The Best Cell Phone Plans (2024)

The research

  • Why you should trust us
  • How we picked
  • What’s the deal with 5G?
  • Best for the most data: T-Mobile Magenta/Go5G
  • Multiple-line plans: Consumer Cellular or Google Fi
  • The cheapest plan: Mint Mobile
  • How to determine which network has the best coverage for you
  • How much data do you need?
  • Should you buy postpaid, prepaid, or resold service?
  • What to look forward to
  • The competition

Why you should trust us

I’ve covered the wireless industry since the late 1990s. I’ve tested smartphones and cell phone plans from all the major carriers—the historic foursome of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, plus Nextel before then—for the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN Money, Discovery News, VentureBeat, and others, and I now cover tech and telecom issues for Fast Company, PCMag, and other sites, including trade publications like Light Reading and FierceTelecom. And in July 2021, I put in more than a thousand miles of drive testing from Baltimore to Atlanta for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, following that with almost 1,700 more miles of drive testing in the 2022 edition of that project.

How we picked

We limited this guide to the most widely used national options—starting with the three biggest nationwide carriers and their prepaid services and subsidiaries, and then adding services that have ranked high in surveys conducted by sites and organizations such as PCMag, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and J.D. Power.

We excluded contenders available only in parts of the US, including the regional carrier U.S. Cellular and the resold services of cable firms such as Comcast and Spectrum, which require subscriptions to their residential broadband to get their advertised pricing or to sign up at all. Last, we cut prepaid services that required separate purchases of data, texts, or voice minutes to meet any of our monthly usage quotas.

That process left us with the following services to assess:

  • , its prepaid program, and its prepaid brand Cricket Wireless
  • T-Mobile, its prepaid option, its Metro by T-Mobile brand, and Mint Mobile, a T-Mobile reseller that T-Mobile is now buying
  • Verizon Wireless, its self-branded prepaid offering, its prepaid brand Visible, TracFone (a reseller that Verizon bought in November 2021), and TracFone’s Straight Talk brand
  • Boost Mobile, formerly a Sprint prepaid brand and now Dish Network’s T-Mobile reseller
  • Consumer Cellular, an AT&T reseller
  • Google Fi, a Google service based on resold coverage from T-Mobile

Data value

We calculated the cost of three typical bundles of smartphone service for every provider: moderate use at 3 GB of data; a for-most-people scenario requiring unlimited data for the phone but with no more than 3 GB of mobile hotspot use; and a heavy-use case with unlimited on-phone data plus 10 GB of mobile hotspot use. These totals are higher than in previous editions of this guide because typical data usage has gone up substantially: Circana analyst Brad Akyuz told us that the firm’s research showed US median smartphone cellular data usage in the second quarter of 2023 had hit 10.8 GB per month, with average use (skewed by extreme cases) at 17.9 GB.

The wireless industry has found so many ways to interpret “unlimited” that we’ve had to think about what “unlimited” means. Some unlimited plans offer no “priority data,” so your connection can slow down because of network congestion even if you haven’t used much data yourself. Other plans advise that service may get slower above a preset threshold of used data—often without defining those slower speeds. Some of these asterisked unlimited plans represent good values for all but the most intensive users. But we do require at least 25 GB of full-speed data per line in the for-most-people scenario (“full-speed” meaning no restrictions on what parts of a carrier’s 5G network you can use) and 50 GB per line in the heavy-use scenario.

We also require unlimited messages and voice minutes, but almost all services now offer that.

Network reliability and speed

A wireless network’s coverage and performance usually vary considerably by location, and they also change over time. To get the most balanced picture possible of the big three carriers (and the services that resell their networks), we consulted independently conducted surveys of wireless-network coverage and performance from Opensignal, PCMag, and RootMetrics. In our view, consistently good performance in the places where most people live, work, and visit was a higher priority than exceptionally fast download speeds if the coverage to access those speeds was spotty.

Hotspot policy

Our cost estimates assumed that anybody who wanted to use their phone’s mobile-hotspot feature to share their LTE or 5G bandwidth for any sustained period wanted to do so at its full speed. We assumed that most people wouldn’t use up more than 3 GB of data per month with this feature, but we also included an intensive scenario that assumed up to 10 GB a month in mobile-hotspot use.

Discount possibilities

In addition, we crunched those same numbers for shared-use plans for two and four lines, because many Wirecutter readers have asked to see comparisons of family pricing.

If a plan offered a lower rate for enabling autopay or paying for a year in advance, or if it included loyalty discounts that cut your bill over time (as Verizon Prepaid has offered since 2020), we factored in those options. We did not, however, count deals that required trading in a phone or porting over a number.

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What’s the deal with 5G?

Cell providers have spent the past few years transitioning from 4G (or LTE, for Long Term Evolution) service toward the 5G standard—and talking endlessly about how great 5G is. The reality is that 5G can be immensely faster, but its performance depends on which frequency band it runs on, whether your carrier has deployed 5G on one of the faster bands, and whether you’re in a spot where your carrier’s 5G network reaches you on one of the faster bands.

