AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Who has the best individual plan?

Looking for an individual plan for cell service from U.S. carriers can make you feel even more alone than heating up a frozen lasagna for one. Even though our wireless carriers have become better at simplifying and presenting plans, you’re still going to run into asterisks and exceptions that if misunderstood, could mean accidentally signing on for two years of contract hell by mistake.

Don’t get stuck with the wrong plan. We’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on how to pick the individual plan that best serves your needs and saves you money.

Choosing contracts

Do you want a two-year contract?

If you’re looking to stick around with a plan for two years, you’ll have to pass on T-Mobile. As a part of the company’s “Uncarrier” plan, T-Mobile has done away with contracts entirely. There are a handful of different plans — the differences between them related only to data — but all of them are month-to-month, requiring no long-term commitment. If for some reason you’re desperate to get into the two-year territory, you’ll have to take a look at the other major carriers: Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T.

Because it’s not interested in making life easy for anyone, Verizon has two options that are hard to tell the difference between:

  • Single Line Plan: The most basic plan offered by Verizon is the Single Line Plan, which provides unlimited voice and text, plus various levels of data.
  • More Everything Plan: The second is the More Everything plan. It offers the same unlimited minutes and messages as the single line plan, plus different levels of data. The difference is, More Everything subscribers get mobile hotspot ability, unlimited international messaging from the U.S., and 25GB of Verizon Cloud storage. (More Everything users also get access to NFL Mobile and Verizon Educational Tools.)

Verizon also has a program called Edge that has some vague benefits like getting out of contracts and upgrading devices early. The Edge contract is monthly and is only available to customers of seven months or longer, or those who pass a credit check. Single-line plans with Edge do have the added benefit of $15 off monthly line access up to 8GB and $25 off over 10GB. There’s also a $100 bill credit for new customers for each new line on the Verizon Edge plan.

Verizon

Over at AT&T, things are a little simpler. Start with unlimited talk and text, then pick the level of data you want. We get into data next, so we won’t break it down here. If you want to go monthly with AT&T, you can save $15 a month on your bill.

AT&T

Paying full price for your phone

The downside of contract-free plans is that you’ll have to pay the full, unsubsidized price of the smartphone of you buy. Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile let you pay installments on the device, typically $20 to $30 a month over a period of 24 months. The two-year contract option gives you the benefit of a nice discount on your new smartphone right from the get go. However, depending on which smartphone you buy and how often you like to upgrade, the two-year contract plan may end up costing you a whole lot more in the long run.

Contract-less plans can be cheaper over the long term and offer you more flexibility because you’ll be able to switch carriers at any time. If you decide to get a two-year contract, you’ll have to pay an early termination fee (ETF) if you leave the carrier before the contract period ends. At Verizon, ETFs cost as much as $350 with $10 knocked off for every month on contract and at AT&T, you’ll have to pay up to $325 with the same $10 off for every month on contract. Sprint’s ETF starts at $350 and remains the same until six months into the contract, then takes $10 off in month seven and $20 off every month after that — though your ETF will never drop below $100.

How much data do you need?

Since talk (phone calls) and texting come unlimited essentially by default from major carriers, the real place that you’ll have to make your decision — aside from the bottom line — is the amount of data you’ll need. This will depend on what you plan to do on your phone. If your primary use is entertainment — streaming videos, music, and the like — keep in mind that those things use megabytes of data quickly unless you do them on Wi-Fi networks. If you’re more of an email person who makes the occasional Google search, don’t pay for more than a gigabyte or two of data.

Also keep in mind your general proximity to Wi-Fi throughout the day. If you’re in the house, office, or hitting up public hotspots on a regular basis, you don’t need to dip into your well of data at all times. If you download stuff while on Wi-Fi, you may not use much at all. But if the Internet is how you pass the time on long commutes, business trips, or other stays away from a grounded connection, then having a bigger hopper of bandwidth is handy.

If you choose wrong or underestimating your usage, you’ll face overage charges. This is less than ideal, because carriers are not generous when it comes to spotting you some extra bandwidth.

First, it’s worth noting that T-Mobile doesn’t mess around with overages. You have a limit but if you exceed it, T-Mobile just cranks down your connection to 3G speed, or lower. It’s a minor inconvenience at worst, and considerably better than an extra charge on your monthly payment.

