New Changes Save You Hundreds

Are you getting the best possible deal on your cell-phone service? Competition among service providers, including smaller upstarts as well as the four majors, has heated up tremendously, providing new opportunities for consumers to get better deals. Among the changes, carriers no longer insist that you get locked into a two-year contract, which typically carries hefty monthly fees in exchange for subsidized phones. But what’s best for you depends on your usage patterns…your phone preferences…and how many people will be sharing your plan. Choose wisely and you can get great bargains…save hundreds of dollars a year…and avoid call restrictions and sneaky fees.*

Best plans for various priorities…

Data Without Limits

Sprint $60 Unlimited Plan. Studies show that the average US smartphone customer uses 500 to more than 700 megabytes (MB) of data per month. But if you stream music, you could be using half a MB per minute, and if you watch high-definition videos, you easily could go over that limit in a few hours. This no-contract Sprint plan costs $60 per month per individual line plus a onetime $36 ­activation fee and imposes no limits on calling, ­texting or data use. It also doesn’t “throttle” your data (slow it down) after a certain amount of monthly usage, as some plans do. It’s the cheapest unlimited monthly plan.

Drawback: Sprint has been slower than many competitors to upgrade to a 4G network that allows for faster data transmission speeds. Sprint.com

Controlling Monthly Costs

Consumer Cellular Anywhere (Voice) and Connect! (Text/Data) Plans. It’s a challenge for many cell-phone users to estimate just how much they will talk or use the Internet from month to month. Many wireless plans charge you hefty fees for going over your limit or slow down your data speed to a crawl. Consumer Cellular, which Consumer Reports ranked as one of the top wireless service providers in its customer-­satisfaction rankings, makes it easy to avoid these fees. Its lowest-cost plans, which require no contract and use the AT&T 4G network, start at $15 per month for up to 200 voice minutes and $2.50 per month for up to 200 text messages and 20 MB of data. You can change your plan level as often as you like to avoid overage fees, which are a steep 10 cents per text, 25 cents per minute and 25 cents per MB. You even can change it ­retroactively up to the last day of your billing cycle.

Drawbacks: You pay the full, unsubsidized price for Consumer Cellular phones, which range from a $35 flip phone to a $950 iPhone 6 Plus with 128 gigabytes (GB), although you can pay on an installment plan or bring your own phone if it’s compatible. The plans aren’t the best bargains if you use very large amounts of talk, text and/or data. ConsumerCellular.com

Frequent Smartphone Upgrades

AT&T Next 12 Plan. For some consumers, it’s important to always have the newest smartphone. This equipment-upgrade plan is one of the most flexible, allowing you to purchase a smartphone with no down payment and 0% APR financing (you pay only the sales tax up front) and divide the price of the phone into 20 monthly installment payments. After 12 months, you can trade in your phone without having to pay it off and either buy a new one outright or enter into a new Next 12 plan. To qualify for the Next 12 plan, you need to pair it with an AT&T no-contract service plan, which typically costs $65 per month for unlimited talk and text and 3 GB of data.

Drawback: If you cancel your no-contract service, it also cancels your Next 12 plan and you have to pay off the balance owed on your phone immediately. ATT.com

Light Usage

Ting. Ting’s no-contract plan charges you for voice, text and data separately, starting at $3 per month each for up to 100 voice minutes, 100 texts and 100 MB of data plus $6 a month for each phone. You automatically are bumped up a level if you reach a limit.

Drawback: Ting uses the Sprint network (not as strong as Verizon and AT&T in many areas) as its backbone. Voice and text can roam to the Verizon network if the Sprint network is unavailable, but data is limited to Sprint. However, in early 2015, Ting is adding a cellular network that could provide access to the AT&T and/or T-Mobile network. Ting.com

For very light users: T-Mobile Pay by the Day Plan. This no-contract plan costs $2 per day for unlimited talk, text and data (though the data is accessed at 2G speed, which is very slow). Charges are applied to your account only on the days that you use your service.

Drawback: It’s a prepaid service, so you must load money into your account ahead of time. T-Mobile.com

Families

Sprint Family Share Pack. Sprint offers the cheapest family plan—$100 per month for up to 10 people (they don’t have to be related) who get unlimited talk and text plus 20 GB of data that ­everyone can share. That’s at least double the amount of shared data offered by other carriers that charge similar prices.

Drawback: The $100-per-month promotion is scheduled to end on ­December 31, 2015, at which time Sprint may add back the $15 access charge per device to the cost of the plan, which it had eliminated.

Alternative: If Sprint’s coverage or quality isn’t good in your area, consider the AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan. It offers a $100-per-month no-contract plan for unlimited talk, text and 10 GB of shared data for up to 10 people.

Drawback: AT&T charges a $10-to-$40 access fee per device, which makes it more expensive than Sprint.

Rock-Bottom Prices

Republic Wireless Wi-Fi-Only Plan. You don’t need to pay for a cellular plan at all if you use your smartphone just in locations equipped with Wi-Fi. For $5 per month, Republic gives you unlimited talk, text and data over Wi-Fi. Other Republic no-contract plans, ranging from $10 to $40 per month, offer an unusual hybrid solution. When Wi-Fi is unavailable, your phone is automatically routed to the Sprint cellular network.

Drawbacks: You can’t bring your own phone to Republic because the devices need to be modified to work. You have a limited selection of just four Motorola Moto smartphones ranging in price from $99 to $399. RepublicWireless.com

Ease of Use and Safety

GreatCall GoPlan. Some people want a phone that is very simple to use on a daily basis but also makes it easy to get help in uncertain or unsafe situations. This no-contract plan operates on ­Verizon 4G networks. It starts at $24.99 per month, which gets you 50 talk minutes, plus $3 per month for 300 text messages and $2.49 per month for 20 MB of data. But what distinguishes this service are the two phones that it offers—the Touch3 smartphone ($149.99) and the Jitterbug5 flip phone ($99.99)—which are designed for older users. They feature large keypads, enhanced speakers for clearer conversations and a dedicated button that immediately connects you with agents certified by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch. The agents can track your location through GPS, evaluate the situation, connect you to a live registered nurse and board-certified doctors, and send emergency services.

Drawback: If you don’t need this type of enhanced 911 service, there are more cost-effective calling plans and phones available. GreatCall.com

Phone for Travelers

The T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan is a good choice for smartphone users who frequently travel outside the US. 

No US wireless carrier offers an attractive international package for calls. But this T-Mobile no-contract plan offers an intriguing alternative. For $80 per month, you get unlimited talk, text and data in the US, and the plan also includes unlimited text and data in 120 other countries.

There are no foreign voice minutes included, but with unlimited data in foreign countries, you can make phone calls over the Internet for free using an app such as Facetime or ­Skype without having to hunt around for free Wi-Fi. Drawback: Regular calls from overseas to someone who does not have an app such as Facetime or Skype are no bargain at a flat rate of 20 cents per minute.

*When choosing a plan, factor in the speed, reliability and call and text-messaging quality of the various networks in your area and where you often travel. You can see a comparison of network quality across the US at WebCoverageMap.RootMetrics.com—but it’s also wise to talk to people in your area about their experiences with network quality.