The best cell phone plans of 2019

Don't listen to the guy at the mall. How to pick the best smartphone data plan

dt-best-of-150_carriers

The best family plan right now is T-Mobile One, which offers unlimited data at unbeatable prices, including the option to add a third line for free right now. You can add up to eight lines, and additional lines beyond the first three are $20 each. We have some alternative options if T-Mobile service isn’t great in your area or if you’re looking for the best individual plan, best unlimited plan, and more.

We test hundreds of smartphones at Digital Trends, so good service is essential. We pore through every detail of what each carrier offers and review coverage and service standards before making recommendations to ensure you find the right plan for you.

Editor’s Note: Each plan we’ve chosen lists only the price of your service bill. You will also pay monthly installments on your new phones’ balances, if you choose to buy new phones from your carrier. This is explained further in the section below titled “How do phone payment plans work?”

At a glance

Service Category
T-Mobile Best cell phone plan overall
Sprint Best individual plan
Verizon Best rural service
Mobile Share Plus, Unlimited &More, and Unlimited &More Premium Best AT&T plans
T-Mobile and Sprint Best plans for international travelers
T-Mobile One Best unlimited data plan
T-Mobile Simply Prepaid Best prepaid plan (from a major carrier)

T-Mobile

The best

t-mobile-hq-sign_feat-2x3

Why you should buy this: T-Mobile leads the industry with plans that charge no overages, cost less than the competition, and offer more perks.

Read more about T-Mobile’s plans here.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants an unlimited plan, lives in an urban area, or travels internationally a lot.

How much it will cost:

 People  Line cost  Data  Total
1  $70  Unlimited  $70
2  $70 + $50  Unlimited  $120
3  $70 + $50 + $20  Unlimited  $140
4 $70 + $50 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $160
5   $70 + $50 + $20 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $180

These prices reflect the autopay pricing discount of $5 per line and include taxes and fees.

Why we picked T-Mobile:

T-Mobile is the industry leader in the U.S. with its bold “Un-carrier” campaign. When T-Mobile busts out a brand new plan or feature, the rest of the carriers inevitably follow its example. T-Mobile started by ending overage charges, killing the two-year contract, and offering lower prices than its competitors.

Now, T-Mobile offers a wide range of perks, including free gifts on Tuesdays, unlimited data plans, video streaming, free international service, and more. As such, T-Mobile wins our awards for best unlimited plan, best international service, and best urban service.

Of course, you have to look beyond the gimmicks to see the core aspects of T-Mobile’s service. It offers one plan: T-Mobile One.

There’s no contract, and you have to pay the full, unsubsidized price for each smartphone you buy on the plan. You’ll pay for each device in installments (typically $20 to $30 a month per phone), or you can bring your own phone instead of buying a new one.

T-Mobile One Plus, a premium upgrade, starts at an additional $15 a month and includes unlimited GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi, voicemail to text, and caller ID. T-Mobile One Plus customers get unlimited data at twice the speed of the basic T-Mobile One plan (up to 256 kbps) and unlimited text and calling at $0.25 per minute in 210 countries.

Bottom line: Data hogs get a pretty decent deal with the T-Mobile One Plan and its unlimited data and people who want a no-frills unlimited option will find T-Mobile’s One plan attractive. Large families who make international calls or tether to mobile hotspots should opt for One Plus.

Disclaimer: If you live in a rural area, T-Mobile may not work for you. Coverage is still spotty in rural America, though it excels in cities.

