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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor
| December 2016
Because the wireless carriers are no longer subsidizing phone prices with most of their plans, buying a smartphone these days will cost you a pretty penny—especially if you want a top-of-the-line device. A full-price, 32GB iPhone 7 runs $649, for example, and a Samsung Galaxy S7 is at least $650, depending on the carrier. All of the major carriers let you split the cost into monthly payments over the course of two years or longer.
The good news? Forking over full price for a device means you’ll pay less for monthly service. And the carriers, both big and small, are competing for customers with enticing deals on their plans. We’ve highlighted wireless plans in several categories, based on the type you need. Prices do not include device payments, and data speed is the fastest 4G LTE, except where otherwise noted.
With the T-Mobile One plan, a family of four pays $160 a month (you must make automatic payments to qualify for that price). The plan provides unlimited calling, texting and data in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Video streams in standard definition, but that shouldn’t bother most people who view video on a phone, says Maggie Reardon, author of the CNET.com column Ask Maggie. The plan also comes with unlimited texting and data at up to 2G speed in more than 140 destinations.
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With US Mobile, choose your prepaid plan’s quantity of voice minutes, text messages and data à la carte. Prices start at $9 monthly for 100 calling minutes, 100 text messages and 100 megabytes of data. For 750 minutes, 500 text messages and 1GB of data, you’d pay $28 a month. The service runs on T-Mobile’s network.
The Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan comes with unlimited calling, texting and data at a price of $60 for one line, $100 for two lines or $160 for four lines (you must make automatic payments for those prices).
Video streaming is limited to standard definition, and music streaming is restricted to 500 kilobits per second, but you can upgrade to higher-quality streaming for $20 per line. You can sign up free for unlimited talk, texting and 1GB of full-speed data in Canada, Mexico and some Latin American countries. Plus, get free texting and data at up to 2G speed in 149 destinations.
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If you’re a moderate data user—say, streaming a few hours of music and video monthly, sending e-mails daily, and surfing the Web and social media apps occasionally—consider the Cricket Wireless Basic prepaid plan. It features unlimited talking and texting and 2.5GB of data (slowed to a maximum 2G speed if you surpass the limit) for just $35 monthly if you make automatic payments. Cricket operates on the AT&T network.
Tello, which runs on the Sprint network, offers a couple of appealing options for those who don’t use their phones much. With the Pay As You Go plan, prepay $5 or more monthly. You’ll get phone calls for 3 cents a minute, text messages for a penny apiece, and data for 2 cents per megabyte. You can also make calls to other countries, including low rates of 1.2 cents per minute to China and 1.8 cents per minute to India.
Or, with Tello’s regular plans, choose individually from buckets of minutes, text messages and data. For 200 minutes of calling, unlimited text messages and 500 megabytes of data, for example, you’d pay $16 a month. Calls to Canada and Mexico are included.
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Do you frequently visit Canada or Mexico? Consider the T-Mobile One or Simple Choice plans. With either one, you can use your plan as you would in the U.S. at no extra charge in those countries. Both plans include unlimited talking and texting; T-Mobile One allots unlimited 4G LTE data, and Simple Choice allots from 2GB to 10GB of data monthly per line. Calling and texting to and from the U.S., Canada and Mexico is also included.
Plus, in more than 140 destinations, you get free unlimited texting and data at up to 2G speed; calls are 20 cents per minute. (Bonus: Until 2017, customers get unlimited 4G LTE data in South America and 19 European countries.)
If you often have access to Wi-Fi when you use your cell phone—say, at home and at work—consider a plan that automatically relies first on Wi-Fi for calling, texting and connecting to the Web. When Wi-Fi isn’t available, your phone reverts to the cellular network for service. With Republic Wireless, which uses the T-Mobile network for backup with new plans (the Sprint network will soon be available to new customers, too), you can get unlimited talking and texting and 1GB of cellular data for $20 a month or 2GB of cellular data for $30 monthly. Plans with no cellular data as well as with larger amounts of data are also available.
Unfortunately for Apple fans, you can’t use the iPhone with Republic Wireless. But the carrier does offer the Samsung Galaxy S7 and some other Android devices.
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If you travel frequently, live in a remote area or have a family plan with your loved ones scattered around the country, superior coverage may be your priority. Verizon Wireless has the best coverage nationally, according to RootMetrics, which tests network performance.
Verizon topped every category in RootMetrics’ most recent report, including reliability, speed, and calling, texting and data service. In each category, AT&T came in second, Sprint third and T-Mobile fourth. To check coverage for each carrier in your area, search for your location on the RootMetrics map.
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