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A slew of options makes picking a cell phone plan harder than it should be. The best cell phone plan for you will depend on your needs. Ask yourself (and answer) these questions to nab your top plan, and hopefully lower your cell phone bill.
Which cellular network is best for you?
When it comes to the useability of your cell phone, signal quality matters most. While there are now many cell phone plan brands, there are still three major nationwide networks in the U.S. You know them: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
J.D. Power measures customer satisfaction of wireless network quality. Its 2024 study, which was informed by responses from more than 26,500 wireless customers, ranks Verizon highest for network quality in all six regions measured (Mid-Atlantic, North Central, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and West). AT&T tied with Verizon in the Mid-Atlantic and North Central regions and T-Mobile tied with Verizon in the Southeast region.
If you already buy a plan directly from one of the big three carriers and like the coverage but not the price, you may be able to save money by switching to a brand with cheap cell phone plans that run on the same network. Take these for example:
Visible is a subsidiary of Verizon that uses its network.
Mint Mobile is soon to be a T-Mobile subsidiary and runs on its network.
Cricket Wireless is owned and operated by AT&T.
Consumer Cellular resells service on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
If you’re unhappy with the quality of your current connection, check coverage maps and ask acquaintances about their experiences in the area on the other networks before you settle on a new plan that uses a different network.
Should you choose postpaid or prepaid?
Prepaid plans are typically cheaper, while postpaid plans add perks and priority data.
Pricey postpaid plans from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon tend to feature unlimited data, come bundled with perks like a streaming service subscription and give you the opportunity to finance a new phone when you sign up. These plans often place users higher in the pecking order when it comes to priority data (more on that in the next section). As the term “postpaid” would suggest, you pay for service after the fact and will likely need a credit check to qualify.
Prepaid plans, even the ones offered directly from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, tend to be more straightforward (read not bloated with extras you may not need), usually don’t require a credit check and often cost less.
The potential for deprioritized data can be the tradeoff with prepaid plans. That is, the possibility that the network owner may reduce data speeds for prepaid plan users during times of congestion (think a crowded sporting event or popular vacation spot during peak season). That said, some prepaid brands offer plans with premium data that they say won’t be slowed during congestion. “Premium” is the operative word if you’re shopping for a plan with data that will remain fast.
Keep in mind: Consumer Reports, which assesses customer satisfaction of cell phone carriers, rated T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T much lower than budget brands like Consumer Cellular and Mint Mobile based on responses to its 2022 winter member survey.
Do you need a family cell phone plan?
Adding lines to flagship unlimited plans from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon will bring the cost of service per line down. Multi-line plans from the big three may be the preference for a parent or guardian who wants to maintain control of all plans under one primary account.
Typical cost for a flagship family plan with unlimited data
Expect to pay around $200 a month plus possible taxes and fees for four lines of a top-tier unlimited plan from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. Compare that with an average of around $80 for just one line on a top-tier plan.
Family plans on a budget
Not all budget prepaid carriers offer family plan options, but some do. For example, Cricket has family plans, and offers a no-frills unlimited data plan with four lines for $100 a month, taxes included. Cricket’s site notes data may be slowed during congestion though.
Another way to grow the family (plan): Mint Mobile has a unique option that allows users to build a family-like plan by connecting multiple active Mint Mobile lines under one primary account manager using the app.
What plans are best for seniors?
If you’re a senior, it’s worth shopping around for a discount. Of the big three carriers, T-Mobile’s Essentials 55 is compelling based on price if you opt for two lines at $55 a month for unlimited talk, text and data. AT&T and Verizon each have a senior plan too, but both options are solely available to Floridians and are more expensive than T-Mobile’s nationwide option for those 55 and over.
A low-cost plan with minimal data may suffice instead. Consumer Cellular offers an unlimited talk and text plan with just 1GB of data for $20 a month, plus taxes and fees.
Is it time for you to switch to a better plan?
It’s easy to lose track and get stuck paying too much for an essential service like a cell phone plan. But the cost of cell phone service has gone down in recent years. Knowing that might make it worthwhile to pull out the budget spreadsheet (or make one) and look for areas to cut costs. A new, cheaper plan may do just the trick.
And if you’re sticking with a flagship postpaid plan just to finance a phone, buying a used cell phone could be cheaper in the long run.