Choosing a cell-phone plan was supposed to get easier and less confusing as wireless carriers phased out two-year contracts and sneaky overage charges over the past several years. Instead, we’re faced with new “unlimited data” plans that come with tricky restrictions and could lead you to pay for a lot more than you need. Even if you just want limited talk, minutes and data, it’s worth evaluating your existing plan and considering a switch. But you need to be aware of the tricks and traps.

Bottom Line Personal asked cell-phone plan expert Logan Abbott to evaluate the new unlimited and ­limited-data plans and select the best ones for a variety of consumer needs and situations…

ARE YOU A HEAVY DATA USER?

For most smartphone users, the biggest factor nowadays in determining the best type of plan is related to how much data is used each month. The new ­unlimited-data plans, which also come with unlimited text messages and unlimited nationwide phone calls and which are available for both individuals and families, offer the best deals for heavy users—those who typically use at least 4 gigabytes (GB) of data a month on each line. Using 4 GB is roughly the equivalent of watching 10 half-hour sitcoms a month and surfing 50 websites, uploading 10 pictures, streaming 15 minutes of music and sending 50 e-mails daily.

Sneaky part: None of the ­“unlimited” plans are totally unlimited. Although they include unlimited talk minutes and text messages—two features that are nothing new at many carriers—they put a limit on the amount of data at 4G LTE speeds, the latest and fastest generation of cellular network technology. Once you hit your data limit each month, carriers reserve the right to “throttle” your data, which means that they can slow it down whenever their mobile networks are congested. When throttled, your data may be as slow as 2G speed, which is OK for checking your e-mail and Facebook page but probably not sufficient for streaming content such as Netflix
programming.

Smart: Even if you select an “unlimited” cellular data plan, you should connect to the Internet through a ­Wi-Fi network whenever possible. It doesn’t count toward your cellular data usage.

Unlimited plans with the major carriers listed below are the best choices for heavy users because they offer the largest amounts of monthly data available at 4G speeds, ranging from 22 GB to 30 GB per line per month. Several smaller wireless carrier unlimited plans may start to throttle service after as little as 200 megabytes of data.

AT&T Unlimited Choice. Best for: Individuals who want top-class reliability and coverage similar to Verizon’s but are willing to accept slightly lower speeds and lower prices than Verizon. Pricing: $60 for a single line with 22 GB of data, $115 for two, $135 for three, $155 for four.* (Each line gets its own 22 GB of fast data.) Drawbacks: “Unlimited Choice” offers 3G instead of 4G LTE speeds, no mobile hot spot and streams video in standard definition rather than crisper high definition. Instead you can opt for AT&T “Unlimited Plus,” which matches Verizon’s speeds and mobile hot spot data but costs $90 for a single line with 22 GB of data, $145 for two, $165 for three, $185 for four. (Again, each line gets its own 22 GB of fast data.) Special features: This is a good deal if you have DirectTV satellite service, which AT&T owns. With the Unlimited Plus plan, you get a $25/month discount off satellite service, a savings of $300 annually.

Sprint Unlimited Freedom. Best for: Individuals and families who want the lowest prices among the major carriers and are willing to put up with some spotty coverage and network quality. Pricing: $50 a month for one line with 23 GB of unthrottled data, $80 for two, $120 for four lines, each with its own 23 GB of data. Although these rates are good only until June 30, 2018, even the increased rates after that date beat or match current rates of the other major carriers for up to four lines. Attractive feature: You get 10 GB of mobile hot spot data per line that does not count toward your 23 GB unthrottled limit. Drawbacks: Current Sprint Unlimited Freedom pricing is available only to consumers who are not currently Sprint customers. In recent independent surveys, Sprint continues to have the lowest quality, reliability and coverage of the big four carriers. To check on coverage in your area, go to Sprint.com and search for Mobile ­Coverage Map.