Think of a layer cake: The bottom layer is low-band 5G, which resides on the same frequencies as LTE and isn’t much faster but offers about the same coverage. Mid-band 5G, on higher frequencies that yield faster speeds with somewhat reduced coverage, is the middle layer. Millimeter-wave 5G, on frequencies that nobody tried to use for wireless service until 5G’s advent, delivers extremely fast speeds over extremely short ranges, making it the tiny top layer of the cake that almost nobody gets to eat at a wedding.

In fewer words: You may find that the most widely available form of 5G at your carrier doesn’t offer speeds much faster than 4G.

You can read more about the transition to 5G and how it all works in our explainer.

Best for the most data: T-Mobile Magenta/Go5G

Our pick

T-Mobile Magenta

More data for streaming and downloading

If more data is more important to you than coverage in non-metropolitan areas, the Magenta plan offers a great price for unlimited data on a strong network. Plus, T-Mobile has the best 5G service and international plans.

Buying Options

$35 from T-Mobile

If data is your priority—meaning, you want a fast network connection that you can use to download and upload in volume—consider the T-Mobile Magenta plan. T-Mobile’s primary unlimited-data offering represents a better value proposition for most people’s needs than AT&T’s or Verizon’s comparable plan, and the carrier’s rollout of 5G has made an already good network considerably better in a steadily expanding share of the country.

Magenta is the best unlimited-data plan based on price alone. Magenta costs $70 a month for unlimited on-phone data. Translation: T-Mobile says you have to exceed 100 GB of data before it might slow your connection to ease network congestion. That’s double the allotment on AT&T’s comparable plan, which costs $5 more, but less than the unlimited priority-data allocation on Verizon’s closest equivalent, which costs $10 more. At both competitors, those rates don’t include the taxes and fees that T-Mobile folds into its advertised rate. (Two lines of Magenta cost $60 each, and four run $35 each.) You can use only 5 GB of that data for mobile-hotspot sharing, which is less than what the competition offers on slightly more expensive plans, but it’s also more than enough for occasional use.

If you’re 55 or older, T-Mobile has discountsthat make this carrier an even better choice, slashing the cost of Magenta to $50 for one line and $35 each for two, three, or four lines.

T-Mobile has the best 5G coverage. All the data allotment in the world is unhelpful if the connection is too slow to use, but T-Mobile’s network has jumped ahead of the pack, in part because of its 5G frequencies. T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum offering provides impressively fast 5G with better coverage than the almost-as-speedy C-band and much faster but far shorter-range millimeter-wave of AT&T and Verizon. This mid-band 5G, which T-Mobile markets as Ultra Capacity 5G, is much speedier than the low-band 5G that fills out its network and constitutes the most widely available form of 5G among its competitors.

The difference has become increasingly obvious in third-party tests, as well as in our own evaluations of Wi-Fi hotspots from the big three carriers.

Opensignal’s crowdsourced 5G-specific tests from July 2023 showed a significant advantage for T-Mobile (outlined in the table below), more than double Verizon’s and AT&T’s download averages; in addition, T-Mobile’s 5G was available more than half the time, compared with just over 20% for AT&T and under 10% for Verizon. Ookla’s Speedtest showed comparable leads in Q3 2023 for T-Mobile in median download speeds (163.59 megabits per second versus 75.68 Mbps on Verizon and 72.64 Mbps on AT&T) and 5G-only median download speeds (221.57 Mbps, with Verizon at 153.79 Mbps and AT&T at 101.55 Mbps).

PCMag gave T-Mobile its first-ever fastest mobile network ranking in 2021. The carrier maintained its position as the best mobile network in 2022. And RootMetrics’s latest drive-testing-based State of the Mobile Union report, for the first half of 2023, found T-Mobile to have the fastest median download speeds: 213.2 Mbps, almost triple Verizon’s 77.9 Mbps and AT&T’s 77.3 Mbps. But RootMetrics gave top overall honors to AT&T for offering more consistent service outside urban areas.

Median 5G download5G availability
T-Mobile195.5 Mbps57.9%
Verizon96.3 Mbps9.8%
AT&T80 Mbps20.7%

Opensignal’s July 2023 report showed that, on the median, T-Mobile’s 5G network was faster and more available to its customers than those of the other two national carriers. Source: Opensignal

AT&T and Verizon each launched faster 5G service on C-band frequencies in January 2022 and have since taken this midband coverage nationwide past relatively small launch areas (just eight for AT&T [PDF] and 46 mostly urban markets for Verizon), T-Mobile’s advantage has persisted.

The Best Cell Phone Plans (2)

Magenta offers the best bonuses for frequent travelers. Magenta includes international roaming, and although it’s limited to speeds around 256 Kbps, I’ve found it to be more than adequate for email and basic browsing. You also get free texting, 25¢-per-minute calling, and the ability to use your phone in Canada or Mexico with no roaming charges for up to 5 GB a month, even on 5G. And it includes an hour of free in-flight Wi-Fi—and full-flight connectivity four times a year—on your phone on Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.

