts are not offered for shared data plans

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 -- largely outright, but sharing top honors in one region with U.S. Cellular (discussed below). 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).

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 is relatively pricey. "Verizon Wireless rated a dismal 5.4 for satisfaction with fees," Ben Z. Gottesman reports in PCMag.com's 2017 Readers' Choice award survey. To be fair, however, two of the other three "big four" national carriers didn't do a lot better. Only T-Mobile (discussed below) "did reasonably well on this measure," Gottesman says.

Verizon's decision to throttle video on its unlimited plans in August 2017 was also met with a lot of hand wringing, though the move is not unique to Verizon, and might have been a necessity to preserve the carrier's standing in terms of overall performance. In its August 2017 State of Mobile Networks report, Open Signal found that while other networks also saw some impact, the re-introduction of unlimited plans seems to have hit Verizon the hardest. "Its average LTE download test fell 2 Mbps to 14.9 Mbps in the six months between reports," Open Signal says.

Verizon's customer service hasn't always won kudos, but this update finds that the carrier is getting somewhat better feedback than in the past. Most notably, it earns the top spot in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates customer service rankings; a nice improvement over last year, when that survey found below average scores.

For nationwide coverage, AT&T is worth considering

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 Southcentral 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. "The bottom line is that AT&T proved once again a strong second to Verizon at the national level," Dave Andersen says. "However, considering AT&T's ascent to a shared victory in text performance, as well as the carrier's expansive LTE footprint, AT&T could soon challenge Verizon in other categories moving forward."

In terms of customer satisfaction, surveys are a mixed bag. AT&T shines in two surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, finishing first in satisfaction with the buying experience (among postpaid carriers) and second (by a skinny point) to Verizon when it comes to customer care. However, other surveys tell a starkly different story. AT&T fares poorly in the Readers' Choice poll conducted by PCMag.com, finishing second from dead last -- out pacing only Sprint (see below) -- and is last in the rankings of postpaid (traditional) carriers at ConsumerReports.org. However, as PCMag.com reports, "It's important to note that these are satisfaction ratings based on perceptions, not on comparative, objective coverage tests." Gottesman goes on to observe: "AT&T had the second lowest satisfaction ratings for home coverage (7.9) but its subsidiary Cricket runs on its network and scored better (8.7);" Cricket (Est. $25 per month and up) is a prepaid provider, and is covered in more depth in our report on prepaid cell phone plans.

Like Verizon, AT&T offers unlimited and shared data plans, and all plans include unlimited talk and text. The carrier's basic unlimited plan is called Unlimited Choice, and it costs $45 per month, plus a $20 charge for each phone or tablet on the account ($10 for smart watches and other wearables). There are however, a couple of significant restrictions: Data is limited to 3 Mbps maximum, and there is no mobile hotspot capability. The step-up plan, called Unlimited Plus, costs $75 per month, plus the abovementioned line access charges. It removes the data speed cap and adds hot spot functionality (up to 10 GB per line at full LTE speeds). Both plans include free roaming in Canada and Mexico, plus free HBO streaming (SD for unlimited Choice, HD for Unlimited Plus). AT&T owns DirectTV, and you can add that service's most basic streaming package (60+ channels) for an additional $10 a month. The Unlimited Plus plan also offers a $25 discount for those who also subscribe to the regular DirecTV service. Sign up for Auto Pay, paperless billing and use your bank account or a debit card to pay (credit cards are excluded) and you can save $5 per month for single lines or $10 per month if you have multiple lines.

AT&T also offers shared data plans that include unlimited talk and text. Pricing starts at $30 for 1 GB of shared data and goes up to $110 for 25 GB of data per month, plus an access charge of $20 for each smartphone or cell phone ($10 for other devices) per line. 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. Mobile hot spot usage is allowed. AT&T activates its Stream Saver "feature" by default, which restricts video streams to 480P, but that can be turned off by the user. As with Verizon, there is no Auto Pay discount available for shared data accounts.

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. You can also choose to make a voluntary down payment to reduce the monthly cost. While contracts are no longer offered for phones, you can still get tablets and smart devices with a two year commitment.

AT&T's phone selection, like Verizon's (and most postpaid carriers, for that matter), is first rate. Almost all flagship phones are available or supported (and AT&T also 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.

T-Mobile is a great value

Led by its colorful CEO, John Legere, T-Mobile's (Est. $45 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.

