Best Cell Phone Plans: What to Look for
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Sometimes it feels like you need an advanced degree to make sense of wireless plans and network coverage. But finding the best cell phone plans doesn’t have to be so confusing. The key is to figure out what matters most to you before you start comparing.
- What kind of cellular data do you need?
- How much cellular data do you need?
- Do you want a wireless plan with add-on perks like streaming services?
- Do you want a wireless plan that comes with smartphone promotions?
The clearer your understanding of what you need, the faster you can find the best carrier and right phone plan for you. When it comes time to compare phone plans from wireless carriers, our free, unbiased Plan Finder and our head-to-head comparisons can help:
AT&T vs Verizon | T-Mobile vs Verizon | AT&T vs T-Mobile | Spectrum vs AT&T
Wireless Plan Pricing
How much a cell phone plan costs is super important - last year, the average monthly cell phone bill was $144. But there's more to picking the best cell phone plan than price. Here are some other things to consider.
Does your wireless plan get more affordable as you add more lines?
In the case of major carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon the plan pricing drops by $5-10 per month for each additional line up to 5 lines. In other words, the per-line cost for a family plan can be much lower than the per-line cost for one person.
Does your wireless plan price include taxes and fees?
Some wireless carriers include taxes and fees in their cell phone plan pricing, while others do not. If taxes and fees are not included which is often the case, they can add as much as 10-12% to your monthly bill depending on your state and city.
Does your wireless plan come with an autopay discount?
Many carriers offer discounts when you sign up for autopay and paperless billing. Going green really does have its benefits. Just make sure that you still review your monthly bill online to monitor your data usage and catch any billing errors.
Does your wireless plan qualify you for phone deals?
Some basic entry-level plans do not allow subscribers to take advantage of smartphone discounts and promotions. If you’re in the market for a new cell phone and you’re eyeing the latest iPhone or Samsung, finding a plan that comes with a great phone deal could yield significant overall savings.
Does your wireless plan come with perks and add-ons that can save you money?
Many wireless carriers entice subscribers to their plans by offering perks like discounts on streaming services, like Apple TV+, Hulu, Netflix, Disney+, and others. These discounted add-ons can save you as much as $10-20 per month (by canceling your stand-alone subscriptions if you have them). To see which plans come with the perks that could save you money, try our Plan Finder and select the streaming services you’re interested in.
Figuring out how much and what kind of cellular data you need is one of the most confusing parts of picking a cell phone plan. First things first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with a quick definition: cellular data is the type of data that your cell phone uses when it connects to the internet on the go. If you are not connected to Wi-Fi, and you’re surfing the web, streaming video, scrolling social media, or playing games on an app on your phone, you are using cellular data. The amount of data and the type of cellular data that’s right for you depends on your data usage habits.
On the off chance, you are one of those rare beings who only use your phone for what it was originally intended, and by that, we mean talking, you may not need a lot of cellular data because talking and texting aren’t billed as cellular data by wireless carriers. Just be sure to look for a wireless plan with unlimited talk and text. And for those who travel frequently to Canada, Mexico, or elsewhere, it’s important to look for a plan with international calling features where you get unlimited talk and text beyond the United States.
If, on the other hand, you use your phone for gaming, video calls, and bingeing your favorite shows and movies, you’ll likely want at least some amount of high-speed data. How much depends on just how much you use your phone for streaming services like Netflix and other activities that would be slowed down by lower data speeds and data limits.
Unlimited Data Plans vs Capped Data Plans
For those who don’t want to worry about data allotments, unlimited data plans are a great option. But even with unlimited data plans, there are some things to keep in mind. At Navi, we bucket unlimited data plans into three categories: entry-level, mid-level, and premium.
Premium unlimited plans are the most expensive plans because they offer premium data 100% of the time. That means you get the highest speed data the carrier can offer at all times, and your unlimited data will never be what wireless carriers call “deprioritized,” even during heavy network congestion.