Verizon’s overage charge actually varies on your base data plan. If you purchase 1GB of data a month, you pay $15 for every additional 500MB you need. Purchase 2GB of data a month and you’ll get 1GB of data for the same $15. So if you spend more up front, you get a little more leeway on the backend if you need it. Regardless of the plan you get, you’ll pay at least $15 just for going over.

For those on AT&T, the overage process is similar. If you don’t choose a data plan, every MB you use is $2, which is, well, yikes. For those with data, you’ll pay a different rate depending on your plan—and that price will only get you so far. It’s $20 per 300MB on a 300MB plan, $20 per 500MB on a 1GB plan, and $15 per 1GB on all other plans.

Sprint’s overage cost is 1.5 cents for each MB. That works out to $15 per 1GB, the same as the upper level plans on Verizon and AT&T, but you don’t pay for it in a full chunk — you just pay for what you use. It’s the fairest overage system we’ve ever seen, other than T-Mobile’s complete lack of overages.

AT&T Sprint T-Mobile Verizon

Choosing your carrier

Picking your 1 line (individual) data plan

Now that you’ve decided whether you want a contract or not, and how much data you need, it’s time to pick a plan. All these carriers offer competitive plans, but each has a different set rules. Let’s break it down by carrier and plan.

T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan

 Lines Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 Unlimited  1GB $50
 1 Unlimited  3GB $60
 1 Unlimited 5GB $70
 1  Unlimited Unlimited $80

T-Mobile keeps things straightforward. Its website is easy to navigate and understand, mainly because the only thing that changes is the amount of data you’re choosing. Everything else — talk, text, etc. — remains the same. There is no contract and if you’re switching to T-Mobile, it will take care of the ETFs that come from your previous service provider.

The downside to not having a contract is that you will have to pay full price for your smartphone. Still, compared to most other carriers, you’ll still come out ahead while paying off the device in instalments that typically work out at $20 to $30 a month. You can, if you choose, also bring your own phone instead of buying a new one.

A significant benefit of choosing T-Mobile is that it has done away with many of the biggest annoyances that often come with buying a phone. It’s also worth noting a couple perks you’ll score on T-Mobile’s data plan, like “Music Freedom,” which allows for unlimited streaming of music services without counting against your monthly data. Tethering — using your phone as a mobile hotspot — is also free for T-Mobile users, a service that other carriers often charge to do.

For customers making the jump to T-Mobile, the company will pay up to $650 to cover the cost of the phone and early termination fees. It’s a bold offering that others have started to catch on to as well, but it’s a huge incentive and makes the switch an easier pill to swallow.

T-Mobile

Sprint Unlimited Plans for individuals

After shuffling the deck in its corporate office in August 2014 (and being purchased by the Japanese network Softbank), Sprint came out with a new approach to its service, one with a renewed focus on unlimited access and affordable prices. The result is two separate plans, both offering unlimited everything.

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 Monthly Unlimited Unlimited $60 (no phone)
 1  2 Year Unlimited Unlimited $85 (with phone)

The Unlimited Single Line plan from Sprint requires customers to sign on to a two-year contract. The price point of $85 accounts for the subsidized cost of the smartphone that you’ll get along with the plan, though it’s worth doing the math before making this call because it can end up costing you more in the long run. If you buy a phone that normally costs more than $15 over 24 months (plus $200 phone up front cost), or more than $550, the easy pay may be a good deal. If you get a cheaper phone, it may not be.

A second, less-discussed option from Sprint is the month-to-month Unlimited Single Line plan with Easy Pay. Similar to T-Mobile’s monthly services, you will have to pay for the full price of the phone. When getting a device with Sprint’s Easy Pay, customers will make a down payment and agree to pay off the remaining cost of the device over a 24 month period, making it “contract-free” but still requiring a two-year commitment without the binding contract. Depending on the device, you may still come out on top with the monthly installment plan.

Sprint also offers some deals that are specific to new devices. These tend to last for a limited time to capture the early adopters. The iPhone 6 had an unlimited plan priced at $50 a month, which expired earlier this year. A similar deal for the Samsung Galaxy S6 is also available. For $80 a month, you can lease the device, get unlimited international roaming, and upgrade the device every year should you choose to do so. These plans come and go, so keep your eye out for special offers.

