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Smart Buying

Choose a Cheaper Wireless Plan

If you haven’t re-shopped your wireless phone plan in a few years, you’re probably paying a steep price for your loyalty.

Illustration by Deanna Halsall

As cellular providers continue to vie for customers, many are revamping their plans and pricing structures and beefing up their plans’ appeal with perks and extras for customers who make the switch. And regardless of how you use your phone or which plan features matter most to you, you’ll likely find more options and better deals than in years past.

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“Carriers make changes all the time, so to get the best deals, people should re-shop their plan twice a year,” says Toni Toikka, president of Alekstra, a New York City–based research firm that analyzes wireless bills. Most people are overpaying by about 30%, he says. But picking the right plan could save a family of four $1,400 to $2,000 a year, says Toikka.

The days of selecting a package of minutes, number of text messages and bucket of data are largely over. And although you’re no longer tethered to a two-year contract with a built-in phone upgrade every few years, you can’t count on getting a new phone subsidy, either. Rather, you’ll generally pay the full retail price of your new smartphone, either up front or in monthly installments. And data gobblers rejoice: Unlimited plans, which were on the brink of extinction a few years ago, are back.

Shopping for a phone and phone plan today can leave even the savviest customers confused. But you’ll be rewarded if you take the time to review your service and navigate the other offerings on the market.

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To get the best deal, you’ll probably need to switch carriers. Current customers usually aren’t eligible for promotions or even some of the newer plans, says Tina Chang, of WhistleOut.com, a phone-plan comparison website. If you’d rather stick with your provider, ask about cheaper plans that match your needs. You may have more bargaining clout if you’ve been with your carrier for a long time and threaten to take your business elsewhere. Or look for other ways to save that you may have overlooked, such as a break for automatic bill payment or employer discounts.

As you re-shop your plan, keep in mind that the best plan for you will hinge on several factors, including how you use your phone, where you live and other details. To get you started, we identified a few of the most important factors and selected plans that offer a great value for those needs. For more help choosing a plan, visit WhistleOut.com or Wirefly.com. Both sites offer detailed search tools that allow you to compare plans and current promotions from dozens of carriers.

No matter which plan you choose, the phone you use is generally a separate issue. You could buy a new phone (and pay full price), or you could choose to take your old phone to your new carrier.

Don’t pay for more data than you need

Start by reviewing how you and others on your plan use your phones. With most of today’s plans, talk and text come cheap and high-speed data drives up the bill. “People are quick to say that they need an unlimited data plan,” says Chang. But, she says, you may not be using enough data to warrant an unlimited plan, especially when you think about how often you’re connected to Wi-Fi. Families sharing a plan and people who frequently use their phones to stream content or as mobile hot spots use gobs of data—maybe 20 gigabytes or more each month. But people who mostly stick to calling, texting and using a few apps may only need 1GB of data or less a month. Most smartphone users fall somewhere in between—using around 6GB of cellular data each month, according to recent studies by NPD Group, a market research firm. Data use tends to be higher for people with phone screens larger than 5.5 inches because they are more likely to stream video. They average about 9GB of data each month, says NPD.

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To see how much data you and others on your plan use, log into your wireless account online or through your carrier’s mobile app. Consider how your data usage might change if, say, you’re kicking your grown kids off the family plan or upgrading to a phone with a larger screen.

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If your data use fluctuates a bit—maybe creeping up when you travel—you’ll still want to pick a plan that most closely fits your data needs during a typical month. If you need a little extra high-speed data now and then, the fees your provider charges won’t break the bank. At Sprint, for example, you have the option of continuing to use data at slower 2G speeds until your next billing cycle or adding more high-speed data for $15 per gigabyte. And some plans allow you to bank unused data for future use. AT&T and Verizon, for example, let you roll remaining data forward to use the following month, and some T-Mobile users with an allowance of 6GB or more of high-speed data each month can carry over unused data for up to a year.

