It seems phone plans go hand in hand with Tylenol, Aspirin, or any kind of drug that relieves headaches. You’ve heard that some plans are better than others, but it’s practically a rite of passage to be bamboozled by your phone bill in one form or another. It seems every plan comes loaded with fine print gotchas and price add-ons.
Finding the most affordable phone plan is a headache, but since our phones have worked their way into every aspect of our lives, we’re pretty much bound to pay a phone bill every month. For most of us, our cell phone could cost hundreds, or even thousands, every year.
These days, the cell phone market is filled with volatile shake-ups. Carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint have introduced new plans that have replaced the traditional two-year contracts. And now, more than ever before, it’s a buyer’s market. Here’s our guide to the best cheap phone plans. But before we dive in, consider this: Maybe a cheap data plan isn’t ideal for you? We’ve also got guides to the best individual plans and the best family plans. And why not go big? We’ve got a guide to finding the best unlimited data plan, too.
Types of plans
If you know where to look, there are a slew of different plans available, but first, we’ll explain a few essential terms.
Month-to-month/no-contract plan: Going month-to-month instead of signing a two-year contract with a phone carrier makes your phone bill a whole lot simpler and can ultimately save money. That’s worth remembering, especially when you end up paying more than $500 on an unsubsidized phone. In some cases, you can join a hybrid plan that is technically “no-contract,” but allows you to pay off your phone over 12 or 24 months.
Prepaid vs. no-contract: The difference between the two plans is how you pay. Prepaid plans require you to purchase minutes (aka, refill cards). These plans will give you minutes and data until you deplete your refill card. No-contract plans will bill you every month and are usually more expensive, but you’ll most likely get unlimited talk and text.
MVNOs: Lesser-known companies like Republic Wireless and Ting are called MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators). They ride the wireless infrastructure of the major carriers. Oftentimes, they can offer cheaper prices than the big boys, but are mostly designed for phone users who don’t do much more than check their emails.
Option 1: Family plan
Family plans are offered by all four major carriers. These kinds of plans will cost more upfront and require more data, minutes, and texts.
Family plans are offered without contracts. You’ll go month-to-month and receive all the coverage and 4G data plans. Bundling lines together will usually result in overall savings in the long run. Adding extra lines will cost between $30 and $50. Let’s compare the best family plan deals offered by each carrier.
The overall best family plans from each carrier
* Best prices are in bold.
Winner: A tie between AT&T and Sprint
T-Mobile paved the way for unlimited data plans, but these days, there are cheaper alternatives for families. Sprint offers the cheapest plans for two and three-line plans, but larger families will want to head to AT&T, which is more financially viable for four- and five-line plans.
Option 2: Individual phone plans from the major carriers
Individual phone plans require customers to pay once a month. This is ultimately cheaper than signing a contract, and will also provide peace of mind that your rate won’t spike in the next two years.
Most of the major carriers charge overage fees when you exceed your data limit. The cost of these fees vary by carrier, but it’s always a specified amount per gigabyte of data you use beyond your allotment. If you don’t want to worry about overage charges, go with one of the big four’s unlimited plans. But be prepared to have your data speeds throttled should you exceed a certain data amount.
The overall best individual plans from each carrier
*Best prices are in bold.
Sprint’s unlimited plan for $60 is definitely a good deal, however, in our breakdown of Sprint’s unlimited plans, we point out how the carrier has struggled with data speeds in the past. And if you like gaming or streaming music, both are cut back and lacking in data speeds in comparison to Sprint’s HD video streaming. The carrier also has notoriously spotty coverage in rural areas. Its competitors have better overall coverage and a wider selection of phones, and the fact that AT&T’s unlimited data plan is the same price as Sprint’s makes it the best option here.
Option 3: Don’t overlook MVNOs
There are some great options out there from the big four wireless carriers, but there are plenty of excellent options from smaller companies, too.
There are a ton of lesser-known carriers, known as MVNOs, each of which buys minutes and data from major carriers and allows you to ride the major networks contract-free.
For some users, these “remixed” plans allow greater flexibility, given the low-budget options, restriction capabilities, and their sheer convenience when traveling. There are several setbacks to MVNOs, with the most notable being inconsistent customer service and obscure terms and conditions. Some of these MVNOs can also have a smaller selection of phones that still cost hundreds, and many of the phones may be refurbished instead of brand-new.
The best plans from MVNOs
* Best prices are in bold.
Winner: FreedomPop and MetroPCS
A free phone plan is awfully attractive, but you only get 500 MB of data, which is basically nothing in 2017. For $25 per month on FreedomPop, however, you can still get a cool 2GB of data, making the company by far the best option for those looking for low-data options. Of course, that’s not everyone — in 2017, more data can be pretty helpful. If you’re looking for an unlimited data plan from an MVNO, then we strongly recommend MetroPCS, which is offering unlimited data at only $50 — not bad at all.
What’s best for you:
As attractive as the ultra-low price of FreedomPop may be, it’s only a realistic option for light users. The rest of us will be better off with one of the big four carriers the majority of the time. These days, it seems as though AT&T is the best option for both families and individuals looking for unlimited data, though Sprint has a lot going for it, too. It’s also the best way to save, and gain all the benefits of the major carrier’s service.
Updated on 11-27-2017 by Christian de Looper: Updated text, prices, and links to reflect recent changes.
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