T-Mobile One Unlimited. Best for: Extremely heavy data users, international travelers and frequent phone upgraders. Pricing: $70 for one line with 30 GB of ­unthrottled data, $100 for two lines, $140 for three, $160 for four. (Each line gets its own 30 GB of fast data.) These rates include all taxes and fees, unlike those of most other carriers, which advertise rates without taxes and fees but then add them to your bills. In fact, after Sprint’s prices increase in 2018, T-Mobile One Unlimited’s deal for four lines will be the cheapest of all the major carriers. T-Mobile also offers a feature called KickBack that pays you back for data you don’t use. If your total monthly data usage on any line is 2 GB or less, you are credited up to $10 toward your next bill. Special feature: 10 GB of mobile hot spot data that doesn’t count toward your 30-GB unthrottled-data limit. Drawback: The quality of the network outside metropolitan areas lags behind AT&T and Verizon but is still superior to Sprint.

Verizon Unlimited. Best for: Consumers willing to pay premium prices for the most extensive network coverage and fastest 4G performance. Pricing: $80 for one line with 22 GB of unthrottled data, $140 for two lines, $160 for three, $180 for four. (Each line gets its own 22 GB of fast data.) Special features: 10 GB of mobile hot spot data that doesn’t count toward your 22 GB unthrottled data limit. Unlimited calling to Mexico and Canada. Drawback: Although Verizon has the fastest and most extensive mobile network, it’s also the most expensive service.

IF YOU DON’T NEED UNLIMITED DATA

Light or average data users are better off going with one of the smaller wireless carriers such as Cricket, Republic Wireless or Tello. They often offer much better rates for limited amounts of data and highly customizable plans. If you miscalculate and hit your data limit for the month, there are no overage fees. You can upgrade to a plan with a higher data allotment instantly with no penalties. Even if you go over your data limit and get upgraded, it’s often a better deal than going over your data limit and having to buy additional data with a major network plan. Note: If you want to switch back to your previous plan after the upgrade with small carriers, you will need to request it or make the change online. Light users typically download less than 1 GB of data a month…average users about 2 GB. If you aren’t sure how much you need, try the mobile data calculator at my site WireFly.com. Click on “Cell Phones & Plans,” then “How Much Data Do I Need?” 

My favorite plans without unlimited data…

Best individual plan for average ­users: Republic Wireless Clear Choice Plan. For $30 a month, you get one phone line with unlimited talk minutes and text plus 2 GB of data, which is typically what average users need. Five other plans offer unlimited talk and text with varying amounts of data ranging from 0 GB to 10 GB if your individual needs are greater or smaller. The Clear Choice $30 plan is good for couples who are ­average users. Although there’s no discount for a second line, spending $60 for both of you still saves money over major carriers, and you don’t have to share your data. Mobile hot spot is available for free but does count toward your monthly data limit. Republic uses the T-Mobile cellular network. ­RepublicWireless.com

Best family plan for average users: Cricket Basic Group Save Plan. For $100 a month, including taxes and fees, you get five lines with unlimited texts and calling minutes and 3 GB of data for each line. Cricket also offers Stream More, which helps save data by streaming high-definition videos at standard-definition quality. Mobile hot spot is available for $10 a month but only for plans with 8 GB per line monthly. Cricket operates on AT&T’s network, so its coverage and reliability have been excellent. ­CricketWireless.com 

Best plan for light users who need little or no data: Tello Mobile $5 Talk Only Plan. You get 200 minutes of talk time with no text or data included. In addition, Tello offers a large number of plans ranging from $6 Talk & Text (100 call minutes, unlimited texts) to $9 Talk-Text-Data (100 call minutes, 200 texts, 200 megabytes data) to a pay-as-you-go plan, in which you buy credits in advance of service and are charged three cents per talk minute, one cent per text message and two cents per megabyte data. Mobile hot spot is available for free with all plans but does count directly toward your data usage limit each month. Tello operates on the Sprint network. Tello.com

*Pricing was current as of May 1, 2017.