T-Mobile also offers four higher-end unlimited plans, but Magenta is best for most people. Go5G costs $75 for a single line, $65 each for two lines, or $45 each for four lines, and it triples the hotspot allocation to 15 GB. It also doubles the high-speed roaming cap in Canada and Mexico to 10 GB. Magenta Max ($85 for one line, $70 each for two lines, $43 each for four lines) provides only 5 GB of high-speed international roaming, but that’s in all of the 215-plus countries where T-Mobile offers its free-but-slow roaming; Magenta Max also offers unlimited priority data, 4K UHD streaming video, and a full 40 GB of mobile-hotspot use. The Go5G Plus plan offers 50 GB of mobile hotspot and bundles Netflix and Apple TV+ for $90 on one line, $75 each on two lines, or $55 each on four lines. People who were already set on watching those streaming services might find that Go5G Plus offers some net savings in their combined wireless and entertainment budget, but otherwise it looks like T-Mobile’s least relevant plan besides the new, $100 Go5G Next, which offers a new phone every year for compulsive upgraders.

T-Mobile’s discount for those 55 and older drops the cost of all those plans dramatically: On a single line, Magenta runs just $50, Go5G costs $55, Magenta Max is $65, and Go5G Plus costs $70, with multiple-line scenarios offering comparable savings.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

T-Mobile’s rural coverage lags behind that of AT&T and Verizon. Coverage from those carriers remains more comprehensive than T-Mobile’s—as I saw on rural roads in the Southeast and Northwest while doing drive testing for PCMag—but thanks to the past few years of improvement in T-Mobile’s network, you’d have to get into fairly remote areas to notice that difference. Before choosing a plan, determine whether your likely travel patterns are more apt to make T-Mobile’s rural limitations an ongoing problem.

International roaming is complicated if you haven’t paid off your phone. Although T-Mobile’s international roaming costs much less than AT&T’s and Verizon’s international options, you may have to pay those charges if you buy your phone from T-Mobile on an installment-payment plan, as this carrier keeps such handsets locked until you pay off your balance—or conclude the term on a free-upgrade deal.

T-Mobile has a history of data breaches, with its largest in August 2022. That breach affected some 40 million customers—I was among them. I thought about dropping T-Mobile, but the telecom industry’s general indifference to the concept of data minimization left me with little reason to think I’d fare much better in the long run elsewhere. That history makes T-Mobile’s recent move to limit its autopay discount to payments made from a bank account or debit card look even more distasteful, although its enforcement of this policy seems to be uneven so far.

T-Mobile management does not seem immune to wireless-industry jerk behavior. Since 2013, T-Mobile has led with an “Un-Carrier” brand based on dumping dumb wireless-industry habits. But T-Mobile has scored enough own goals–for example, a plan to move people on some older plans to more expensive options that the carrier has since abandoned–to remind subscribers that they need to watch their monthly statements and other customer notices as much as they would with any other carrier.

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Coverage first: AT&T

Our pick

For more coverage in more places

AT&T offers slightly more reliable coverage in rural areas and now provides subscribers access to its full (and notably improving) 5G network at a slightly lower cost than Verizon.

Buying Options

We’ve traditionally recommended Verizon for the reach of its network, but the latest round of testing data shows that ’s network is more likely to keep you online. Meanwhile, a round of rate increases at Verizon—including the elimination of a cheaper limited-data plan that we had recommended before—have erased that carrier’s cost advantage over AT&T. Though AT&T isn’t the best choice for people who frequently travel outside of the US or who want unlimited data, it is a better choice for people prioritizing maximum coverage over speed. And the 50 GB of priority data and 15 GB of mobile-hotspot data on its Unlimited Extra plan, which costs $75 on a single line, $65 for each of two lines, or $40 for each of four lines, should cover most people’s needs, making the additional $5 cost of Verizon’s Unlimited Plus plan an unnecessary indulgence.

AT&T has the largest network, with the most reliable coverage. Drive testing done by RootMetrics found that AT&T had a more reliable network than Verizon in the first half of 2023. Opensignal’s crowdsourced app testing gave AT&T a tiny lead in network availability in July 2023. And PCMag’s Best Mobile Networks 2022 drive testing found that AT&T had the lowest percentage of dropped data connections—with a more pronounced advantage on that metric and in dropped calls compared with Verizon in rural areas.

The Best Cell Phone Plans (4)

AT&T’s 5G network is improving. AT&T’s 5G network, meanwhile, has advanced considerably from its state two years ago. It has also improved from its January 2022 launch of faster C-band service in only eight markets (PDF), which as of August covers 175 million people. In a further upgrade, the carrier has lit up a separate band of 3.45 GHz mid-band 5G spectrum, but you probably need a new phone to use those frequencies.

It’s cheaper than Verizon (but not T-Mobile). Among its plans for unlimited on-phone data, AT&T’s $75 Unlimited Extra offers the best value, providing 50 GB of priority data, 15 GB of hotspot use, and SD video for $5 less than Verizon’s Unlimited Plus plan. That cost is $5 more than the price for T-Mobile’s unlimited with-hotspot plan—before the taxes and fees that T-Mobile folds into its rate—and the AT&T plan does not give you service that’s as fast overall as what T-Mobile generally delivers.

If you can deal with a lack of priority data and don’t intend to lean on your phone’s mobile-hotspot feature, AT&T’s Unlimited Starter option now includes 3 GB of hotspot allowance at the same $65-per-month price as before. Finally, AT&T’s Unlimited Premium, $85 for a single line, adds unlimited priority data and 50 GB of mobile hotspot. That plan costs $5 more than Verizon’s Unlimited Plus, but it includes 20 GB more hotspot use and throws in free high-speed roaming in 19 Latin American countries, a bonus that has no parallel in Verizon’s lineup.

