Are you getting hit with data overage charges? Dropped calls? Huge monthly bills for your family plan? Don’t put up with that anymore.
This is your moment to find a better, cheaper smartphone plan. “There are more deals to be had now than there have ever been,” says Logan Abbott, president of plan comparison site Wirefly.com. Here’s why:
1. We’re in the midst of a price war.
Carriers are slashing prices and fattening data packages in an attempt to steal you away from your current wireless provider—or keep you from leaving. Even at Verizon, which has long charged a premium for its top-rated network, you can buy 15GB of data for what it cost to buy a 10GB package a year ago. “In the last year or so, the data bucket prices have gone down significantly across the board,” says Brad Akyuz, research director of Connected Intelligence at the NPD Group market research firm. “You really have competition driven by T-Mobile and Sprint pushing prices down significantly.”
2. You have other carrier options.
You can look beyond the “big four”—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—to find deals at lesser-known carriers. Think of them as the generic drugs of wireless service. Some carriers, such as Straight Talk and Net10, buy bandwidth from the big four, offering you access to the same network at a big discount. Others, such as MetroPCS and Boost Mobile, are discount brands owned by the big four. “A lot of them can give you similar plans for a lot less,” says Tara Donnelly, U.S. editor at WhistleOut, a plan comparison site.
On some small carriers, your data might run slightly slower when a lot of people are using the network, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com. But recent mergers and acquisitions should work in your favor. In recent years, AT&T bought smaller carrier Cricket while T-Mobile bought MetroPCS, letting the bigger names acquire wireless spectrum and attract value-conscious customers. “The fact that these larger companies own these smaller carriers means they have that responsibility to make sure that service is up to snuff,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power.
3. You can save if you dump your two-year service contract.
In the past, when you went to get a new cellphone plan, you usually had to sign a two-year contract promising to stick it out with the same carrier, or else pay hundreds of dollars in early termination fees. But you’d feel okay about it because you’d get a really cheap phone—for example, a $200 iPhone that was really worth $650.
But what you might not have known is that you were always paying off the full cost of that expensive phone, in the form of higher monthly bills. Nowadays you can choose non-contract plans with lower monthly bills and pay separately for the full cost of the phone. That's okay, because plans without service contracts are almost always a better deal over a two-year period. These monthly plans are getting more popular and are slowly replacing two-year service contracts altogether: T-Mobile no longer offers service contracts, and more than half of the new customers on Sprint and AT&T have already ditched them.
4. You can do a lot on Wi-Fi.
The mobile trend to watch? “Wi-Fi first” coverage. For calling, texting, or using the Internet, carriers attempt to connect you to the nearest Wi-Fi network before falling back on a cellular network. Since cellular usage is lighter, your monthly payments can be lower than even our best pick for infrequent callers. For example, carriers like FreedomPop and Republic Wireless offer plans that range from free to $40.
If you have reliable access to Wi-Fi at work or home and aren’t looking for extra features like cloud storage, then a Wi-Fi first plan could be good. But when you’re on a call, the transition between Wi-Fi and cellular isn’t always seamless, so moving around can disrupt your service. “Wi-Fi has become so widespread, it’s not insane to think that it could rival cellular in terms of coverage—but not quality,” says IDC senior research analyst Brian Haven.
Despite its shortcomings, Wi-Fi got a lot of attention this spring when Google launched Project Fi, a service that analyzes signal strength from Sprint, T-Mobile, and Wi-Fi before connecting you to the strongest option. Plans start at $20 a month, plus $10 for every gigabyte of data you want to purchase.
5. It pays to know what’s out there.
Cellphone plans have become much more complicated. So while deals are everywhere, they can be hard to understand. Do you want your family to share a pool of data or do you want to give each line its own allotment? How much data do you actually need? If you ditch the monthly contract, do you want to pay upfront for your phone, lease it, or pay it off in monthly installments? “With the rise of the device installment plans, it’s become even more confusing than it used to be,” says Philip Goldstein, editor of FierceWireless.
That's where Money comes in. We pored over the fine print on more than 70 cellphone plans at 10 different cellphone carriers. We considered the full two-year cost of each plan, including the price of phones. We also checked each carrier’s network quality and customer satisfaction ratings. Here’s our guide to the best cellphone plans of 2015. And for more customized guidance, head on over to our interactive tool, which will show you the most affordable plans that meet your particular needs, plus the network performance you can expect in your area.
This story has been adapted from "Find Your Perfect Cell Plan," originally published in Money magazine's July 2015 issue.
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