The perks that come with T-Mobile’s plan:

  • Mobile without Borders: T-Mobile users get get free calling and texting to and from Mexico and Canada and up to 5GB of free high-speed data when traveling there as well as unlimited text and data and low flat-rate calling in 210 countries worldwide. High-speed data passes are available for $5 per day.
  • Jump! on Demand: An 18-month agreement lets you lease phones for less and upgrade to the latest and greatest phone every 30 days.
  • Scam ID and Scam Block: The company offers free screening for scammers with no app or opt-in required – you’re alerted with Scam Likely message, if T-Mobile detects a scam call.
  • T-Mobile Tuesdays: Download the iOS and Android app to get free deals every Tuesday, like a Dunkin Donuts Latte or Taco Bell Tacos.
  • No overages on data: The unlimited plan has no overages.
  • Free Netflix subscription: For T-Mobile One unlimited customers with two or more lines on their account.
  • Speeds won’t throttle until 50GB: For subscribers on the T-Mobile One plan, speeds won’t throttle until your data usage reaches 50GB.

The downsides of T-Mobile’s plan:

  • Spotty coverage in rural areas
  • The tethering between your phone and other devices is limited to 3G speeds
  • Sign up for Auto Pay on your bills, or T-Mobile will charge $5 extra per line each month

Sprint

The best individual plan

sprint

Why you should buy this: Sprint offers a cheap individual plan, and it comes with nice perks.

Read more about Sprint’s plans here

Who it’s for: Anyone who can’t get T-Mobile, but who travels within Sprint’s coverage maps and wants to save money.

How much it will cost:

People Line cost Data Total
1 $60 Unlimited $60
2 $60 + $40 Unlimited $100
3 $60 + $40 + $20 Unlimited $120
4 $60 + $40 + $20 + $20 Unlimited $140
5 $60 + $40 + $20 + $20 + $20 Unlimited $160

Why we picked Sprint:

Sprint typically undercuts T-Mobile prices and offers, but the carrier suffers in network coverage compared to the rest. Sprint comes with fewer perks than T-Mobile’s service, but it’s still a solid option for those on a budget who live in cities and other densely populated regions, where its coverage is strongest.

Sprint has struggled in the past to match the competition’s data speeds — in many areas of the country, you’ll get slower rates than customers on the other three carriers. That’s something to keep in mind before you commit.

Sprint offers three unlimited plans —Basic, Plus, and Premium — tailored to specific streaming, hot spot, or other preferences now that its Unlimited Freedom plan is no longer being offered. There’s no contract, and you have to pay the full, unsubsidized price for each smartphone on the plan. You’ll pay for devices in installments (typically $20 to $30 a month per phone), or you can bring your own phone instead of buying a new one.

It’s worth noting that Sprint’s unlimited plan is one of the most restrictive. Certain categories of traffic — like multiplayer gaming and music streaming — are throttled, and Sprint reserves the right to terminate your service if you exceed your monthly tethering limit.

Still, Sprint’s unlimited plans aren’t a bad option for data hogs who rely solely on cellular for internet access. At $60 for a single line, Unlimited Basic is a money saver.

Perks that come with Sprint plans:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Unlimited text and data at lower speeds is also available in almost 180 countries worldwide, though calls cost 20 cents per minute.
  • Varying LTE mobile-hotspot data.
  • No overages.
  • Lets you lease some phones so you can get a new one every year.
  • Global roaming for more than 200 locations worldwide

The downsides of Sprint’s Unlimited plan:

  • Gaming is limited to 8Mbps.
  • Music streaming is limited to 1.5Mbps.
  • Roaming restrictions: Sprint may terminate your service if you regularly use more than 100MB of data roaming.

The downsides of all Sprint plans:

  • Spotty coverage in rural areas.
  • Once you surpass your data limit, speeds are cut back to 2G.
  • Not as many perks as T-Mobile.

Verizon

The best rural service

verizon-store

Why you should buy this: Verizon offers the best coverage in rural areas across the U.S. and its unlimited plan is a decent deal.

Read more about Verizon’s plans here

Who it’s for: Anyone who lives in rural America where Sprint and T-Mobile just don’t work.