Now, before we get to the company's current offerings, there's a pretty large caveat we need to share. As this report was being prepared, news leaked that T-Mobile and Sprint (discussed next) were on the verge of a tentative merger agreement. We've been here before, with rumors of a potential T-Mobile/Sprint union surfacing, only to never come to fruition. Also, it bears keeping in mind that it can be a long road from a tentative agreement to a final agreement, with regulatory approval being a high hurdle that needs to be first cleared. There's also no way to predict how that merger, if approved, will effect users in terms of network coverage, device compatibility (T-Mobile is a GSM carrier, like AT&T, while Sprint uses CDMA, like Verizon), plan costs and more.

But with that piece of news in our back pocket, here's the state of affairs for T-Mobile for the here and now, and probably at least short term future.

T-Mobile continues to offer 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 markedly improved over a few years ago, getting service outside of cities, towns and suburban areas, and away from major highways, can sometimes still be a challenge. The bottom line is that if you live in rural America, you will probably be happier with a different carrier -- notably Verizon or AT&T.

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, but actually split the crown three ways (with Verizon and AT&T) in the 36 cities and rural areas that PCMag.com surveys -- "the first time we've seen that kind of an even divide," Gottesman says. Open Signal's State of Mobile Networks report finds that if you use your phone in an area where T-Mobile makes sense, you are likely to be pretty happy. "T-Mobile edged out Verizon in our 4G availability metric, but it was a very close call. Our testers were able to find a 4G signal on T-Mobile 90.9% of the time compared to 89.8% of the time on Verizon." On a regional basis, Open Signal says that T-Mobile is locked in a heated battle with Verizon as well. "One of the two operators either won outright or tied for our 4G speed and availability awards in all of the 32 markets we examined." Rootmetrics is still a skeptic, however, putting T-Mobile in fourth place in its RootScore Awards for the first half of 2017. Performance is on a par with previous years. The Andersen does say, however, "We've noted before that T-Mobile typically performs much better in metropolitan markets compared to state or national levels, and that was again the case in the first half of 2017."

Survey results indicate that T-Mobile customers are largely a happy bunch. T-Mobile finishes third in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of satisfaction with mobile provider customer care, but in a virtual tie with Verizon and AT&T, and all three earn five circles for overall satisfaction. It also does relatively well in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice poll, finishing at the industry average (which includes prepaid providers), which is stronger than the other "big four" carriers. Ditto at ConsumerReport.org, where it finishes ahead of its chief rivals.

T-Mobile currently offers only one plan to new subscribers, called T-Mobile One. It is unlimited, and it has a higher threshold than either AT&T or Verizon when it comes to throttling users -- 50 GB vs 22 GB per billing cycle. Prices start at $75 for a single line, with each additional line costing less -- down to $45 per line for four lines. And in a break from what is the norm among postpaid plans, prices include all taxes and fees -- one reason, we suspect, that T-Mobile gets better survey scores than many of its competitors in satisfaction with costs.

There's more: If you use less than 2 GB on a line of service in a billing cycle, that line is eligible for a $10 Kickback refund. If you have at least two lines of service, a Netflix subscription is thrown in for free. The plan includes free roaming in Canada and Mexico and free texting and one hour of data in-flight on planes that have GoGo service. For older users (at least one has to be 55 or older), a two line plan is available for $70, including all fees and taxes. New users, however, will need to go into a store to sign up (to provide proof of age). It has all the features of the full T-Mobile One plan except for Netflix, and it is not eligible for the Kickback refund. There is a $5 per line discount for signing up for Auto Pay.

Of course, there are always some downsides. Video streaming resolution is limited to 480p and mobile hotspot speeds to 3G. If you want, you can opt for an upgrade called T-Mobile ONE Plus, which gives you HD streaming (in the U.S.) up to 10 GB of LTE hotspot use, unlimited data on flights with GoGo service, and more. It costs an extra $10 per line per billing cycle.

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 -- though if you don't have great credit, you'll need to put up a very hefty deposit. 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 $15 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 -- a 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 as often as every 30 days. If you want to end the lease early, all remaining payments will still be due. The phone has to be in good condition when returned, otherwise you will be charged its remaining value.

Sprint performs better than its reputation

Sprint (Est. $22 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 somewhat better than customer perceptions would indicate. "Sprint seems to have hit a speed bump, mostly in terms of consistency, but it's also much more competitive than it was two years ago," says Sascha Segan at PCMag.com. And while the carrier finishes dead last in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice survey, there's a caveat to that. As Gottesman notes, Sprint got lower grades for home coverage than MVNOs that run on the exact same network. RootMetrics names Sprint the third best network nationally, and adds "Sprint showed improvement at the national level, delivering particularly strong text results and earning a share of the United States Text RootScore Award."

