Get the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family—and Save up to $1,000 a Year  We compare cell phone plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices have become so convoluted, you need an accounting degree to decipher them. They continually shift prices up or down according to the number of phone lines you need and the amount of data you're purchasing. They further complicate matters with “special” short-term offers to lure customers from rivals. We’ve decided to omit these specials from our calculation tables because of their extremely short lifespan and their fragility (deal benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes). The good news: Some of the wilder, fly-by-night plan pricing seems to have abated—at least for now. And in some ways, comparison shopping has become a tiny bit less onerous.

 

Here’s a short rundown of the major carriers. (Read our review of the best cell phone carriers to find out whether the small providers outpace the big companies.)

T-Mobile

T-Mobile doesn't offer data-sharing cell phone plans. You have to purchase data for each phone in your household. The carrier’s plan calculator has been tweaked to present your options more clearly than before, showing you the immediate impact on your total monthly bill as you add or subtract phone lines and experiment with the data allowances for each phone. T-Mobile’s plan costs are only slightly cheaper than those offered by telecom behemoths Verizon and AT&T, but the carrier does have an additional edge for media streaming enthusiasts: Content from Spotify, Netflix, and a plethora of other popular music and video providers doesn’t count against your data allowance.

Sprint

Sprint is among the lowest rated carriers in our Ratings for both monthly billed service and its prepaid service. And it used to have one of the most convoluted phone access fee menus, ranging in price from $15 to $20 to $25, depending on the size of the data bucket you purchased. But it’s made some significant improvements. It now charges a flat $20 per phone line, while its plans are a bit cheaper, too, even besting bargain-champion T-Mobile in some instances.

AT&T

AT&T stubbornly clings to variable-rate access fees that can mislead customers into spending more money when they’re trying to save. For instance, it charges less per phone ($15 instead of $25) when you buy more than 5GB of sharable data. And that kind of pricing could lead a data-frugal family of five to pay more a month ($225) for sharing 5GB of data if they don’t have the math skills to see that splurging on a 15GB data bucket would actually lower their monthly bill to just $175.  One saving Grace: AT&T's customers gave it good marks in our survey for voice, text, and Web service.

Verizon

Big Red keeps things simple: It charges a flat $20 for every phone tapping into its sharable data plans. And like AT&T, it received good marks for voice, text, and Web service.

Have your own ideas on how to save on cell service?

Leave a comment below.

One bright note from the “Cell War” chaos between the Big Four carriers is the appearance of no-contract plans, which separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges. This effectively gives you an interest-free loan you can pay off over about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

In our recent survey of about 90,000 subscribers, nearly half of the people who switched cell phone carriers in the past year saw their monthly rates drop by $20 or more, which is why, perhaps, more should consider shopping around. 

The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in our "Tips for Choosing a Plan."

—Mike Gikas

 
 

T-Mobile Simple Choice

Number of people

1GB of data per phone 

2GB of data per phone

6GB of data per phone

1

$40 (prepaid only)

$50

$65

2

NA $80

$110

3

NA

$90

$135

4

NA

$100

$160

5

NA

$110

$185
 

Sprint Unlimited

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$40

$50 (3GB)

$75

2

$70 (1.5GB)

$85 (3GB)

$100 (6GB)

3

$90

$105

$120

4

$125 (1.3GB)

$140 (3GB)

$160 (6GB)

5

$145 (1.2GB)

$180 (4.8GB)

$180 (4.8GB)

 

AT&T Next on Mobile Share

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

NA

$55

$65 (5GB)

2

$80

$100 (2.5GB)

$130 (7.5GB)

3

$105 (0.67)

$125 (1.67GB)

$145 (5GB)

4

$150 (1.25GB)

$160 (3.75GB)

$200 (5GB)

5

$225

$175 (3GB)

$215

 

Verizon Simple Plans

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$50

$65 (3GB)

$80 (6GB)

2

$85 (1.5GB)

$100 (3GB)

$120 (6GB)

3

$105  

$120 

$140

4

$140 (1.5GB)

$160 (3GB) 

$180 (4.5GB)

5

$160 (1.2GB)

$180 (2.4GB)

$220
 

If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

 

BBR R HOUSE MIXER

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