How To Find The Best Smartphone Plan in 2017
Last Updated: August 29, 2017
Almost everyone has a smartphone or will have one shortly. Their usefulness is undeniable. This convenience comes at a high cost and multi-year commitment. We examine the major smartphone providers, their wireless plans and costs, to help you make a more educated decision.
- 2017 brought out Unlimited plans from all 4 major carriers, with Lower prices! It is a great time to update your plan and SWITCH.
Important: As with any mobile wireless plan, you need to ensure you have coverage where you need it. Home, work, play, you need signal otherwise it does not matter what the price is.
Traditionally, smartphone buyers were able to purchase the latest smartphone at a significant discount, often at $199, when they committed to a new 2 year plan with a major wireless carrier like, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, or T-Mobile. Times have changed. There are many more options available to smartphone owners.
Consumers can choose no contract smartphone plans or traditional smartphone plan from one of the 4 major carriers. In a previous article, Find the Best No-Contract Smartphone Plans we examined the best way to save money: No contract smartphone plans, in this article we will examine the more traditional smartphone plan and help you pick the best one. The average consumer spends almost $150 on wireless each and every month. Families spend even more. We cannot do anything about the high cost of wireless taxes that are added onto your bill, but we can save you a significant amount of money. It is surprising that only 1-2% of subscribers switch to other carriers every year.
Some large companies have negotiated discounts with the large cell phone carriers. All you need is a company email address to obtain this discount. Check with your HR Department to see if your company qualifies. As an example, here is the AT&T Wireless Employee Discount page.
Check and compare coverage using Open Signal.
Major Problems with the Large Carriers
- Long term 2 year contracts or installment plans
- Good credit required
- Subsidized hardware costs mask true pricing
- Too many complex options and plans
- Hard to compare costs with competitors
- Upselling to more data than most need
- Difficult to assess coverage and performance
Key Factors to Look for in a No Contract Wireless Carrier
Here are the main attributes you need to understand when evaluating a wireless carrier and wireless plan:
- Price – of course you want to minimize this. You will pay over $1700 over 2 years.
- Wireless Network – Understand which network works well in your home and area of travel.
- Minutes – Only purchase as many minutes as you need. Most people are concerned with text and data limits. Did you realize that you can actually make phone calls with your smartphone?
- Text Messages – Make sure you have enough to cover your needs.
- Data –Pick a plan that has enough data for your lifestyle.
- Smartphones – Ensure that your desired phone is available for this carrier.
International – If you travel abroad, does the carrier allow you to use the phone internationally?
Monthly Wireless Data Usage
If you are a current smartphone user, check your bill to see how much data you use every month. Your new plan can be sized to your current usage patterns. According to Nielsen, the average person used 733MB of data in early 2013. Most people paid for a lot more, approximately 2GB. In 2016, the average mobile customer used over 3GB of data. Over 1/3 of users used 50% or less of their data plan’s allotment.
In 2015, 28% of AT&T's customers paid an overage fee, and 20% of Verizon's did. The wireless carriers force you to select data plans with specific limits, making it easy to over buy. (If you need 600MB, they might force you to purchase 1000MB)
Did you know you can call up your wireless company and ask nicely for more data? You might get an extra 1GB!
We have been updating this comparison over the years and have seen the cost of data fall every year. Verizon charged $80 in 2014 for 500MB of data, in 2016 you could get 4GB of data.
Reduce Data Use
Apps use a lot of data. Check data usage under Settings - Cellular for iOS, or Data Usage on Android. Here are some ways to reduce this:
- Disable Autoplay for videos in Facebook and Twitter
- Enable Travel mode in Snapchat
- Google Chrome has a data saver mode, while Safari does not
Keep in mind that most people are connected to Wi-Fi to perform data intensive operations. Roughly 70% of mobile device Internet traffic is now carried by Wi-Fi.
Connect to Wi- Fi to Save on data costs
- Connect at Home
- Connect at Work
- Use free Wi-Fi at restaurant like McDonalds, Starbucks, etc
- Use the free Wi-Fi that your cell phone carrier supports (IE AT&T has attwifi)
- Use the free Wi-Fi that your broadband provider has (IE Comcast has Xfinity)
If you are new to smartphones, consider these guidelines on monthly usage:
- Email, Social Networking, News, Web Browsing – 1GB per month
- Plus music streaming or downloading, sharing photos, download apps – 3GB per month
- Plus movies, video streaming – Unlimited per month
These are some rough figures to help you select the appropriate plan. Keep in mind that most unlimited plans slow down your data transfers to a snail’s pace, after you pass a preset limit.
Changing Plans at the same Wireless Company
Many people hesitate switching wireless plans and rarely check to see what is new. Plans are separate from phone hardware, so most people can switch to a better plan without breaking any commitments. When in doubt, call up your company's customer service and ask.
