What to look for when buying a phone
Section Editor Jessica Dolcourt helps you decide which phone is the one for you
It’s that time of year. The flowers are blooming, snow is melting and new smartphones are being announced. The first major release comes from Samsung with its drop dead gorgeous Galaxy S8.
But whether you get a Galaxy S8 or one of those swanky red iPhones, you need to consider your carrier plan. Which plan is the most affordable? How much are extra lines? Should I get a prepaid plan or a postpaid plan? We are here to help with answers to those questions and more.
Which carrier has the cheapest plans?
All of the carriers offer unlimited talk and texting, so your decision will likely come down to the cost of data. Unfortunately, there are no apples-to-apples here. ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon’s data plans are all slightly different.
This handy chart I made below should help. It compares the total cost over two years on each carrier except T-Mobile — more on the “uncarrier” later. To make things as easy as possible, I added up the costs of carrier activation fees, monthly line access charges, financing a new $649 phone (the price of a 32GBor ) and a monthly data plan over 24 months — this does not compare taxes, surcharges or other regulatory fees (and my sanity hopes you’ll understand).
* includes $5/month autopay discount
What about T-Mobile and unlimited data plans?
I didn’t include T-Mobile in the previous section because the carrier only has unlimited data plans. But as of today all of the major carriers have unlimited data plans. A single line of unlimited data on Sprint is $50/month and on Verizon it’s $80/month. ATT offers two unlimited plans: Choice at $60/month and Plus at $90/month. T-Mobile also offers two plans: One at $70/month and One Plus at $75/month.
The ATT Choice plan limits people to standard definition video, data speeds capped at 3 megabits per second and has no hotspot data allowance. The more expensive ATT Plus plan does away with the Choice plan’s limitations (just turn off their Stream Saver to get HD video), and includes 10GB of hotspot data before its speed gets slowed down.
The T-Mobile One plan has similar restrictions to the ATT Choice plan. T-Mobile One limits video streaming to standard definition and doesn’t include support for LTE hotspot data — though you do get hotspot data at 3G speeds. For $5 per month more, you can upgrade to T-Mobile One Plus that includes HD video streaming and 10GB of hotspot LTE data use.
Here’s a chart comparing the total cost between carriers of a new phone and a single line on an unlimited data plan.
* includes $5/month autopay discount
A warning: There’s definitely some fine print here.
- ATT, Sprint and Verizon plans do not include taxes, surcharges or additional fees which depending on where you live can be a significant cost
- At the time of this writing, Sprint’s $50/month promotion expires March 31, 2018, at which point a single line will increase to $60/month.
- All plans include a $5 per month discount for setting up automatic payments.
- Verizon and ATT limit data speed and priority access after 22GB, Sprint after 23GB and T-Mobile after 30GB.
Verizon, T-Mobile One, Sprint and ATT include high-definition video streaming with their plans. ATT Choice and T-Mobile One limit you to standard definition (think DVD quality).
All of the carriers include a mobile hotspot allowance with their unlimited plans. Sprint, T-Mobile One Plus, ATT Plus and Verizon allow up to 10GB of hotspot data a month. T-Mobile One only had hotspot data at 3G speeds and ATT Choice does not include hotspot data.
Additional line costs for unlimited plans are all over the place. Both ATT Plus and Choice offer a second line for $55/month and additional lines up to 10 for $20/month (unless it’s for a wearable then the cost is $10/month). Sprint gives you a third, fourth and fifth extra line for free until March 31, 2018, after which Sprint’s unlimited plan reverts back to regular pricing: $60/month for first line, $40/month for second line and $30/month for lines three through five.
Below is a chart comparing the various prices of adding extra lines to your unlimited plan.
*includes $5/month autopay discount, a $10 monthly discount for ATT
Are prepaid plans a better deal than postpaid?
It depends on the carrier. Up to this point, all of the carrier plans mentioned in this article have been postpaid — you pay monthly after you use the service. Prepaid plans are also monthly, but you pay in advance for the data you think you will use. If you need more, you buy more. Prepaid phone plans also don’t have a contract.