AT&T, unlike Verizon, still offers limited-data postpaid plans. Both the Value Plus plan and the 4 GB plan run $50, but only the former includes 5G access—which to us outweighs its lack of priority data. And you can cut these plans’ costs by taking advantage of AT&T’s business and academic discounts or its unique 15% discount for union members–deals its unlimited plans exclude.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

AT&T still charges junk fees and misrepresents some 4G speeds as 5G. AT&T continues to levy a $2 “administrative fee” that is such an obvious example of a junk fee that it has drawn a class-action lawsuit. (Verizon is pulling its own version of that stunt.) Equally bogus is AT&T’s insistence on labeling its fastest flavor of 4G LTE as “5G E” on phone screens, a marketing ploy that only confuses customers into thinking they have actual 5G.

It keeps cell-site location data much longer than the other carriers do. Privacy-conscious shoppers should know that AT&T keeps cell-site location data for at most five years, according to an AT&T spokesperson (who called Vice’s reports of FBI claims that AT&T holds this data for seven years old and incorrect and said some cell-site history gets flushed after 13 months). In contrast, Verizon holds it for one year, and T-Mobile does so for two.

International coverage is expensive if you haven’t paid off your phone. International travelers should note that buying your phone on AT&T’s installment plan brings an extra risk: Until you’ve paid off the phone, the device remains locked and stuck with international-roaming charges of $10 a day in most countries—and unavailable to use with a different service if you want to leave AT&T early.

AT&T’s prepaid service isn’t a great deal. If you don’t need much data, it’s decent, but in any unlimited-data context it’s scarcely cheaper than the carrier’s postpaid plans—and across four lines in our typical data-usage scenario, it’s much more expensive. Note that outside of Canada and Mexico, these prepaid plans offer no international roaming data options.

Multiple-line plans: Consumer Cellular or Google Fi

Budget pick

Consumer Cellular

Affordable two- and four-line plans

This reseller of AT&T offers great service and the cheapest two- and four-line service bundles for most people.

Buying Options

Buy from Consumer Cellular

Project Fi

Affordable four-line plans

Google’s wireless service beats everybody else’s prices for four lines, but intensive-data users and iPhone owners need to consider it carefully.

Buying Options

Buy from Google Play

Family-plan pricing changes frequently due to constantly shifting promotions and terms, so we’ve split our recommendation for multiple-line service between two options. For two lines in our typical-usage scenario—unlimited on-phone data with 3 GB of mobile-hotspot use—Consumer Cellular is an easy call.

Consumer Cellular has excellent customer-satisfaction ratings. This AT&T reseller (which formerly sold T-Mobile, too, but no longer does) consistently lands at or near the top of customer surveys such as PCMag’s annual survey, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and J.D. Power’s purchase-experience studies. And at $65 for two lines on its unlimited plan, Consumer Cellular also undercuts every provider. However, mobile-hotspot use is blocked by default, so you need to call support or use the customer service chat before you can take advantage of your 50 GB of priority data for tethering.

The service is marketed to older adults with a 5% AARP discount, but the factors that make it good for older adults make it good for most people, as well. Most important, it offers US-based phone support and step-by-step manuals and video tutorials for the non-tech-savvy, maintains an in-store presence in major retailers such as Target, and offers installment-plan phone purchase options with roughly the same terms as the big carriers provide.

Price for two lines with unlimited on-phone data plus 3 GB hotspot each

PricePlan
Consumer Cellular$65Unlimited
Boost Mobile$80Unlimited
Metro by T-Mobile$80Unlimited
Google Fi$80Simply Unlimited
Cricket Wireless$90Unlimited + 15 GB Mobile Hotspot
T-Mobile Prepaid$90Unlimited Plus
Verizon Prepaid$100Unlimited Plus
$110Unlimited Plus
$120Unlimited Starter
T-Mobile$120Magenta
Verizon$140Unlimited Plus

Prices are current as of October 23, 2023.

“Unlimited” still has limits. Like other carriers, Consumer Cellular actually puts some limits on its “unlimited” plan, but it doesn’t define them as well as its competitors do: After you use 50 GB combined between the lines, the service warns that “your access to high speed data will be reduced, and you will experience slower speeds,” but it doesn’t document how slow. Publicist Sarah Burns clarified that this slowdown happens automatically and drops connections to 1.5 Mbps.

Google Fi is the best budget option for a family of four. For four lines, Google Fi offers the cheapest deal in our typical-usage scenario at just $80 for four lines of its Simply Unlimited plan with 35 GB of full-speed data listed as based on T-Mobile’s strong 5G service. And like Consumer Cellular, Fi seems to have satisfied subscribers, as it ranked highest in PCMag’s 2023 Readers’ Choice awards.

Google Fi’s data limits are more strict. Although Fi’s data plan includes a generous mobile-hotspot allocation of 15 GB, the 35 GB limit is harder than at other services—exceeding it prompts the service to throttle your connection all the way back to 256 Kbps.