Here is a selection of some of the best Premium Unlimited plans:
- Verizon Unlimited Ultimate Plan
- T-Mobile Go5G Plus Plan
- AT&T Unlimited Premium PL Plan
- UScellular Even Better Unlimited
Entry-level unlimited plans still provide you unlimited data, but it’s what is called "deprioritized" data which means that during high-traffic times on your wireless network, you may notice that your phone is a little slower. Fear not, if you’re a light data user, you may not even realize that they are being "deprioritized" because even deprioritized data speeds are pretty fast nowadays.
Here are some cost-effective entry-level plan options to consider:
- T-Mobile Essentials
- AT&T Unlimited Starter SL
- Verizon Unlimited Welcome
- Spectrum Mobile Unlimited
- UScellular Basic Unlimited
- Xfinity Mobile Unlimited Intro
Mid-level unlimited plans offer a combination of premium and deprioritized data, and sometimes include extra hotspot data.
Looking for plans that fit that bill? Here are some mid-level plans from top providers on the market:
- AT&T Unlimited Extra EL Plan
- Verizon Unlimited Plus
- T-Mobile Go5G
- UScellular Everyday Unlimited
- Xfinity Mobile Unlimited Plus
- Xfinity Mobile Unlimited Premium (more hotspot data)
- Spectrum Mobile Unlimited Plus
Keep in mind that the average data user uses over 15GB of phone data per month. But for cell phone users who don’t mind deprioritized data and have a good understanding of their data usage habits, capped data plans can be cost-effective. However, not all of today’s wireless carriers offer this type of plan. With capped cell phone plans, you typically get a set amount of deprioritized data for the month at a good price, but if you exceed your monthly allotment, you’ll be charged overage fees which can be hefty. Be sure to check out our Plan Guide for a look at the options available from top carriers.
Mobile Hotspot Data
When it comes to selecting the best cell phone plans, another consideration is how much hotspot data you need. Hotspot data enables users to connect their computer or other Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the Internet via a combination of their smartphone and wireless carrier. Different cell phone plans offer different amounts of mobile hotspot data. Typically, the higher the plan price, the higher the mobile hotspot data allowance. For example, premium unlimited plans offer enough hotspot data to use your phone as a mobile hotspot more than 3 times per week. Mid-level unlimited plans tend to provide enough data for mobile hotspot usage approximately 1 to 3 times per week, whereas the hotspot data available with entry-level unlimited plans is minimal.
Wireless Carrier Coverage
One of the key things to consider when looking for the best cell phone plans is which wireless carrier offers the best coverage in your area. Unfortunately, when comparing coverage, there isn't a quick and easy method to get an accurate assessment. Network quality is very, very localized, so localized that one side of your home could have significantly better network performance than the other side of your home. That’s where coverage maps fall short.
Great network quality and coverage depend on a combination of factors, including such things as (1) your proximity to the nearest cell tower; (2) whether your carrier offers 5G technology on high band frequencies in your area; (3) the number of other customers your wireless carrier serves in your immediate neighborhood; and (4) the materials your home is made of. And there are other factors, too. As such, measuring network quality and coverage quality is no simple task. For this reason, Navi is hard at work developing a first-of-its-kind tool to compare coverage from different carriers simultaneously in the locations that matter most to you. Until then, here are a few tips:
- Ask local friends and family who have different carriers about the quality of their service in your general location. But don’t stop there. The next time they are in your home, have them run speed tests in different rooms.
- Read blogs and forums in your area to find out what other people are experiencing on different carriers.
- Check out carrier coverage maps to see if you are located in a known problem area. While you can’t necessarily count on these maps to predict good coverage, it’s safe to assume that if you live in a poor coverage area, your service will be less than stellar.
The Bottom Line
Now that you know what to look for in a wireless plan, it’s time to compare carriers and pick the right cell phone plan for you. At Navi, we break down the best cell phone plans from top wireless carriers so there are no surprises when you read the fine print. Want to see our cell phone plan picks based on your needs? Try our free, unbiased Plan Finder below to search thousands of plan options and find the best cell phone plans to meet your criteria in a matter of seconds.