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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor
| November 2015
Understanding wireless phone plans isn't rocket science, but it’s steadily moving in that direction. In a heated competition to lure customers, carriers are constantly pushing new promotions and fine-tuning their plans—or overhauling them entirely. Making an apples-to-apples comparison of plans across carriers is next to impossible. Verizon Wireless, for example, has customers choose from 1 gigabyte, 3GB or 6GB of data on the low end of the spectrum of its standard plans, while AT&T offers plans with 300 megabytes, 2GB or 5GB of data. And you face an array of choices when it comes to financing a device: Lease a phone and trade it in yearly, or buy it outright? Pay the full retail price of the device now, or stretch the cost over a year or two in monthly payments? (See New Smartphone Math: Pay for Your Phone, Save on Your Plan.)
To make the decision easier, we've selected standout plans based on how you use your phone and your priorities. Before you snap up an enticing offer, consider network coverage. Ask neighbors, coworkers, and friends and family in your area who use a carrier you’re considering about the strength of coverage. You can also look at the coverage map from RootMetrics to see how each major carrier performs in your area based on user feedback as well as independent testing from RootMetrics.
SEE MORE: The Best Personal-Finance Products and Services of 2015
Superior network coverage from Verizon Wireless means minimal frustration due to dropped calls or crawling data speeds—especially for families scattered all over the map. Four people with smartphones can get unlimited talk and texting and share 6 gigabytes of data for $140 per month without a contract if they all pay full price for their devices.
For $80 a month, the T-Mobile Simple Choice Unlimited plan provides unlimited talk, texting and 4G LTE data (the fastest type). T-Mobile slows data speed only in the unlikely event that you use more than 23 gigabytes in a month.
The plan also includes up to 7GB of data when you use your smartphone as a mobile hotspot, which allows you to share the phone's Web connection with up to 10 Wi-Fi enabled devices.
For most people, 2 gigabytes of data a month is plenty—especially if you conserve data by hooking up to Wi-Fi at home, at the office and other places with secure connections. With Sprint, get 2GB of high-speed data and unlimited talking and texting for $50 month without a two-year contract (or choose 1GB of data for $40 a month). If you surpass your high-speed data limit, you'll get unlimited 2G data.
Hardly use your cell phone? The T-Mobile Pay As You Go plan is simple and flexible. Pay $3 a month for any combination of 30 minutes of talking or 30 text messages. Additional voice minutes or text messages (sent or received) are 10 cents each. If you need data service, get one day (up to 500 megabytes of high-speed data) for $5 or a week (up to 1 gigabyte) for $10.
With Republic Wireless, you can choose to rely solely on Wi-Fi for voice, text and data ($5 a month) or to tap the cellular network for backup. Unlimited talk and texting with network backup is $10 a month, and you can add data packages ranging from 500 megabytes ($17.50 total monthly) to 5 gigabytes ($85 monthly). Best of all, you'll be refunded the price of any network data you don’t use. Choose among the Motorola Moto E, Moto G and Moto X smart phones ($129 to $249).
Those with any standard T-Mobile Simple Choice plan ($50 to $80 monthly, depending on the data allowance; unlimited talking and texting are included) can use their phones as they would in the U.S. without additional charge in Canada and Mexico (you can also call to Canada and Mexico from the U.S. with no added fee). Unlimited texting and data are also included in more than 140 countries and destinations; calls are 20 cents per minute.
Upgrade every year: With the Sprint iPhone Forever plan, you’ll pay $15 per month for the 16GB iPhone 6s ($19 a month for the iPhone 6s Plus) if you trade in any smartphone by December 31 (the standard rate for the 6s model is $22 a month). Or, with a recent limited-time promotion, pay only $1 a month to lease the 16GB iPhone 6s if you trade in an iPhone 6 or $10 a month if you trade in an iPhone 5s. You can trade up to a new device anytime you don’t have the latest iPhone. Sprint beats Apple's iPhone upgrade program, whose monthly fee ranges from $32.41 to $44.91 (depending on the model) but comes with AppleCare+.
Keep the device price low: Two-year contracts are going the way of the rotary dial, but new AT&T Wireless customers can still sign a two-year contract and get the 16GB iPhone 6s for $200. You’ll pay a higher monthly service fee. Verizon Wireless is no longer offering two-year contracts paired with subsidized devices to new customers, but current customers can renew their contracts and buy a discounted phone.
Own the phone with no contract: You’ll likely pay full retail price for a new iPhone unless you buy a subsidized device with a contract, but you can hunt for added benefits. Costco ($55 annually for Gold Star membership) recently offered a 16GB iPhone 6s for T-Mobile at the standard $650 but with a $100 rebate, paid as a Costco gift card. Look for bundled-in perks at Fry's Electronics and Walmart, too.
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