Sprint

Verizon Single Line Plan

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 2 Year Unlimited 1GB $60
 1 2 Year Unlimited 2GB $75

Simplification has been the mantra lately for most carriers, but Verizon’s options are still confusing. First is the Verizon Single Line plan, which starts at $60 with a two-year contract. It gives you 1GB of data — or 2GB for $75 a month — which you will want to treat as a hard and fast line because going over lands you with a $15 charge for your next chunk of data, as we laid out previously.

Verizon offers the same plans on a month-to-month basis, rather than with a two-year contract with a service called Edge. Edge customers can knock an extra $15 off their monthly bills for the same service. You will, however, have to pay the unsubsidized price of your device.

Verizon Single Line Plan with Edge

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 Monthly Unlimited 1GB $45
 1 Monthly Unlimited 2GB $60

The Single Line plan from Verizon is different from the More Everything plan, though very little difference is made between the services on its website. The More Everything plan is suggested for those who need more lines or more data, and since we’re dealing with individual service plans, we’ll focus on upping the data.

More plans

Verizon More Everything Plan

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 2 Year Unlimited 500MB $60
 1 2 Year Unlimited 1GB $70
 1 2 Year Unlimited 2GB $80
 1 2 Year Unlimited 3GB $90
 1 2 Year Unlimited 4GB $100
 1 2 Year Unlimited 6GB $110
 1 2 Year Unlimited 10GB $120
 1 2 Year Unlimited 15GB $140
 1 2 Year Unlimited 20GB $180
 1 2 Year Unlimited 30GB $265
 1 2 Year Unlimited 40GB $340
 1 2 Year Unlimited 50GB $415
 1 2 Year Unlimited 60GB $490
 1 2 Year Unlimited 80GB $640
 1 2 Year Unlimited 100GB $790

The first thing that you will probably notice is the More Everything plan makes very little sense for a single line user at the lowest levels. It is, for no immediately apparent reason, more expensive to be on the More Everything Plan if you remain in the 1GB or 2GB range for data than if you were to go with the Single Line plan. There are extra benefits to the More Everything plan — access to NFL Mobile, cloud storage, mobile hotspot — but nothing worth the price difference for most people.

For the higher tiers of data, you’ll need to shell out more money to fit your specific needs. Again, you should figure out how much data you’ll likely use on a monthly basis because the higher levels can be pricey and paying overage fees makes them even more so. The highest tiers are clearly made to be shared between families, but if you need 100GB a month (by yourself) and can foot the bill then by all means, throw your money away.

Like the Single Line plans, the More Everything plans come with a discount for Edge users, which is Verizon’s word for month-to-month users. The tradeoff, as mentioned above, is paying the full price for the phone.

Verizon More Everything Plan with Edge

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 Monthly Unlimited 500MB $45
 1 Monthly Unlimited 1GB $55
 1 Monthly Unlimited 2GB $65
 1 Monthly Unlimited 3GB $75
 1 Monthly Unlimited 4GB $85
 1 Monthly Unlimited 6GB $95
 1 Monthly Unlimited 10GB $95
 1 Monthly Unlimited 15GB $115
 1 Monthly Unlimited 20GB $155
 1 Monthly Unlimited 30GB $240
 1 Monthly Unlimited 40GB $315
 1 Monthly Unlimited 50GB $390
 1 Monthly Unlimited 60GB $465
 1 Monthly Unlimited 80GB $615
 1 Monthly Unlimited 100GB $765

Verizon

AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan (with two-year contract)

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 2 Year Unlimited 300MB $60
 1 2 Year Unlimited 1GB $65
 1 2 Year Unlimited 3GB $80
 1 2 Year Unlimited 6GB $110
 1 2 Year Unlimited 10GB $140
 1 2 Year Unlimited 30GB $170
 1 2 Year Unlimited 40GB $190
 1 2 Year Unlimited 60GB $265
 1 2 Year Unlimited 80GB $340
 1 2 Year Unlimited 100GB $415

AT&T also has a plan with a contract and one without. You’ll notice the pricing is very similar to Verizon’s. The AT&T plans are called Mobile Share though it has no real relevance for an individual user, since you won’t be sharing with anyone, you data hog.

AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan (no contract)

 Lines Contract Talk and text Data  Cost
 1 Monthly Unlimited 300MB $45
 1 Monthly Unlimited 1GB $50
 1 Monthly Unlimited 3GB $65
 1 Monthly Unlimited 6GB $95
 1 Monthly Unlimited 10GB $115
 1 Monthly Unlimited 30GB $145
 1 Monthly Unlimited 40GB $165
 1 Monthly Unlimited 60GB $240
 1 Monthly Unlimited 80GB $315
 1 Monthly Unlimited 100GB $390

The AT&T Mobile Share Value plan with no contract offers better monthly deals, though you will have to pay for the cost of your phone. In comparison to Verizon, the top tiers are identical while the bottom tiers are a little cheaper. Also like Verizon, AT&T keeps the data amount climbing rather than going unlimited, likely because both carriers are simply repackaging plans made for family-sharing to individuals.

AT&T

Step 4: Choose your carrier

T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint: Which will it be? Now that we’ve looked at all the plans, let’s narrow it down to the cheapest plans from each carrier and compare.

The Best Carrier Plans (these are all month-to-month, no contract)

Data T-Mobile Sprint Verizon AT&T
1GB or Less $50
1GB
N/A $45
1GB
$50
1GB
2GB-4GB $60
3GB
N/A $60
2GB
$65
3GB
5GB-10GB $70
5GB
N/A $95
10GB
$95
6GB
10GB+ $80
Unlimited
$65
Unlimited
$115
15GB
$145
30GB

* Best prices are bolded

Winner: T-Mobile

(but Sprint and Verizon each pick up a tie)

T-Mobile started the trend of the contract-free plan among the major carriers, and the benefit is clear from the chart above: All of the best plans come without a contract. Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T all offer a discounted price to those who choose to go without a contract and take on the cost of an unsubsidized phone.

Despite Verizon’s dizzying landscape of prices, its latest single line plan with Edge service makes for the most affordable low-data option, at $45 a month. We marked T-Mobile’s 1GB plan as equally competitive despite being $5 more because of added benefits like mobile hotspot and Music Freedom perks, making data more malleable under T-Mobile’s umbrella. Plus, T-Mobile doesn’t charge for data overages while Verizon is ready and waiting to add $15 to your bill for every 500MB you go over.

Verizon and AT&T manage to be competitive throughout the middle tiers of data, staying within a couple bucks of what T-Mobile offers when remaining off contract. On contract, the prices are higher and considerably less appealing on the surface. Just make sure you factor in the cost of the phone when making your call on these plans. We highly recommend you shop around and get an affordable unlocked phone for $200 to $400. You will save a lot of money this way.

Once you reach the higher tiers of data, there’s really no reason to go with AT&T or Verizon. Their individual plans are built off their shared data plans for families, but you’re going it alone. Stick with the unlimited offerings once you reach higher than 10GB — Sprint offers the most competitive rate there, though T-Mobile has better service.

Verizon and AT&T both boast that they offer better coverage and faster data in rural parts of the country, and depending on your area that may be true. However, T-Mobile offers excellent coverage in large, metropolitan areas and is working hard to improve its coverage in rural America. Sprint doesn’t score great in network speeds, though. You can get a full look at data networks in PCMag’s extensive study.

If you’re looking to save money, but remain hesitant to try T-Mobile’s network, the company offers a “Seven Night Stand” promotion that lets you try out an iPhone 5S on T-Mobile’s network for seven days, free. That way, you can see if the Uncarrier’s network is terrible or just fine in your region.

In the end, it depends on how much data you use and whose network performs better in your area. Metropolitan users should be fine on any of the networks but if you’re outside of major population centers then you’ll want to be more choosy to get a good connection. For our money, T-Mobile offers the best overall bang for your buck. Luckily, it’s made enough waves to make other carriers begin offering competitive deals, so you have plenty of options.

T-Mobile Sprint Verizon AT&T

Update 5-18-2015 by AJ Dellinger: We’ve adjusted the rates for Verizon, tweaked AT&T’s data overage charges, and updated Sprint and T-Mobile’s offerings.

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