Google Fi is optimized for Android phones. Once compatible only with Google’s Nexus and then Pixel phones, Google Fi now offers full support for not just Google’s Pixel models but also unlocked versions of most recent Samsung phones. But while its iPhone support has greatly advanced–including the overdue addition of full-speed 5G access–it still requires you to fiddle around in settings to get texts from Android users.

Consumer Cellular isn’t a great pick if you plan to travel internationally. It quotes overseas-roaming rates that start at 10¢ per minute for calls and 10¢ per megabyte for data. But Google Fi’s cheaper plan is also bad for international travelers because it omits the free full-speed global roaming of Fi’s Unlimited Plus.

Price for four lines with unlimited on-phone data plus 3 GB hotspot each

PricePlan
Google Fi$80Simply Unlimited
Metro by T-Mobile$120Unlimited
Cricket Wireless$130Unlimited + 15 GB Mobile Hotspot
$140Unlimited Starter
T-Mobile Prepaid$150Unlimited Plus
T-Mobile$160Magenta
Boost Mobile$180Unlimited
Verizon$180Unlimited Plus
Verizon Prepaid$180Unlimited Plus
$200Unlimited Plus

Prices are current as of October 23, 2023.

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The cheapest plan: Mint Mobile

Budget pick

Mint Mobile

A cheap, prepaid plan

Mint Mobile gives you access to T-Mobile’s network for much less money, but you have to pay for three, six, or 12 months in advance.

Buying Options

$90 $45 from Mint Mobile (3-month unlimited plan)

New customers only

Buy from Mint Mobile

If the lowest possible bill on a good-enough network is your top priority, we recommend Mint Mobile, a reseller of T-Mobile’s LTE and 5G networks. It beats everybody else’s costs with a simple pricing tactic: It offers cheaper prices for longer terms, with the minimum being three months. When you sign up, you can choose 5 GB, 15 GB, 20 GB, or unlimited data per month and then pay up front for either three, six, or 12 months—the longer the package, the better the price per month.

Mint Mobile charges less for longer prepaid commitments. The unlimited plan is just $30 per month for the first three months, after which you can balance commitment and price, choosing $40 per month on a three-month term, $35 per month on a six-month policy, or $30 per month for a year. The same math works for minimal usage: 5 GB per month costs $25 per month over a three-month term or $15 per month on a full-year deal.

The unlimited plan has restrictions. Mint’s unlimited plan includes usage limits similar to those of other “unlimited” plans: It imposes a priority-data cap of 40 GB, after which it warns that you “will experience lower speeds” (defined only as “3G speeds”), it places a 10 GB cap on mobile-hotspot usage, and it limits streaming video to 480p. You can buy another 5 GB of hotspot data for $15—or you could save $5 by trading down to the 20 GB plan, which lets you use all of that data for mobile hotspot and places no constraints on streaming-video resolution.

Mobile
hotspot
Monthly cost,
three-month term
Annual
cost
Monthly cost,
12-month term
Annual
cost
20 GB20 GB$45$540$25$300
Unlimited5 GB$40$480$30$360

Prices current as of October 23, 2023; rates exclude new-customer discounts for the first three months.

Mint requires some other compromises, too. Mint doesn’t focus on phone sales, so you’ll probably want to bring your own unlocked device, and support is online or over the phone only. In addition, after you hit your data cap, your speed slows to 128 Kbps unless you upgrade your plan or switch to the unlimited plan (on which you can still find your connection throttled, just not as severely, once you exceed the 40 GB priority-data allocation). International roaming costs 20¢ per megabyte in most countries. And you face the risk of seeing your bandwidth deprioritized behind that of T-Mobile subscribers, especially when the network is busy.

Mint Mobile’s customers like it. In 2023 Mint Mobile earned the third-highest ranking in PCMag’s Readers’ Choice survey and had the second-highest score in the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey, in line with earlier positive word of mouth and the experiences of some Wirecutter staffers.

T-Mobile has announced plans to acquire Mint Mobile and its parent company, Ka’ena Corporation, in a deal valued at approximately $1.3 billion and expected to close at the end of 2023. Based on our observations of T-Mobile when it took over MetroPCS (now Metro by T-Mobile) and kept that prepaid service competitive with others, we’re not panicking over this impending acquisition.

How to determine which network has the best coverage for you

Opensignal, PCMag, and RootMetrics all publish independently sourced network-performance metrics that can free you from relying on carrier coverage maps, but those studies each take different approaches and are thus good for different purposes.

RootMetrics uses cars set up with “leading Android-based smartphones for each network” to gather figures on data, talk, and text performance throughout the country. You can also find reports tailored to specific metropolitan areas. PCMag has taken a similar approach but focuses more on network data speed and reliability in metropolitan centers and their suburbs and conducts its tests with the same model of high-end phone—in 2022, the Samsung Galaxy S22+, which may support more high-speed frequencies than your own. Opensignal’s network tests, meanwhile, rely on crowdsourcing: Anyone can download the Opensignal app and run tests. But the majority of people don’t, and as such, Opensignal’s data skews heavily toward urban areas.

