How to Find the Best Cell Phone Plans of 2018

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Last updated on July 15, 2018 Views: 920 Comments: 0

Comparing cell phone plans makes going to the dentist look fun. To help, here are our ratings and comparisons of the best cell phone plans in 2018.

These days, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a cell phone. They’ve become a staple in our lives. And, for many without a landline, they’re a necessity. But just because we have to have our cell phones, doesn’t mean that we have to pay an arm and a leg for service.

Figuring out how much a new cell phone plan will actually cost you practically requires an accounting degree. Those “$45 unlimited calls, messaging, and data” plans can quickly, somehow, turn into $100-per-line charges. Between fees and fine print, it can all be hard to decipher.

Let’s take a look at how much cell plans have changed recently, all across the board. We will cover the four major cell phone carriers (Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T). And we’ll see what prices they are actually offering.

We’ll exclude any promotional pricing, since promotions change so often. We’ll also cover the amount and quality of data included in each plan, as that’s the most common concern for subscribers these days.

So, let’s get started. Then, you can determine how much a new plan will really cost you, long before some surprise, inflated bill lands in your inbox.

Big Changes

A few notable shifts that have occurred in the cell phone world as of late. But for the most part, these shifts are in the best interests of the consumer.

Return of Unlimited Plans

You may remember that unlimited plans used to be pretty popular. Different carriers offered different services. Some only offered unlimited talk time, and others offered unlimited talk and text. But you could find some kind of unlimited plan from nearly every provider.

Well, a few years ago, carriers began to unexpectedly pull these types of plans from their lineup. The reason? The massive wave of smartphone users and their unprecedented data usage. This was an even bigger issue once streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify gained popularity.

These apps eat up a significant amount of data. To compensate, carriers began to offer expensive data plans alongside their typical “minutes and messages” offerings. Some even forced consumers to pay a fee for simply having a smartphone connected to a line. It didn’t matter if you used 1GB of data per cycle or hit your limit… the fee was the same.

Personally, these “smartphone surcharges” and data fees caused my own bill to jump from an average of $60 per month per line to just over $90 per month per line. We’re talking about another $360 a year per phone, for the luxury of checking my email or Facebook on the go.

You can understand, then, why I jumped for joy when I heard that unlimited plans were making a comeback. I stayed with my same carrier and switched to one such unlimited plan the same day it debuted. This immediately cut my bill by about 35% without any noticeable decrease in service.

All four of the major carriers now offer some form of unlimited plan. Just as before, the plans vary in what’s actually offered. Take a look at your own bill history before switching to see how much data you typically use. Considering that most of the carriers have different unlimited package levels, you may be able to save some money with a smaller plan.

Of course, keep in mind that “unlimited” doesn’t actually mean unlimited without consequences. If you’re a high-speed data hog, you’ll probably have your speeds tethered (or reduced) after you hit a certain usage limit.

No Contracts

Gone are the days of being locked into two-year agreements with a carrier. And consumers no longer have to pay pricey early termination charges if/when they want to switch. Now, all four of the big carriers operate on a no-contract basis.

This is great news as far as flexibility. You’re welcome to change plans and carriers anytime you like, without consequences. However, there is a downside.

One of the biggest perks of contract plans, at least for smartphone users, was the discounted phone price. In exchange for signing one of those one-, two-, or even three-year contracts, the carriers offered a substantial discount on the actual phone. For those who lined up to snag the newest iDevice, this discount of several hundred dollars was well worth the contract’s shackles.

Now, you’ll need to buy your phone outright when you pick that new, no-contract plan… no more $199 iPhones. However, the carriers typically offer their own version of a zero-interest loan, allowing you to buy the phone for a down payment and an agreement of an increased monthly charge.

Once the phone is paid in full–usually around 24 months–that added charge falls off. If you want to switch carriers before you finish paying off the phone, you’ll simply need to fork over the balance in order to release yourself.

Now, let’s look at what each cell company is offering in terms of plans.

Sprint

Sprint has bounced up and down a bit on its unlimited plan pricing over the past year or so. It was one of the first carriers to offer new unlimited plans. Then it dropped its prices significantly earlier this year.

Sprint has raised its prices back up a bit since then. But they’re still nicely discounted from what they were last year and before. However, it’s important to note that the prices shown here are expected to revert back to their higher rates after October 2018. So, be sure to make the switch before then if Sprint is the best choice for you.

Data Quality & Quantity

With Sprint, you’ll have no problem streaming HD-quality videos with your standard unlimited data plan. You’ll also be able to take advantage of 10GB of high-speed mobile hot spot usage per line. This means you can use your cell phone service as a wifi hub for your laptop or other devices, which is a convenient feature to have available at no extra charge. Once you use up your monthly 10GB, your hot spot speed will drop to 2G.

If you use more than 23GB of high-speed data per month, Sprint may tether your speeds. Also, if you are using your data for gaming and music, your streaming speeds will be capped at 8Mbps and 1.5Mbps respectively.

Pricing

Remember rates will jump up a bit, to previous price levels, at the end of October 2018. Until then, though, Sprint has some of the most competitive rates available on unlimited plans.

For one phone line, an unlimited plan will run you $55. A second phone adds another $45, with additional phones after that costing $10 per line.

If you’re not interested in unlimited data–maybe you have a younger child who doesn’t need a smartphone–the only other option available is a $45 per month per line plan. This plan does include up to 2GB of data.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data $45 $90 $135 $180 $225
Unlimited data $55

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $65)

$100

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $110)

$110

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $145)

$120

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $180)

$125

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $215)

T-Mobile

Up until recently, T-Mobile offered family data-sharing options for its customers, called Simple Choice plans. These meant that you could purchase bulk shared data, along with unlimited messaging and calls, for the whole family to use. You could even allocate data to individual phone lines. That way your teenager couldn’t hog all the data midway through the month’s plan.