When it comes to plan pricing, Sprint looks to be highly competitive, but be wary of the fine print. Its Unlimited Freedom Plan offers unlimited talk and text, full HD (1080p) video streaming and 10 GB of hotspot data for $50 per month for the first line, $40 per month for the second line and the third to fifth lines are free. However, prices will shoot up in about a year (after 10/31/2018) at the time this report was prepared to $60 for the first line, $40 for the second line, and $30 per month per lines for additional lines (up to five total). Like all of the major carriers' unlimited plans, Sprint will slow speeds for heavy users -- in this case those that have burned through more than 23 GB -- during times of heavy congestion, and will slow speeds for certain activities -- such as peer-to-peer use (used for network gaming and other applications) and VPN (virtual private network) access -- after 10 GB. There is a $5 per line discount for those that sign up for Auto Pay.

Sprint also offers a simple single line plan for $45 per month, with a $5 discount available if you sign up for auto pay. It includes 2GB of data (including for hot spot use) plus unlimited talk and text

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). With Sprint, you either pay for your phone in full up front, or participate in the carrier's Sprint Flex 18-month lease program. It has lower monthly costs than other carrier's finance programs, but the phone remains Sprint's property. At the end of 18 months you can return the phone or pay the "purchase price option" price that's set in the contract (either in full or in 6 monthly payments) and keep the phone. You can also elect to keep paying the lease payments and keep the phone, and either return the phone when you are ready or keep the phone by paying its then "fair market value." The program also lets you trade in your phone after 12 months; the option is included free with some phones (such as iPhones and some Samsung Galaxy models), but is a $5 upcharge with others.

For international travelers, Sprint plans include Sprint Global Roaming, which includes free texts and low speed data (2G), and calls billed at 20 cents per minute in "low cost" destinations, which includes a wide variety of countries, including Canada and Mexico. LTE service is also available, starting at $2/day or $10/week and going up to $10/day or $50/week (in China)

Among regional carriers, U.S. Cellular is worth considering

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. $55 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. 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.

Single line plans start at $55 per month for a single line with 2 GB of data plus unlimited talk and text, and go up to $70 per month for unlimited data. However, the unlimited plan limits data speeds to 1.5 Mbps, and will drop speeds to 2G if you use more than 22 GB. On the capped plans, there's no overage for going over the cap, but again, once the plan limits are reached, speeds drop to 2G. You can additional lines to each plan, each with its own data allotment, at reduced cost, starting at a $15 discount for the second line to a $5 discount per line for the fourth line and above. Signing up for auto pay/paperless billing saves $10 per account. There are no line access charges, but use in other countries, including Canada and Mexico, can get expensive -- $35 per month for 125 MB of data per month (and with lower data limits elsewhere.

U.S. Cellular is one of the few carriers that still offers two year agreements on some plans. These are the company's Shared Connect data plans, which are shared data plans that are marketed to businesses. If you opt for a contract, you must pay for your phone in full, but you'll receive a fairly hefty discount (for example, the price of a Samsung Galaxy 8, which runs around $750 or more at retail, drops to an Est. $200); however, that might not wind up being as good a deal as it looks at first glance, as we'll explain in a moment. You can also opt to skip the contract and finance your phone(s) under the carrier's standard plan (see below). Shared plans start at $40 per month plus a device connection charge for 2 GB and range to $300 per month for 90 GB. If you opt for installment pricing, the connection charge is $20 per device for each smartphone or basic phone, and $10 for each tablet. However, and here's the catch we just mentioned, if you accept a contract, the connection charge for each smartphone jumps to $40 per device -- which will claw back much of the savings ($480 over the two year life of the deal) that opting for a contract provides in the first place.

For those who don't choose a contract, phones are financed on a 30 month plan (24 months for basic phones) on all plans; no other options appear to be currently available. Selection is more limited than with the major national carriers, but still includes the latest Apple and Samsung flagship devices, plus an assortment of mid-priced and budget smartphones along with a handful of basic devices.

Consumer Cellular scores high with seniors and others

As noted earlier, 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 at the top of charts among postpaid providers in ConsumerReports.org's large subscriber survey and is a Readers' Choice winner for the fourth year in a row at PCMag.com. "The company offers an affordable, reliable service backed by top-notch customer support." says PCMag.com's 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 $30 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 5 GB of data. Go over that limit and you will be charged $5 for an additional 5 GB, though speed might be slowed. Go over 12 GB and data use is suspended for the balance of the month. 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. 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 is limited compared to major carriers, but it does now include the latest Apple and Samsung flagship phones, as well as a decent selection of mid-priced and budget smartphones. 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

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. Open Signal also provides some useful insights based on testing done by the users of its mobile apps. 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.

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Cell Phone Plans buying guide

What every best Cell Phone Plans has:

  • Fair plan pricing and flexibility.
  • Good performance.
  • Helpful customer service.

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