Not every phone will be available on every network. You need to decide on the handset that you will be using. The first choice is Android or iOS, after that, most wireless carriers have the same popular smartphones. Shoppers need to understand that they will be stuck with the smartphone for 2 years. Saving $50 or $100 over a 2 year span, and getting stuck with an inferior phone is not very wise.
The major wireless companies attract shoppers with their promises of the latest smartphone for $199 or less. Instead of making consumers pay the full price of a smartphone up front ($400 - $800), they give the shopper a discount and make them pay more each month. You are making a 2 year commitment when you accept this initial discount. If you break the agreement, you will have to pay a hefty early termination fee. You can purchase the phone up front, but few people opt for this expensive arrangement.
Many carriers will charge a one time activation fee when you purchase a new smartphone. Look for sales where they waive this activation fee. Sales tax is charged at the time of sale based on the full price of the smartphone, not its actual selling price.
Does the carrier allow you to bring your own phone? Most of the ones that allow you to do this support GSM technology that is used by the AT&T and T-Mobile wireless networks. Those which run on Sprint or Verizon networks usually require you to buy a new smartphone. Consider this before you buy an unlocked or used phone off eBay or Craigslist.
Does the company have a good record of rolling out the latest and greatest hardware? After you finish your 2 year commitment, there will surely be a new phone that you lust for. Is there a good trade in policy or sell back program?
The wireless companies are good selling you insurance on your smartphone. Because these mobile devices get damaged or lost frequently, they can charge from $7 to $10 a month based on your fear. A third party like SquareTrade will sell you an insurance policy for less. Only go this route if you have a history of mishaps with your smartphone.
Note: Wireless carriers change plans all the time, this review was based on plans and pricing at the time of publication. Check each company's' website to see current plans and prices.
T-Mobile is one of the major four wireless carriers in the United States. They have a wide range of smartphones available for purchase. T-Mobile has recently increased its popularity with a variant of the traditional smartphone sales model. You can either pay for the phone completely up front, or pay a down payment (many smartphones are $0 down), finance the device, and commit to a clearly defined monthly fee. If you cancel service, the remaining balance becomes due immediately.
They are expanding their LTE network and adding to their spectrum. Wide band LTE will be deployed in some areas, enhancing performance.
T-Mobile ONE Plan
In early 2017, T-Mobile introduced the new T-Mobile One and One Plus plans with 'unlimited data' at $70/month for the first line. $140/month for 4 lines.
- No annual service contract or activation fee
- Unlimited talk, text and web
- Unlimited Music and Video streaming (480p)
- Use your phone as a Hotspot, Teethering (3G Speed)
- Use your phone in Mexico & Canada
- Stay connected abroad (128kbps)
- Optional features, such as Stateside International, JUMP!, and more.
Each T-Mobile Plan has a lot of gotchas, depending on what type of media is consumed.
- DVD quality 480p streaming - not HD
- During Congestion top 3% of users (>32GB/month) may notice slower speeds
- International Data works but runs very slowly
T-Mobile One Plus Plan Features (Adds $5 per line)
For those who need better quality video, faster hotspot, or travel a lot, you can pay a little more and get this:
- Unlimited HD Video streaming (US Only)
- First 10 GB of 4G LTE High speed hotspot data at no extra charge
- Unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo
- Go abroad with 2x the data
- Voicemail to Text
- Name ID
T-Mobile Extended Range LTE
In September 2015, with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus launch, T-Mobile started rolling out Extended Range LTE. This added more frequency bands to T-Mobile (700Mhz), enabling better reception inside buildings. This support will be slowly rolled out Nationwide. Their goal was to have 350 markets upgraded by the end of 2015. Smartphones need to add support of this frequency.
T-Mobile operates a GSM network, allowing you to purchase an unlocked phone and use it on their network. All you need to do is buy their SIM starter kit
Coverage - Good to very good depending on your area. Check their coverage maps. Their high speed LTE Network is still being rolled out.
Best Individual Plan - T-Mobile ONE Unlimited Plan - http://www.t-mobile.com/cell-phone-plans/
Best Family Plan – T-Mobile often times, has discounted family plans, so check their website. Often they charge less with each additional line. 4 lines usually costs $140/month, which is very competitive.
Smartphone selection – Very good. From the latest iPhones, Samsung Galaxy Notes, Galaxy S through basic Android smartphones. T-Mobile had some devices, which were not available from the other major providers. Very good incentives to switch.
Bring your device - You can buy an unlocked GSM iPhone or Android Smartphone elsewhere and then buy their SIM starter kit to take advantage of this plan.
T-Mobile is best when:
- You are a Heavy Data User
- You need unlimited talk and text
- You want to use an existing unlocked GSM phone
- Sharing a plan
- There is Good Coverage in your local area. Especially LTE.