How much it will cost:

People Line cost 4G LTE data Total
1 $20 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$40 w/Unlimited

$55

$70

$90

$60

2 $20 x 2 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$80 w/Unlimited

$75

$90

$110

$120

3 $20 x 3 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$120 w/Unlimited

$95

$110

$130

$180

4 $20 x 4 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$160 w/Unlimited

$115

$130

$150

$240

5 $20 x 5 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$200 w/Unlimited

$135

$150

$170

$300

Why we picked Verizon:

Verizon offers the best service in rural areas across the country. If you live in the boonies where T-Mobile and Sprint don’t reach, Verizon is your best bet for reliable coverage.

Verizon offers fixed data plans, as well as an unlimited option.

The Unlimited plan is a recent addition, and it starts at $75 a month for a single line or $160 for a family of four, and includes all-you-can-eat data, texting, calling. Two caveats to note, though: Subscribers who use more than 22 GB on a line might be subject to throttled speeds, and Verizon limits high-speed 4G LTE tethering to 600 Kbps. Verizon is also marketing two 5G Ultra Wide Band unlimited plans — BeyondUnlimited for $95 per month and AboveUnlimited for $85 per month for a single line with options for up to four lines with perks like HD streaming, generous unlimited 4G LTE mobile hotspot, Verizon Up rewards, and Apple Music. If you use a 5G phone, the advanced plans offer the company’s 5G ultra wideband data, unlimited 4K HD streaming, and unlimited 5G ultra wideband hotspot. All prices reflect the $5 per month auto payment discount.

If you don’t need unlimited data, Verizon offers capped plans in three sizes: Small (2GB), Medium (4GB), and Large (8GB). Each additional line costs $20, and data package prices range from $35 a month for Small to $110 a month for 24GB of data plus 2GB extra per line. All capped plans come with unlimited talk and text.

None of Verizon’s plans require you to sign a contract, and you have to pay the full, unsubsidized price for each smartphone on both Verizon’s capped and unlimited plans. You’ll pay for each device in installments (typically $20 to $30 a month per phone), or you can bring your own phone instead of buying a new one.

Verizon does not offer international service beyond Canada and Mexico like T-Mobile and Sprint, and though it doesn’t charge for data overages, exceeding your monthly data limit knocks your speed down to 2G. But you will get reliable service in all parts of the country.

The perks of Verizon plans:

  • Strong coverage in both rural and urban areas.
  • Up to 15GB of mobile-hotspot data on advanced unlimited plans.
  • Decent prices for individuals.
  • Big phone selection.

The downsides of Verizon’s plans:

  • Generally higher prices across the board.
  • Various throttling caps on unlimited plans.
  • International coverage beyond Canada and Mexico costs extra money.
  • Verizon runs on CDMA networks, so buying unlocked phones is tricky.

Mobile Share Plus, Unlimited &More, and Unlimited &More Premium

The best AT&T plans

AT&T_DirecTV_lawsuit
Why you should buy this: AT&T offers reliable coverage across the U.S. and a strong phone selection.

Read more about AT&T’s plans here

Who it’s for: Anyone who lives in rural America, where Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon just don’t work.

How much it will cost: Cost reflects auto pay and paperless billing.

People Unlimited &More Total Unlimited &More
Premium
Total
1 $70 $70 $80 $80
2 $63 + $63 $125 $75 + $75 $150
3 $49 + $49 + $49 $145 $57 + $57 + $57 $170
4 $40 + $40 + $40 + $40 $160 $48 + $48 + $48 + $48 $190

AT&T Mobile Share Plus 3GB/9GB

People AT&T Mobile Share Plus
3GB
Total AT&T Mobile Share Plus
9GB
Total
1 $50 $50 $60 $60
2 $40 $80 $50 $100
3 $34 $100 $40 $120
4 $30 $120 $35 $140

Why we picked AT&T:

AT&T offers the second most reliable coverage across the U.S., but its plans are the priciest. If you live in an area where Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint don’t work, AT&T is likely your only option.

AT&T offers capped data plans called Mobile Share Plus at 3GB and 9GB or Unlimited&More and Unlimited&More Premium unlimited plans.