Data gobblers, go unlimited

If you or others on your plan are heavy data users, an unlimited plan is probably the way to go. All four of the major carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—offer unlimited plans with unlimited calls, texts and data. And many smaller carriers have similar options. But a number of carriers offer two or even three tiers of unlimited service, each with its own rules, features and other differences in service.

Even on an unlimited plan, carriers can force you into the slow lane by reducing your data speeds. When that happens generally depends on how much you’re paying for your unlimited service. A network’s pricier unlimited plans will typically allow users to cruise at high speeds for longer before pumping the brakes. For example, AT&T’s cheapest unlimited plan ($70 a month for a single line) can slow data speeds anytime the network is busy—regardless of how much data you’ve used. But users of the company’s more expensive unlimited data plan ($80 a month for a single line) won’t have data speeds reduced until after they’ve used 22GB of data during the billing cycle, according to AT&T. Verizon offers three unlimited plans. For the cheapest plan ($75 a month for a single line), data slows during times of congestion. The mid-tier ($85) plan can slow data speeds after 22GB. For the priciest ($95) plan, the company says you won’t be kicked into the slow lane until you’ve used a whopping 75GB of data.

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People who want to use their phone as a mobile hot spot to connect their laptop or other devices will likely find the extra cost of a top-tier unlimited plan worthwhile, says Chang. For example, customers who select Verizon’s lowest tier of unlimited service stream video in standard definition and have to endure mobile hot-spot speeds that top out at a glacial 600Kbps. The quality of video streaming and the amount of high-speed data that you can use as a mobile hot spot improve with the mid-range and top-tier plans, which receive HD video streaming and 4G mobile hot-spot speeds—8 to 20 times faster than with the cheapest plan.

Save with a smaller carrier

You may gravitate toward the four major carriers, but there’s no shortage of other options—often at much lower prices. If you’ve been happy with the coverage you’re getting from a major carrier, you might consider a plan from another carrier that uses the same network.

The strength of a network used to vary from one area to the next, but, says Brad Akyuz, a director at NPD Group, “the differences in power and coverage between networks is minimal these days.” All four of the major carriers run spin-off brands. Cricket, for example, is owned by AT&T; Boost Mobile is Sprint’s prepaid plan; Metro is run by T-Mobile; and Verizon runs Visible. These brands, along with other small providers, typically run on the networks of larger carriers.

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Still, it’s important to check the quality of coverage that you’ll receive. To make sure you’ll have a strong signal, speedy data and reliable phone service, ask friends, neighbors and family who have service with carriers that you’re considering about their reception. Or visit RootMetrics.com to check the coverage maps for your area and any area that you travel to frequently.

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Weigh features and perks

Carriers are sweetening the deal with extras ranging from streaming that doesn’t count against your data allowance to memberships to subscription services and more. Sprint’s Unlimited Basic plan, for example, includes a subscription to Hulu (normally $8 a month). Its mid-tier unlimited plan also tacks on a Tidal music streaming subscription (normally $10 a month), and the top-tier plan includes Amazon Prime (a value of $119 a year) as well. T-Mobile’s perks range from an hour of free Wi-Fi and unlimited texting on GoGo-equipped flights to a standard-quality Netflix subscription (normally $11 a month) and unlimited video streaming from dozens of providers that doesn’t count against your high-speed data limits. And Metro by T-Mobile’s unlimited plan ($60 a month for a single line) includes an Amazon Prime membership.

Carriers typically pack the most incentives into their unlimited plans and offers for new customers, but you’ll find other plans with add-ons as well. For example, Boost Mobile’s data plans include unlimited streaming from some digital music services, including Pandora and iHeartRadio.

Pick the right phone

Now that phones and plans are mostly untethered, you have more choices of where to buy and how to pay for your device—and you may be able to take your old phone to a new carrier.

When you buy a new phone, you usually have three options: Buy the phone outright from your carrier, the manufacturer or a third-party, such as BestBuy or Amazon.com; pay your carrier for the phone with monthly payments; or lease the device from your carrier or Apple. The option that makes the most sense for you will depend on the carrier, the phone you want and how often you tend to upgrade your device.