The Best Cell Phone Plans (8)

In August 2021, the Federal Communications Commission rolled out its own reality check: a map of estimated LTE coverage, based on signal-propagation models applied to its own data of cell sites. Although that map shows only the presence of at least basic LTE service—5 Mbps downloads and just 1 Mbps uploads—in my own spot-checking, I’ve found that it’s been more accurate than the carriers’ own coverage maps at warning of dead zones.

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How much data do you need?

Once you’ve decided on a network, the next step is to figure out how much data you use. We’ve seen both average and median data use roughly triple from the first quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2022, going by figures from Circana. An Opensignal report from 2021 suggests that increases in data consumption are driven by 5G users—in the US, LTE users running that firm’s testing software averaged 9 GB a month, while those on 5G hit 14.9 GB a month.

Both Android and iOS provide estimates of your current data usage, but your carrier’s website can give you the number that counts for billing purposes. You need to make an educated guess as to how far that number could rise in a year and see which plans can cover that with a reasonable margin.

As limited-data plans become less common, you’re increasingly likely to find that an unlimited plan works for you.

But you need to figure out just what sort of unlimited data you’re buying. All three carriers and their sub-brands and resellers have carved out restrictions on features such as priority data, hotspot use, and streaming video while adding premium tiers or paid add-ons that lift some of those limits. It’s a lot like buying a plane ticket: You can’t jump on the cheapest price you see, lest you wind up in Basic Economy.

Among the Basic Economy, entry-level versions of unlimited data plans, AT&T’s $65 Unlimited Starter and Verizon’s $65 Unlimited Welcome provide no priority or premium data, so you’re at risk of “temporarily slow data speeds if the network is busy,” as AT&T puts it—even if it’s the start of a billing period and you haven’t burned through any data yourself. Verizon’s entry-level plan also prohibits hotspot use and limits your 5G service to the carrier’s slow, low-band network. T-Mobile’s entry-level Essentials Savings, at $50, is more generous in allotting 50 GB of priority data, but its “unlimited” hotspot use is capped at 600 Kbps, a speed that T-Mobile misleadingly markets as “3G speeds.” All three carriers’ starter plans cap the resolution of streaming video on their respective networks at a DVD-grade 480p.

If your usage only slightly exceeds the cap on a service’s limited-data plan—say you use 3.25 GB in a month and your carrier offers a 3 GB plan—you should confirm whether that plan lets you roll over unused data from months when you don’t hit your maximum. Also, see if that service offers unmetered but 2G-slow service once you exhaust your high-speed data so that your phone will still have basic (read: slower) internet access and you won’t get charged extra for going over your cap. These features may help you choose a less expensive plan.

The big three, and many of the smaller services, offer at least two step-up tiers with more priority data and more full-speed mobile-hotspot use; higher-definition streaming may also be part of these upgrades.

CostPlanPriority dataPhone
hotspot data
Hotspot speed
above data cap
Streaming-video
resolution
AT&T$65Unlimited StarterNone3 GB128 Kbps480p
AT&T$75Unlimited Extra50 GB15 GB128 Kbps480p
AT&T$85Unlimited PremiumUnlimited50 GB128 Kbps4K UHD
T-Mobile$60Essentials50 GBUnlimited at 600 Kbpsn/a480p
T-Mobile$70Magenta100 GB5 GB600 Kbps480p
T-Mobile$75Go5G100 GB15 GB600 Kbps720p
T-Mobile$85Magenta MaxUnlimited40 GB600 Kbps4K UHD
T-Mobile$90Go5 PlusUnlimited50 GB600 Kbps4K UHD
Verizon Wireless$65Unlimited WelcomeNone, low-band 5G onlyNonen/a480p
Verizon Wireless$80Unlimited PlusUnlimited30 GB3 Mbps on Ultra Wideband 5G, 600 Kbps otherwise4K UHD on Ultra Wideband 5G, 720p otherwise
Verizon Wireless$90Unlimited UltimateUnlimited60 GB3 Mbps on Ultra Wideband 5G, 600 Kbps otherwise4K UHD on Ultra Wideband 5G, 1080p otherwise

Information current as of Oct.17, 2023. Data allotments on older plans may vary. n/a = Not applicable.

If your usage remains sufficiently low, you should consider plans with a manageable data-usage cap and fewer fine-print rules governing that data. AT&T’s 4 GB plan, which costs $50 after autopay discounts, has no separate limit on hotspot use but still restricts streaming to 480p and omits 5G support. If you’re on a budget and don’t mind complications such as expensive international roaming and a lack of in-person support, Mint’s 5 GB, 15 GB, and 20 GB plans offer even more substantial savings.

As for talk and text amounts, all of the postpaid plans from the major carriers provide unlimited calling and messaging. A shrinking number of prepaid and resold services offer cheaper rates if you’re willing to stay within certain limits. As with data usage, the best way to check your current texting and calling habits is to view your bill.

The Best Cell Phone Plans (9)

If your usage doesn’t fall into our specific categories and you sometimes think in spreadsheets, you can do your own calculations using WhistleOut’s carrier-comparison tool. It even lets you filter by network—you can ask it for, say, only prepaid options that resell AT&T service—and location. But like Google searches, it can show sponsored results before organic ones. It also includes far more services than we cover here and shows not just plans with the required amount of data, minutes, and texts, but also those that exceed your needs, producing a cluttered presentation overall. WhistleOut also doesn’t allow you to specify a set amount of hotspot data.