Mobile Share Plus starts at $50 a month for 3GB, and includes unlimited domestic and Mexico calling and texting. You don’t get charged for exceeding your monthly data limit, and you can add up to 10 phones, tablets, and other devices to a single plan.

Unlimited &More starts at $70 a month for a single line up to $160 for a family of four, but unlike T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon’s unlimited plans, it doesn’t include tethering — you’ll have to opt for the premium version of the plan if you’re dead set on a hotspot. Videos are capped at standard definition (480p), and you get maximum speeds of 1.5Mbps. AT&T says it may temporarily slow speeds when the network is busy.

Unlimited &More Premium starts at $80 a month and upgrades video streaming to HD 1080p, adds 15GB of tethering, and lets you have one entertainment choice — HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz, VRV, Amazon Music Unlimited, or Pandora Premium — for free.

None of the plans requires you to sign a contract, and you have to pay the full, unsubsidized price for each smartphone on the plan. You’ll pay for each device in installments (typically $20 to $30 a month per phone), or you can bring your own phone instead of buying a new one.

The perks of AT&T plans:

  • Strong coverage in both rural and urban areas.
  • Big phone selection.
  • Free calling to Mexico

The downsides of AT&T plans:

  • Comparatively pricey plans.
  • No hotspot on cheaper unlimited plan.
  • Network slowdowns on unlimited plans after 22GB
  • International coverage costs extra.

T-Mobile and Sprint

The best plans for international travelers

T-Mobile
Chris Potter/Flickr

Why you should buy this: T-Mobile and Sprint offer the best international coverage as part of their plans.

Who it’s for: Jetsetters who travel a lot and don’t want to pay extra for international service.

How much it will cost:

Sprint Unlimited Basic
People Line cost Data Total
1 $60 Unlimited $60
2 $60 + $40 Unlimited $100
3 $60 + $40 + $20 Unlimited $120
4 $70 + $50 + $20 +$20 Unlimited $140
5 $60 + $40 + $20 + $20 + $20 Unlimited $160
T-Mobile One
 People  Line cost  Data  Total
1  $70  Unlimited  $70
2 $70 + $50  Unlimited  $120
3 $70 + $50 + $20  Unlimited  $140
4 $70 + $50 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $160
5 $70 + $50 + $20 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $180

Why we picked T-Mobile and Sprint:

T-Mobile and Sprint are the only carriers that include international service in their plans. AT&T and Verizon offer international plan add-ons, but they tend to be expensive.

Verizon charges $10 a day for an International Travel Plan, which includes talk, text, and data in over 185 countries. You’ll pay $5 a day per device for Mexico and Canada. If you want monthly international coverage in over 185 countries, prices range from $70 to $130 per device for a capped allowance of minutes, texts, and data.

AT&T plans include talk, text, and data in Mexico at no extra charge, but other countries are a different story. The carrier charges $10 per day for an International Day Pass and $60 (1GB) or $120 per month (3GB) for an AT&T Passport. International Day Pass provides 24-hour coverage in more than 100 countries, and AT&T Passport comes with 30-day coverage in over 200. Passport gives you unlimited texting (SMS and MMS) and charges 35 cents per minute for calls. The Day Pass covers all calls and texts for a 24-hour period in countries covered by the plan.

In contrast, T-Mobile and Sprint offer unlimited texting and data at 2G/3G speeds in more than 100 countries. You can also place calls for $0.25 per minute, and place as many texts and calls as your heart desires.

T-Mobile One

The best unlimited data plan

DISH-and-T-Mobile-to-merge

Why you should buy this: It’s the best unlimited plan you can buy with international service and no data limits.

Who it’s for: Data hogs who want it all and can get T-Mobile coverage.