What really makes prepaid plans cheaper is the lack of a monthly line access fee. Over two years, this fee can cost you as much as $600 on a postpaid plan. Carriers make up for the this fee by charging more for data. ATT and T-Mobile prepaid plans will save you some money compared to their postpaid ones, while Verizon’s prepaid plan is pretty close in cost to its postpaid plans. And even though Sprint’s prepaid and postpaid plans are ridiculously cheap, you can save hundreds by going prepaid.
So what are the downsides? The process of constant filling and refilling your data plan can be exhausting. Though, there are options for autopay. ATT will even give you a $5/month discount when you use autopay for a prepaid GoPhone.
Another downside is the lack of family/multiple line options and pricing. Handset selection can be a negative, too. Sprint has a limited number of phones that work with its prepaid plans — the newest prepaid flagship phones available are the and the Samsung Galaxy S3. On the other hand, ATT, T-Mobile and Verizon offer prepaid access to newer phones like the iPhone 7 and .
Both Verizon and T-Mobile offer prepaid plans with unlimited data. Verizon’s prepaid plan with unlimited data costs exactly the same as its postpaid unlimited plan: $80 per month. But the prepaid plan lacks tethering, mobile hotspot support and only offers standard-definition video streaming.
The T-Mobile prepaid plan, aptly named One Prepaid, costs exactly the same as its One Plus plan: $75 per month. T-Mobile One Prepaid doesn’t include support for LTE hotspot data and limits video streaming to standard definition. You do get support for hotspot data at 3G speeds and you can buy a high-definition video day pass at $3 a pop.
The chart below compares the cost for prepaid plans on ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The cost includes activation fee along with monthly data plan charges for 24 months, but it does not include the cost of your phone.
* includes $5/month autopay discount
How does Google’s Project Fi fit into all this?
Project Fi is Google’s high-speed phone service that uses a combination of Wi-Fi networks and data from carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile to always keep you connected. The unlimited talk and text plan costs $20/month ($15/month on a family plan), which is similar in cost to the line access fees that ATT, Sprint and Verizon charge on postpaid plans. The data rate is $10 per 1GB.
These prices apply internationally, too. Google Fi is supported in over 135 countries, so if you’re traveling abroad you pay exactly as much as you’d pay at home.
Project Fi has no contracts and works a bit like a prepaid plan where you pay everything up front. If you have leftover data, your account is credited with whatever you didn’t use. So you only pay for what you actually use. That’s nice.
The downsides with Project Fi are that it only works on the Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X phones and connectivity might be spotty in areas where Sprint and T-Mobile’s coverage is thin.
Is it true that I can save money by setting up automatic payments of my bill?
Yes, it is true! All four major US carriers offer a $5 monthly discount for letting them automatically deduct money from your bank to pay your bill. Over the course of two years, this discount can save you $120.
However, there is some fine print here. Verizon only offers the discount for its unlimited plan as well as certain single line data plans. ATT limits its autopay discount to its unlimited plans and prepaid GoPhone plans. ATT does increase that discount to $10 a month for an unlimited data plan with multiple lines.
I’m still not sure what plan is best for me, what should I do?
This has been a comparison of pricing for the major carriers, but smaller carriers’ pricing can sometimes be equally competitive. The costs of a carrier phone plan is only part of the bigger picture. For many, a network’s coverage and data speeds are just as important, if not more so. It’s also worth asking around to see what your friends and family’s experiences are with a particular carrier, too. This is especially important if you’re entering into a family or sharing plan with them. But ultimately, it’s your decision. If you think you’re paying too much, you probably are and should start shopping around. If you’re happy with what you got, consider sticking with that carrier and plan.
If you still haven’t considered where to buy your phone or if you should get an unlocked one, we can help with that, too.
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First published Feb. 17, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, Mar. 9 at 9:00 a.m.: Adds a change to T-Mobile’s data cap from 28GB to 30GB per month.
Update, Apr. 27 at 11:03 a.m.: Adds Verizon’s prepaid unlimited data plan.
Update, Apr. 28 at 12:03 p.m.: Adds T-Mobile’s One Plus plan and updates details for T-Mobile’s One and One Prepaid plan.