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How to choose a cell phone plan
With so many cell phone plans and carriers out there, choosing the best cell phone plan can be challenging. Do you want a cheap phone plan with the basic necessities or a feature-rich unlimited plan? Do you travel, live in a rural area, a job dependent on constant connectivity, or have a teenager streaming data like it’s going out of style?
In today’s world, choosing the best cell phone plan can be a little like psychoanalyzing your life — your life on the couch resting comfortably, you with your notepad, asking questions, and taking notes. Let’s begin, shall we?
Things to consider when picking the best cell phone plan
Cell phone basics you need to consider when choosing a plan are network coverage, data usage, type of phone, and your monthly budget. After that, you’ll want to consider the number of lines you’ll need and what bells and whistles do you want or need to make your cell phone plan the best cell phone plan for the least amount of money.
1. What kind of network coverage do you need?
Which MNO provides the best coverage where you live and work? And, remember, even if you are looking at a smaller carrier, they are piggybacking off one or more of the big four MNOs. For example, Mint Mobile uses T-Mobile networks.
Coverage maps are a great place to start. But don’t just rely on that; ask friends or family about their service and what they think about it. It’ll be an excellent excuse to talk to your mother, who you haven’t called in over a month!
2. How much data do you use?
Most people use between 3 and 5 GB a month. An easy way to confirm what you are currently using is to log in to your current carrier account and review it. Unlimited data plans are pretty standard these days, and you might use a lot more data than you realize.
For instance, did you know that a medium-quality video on YouTube will use approximately 500 MB an hour? That adds up to 1 GB of data an hour (Queue dramatic music). And, with almost 5 billion (that’s right, we said billion) videos being watched on YouTube every day, that adds up to some serious data usage.
Now we aren’t trying to YouTube shame anyone, but it’s best to be upfront about these things with yourself because it will save you a lot of money in the long run.
3. What kind of phone do you have?
If you plan to bring your own phone (BYOP), you will need to find out which carriers you can use the phone with. They may all take Samsung phones, but an AT&T cell phone plan will only accept specific models compared to a Verizon cell phone plan.
You can bring what’s called an unlocked cell phone with you to smaller carriers, but again, you need to be sure if your cell phone works on the mobile network of that carrier. It’s pretty easy to go to the carrier’s website or call to find out if they accept your phone model.
If you are planning on buying a new phone as a part of choosing your next cell phone plan, then part of your research should include seeing what types of cell phones that carrier offers to find the best one.
4. How many lines do you need?
Are you buying for a party of one, or do you have kids, or a spouse, that you need to think about? There are plenty of discount options out there if you are buying a family plan, a senior plan, etc.
5. Your monthly budget.
You can find cell phone plans for as little as $15/mo. From there, the sky’s the limit, and depending on whether you are buying a new phone with your plan or adding four lines with unlimited data, you could see that monthly number rise to well over $200/mo.
6. What are your must-have features?
If you’re an international traveler or need a mobile hotspot so you can work from your remote mountain campsite, make sure whichever cellular phone carrier you are considering offers your must-have features at a reasonable price.
Understanding the difference between big and small mobile carrier companies
There are only four major mobile network operators (MNOs) in the U.S. — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. These four companies own and maintain the national infrastructure that supports the majority of the cell phone networks in the United States, including cell phone towers, etc. (U.S. Cellular is an MNO but does not have national coverage.)
All the other mobile carrier companies (such as Mint Mobile) are called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These companies buy access to the cellular networks of the MNOs and resell network access to their customers.
Pros and Cons MNOs (think AT&T)
|Phone payment plans make buying a new phone easier on the monthly budget||Locked into longer contracts with penalties for breaking contract early|
|Postpaid account offerings (meaning you can pay for the service at the end of the month)||Higher credit score requirements|
|During high traffic data times, you will have better coverage because they prioritize their customers over the customers of MVNOs||Data overages can be costly|
|Tend to have better phone selections||Generally more expensive due to the cost of maintaining cellular networks|
|Customers tend to benefit from technology upgrades faster, like 5G networks|
Pros and cons of MVNOs (think Mint Mobile)
|Bring your own phone options (BYOP)||No payment plan options for new phones|
|No automatic payment requirements||Less reliable network service|
|Generally don’t require long-term contracts|
|No credit checks|
What are some of the different types of cell phone plans?