How much it will cost:

 People  Line cost  Data  Total
1  $70  Unlimited  $70
2 $70 + $50  Unlimited  $120
3 $70 + $50 + $20  Unlimited  $140
4 $70 + $50 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $160
5 $70 + $50 + $20 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $180

Why we picked T-Mobile One:

T-Mobile offers the best unlimited plan of all the carriers. If you’re a real data hog who gobbles gigabytes of apps on a monthly basis, T-Mobile’s One unlimited plan is the best choice for you and family. You’ll never have to pay for extra data or argue over who used up the last gigabyte — T-Mobile’s One unlimited plan imposes no limits on data usage, so you should get all the high-speed data your heart desires.

It’s also a good plan for travelers. T-Mobile One customers get unlimited text and 2G data in more than 140 countries around the world. In Mexico or Canada, you even get unlimited calls and high-speed data, and T-Mobile will even give you one hour of data and unlimited texting on Gogo-enabled flights. The icing on the cake is T-Mobile Tuesdays, an app that offers free rewards every Tuesday, including movie tickets, free lattes, free tacos, and more. T-Mobile One customers with two or more lines on their account will also receive a free Netflix subscription.

If you can’t get T-Mobile, there’s always Verizon’s plan: Verizon surprised just about everyone when it reintroduced unlimited data. It’s reasonably priced, and offers benefits like mobile tethering. But it’s not the cheapest.

Sprint’s unlimited plan: If you’re not crazy about T-Mobile’s or Verizon’s offers, you can check out Sprint’s trio of Unlimited plans —Basic, Plus, and Premium. Sprint offers many of the same great features for about the same price. In our experience, T-Mobile has the better network and few more perks that make it worth your while. However, Sprint is a good option if you can’t get T-Mobile service where you live.

AT&T’s unlimited plan: The only other unlimited plan comes from AT&T, and if you live in an area where there’s spotty coverage, AT&T will be there for you, though your mileage may vary in terms of speed if your network encounters heavy traffic. Prices tend toward the high end for both domestic and international coverage, but it offers a choice of cheaper capped plans as well. If you’re an international traveler, there are more advantageous options.

T-Mobile Simply Prepaid

The best prepaid plan (from a major carrier)

T-Mobile Event 3/18/2015
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: T-Mobile’s prepaid plans give you the most bang for your buck.

Who it’s for: People on a strict budget who want a good chunk of data and can get T-Mobile service.

Why we picked the T-Mobile Simply Prepaid Plan:

The four main carriers all have prepaid plans, which are traditionally a bit cheaper than postpaid plans. Of the bunch, T-Mobile offers the most for the least amount of money. T-Mobile offers two monthly prepaid plans: Simply Prepaid plan and T-Mobile One Prepaid plan. With both, you get unlimited talk and text, no overages, and unlimited music streaming. Simply Prepaid starts at $40 per month for a single line and offers up to 10GB of domestic 4G LTE data. The T-Mobile One prepaid plan starts at $50 for one line and features unlimited 4G LTE on your smartphone. Both pre-paid plans can accommodate five lines and include hotspots.

T-Mobile add-ons include international calling and texting. For $5 a month, you get unlimited data, calling, and texting in Canada and Mexico. And for $15 a month, you get unlimited texting to virtually anywhere, unlimited calling to landlines in more than 70 countries and to mobile numbers in more than 30 countries.

Sprint Forward is no longer available to new customers and the company plans to shut down the service in January 2020. Pre-paid plans are now available only through Boost Mobile where you must set up in person at one of their stores. Boost Mobile offers plans with unlimited talk and text ranging from $35 per month (6GB data) to $50 and $60 per month with unlimited talk, text, and data. The $50 per month plan offers a 12GB hotspot while the $60 per month offers a 30GB hotspot. You can add a line to the $35 plan for a total of $60 per month. Family plans cost $100 for up to 5 lines with unlimited talk, text, and data and a 12GB hotspot with optimized streaming for gaming, music, and video.

AT&T’s prepaid plans are pretty good. You’ll pay $30 a month for talk and text and 1GB of data; $40 a month for talk, text, and 8GB of high-speed data that rolls over; or $55 or $75 per month for talk, text, and unlimited of data — all with autopay included. The $40, $55, and $75 tiers include unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada.