If you prefer to upgrade to the newest smartphone every year or two, you’ll save money by leasing your phone. Sprint and T-Mobile offer leasing options for certain phones. Customers who join the leasing programs pay a fixed monthly fee for their device and have the option to upgrade to a new device every 12 to 18 months with Sprint or every 30 days with T-Mobile. You won’t own the phone at the end of the lease, but you can generally buy it for the remaining balance. Apple aficionados who want a new iPhone every year should consider Apple’s upgrade program. The program spreads the cost of a device over two years, with the newest iPhones costing $40 to $70 a month. Participants are eligible to upgrade to a new phone after making a year’s worth of payments.

All of the major carriers offer plans that allow customers to pay off the cost of a phone in installments, generally between $30 and $50 a month over several years. If your credit is in good standing, you should be able to finance a device with no down payment and no interest charges. And once you pay off the phone, you’re no longer committed to the carrier.

Don’t expect to see deals on popular, newly released smartphones. But if you’re willing to forgo the latest model in favor of its slightly older—or less feature-packed—sibling, you may save hundreds. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ starts at $840. The S9, which has a slightly smaller screen and less storage but is still a solid upgrade option from the older models, starts at $720. The new iPhone XS starts at $1,000, while the new iPhone XR starts at $750. Despite the $250 price difference, the features on the two models are similar, with the XS model boasting better screen quality and additional camera features. And users who are ready for an upgrade but don’t care about all the newest bells and whistles can get an iPhone 7 starting at $450 or an iPhone 8 starting at $550. Another way to save: Buy a model that was refurbished by the manufacturer and carries a manufacturer-backed warranty.

Many people are keeping their phones longer, with the average smart-phone user upgrading his or her phone roughly every three years. If you buy a new phone and plan to hold on to it for at least three years, choose an upper-tier device rather than a low-budget model, says Akyuz. Almost all of today’s flagship phones feature top-notch processing speeds, battery life, screens, cameras and storage capacity and will be more likely to continue to run smoothly over the long term than a low-end device, he says.

Carriers are increasingly offering incentives to customers who supply their own devices or buy their phones outright, says Akyuz. Sprint, for example, will reduce the price of some of its unlimited plans by $10 a month per line if you bring your own phone. And small carriers typically require you to purchase a phone up front or bring it with you.

If you are bringing your own phone, make sure it’s “unlocked.” All four of the major carriers will unlock devices that you bought through them after you finish paying for the phone. But an unlocked phone won’t necessarily work with every carrier. Many older phones are tied to one of two network technologies that carriers use (known as CDMA and GSM) and may not work well on another carrier’s network. Many newer phones, however, are made to be compatible with all of the major networks, so bringing your phone to a different carrier is getting easier, says Akyuz. Contact the carrier before you switch to make sure your phone will be fully functional on its network.

Deals for light data users

If you mostly use your phone for making calls, sending text messages and using a few apps to, say, check e-mail or look up information online, there’s no reason to pay for a boatload of cellular data. Rather, choose a wireless provider that allows you to build a plan that’s tailored to your needs. Several companies, including Tello, Ting and US Mobile, allow customers to select the number of minutes and text messages and the amount of data they need.

Tello, which uses Sprint’s network, serves up the best deals for light data users and allows you to make changes at any time. A plan with unlimited talk and text and 1GB of data at 4G speeds costs $14 a month. Have a feature phone that you don’t use to access the internet? A bare-bones plan with 100 minutes, unlimited texting and no data costs $5 a month. The online-only carrier allows users to bring their own unlocked phone that works on the Sprint network or to buy a device, ranging from a feature phone to the iPhone 8, from its website.

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If you live in an area where Sprint doesn’t have strong coverage but still want a budget-friendly plan that doesn’t come with a lot of data, consider US Mobile, which uses the Verizon and T-Mobile networks. A package with 4,000 minutes, 1,000 texts and 1GB of data costs $24 a month, and you can add more data, minutes or texts.