- Average user plans: You won’t find a cell phone plan called “average user plan.” This is just what the average cell phone plan looks like. For 2022 the average cell phone bill is around $114 a month, with users consuming 2-5GB of data per month.
- Family plans: Family plans include multiple numbers and phones. You’ll start to see bigger discounts the more you add, such as unlimited data, number of lines, etc.
- Basic plans: Basic cell phone plans are your talk and text plans with no frills. If you spend a lot of time at home on wi-fi and aren’t using a ton of data, like ever, this could be a great cell phone plan for you.
- Unlimited: Unlimited data plans offer just that, unlimited amounts of data, so you never have to worry about getting extra charges for going over.
- 5G: 5G stands for 5th generation network that promises faster data speeds and connections. It is more expensive than its predecessor LTE 4G, but competition between carriers is quickly driving down 5G costs.
- Prepaid: Prepaid plans are just that. You pay them in advance. You typically won’t be required to sign a contract on prepaid plans. Once you hit the limit you have prepaid for your service stops until you buy more.
- International: If work or pleasure has you crossing international borders then you’ll want to pay attention to what your plan offers in terms of international data plans. Or, you may have friends or family members that live abroad and talk or text frequently. An international data plan will save you loads of money.
How to get a discount on a cell phone plan
- Shop around: Cell phone plans are a dime a dozen. And that’s good news for you. The more competitive cell phone companies are, the lower your rates will be.
- Prepaid phones: If you’re on a tight budget, prepaid cell phones could be just the ticket. You prepay what you can afford and don’t buy more minutes until you need to without being locked into a long contract where you will be forced to pay the same amount whether you are using the service or not.
- Professional discounts: If you are in the military, a veteran, first responder, educator, or more, make sure to ask about discounts. There’s a good chance you will be eligible for one.
- Bundle services: Some companies offer bundling discounts. Xfinity, for instance, will let you bundle cell services with just about any of their other services — helping you save money on both!
- Senior discounts: If you’re a senior, make sure to check for discounts; many cell phone plans offer senior discount plans.
- Negotiate: When you are not locked into a contract, you are prime customer real estate. Use it to your advantage. You might be surprised what a company will say yes to to get your business.
- Don’t upgrade phones: Unless your phone is really on the outs, your current phone is probably just fine. You can always upgrade later if you need to.
What is the best, cheapest cell phone plan?
Currently topping the charts for the best, cheapest cell phone plan is Mint Mobile 4G. Starting at just $15 a month for new customers, here are just some of the Mint Mobile 4G plan perks: Unlimited nationwide talk and text, free international calls to Mexico and Canada, free Mobile HotSpot, and more.
Beware of the fine print in your mobile plan
Each carrier offers plenty of nice perks but remember; there’s usually a caveat. For example, after a certain amount of data usage on your unlimited data plan, you may get kicked off the faster network onto slower, ‘deprioritized’ networks.
How to choose a cell phone plan FAQs
What is an eSIM card?
An eSIM card is a digital version of the traditional SIM card. eSIM cards are installed directly onto your phone or device and are non-transferrable to other phones.
Can I get a cell phone plan without a contract?
Yes, if you want a cell phone plan without a contract, you just need to work with a carrier that offers prepaid phone plans. Even the larger carriers are starting to offer no-contract phone plans.
What is 4G vs. 5G?
The most important difference that the average user needs to know is that 5G networks are faster than 4G networks. 5G is not currently offered by all cell phone plans, and not all phones are 5G ready.
How can I make my cell phone bill cheaper?
To make your cell phone bill cheaper, you can research discounts you may be eligible for, bundle your cell phone service with other services like internet and TV, negotiate with the carrier before signing a contract, and don’t overbuy services that you don’t need or use.
What if I need to cancel my cell phone contract early?
There are some ways to get out of paying early termination fees (ETF) if you need to end your cell phone contract early. A couple of possibilities are if you are still in the grace period, or you can convince another carrier that wants your business to pay the ETFs for you. In most instances, you will have to bite the bullet and pay the fees.
Should I switch to a Verizon cell phone plan?
If you are in the market for a new cell phone plan Verizon could have a great plan for you. Lots of people agree that Verizon offers the best coverage in the country, fast speeds, and plenty of hotspot data. Switching is usually a great way to save money too!
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