Verizon’s prepaid plan is decent. It’s $35 for 3GB of data and unlimited talk and text, and $45 for 8GB of data with a bonus of 7GB of data under some circumstances. All prepaid tiers include unlimited talk and text in the U.S. and unlimited text in more than 200 other countries.

Even though the other carriers offer pretty good options, T-Mobile’s prepaid plans are the cheapest and include perks like unlimited music streaming and no overages; its rates for calls, texts, and data for Mexico and Canada are a good deal, too.

Other things to consider

How much data do you need?

Perhaps the most important decision you’ll have to make when choosing a carrier plan is the amount of data you will need.

To determine how much data you need, consider two factors: The number of people in your family plan and how much data you think each will use. If you and your family rarely use the Internet when you’re away from a Wi-Fi network, you might want to buy less data. If you or your kids like to stream movies over your 4G network, browse the Internet for hours, check your email 95,000 times a day, and live-tweet your day, you’ll want a huge chunk of data.

Lines Light data use Medium data use Heavy data use
1 1GB 2GB 4GB
2 2GB 4GB 8GB
3 3GB 6GB 12GB
4 4GB 8GB 16GB
5 5GB 10GB 20GB

Unlocked vs. locked: How to buy your phone

When you buy a phone from your carrier, it’s locked to their network. You’re locked into the carrier’s payment plan. If you want the freedom to switch carriers at any point in time, you should buy your phone unlocked directly from the company who made it. Not all smartphone makers offer unlocked phones, but it’s becoming a lot more common. Some companies like ZTE and Apple even offer payment installment plans, so you can buy your phone in small payments just like you would at a carrier.

We recommend buying unlocked, because the phone will be yours whether you switch carriers or not. You’ll also avoid bloatware, annoying carrier apps, and, if your phone runs Android, you’ll likely get more timely software updates.

How to switch carriers

Switching carriers can be tough. Here’s how to do it and what each carrier is offering you to come over to their network.

T-Mobile has long-offered enticing reasons to switch to the Un-carrier. The company will pay off your phone and service contracts with your current carrier up to $650 per line on up to five lines or early-termination fees up to $350. T-Mobile even gives you the option of getting a Visa prepaid card in the amount of your current carrier’s early termination fee or remaining device balance. You can get bill credit based on the market value of your eligible trade-in device, too.

Verizon offers to pay up to $650 to get you to switch over to Big Red. You’ll have to trade in your current eligible phone, but you’ll receive a credit up to $450. Plus, you can get a $200 pre-paid Mastercard by signing up for at least one new line in one of Verizon’s unlimited plans.

With Sprint, if you switch to a monthly payment plan — either Sprint Lease or 24-month installments — the carrier will pay off your contract or old phone balance up to $650. It also offers a $250 prepaid MasterCard with the newest phones. You’ll have to register and trade in your phone first.

AT&T offers up to $650 if you switch to its network. You have to get a new phone on AT&T Next first, then trade in your old phone for credit in-store or on AT&T Promotion Visa card.

How we choose the best plans

We start by checking out all the promotions, phones, and plans offered by the big four carriers in the United States: T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon. After we work out the main points of each plan, we sift through the fine print to check for any catches. If something isn’t clear, we contact the press representative from the carrier for clarification. We look for special features and perks that are unique to the carriers and we weigh that in our decision along with price and availability.

Not all carriers work in all areas, so we make sure to highlight where each carrier works the best. For example, T-Mobile and Sprint excel in cities, while Verizon and AT&T are specialists in rural areas. We’ve personally used these networks, so we can verify coverage claims in the areas we travel.

We also look at prepaid plans and plans from smaller carriers that base their networks on the big carriers’ networks to see what they offer.

Finally, details like the clarity and ease of use on a website or the kindness of customer service representatives also factor into our decisions. After all, we’re putting you first.

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