Sherri Riggs, telecom expert with WhistleOut, a San Diego, California–based website that offers comparisons and reviews of cellular and Internet plans. WhistleOut.com
Prices for cell-service plans are rising, perks are disappearing, and the 5G network has thus far underwhelmed. But there still are some appealing cellular plans for consumers who take the time to shop carefully.*
Before you start shopping: It is likely not worth signing up for a cellular plan that includes a free or heavily subsidized new phone. You almost always come out ahead when you pay for a phone out of pocket and then shop around for the lowest-cost cellular plan to suit your needs.
For infrequent phone use: Tello. If you use your cell phone mainly to send texts and make the occasional call, Tello is an amazingly affordable option. Plans start at $5/month for unlimited texting and 100 minutes of calling per month, but no mobile data (meaning no Internet access when you’re not on Wi-Fi). Plans are customizable, so for a few dollars more, you can add some mobile data or talk time. Examples: Add 1 GB of data to that unlimited text/100 minutes of talk, and you’ll pay $7/month…add that 1 GB of data and opt for unlimited text plus unlimited talk, and you’ll pay $10/month. Service is provided through the T-Mobile network. Tello.com
Note: 1 GB is about one hour of scrolling the Internet, 12 hours of FaceTime, eight hours of streaming music or 24 hours of Google Maps usage.
For significant cell-phone use: Mint Mobile or Visible. Mint Mobile plans start at $15/month for a plan that includes unlimited talk and text plus 5 GB of data. For just $30/month, you can get unlimited data, talk and text. Mint earns higher marks for customer service than most cellular providers. But like other low-cost providers, Mint doesn’t have brick-and-mortar stores that you can visit when you need help. Caveat: You have to pay for multiple months of service in advance to get Mint’s best rates—three months initially, then typically 12 months when you renew. Service is provided on the T-Mobile network. MintMobile.com
Visible—officially “Visible by Verizon”—offers unlimited talk, text and data for $25/month. That’s $5 less per month than Mint. The main difference between these isn’t price…it’s the network—if the T-Mobile network is stronger in your area, Mint is likely your best choice…if Verizon is stronger, lean toward Visible. Visible.com
To find the strongest network: Go to WhistleOut.com/CellPhones, and enter your address in the “coverage check” box to see a map of carriers and coverage.
For families that want unlimited data: Whichever major carrier has the best coverage in your area. If you want four or more cell-phone lines with unlimited calling, texting and data, the big-name cellular companies—AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon—tend to be the best options. The unlimited-data family plans offered by the big three are sufficiently similar that the best way to choose among them is based on which has the strongest network in your area.
If that is Verizon, options range from the Unlimited Welcome plan at $25/month per line for four lines…to the Unlimited Ultimate plan, which offers higher data speeds, 60 GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data and other extras for $40/month per line for four lines. Verizon.com
A mobile hotspot allows you to become your own Wi-Fi network. Using your cell phone’s hotspot allows other devices to connect to the Internet. Most mobile hotspots can accommodate up to 10 connected devices depending on the carrier.
If that carrier is AT&T, family plans range from Unlimited Starter, at $35/month per line for four lines…to Unlimited Premium, which offers unlimited access to the highest speeds and 50 GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data per line for $50/month per line for four lines. ATT.com
If it is T-Mobile, plans range from Go5G at $155/month combined for four lines (which comes to $38.75 per line) to Go5G Next, which offers higher data speeds and 50 GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data, among other extras, for $225/month for four lines (that’s $56.25 per line). T-Mobile’s family plans include Netflix and Apple TV subscriptions, an increasingly common perk—subscription details vary depending on the plan selected. T-Mobile.com
For families that don’t need much data: US Mobile Shareable Data plans. US Mobile might not be a household name yet, but it’s growing at an impressive rate. If your family doesn’t need unlimited data, you could save by signing up for a US Mobile Shareable Data plan. With these plans, you can add lines for just $8 per extra line. Combine that with US Mobile’s low plan prices, and the result is very affordable family plans. Example: A plan that includes unlimited talk and text plus 2 GB of shareable data costs $10/month—a couple that doesn’t need much data could add a line to that and pay a combined $18 ($9 per line). A plan that includes unlimited talk and text plus 30 GB of shareable data costs $50/month—a family of four could add three more lines for $8 apiece, for a monthly bill of $74/month ($18.50 per line). It’s all very customizable—you choose the number of lines and amount of data that your household needs. Service is provided through the Verizon or T-Mobile network. USMobile.com
For couples: Consumer Cellular, US Cellular or Mint. The family plans offered by the big three strongly favor families that sign up for at least four lines, but Consumer Cellular offers appealing options for as few as two lines. Examples: A two-line plan with unlimited talk and text and 5 GB of data costs $40/month ($20 per line)…or you can upgrade to unlimited data for a total of $65/month ($32.50 per line). A 5% AARP discount can reduce those prices slightly.
Couples could pay even less by signing up for a US Cellular Shareable Data plan…or a Mint Mobile family plan—Mint’s family plan prices are the same per line as its compellingly inexpensive individual plan prices. But unlike most low-cost providers, Consumer Cellular provides service through the AT&T network—in addition to T-Mobile’s network—making it a very solid option for couples who live in areas where AT&T has the best service. Like Mint, Consumer Cellular delivers strong customer service relative to others in the cellular sector. ConsumerCellular.com
Helpful: Mint Mobile’s per-line prices don’t drop when couples and families sign up together for multiple lines. But if you sign up for two or more lines through a Mint family plan, you can get Mint’s lowest renewal rates by prepaying for just three months rather than 12.
For international travelers: Google Fi Unlimited Plus. Google’s cellular plan is the obvious choice if you’re often outside the US. All Google Fi plans include data, calling and texting within Canada and Mexico as well as the US…and the Unlimited Plus plan includes data and texting in more than 200 counties, plus calling at 20 cents per minute. Google Fi does not require customers to install new SIM cards, change phone settings or jump through any other hoops typically required to use US cell phones abroad. Unlimited Plus costs a hefty $65/month, though the per-line price drops for couples and families who sign up together—a couple would pay $110/month for two lines, for example ($55 per line). If these prices are more than you had in mind, you can sign up for this plan before taking an international trip, then switch back to a less pricey plan upon your return—Google Fi has no contracts or activation fees. Fi.google.com