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

best family plan us carriers wireless carrier
dt-best-of-150_carriersNavigating U.S. carriers’ family plans is a frustrating exercise, to say the least. Although carriers’ websites have improved and plans have become more transparent, trying to figure out which network offers the best deal for your family is still a nightmare. Luckily, we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide on how to choose the wireless plan that best suits your needs — and saves you the most cash.

Here are our picks for best family plan, best individual plan, best unlimited plan, and more. We’ve also added helpful explainer sections to help you choose your carrier.

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?”

Our pick

T-Mobile

t-mobile-hq-sign_feat-2x3

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

How much will it cost:

 People  Line cost  Data  Total
1  $70  Unlimited  $70
2  $70 + $50  Unlimited  $120
3  $70 + $50 +$20  Unlimited  $140
4  $70 + $50 + $40 +$20  Unlimited  $160
5  $70 + $50 + $40 + $20 +$20  Unlimited  $180

Why we picked T-Mobile:

T-Mobile is the industry leader in the U.S. with its bold “Un-carrier” moves. 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, unlimited music and 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 $5 a month and includes unlimited GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi, voicemail to text, and caller ID. An international option, the One Plus International plan, includes unlimited LTE hotspots, calls to landlines in 70 countries, and all of the One Plus plan’s benefits.

Data hogs get a pretty decent deal with the T-Mobile One Plan and its unlimited data, but if you’re a customer who was using only the minimum amount of data each month, the new T-Mobile One plan represents a price increase of $20-$70. You do get unlimited data for that extra money, but if you don’t have cash to spare, you may want to stay on your old plan — especially if you’re satisfied with your current data limit.

Bottom line: 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 unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Unlimited text and data at lower speeds (3G/2G) is also available in almost 150 countries worldwide, though calls cost 20 cents per minute.
  • Jump! on Demand: You can lease phones for less and upgrade to the latest and greatest phone whenever you want.
  • Music Freedom: Stream music on most of the popular streaming apps including Spotify without burning through your data allowance.
  • T-Mobile Tuesdays: Download this iOS and Android app to get free deals every Tuesday, like $15 in Lyft credit or a Frosty from Wendy’s.
  • No overages on data: The unlimited plan has no overages.
  • Free Netflix subscription: For T-Mobile One unlimited costumers 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.
  • 10 GB of LTE mobile-hotspot data.
  • The tethering between your phone and other devices is limited to 3G speeds. You’ll have to upgrade to the One Plus International plan for 4G LTE tethering.
  • Sign up for Auto Pay on your bills, or T-Mobile will charge $5 extra per line each month.

The best individual plan

Sprint

sprint

Why should you buy this: Sprint offers the cheapest individual plan you can buy, and it comes with nice perks.

Read more about Sprint’s plans here

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

How much will it cost:

People Line cost Data Total
1 $60 Unlimited $60
2 $60 + $40 Unlimited $100
3 $60 + $40 + $30 Unlimited $130
4 $60 + $40 + $30 + $30 Unlimited $160
5 $60 + $40 + $30 + $30 + $30 Unlimited $190

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 a 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.

Just like T-Mobile, Sprint offers one plan: Unlimited Freedom.

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 arbitrarily, 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 Freedom is a money saver.

Thanks to the carrier’s latest promotion, new customers will get unlimited talk, text, data, and a free Hulu account for $25 per month per line if you purchase four to five lines — and if you enroll in autopay. You’ll also get the fifth line for free, if you need an extra one. The deal won’t last forever though, and the pricing will only last until January 31, 2019 — you’ll then be charged its standard prices.

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 perks that come with all 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.
  • 10 GB of LTE mobile-hotspot data.
  • No overages.
  • Lets you lease some phones so you can get a new one every year.

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.

The best rural service

Verizon

verizon-store

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

How much will it cost:

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

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$60 w/Unlimited

$55

$70

$90

$80

2 $20 x 2 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$100 w/Unlimited

$75

$90

$110

$140

3 $20 x 3 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$100 w/Unlimited

$95

$110

$130

$160

4 $20 x 4 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$100 w/Unlimited

$115

$130

$150

$180

5 $20 x 5 $35 w/2GB

$50 w/4GB

$70 w/8GB

$100 w/Unlimited

$135

$150

$170

$200

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 in the Verizon Plan.

The Unlimited plan is a recent addition, and it starts at $80 a month for a single line or $180 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 10 GB. Even considering those limitations, Verizon’s unlimited plan is a surprisingly good value for the money.

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 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. You won’t get any fun perks, either, 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.
  • 10 GB of mobile-hotspot data on unlimited plans.
  • Decent prices for individuals.
  • Big phone selection.

The downsides of Verizon’s plans:

  • Generally higher prices across the board.
  • 22 GB throttling cap on unlimited plans.
  • International coverage costs extra money.
  • Verizon runs on CDMA networks, so buying unlocked phones is tricky.
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