Should you buy postpaid, prepaid, or resold service?

If you want unlimited calls and texts, more attentive customer service, and phone financing through your carrier, stick with a traditional postpaid plan, in which you get a bill for service after you use it. Postpaid costs a bit more and requires you to have decent credit to qualify, but it offers you every phone the carrier sells, usually with no-interest financing, and the service you get should match what you see in the carrier’s ads.

However, switching to prepaid, in which you pay for service before you use it, can be an easy way to save at least $10 to $20 a month. Many prepaid services are provided by smaller companies that simply resell service from one of the big carriers, so they offer coverage similar to that of the major carriers at a lower price. But some make trade-offs to undersell the major carriers while using the same networks; similarly, the major carriers’ own prepaid plans tend to involve restrictions that their postpaid plans lack. We don’t recommend switching to prepaid unless you meet most of these criteria:

  • You don’t mind buying your own phone separately, since prepaid carriers’ phone selections are often poor or nonexistent.
  • You’re okay handling your own tech support. Retail support may not be an option, and phone or online support may be limited.
  • You’re comfortable relying on prepaid SIM cards or eSIMs while traveling abroad.
  • You’re willing to read the fine print. As analyst Jeffrey Moore advised us, data roaming, and sometimes even voice roaming, may not be included in some prepaid plans. These plans may also omit Wi-Fi calling, one common way to get around holes in coverage.

Some carriers throttle prepaid service to a lower speed by default, as AT&T did until October 2021 with some Cricket plans. Others prioritize their own customers over third-party prepaid traffic. A T-Mobile spokesperson said that although the services for postpaid plans and for prepaid plans have the same priority, Metro by T-Mobile and other resellers “may notice slower speeds in times of network congestion.” Aron North, chief marketing officer at Mint’s then-parent firm Ultra Mobile, confirmed in an email in 2019 that “at times where there is network congestion” Mint may be “reprioritized.”

If you are looking to save money on smartphone service by getting resold service from your cable operator but are also considering dropping your cable operator’s broadband, keep in mind that these wireless plans are best understood as a customer-retention tool. These services, based on resold network capacity from one of the big three carriers, represent their own special case. They offer some serious bargains for people with relatively restrained data appetites, but they also require you to use that cable firm’s broadband.

For example, Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile starts at 1 GB for $15 per month and 10 GB for $60 per month. But if you want unlimited data, Comcast’s offering throttles download speeds to 1.5 Mbps after you hit your plan’s cap of 20 GB ($45 a month), 30 GB ($55), or 50 GB ($65), subject to a major (possibly temporary) bit of leniency noted on a support page: “Right now, mid-band (C-Band) and high-band (Ultra Wideband) 5G data use won’t count toward your per-line monthly threshold for data usage.” The last two plans allow hotspot use at normal speeds, up to 5 GB on the 30 GB deal and 15 GB on the 50 GB plan. You also need Comcast’s Xfinity internet to sign up at all.

Spectrum Mobile is a little better, since its $30 unlimited plan includes 5 GB of full-speed hotspot data—but it cuts your speeds even more sharply after 20 GB, limiting downloads to 1 Mbps and uploads to just 512 Kbps. Its Unlimited Plus plan, priced at $40, gives you 30 GB of usable data but still just 5 GB of mobile-hotspot data. As with Xfinity Mobile, you need to subscribe to this cable operator’s broadband to sign up for its mobile service.

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What to look forward to

Years of massive, expensive 5G buildouts at all three carriers mean future advances in coverage and speed are more likely to be incremental. AT&T and Verizon subscribers, however, stand to see more upgrades mainly because of the late start of those two carriers with C-band frequencies. AT&T and Verizon are also catching up with T-Mobile in deploying “standalone” 5G, a network upgrade in which cell sites can connect directly to compatible phones without needing a 4G connection to set up that 5G link.

The good news for people weary of forced upgrades at all three carriers: We shouldn’t have to worry about dealing with carriers turning on massive new swaths of spectrum, because none are left vacant. Nor should you need to even think about the potential of a “6G” upgrade cycle; while that upcoming standard is a thing, it won’t be a commercial reality until 2030 at the earliest, and in the meantime even carriers want 6G advocates to give the hype a rest.

The competition

Verizon

Most of Verizon’s cheaper plans have become much less attractive because they have access only to the provider’s slower, low-band 5G service. It has now rolled out C-band 5G nationwide, which it is combining with its vastly scarcer millimeter-wave 5G and marketing as Ultra Wideband 5G; together, those services amount to a much stronger network than Verizon’s old mix of low-band 5G brightened by pockets of mmWave. But evidently Verizon now thinks you should pay more for it.

For example, Verizon’s $65 Unlimited Welcome plan limits you to low-band 5G speeds—specifically, though it lets you use C-band and mmWave, it caps your speeds at 25 Mbps on those parts of Verizon’s network. That’s a much bigger problem than its lack of priority data and zero mobile-hotspot use. Verizon also reserves its faster flavors of 5G for its most expensive prepaid option.

