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.
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.
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.
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.