AT&T Wireless has a variety of plans, which makes it much more difficult to comparison shop. They have several Unlimited Plans along with existing Mobile Share Advantage Plans. They have individual plans as well as family oriented mobile share data plans.
Phone plans are decoupled from the phones themselves. AT&T has a Next Plan which allows you to get a new smartphone every year or year and a half, but is costly. Each of these plans has its advantages and disadvantages. AT&T has a reasonable amount of coverage nationwide. They are one of the most reliable wireless networks to be on.
AT&T Unlimited Plans
AT&T Wireless joined the unlimited plan fray to compete with the other 3 big carriers. Previously, they only offered unlimited plans to those who were grandfathered in or had a subscription to DirecTV. Obviously, if you use a lot of data, you will want to go with an unlimited plan.
AT&T Unlimited Choice ($60/month after $5 AutoPay and Paperless discount)
After 22GB of data use a month, AT&T may slow your data speeds.
- Unlimited talk, text, and web
- Video Streaming limited to Standard Definition (480p DVD quality)
- Maximum Data Speed 3Mbps
- No Mobile Hot Spot
- Unlimited talk to Canada and Mexico
For a family of 4, the price is $155 with AutoPay and Paperless Discount.
AT&T Unlimited Plus ($90/month after AutoPay and PaperLess discount)
Add the following features to the plan
- HD Video streaming
- Maximum Data Speed (10Mbps+)
- Mobile hotspot 10GB per line at Full speed
For a family of 4, the price is $185 with AutoPay and Paperless Discount.
AT&T Wireless has unlimited plans bundled with DirecTV for those wanting to consolidate their wireless and TV.
AT&T Mobile Share Advantage Plans
If you do not need Unlimited Data, you can consider this data plan, but notice that 3GB of data will cost you the same as the Unlimited Choice Plan ($60). No good reason for choosing Mobile Share!
A 16GB Mobile Share Advantage plan for a family of 4 costs $170, more than the Unlimited plans!
After your high-speed data allotments are used, all data usage is slowed to a maximum of 128Kbps (2G speed) for the rest of the bill cycle.
*We do not recommend getting shared data plans with less than 3GB per line as overages may easily occur.
Coverage - Good to very good depending on your area. Check their coverage maps
Best Individual Plan - $60/mo Unlimited Choice with Unlimited Data. Cheaper than T-Mobile.
Best Family Plan – A family of four can get Unlimited Choice unlimited data, talk and text for $155. A little more costly than T-Mobile.
Smartphone Selection - Excellent. From the latest iPhones, Samsung Galaxy Note, Galaxy S through basic Android smartphones.
Bring your device -Free SIM Cards for GSM phones including iPhones that are unlocked. LTE support is also available.
Note: There have been changes from last year that benefit users. You can actually get more data for the same prices that were in place around 2014.
AT&T Wireless is best when:
- Unlimited Data
- Network Coverage
- Smartphone versatility
Verizon Wireless has the known best coverage nationwide making them one of the most reliable networks. In survey after survey, they are usually rated number one. This top rating does come at a cost.
They also have an Edge Plan which allows you to pay for your phone in monthly installments. Each of these plans has its advantages and disadvantages. Many of their phones utilize CDMA technology limiting them from begin used internationally. Some of their newer phones are World ready, verify this.
Verizon Unlimited Plan
Verizon Wireless brought back the Verizon Unlimited Plan in February 2017, as the competition was doing so also. The plan was slightly altered in August 2017.
With Verizon goUnlimited, you also get HD video streaming, Mobile Hotspot, unlimited calling and texting to Mexico and Canada and up to 500 MB/day of 4G LTE roaming in Mexico and Canada - included.
- 1 line for $75 for unlimited data, talk and text on your smartphone with paper-free billing and AutoPay. Plus taxes and fees.
- DVD Quality Streaming
- Hotspot/Tethering reduced to 3G speeds (600kpbs)
- After 22GB/line/month, your data speed may be slowed.
- Domestic data roaming at 2G speeds
Verizon beyondUnlimited 1 line for $85
- HD quality streaming
- Unlimited mobile Hotspot with 15GB at 4G LTE
Verizon goUnlimited Family Plan with 4 Lines
- $160 per month or $45 per line for 4 lines with unlimited data, talk and text, slow hot spot on your smartphones and tablets with paper-free billing and AutoPay. DVD Quality streaming.
- $200 per month give you HD quality streaming and 15GB 4G LTE hotspot
Verizon Wireless Features
- A new My Verizon app helps you manage your data
- Roll over Data
- Free data access to go90 entertainment
- Safety Mode lets you stay connected at a reduced speed until you buy more 4G data or hit your next billing cycle.