Verizon’s $80Unlimited Plus plan opens up C-band and mmWave 5G, with unlimited priority data, 30 GB of mobile hotspot, and a streaming-video limit of 720p. That is a fairly generous bundle—but it drops such previous bonuses as one free international-roaming TravelPass day per month, and the old plan already had more priority and mobile-hotspot data than many people would need. The carrier’s $90 Unlimited Ultimate, meanwhile, throws in 60 GB of mobile hotspot.

If you’d like to save some money with a prepaid or resold plan, Verizon Prepaid now offers the interesting wrinkle of rates that drop over time. So the starting price (with autopay) of $35 per month for its 15 GB plan drops to $30 after three months and $25 after nine; the $45 monthly rate for 15 GB becomes $40 and then $35 in the same way. As with Verizon’s postpaid plans, you still get unlimited 2G data after you hit your plan’s data cap. But only the Unlimited Plus plan, at $60 per month, includes access to Verizon’s C-band 5G—the sole flavor of 5G from this carrier that’s worth talking about.

The CDMA foundation of Verizon’s network—and Verizon’s decision to launch its 5G service on mmWave frequencies that go unused in many other markets—can limit the compatibility of some unlocked phones. For example, the OnePlus Nord N20 5G, our previous pick for the best budget Android phone, doesn’t work on Verizon. And although C-band makes Verizon’s 5G more relevant, Verizon’s practice so far of limiting C-band access to phones it has approved instead of allowing all those with compatible radios—a restrictive approach that still leaves out the C-band–compatible Pixel 7—only increases that incompatibility problem.

If you travel internationally, Verizon’s services can add up. Its TravelPass costs a reasonable $5 per day in Canada and Mexico for you to use voice, text, and data drawn from your domestic allowance and a less reasonable $10 per day in much of the rest of the world. Since Verizon sells phones that are locked for only 60 days after activation to thwart fraud, you can and should save money by using a local prepaid SIM when traveling internationally.

We would like to see Verizon make its plans easier to understand. We would also like to see Verizon abandon price-gouging moves like last year’s steep increase in an “Administrative and Telco Recovery Charge” that customers understandably regarded as a junk-fee hike.

Cricket Wireless

Cricket Wireless, AT&T’s prepaid brand, outranks its corporate mothership in customer satisfaction surveys, now includes taxes in its advertised rates, and offers much cheaper choices if you don’t need a lot of data and extras such as international-roaming options. They’re even cheaper if you’re comfortable paying for a year in advance, a recent addition to Cricket’s single-line pricing that picks up on a discount Mint already offered. But unlike Mint, Cricket includes mobile-hotspot use only on its most expensive offering (though the allocation there is a fairly generous 15 GB). Cricket’s selection of phones for sale is not too impressive, but in this category you’re better off buying an unlocked budget Android phone separately.

Boost Mobile

The former Sprint subsidiary is now a Dish Network subsidiary—one part of the complicated regulatory approval process that allowed T-Mobile to buy its competitor. Boost launched its Boost Infinite service in beta form in December, with the carrier’s nascent 5G network backed up by resold AT&T and T-Mobile coverage. Boost had planned on reselling T-Mobile until it could launch its own network but is now readying a switch to AT&T, which means customers of Boost (and the other resellers that Dish has bought, such as Ting and Republic Wireless) are in for some potentially drastic changes. To us, that doesn’t justify the relatively modest savings that some of its plans offer.

Metro by T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s prepaid subsidiary can seem like an afterthought, with some plans costing notably more than T-Mobile Prepaid’s rates for similar usage scenarios and others offering only minimal service. With its most generous plan offering only 35 GB of priority data–after which, per a small-print note on its site, “you may notice slower speeds when our network is busy”--Metro also flunks our heavy-usage scenario.

Straight Talk

The Straight Talk prepaid brand of TracFone, which is itself a subsidiary of Verizon, is one of the most widely used prepaid services—thanks in part to its distribution through Walmart stores—and also does well in many customer surveys. But its rates no longer beat those at competing postpaid services. And although it has historically resold service from all three carriers, Verizon’s ownership means that Straight Talk will move to put new customers on Verizon alone.

TracFone

The biggest prepaid brand in America and the corporate parent of Straight Talk, and now a Verizon property, TracFone has historically required smartphone customers to patch together a service bundle by buying separate buckets of data, voice, and text. Now it offers a few standard 30-day plans. For 3 GB, its $25 rate is fairly competitive, but its pricing doesn’t hold up in intensive-usage scenarios. And TracFone doesn’t help its cause by prohibiting mobile-hotspot use on all plans except a $40 option with just 8 GB of data. As with Straight Talk, its practice of reselling coverage of all three networks will end as it becomes a Verizon-only service.

Visible

This Verizon brand offers just two plans, the $25 Visible and the $35 Visible+. The former limits you to Verizon’s low-band 5G (one way you can tell this is a Verizon outpost), while the latter gets you Verizon’s full spectrum and 50 GB of priority data. Both come with a mobile-hotspot limit unlike that of any other carrier: Instead of capping how much data can go to that application, Visible limits your hotspot speed to 5 Mbps and allows only one device at a time. We like the creativity on display here, but we’re not sure how many people need an unlimited-on-phone plan but see almost no need to share that bandwidth with other devices via mobile hotspot.

This article was edited by Arthur Gies and Caitlin McGarry.

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