These Simple Choice plans were also great in that they didn’t include data usage from streaming services, like Netflix and Spotify, against your data allowances. Considering how much data those apps can use, this was a big bonus for many customers.

However, this is no longer the case. Now, T-Mobile has replaced Simple Choice plans with its T-Mobile One plan. Now you have to purchase a separate data plan for every phone on the account.

The good news is that these plans are all unlimited–data, voice calls, and text messages. Depending on how much data your family was eating through before, this could either increase or decrease your monthly bill.

Data Quality & Quantity

Basic T-Mobile plans offer customers “DVD-quality” video streaming. But it caps hotspot speeds at 3G. If you want better quality or higher speed, you’ll need to pay another $10 per month, per line. This upgrade will then snag you a 4G mobile hotspot and HD-quality video streaming.

Whether or not that’s worth the added cost, only you can decide.

As with Sprint (and all of the others, in fact), “unlimited” has its caveats. However, the cap for potential speed tethering is a bit higher with T-Mobile, at a solid 32GB. Surpass that in a given billing cycle, and T-Mobile may slow down your phone’s speed when the system is overloaded.

Pricing

One great thing about T-Mobile’s pricing structure is that it’s incredibly simple to calculate. You don’t have to worry about regulatory fees, taxes, or little monthly charges that can cause your bill to notch further and further up.

What you see is what you get. Their pricing already includes all taxes and fees, so when they say you’ll pay $75 a month, they mean that’s what you’ll actually pay. So, keep that in mind when you’re comparison shopping.

Their price structure is as easy as it gets. There is only one option: unlimited everything. The first line is $75 a month (remember, this is what your actual bill will be… no fees or taxes). Each line after that is another $35. Easy peasy.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
Unlimited data $75 $110 $145 $180 $215

Verizon

Unable to stick with one pricing structure, Verizon has had a lot of back-and-forth with their plans in the last year or so. What they’ve settled on now has a lot of people irked.

Their prices have dropped, and you now have a choice between two unlimited data plans. However, you’ll be getting a little less bang for your buck in the end.

Data Quality & Quantity

Verizon’s plans used to be, like many other carriers, of the limited variety. You could choose until very recently to purchase a set amount of data for a set price. Now, your options are between two unlimited plans, which offer varying qualities of data.

The first plan is called Go Unlimited, and it is the less expensive of the two. You will still receive unlimited data, but Verizon reserves the right to tether you speeds any time the network is busy. This is in stark contrast to most tethering rules, where the carrier will only begin to tether your peak time speeds after you’ve used a certain amount of data.

With this plan, you’ll also get DVD-quality video streaming along with a mobile hotspot, capped at a 600 Kbps speed.

If you need more, well, everything, there is also the Beyond Unlimited plan. It’s an extra $10 a month but offers better quality data and more flexible rules.

With this higher-priced option, you’ll get HD-quality streaming on your videos and a 4G LTE mobile hotspot with up to 15GB per month, per line. You’ll also avoid being tethered during peak network times until you’ve used more than 22GB of data in that billing cycle.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Go Unlimited $80 $140 $165 $180 $225
Beyond Unlimited $90 $170 $195 $220 $275

AT&T

Last but not least, we have AT&T. The carrier started offering unlimited plans again in February 2017, and, like Verizon, it offers two different qualities to choose from.

The company does still offer Mobile Share Advantage (finite data) plans, if that suits your needs better. Grandma probably doesn’t need unlimited data, so these plans are still the cheaper option for low-data users.

Data Quality & Quantity

If you opt for the cheaper of the two unlimited plans through AT&T, the Unlimited Choice, you might be a little disappointed in the quality. It really depends on what you’re used to getting.

Unlimited Choice will give you standard-definition quality (don’t ask me how big of a difference there is between this and “DVD-quality,” though) video streaming with a speed cap of 1.5Mbps. For non-streaming data usage AT&T caps speeds at 3Mbps. The Unlimited Choice plan also does not include a mobile hotspot.

If you need better quality and faster speeds, you can opt for the pricier version, the Unlimited Plus plan. This includes a mobile hotspot with 10GB of usage per line. Go over that limit, and you can still use your hot spot; it just gets limited to a speed of 128Kbps.

This plan includes HBO at no additional cost (which may be a great plus if you’re trying to cut the cord or just decrease that cable bill!) and HD-quality video streaming.

Pricing

The difference in price between the two unlimited plans is larger than with other carriers (most of whom offer an upgrade to the “better” plan for only ~$10 a month per line).

Unlimited Choice plans start at $65 for the first line. The second line is another $60, and each line after that, up to 10 lines, is another $20 per line.

Unlimited Plus plans start at $95 for the first line. The second line is again $60, with each subsequent line adding another $20 per line.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Unlimited Choice $65 $125 $145 $165 $185
Unlimited Plus $95 $155 $175 $195 $215

As cell users’ needs and data demands change, carriers are likely to further alter their unlimited plans. So be on the lookout for changes to these prices and the perks that each plan offers.

Also, keep in mind that cell phone carriers offer promotional pricing and discounts frequently. A number of these carriers offer discounts for autopay and paperless billing, so your bill might actually be less than what you’re seeing here. You should check online and even call the carrier to ask about potential discounts before signing up to ensure that you get the lowest possible price.

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