Other Verizon Wireless Plans
Older limited plans are still available but only make sense if you use very little data.
- S 2GB $35/month
- M 4GB $50/month
- L 8GB $70/month
Carryover Data from month to next month, Safety mode allows you to use up your data and still connect at slow speeds.
Existing subscribers can switch to the new plans at any time.
Coverage – Very good to excellent depending on your area. Check their coverage maps
XLTE - In late May of 2014, Verizon unveiled "XLTE", hyped and advertised as another LTE service capable of delivering faster speeds and better coverage. In reality, XLTE is just the name Verizon is giving the frequencies added to the spectrum that their LTE network runs on. Currently, Verizon's massive LTE network runs on the 700MHZ band, which is great for traveling long distance but running out of room for new users quickly. Rolling out in the next quarter, Verizon's XLTE will provide LTE internet on the AWS spectrum they purchased in 2012, providing a lot more bandwidth and breathing room for LTE users. XLTE will work on newer devices and users can expect to see their internet speeds increase slightly with fewer incidents of bandwidth congestion (when mobile internet service becomes noticeably slower in areas where many people are using the same LTE network). In the future they will support carrier aggregation allowing them to improve performance.
Smartphones that will support XLTE include:
- iPhone 7/6S/6/5s
- Samsung Galaxy S7/S6
- Motorolla Moto X
- LG G4/G5
Best Individual Plan - $80/mo Unlimited plan with Unlimited Data. Competitive with other companies.
Best Family Plan - $180 per month for 4 smartphones along with unlimited data. Pricier than T-Mobile.
Smartphone Selection - Excellent. From iPhones, Samsung Galaxy Notes, Galaxy S through basic Android smartphones. Verizon has their own Droid line of smartphones.
Bring your device - You need to buy a phone or mobile hotspot from Verizon. Other GSM phones will not work. Some used Smartphones from eBay may work if they are not banned.
Verizon is best when:
- Reliability – the top rated network
- Speed with high speed LTE available
- Network Coverage that is arguably the best
- Costs are not the number one factor
Sprint is one of the underdogs in the smartphone race. In a recent comparison they ranked last among the major carriers. They were acquired by Softbank Japan, which should help them in the future. Eventually they may merge with T-Mobile, provided the FCC allows it. They market an Unlimited plan with no mention of throttling, but you will have to watch out for their off-network roaming usage limits. The off-network roaming usage allotment is small and can easily be used up in a few days.
Sprint has several different plans making it very confusing to navigate their website. It is hard to recommend them because of this. Look at Boost Mobile, their prepaid division instead, if you must use their network or are on a budget. T-Mobile is priced in the same ballpark, and much more liked.
In the near future, they are rolling out Sprint Spark Triband LTE, which will give them higher performance and better coverage. This will be featured on their 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz, and 2.5 GHz bands. Some day they will be able to achieve maximum peak speeds of 1.3 Gbps.
Sprint Unlimited Freedom Plan - $60/month with Autopay
- Unlimited Data, Talk, Text
- HD streaming video
- 10GB of hotspot Data
- Music at up to 1.5mbps, gaming at up to 8mbps
- Data deprioritization during congestion
- MHS, P2P and VPN reduced to 2G speeds after 10GB/mo
Sprint Family Plan with 4 Lines
- $160/month for 4 lines
- A promotion dropped the price to $90/month through 6/30/18
Coverage - Fair to very good depending on your area. Check their coverage maps
Best Individual Plan - $60 per month for unlimited talk, text, web.
Family Plan - $160 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data serving 4 people. The limited time promo was even more aggressive.
Smartphone Selection – Very Good. From the latest iPhones, Samsung Galaxy Notes, Galaxy S through basic Android smartphones.
Bring your device - You need to buy a phone or mobile hotspot from Sprint. Other GSM phones will not work, some Verizon phones may work. Some used Smartphones from eBay may work if they are not banned.
Sprint is best when:
- You on a budget
- You want Unlimited Data
- You have reliable Sprint Coverage
- You can accept the limited Smartphone Selection
US Cellular is a popular carrier that is not available nationwide. If you live in the areas, more rural, that they serve, then definitely give them consideration.
Their Total Data Plan with Unlimited Data, Talk and Text $70 a month. Not exactly cheap.
Unlimited Family plan for 4 costs $160/month plus taxes and fees.
Unlimited data plans will stream at standard definition speeds and will automatically shift to 2G when each line reaches 22GB.
Cell Phone Plan Conclusion
In conclusion, the consumer has a lot of control over cost with every Smartphone plan. You can switch carriers or Smartphones almost at any time.
Review the details above + select the one that fits your needs. We recommend you take the time to understand your situation and pick the one best for you. Take Price, Coverage, Smartphone Selection, and monthly Bandwidth Allotment into consideration.