With smartphones now being available on every carrier, these carriers are having a tough time luring in new customers (in the past, there were many network exclusive smartphones like the Atrix, Evo, and others). Carriers are having to mix things up a bit to lure in their customers to their network. A lot of the changes are really just marketing talk and make things confusing for many customers. So we are here to decipher the marketing talk and see what carrier has the best plans.
AT&T is no longer doing contracts on their network. So if you're looking to pick up a new phone you'll either need to bring your own, or use AT&T Next to pay for it in monthly installments. These installment prices can be as high as $35/month depending on the phone and the AT&T Next plan you decide to use. Along with that, AT&T is also charging a $25 monthly access fee for smartphones ($15/month for those with a 15GB of larger plan). Other devices are a $10 monthly access fee (that includes tablets, wearables, laptops, hotspots and other connected devices).
Now let's jump into the bread and butter of these plans. Data starts at 300MB per month which does include unlimited talk and text. And it goes all the way up to $375 for 50GB of data. For single lines, we'd recommend grabbing the 2GB for $30 or 5GB for $50 depending on the amount of data you use. At 2GB that would put you at $55 for your monthly bill before your smartphone payment. If you decide to pick up the Samsung Galaxy S7, that will add another $23.17 onto your bill, effectively making it $78.10 before taxes. Those on the 5GB plan would see this go to $98.10 for your monthly bill before taxes.
Those on family plans can grab 15GB of data for $100, 20GB for $140, 25GB for $175, 30GB for $225, 40GB for $300 and 50GB for $375. These also include unlimited talk and text to Mexico and Canada. With family plans, the access fee applies to each line. For instance, if you have 4 smartphones on a plan, that's $60 in access fees. 3 smartphones and a tablet, that's $50. Looking at the 15GB plan with four lines, that would cost you $160 before your smartphone installment fees, which if you buy them elsewhere (like the Nexus 5X or Nexus 6P from Google) that's all you'll pay. With 4 Galaxy S7's, that will cost you $252.68.
While everyone had recently gotten rid of contracts, Sprint actually opted to bring them back this month. Citing that they wanted to give customers more choice in buying their smartphones. There are four ways to buy your smartphone from Sprint now. One is to buy it at the full price, there's also the 2-year contract, 24-monthly installments and the 24-month lease (the difference between installments and the lease is that with the lease you have to turn the phone back in). Looking at the Galaxy Note 5, the full price is $739. On a two-year contract it's going to be $249. With the 24 monthly installments it's $0 down and $30.80/month. On the 24-month lease its $0 down and $25/month.
Like Verizon, Sprint is now doing a set amount of data dubbed XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL and Unlimited. For XS you get 1GB for $20, S gets you 3GB for $30, M gets you 6GB for $45, L gets you 12GB for $60, XL gets you 24GB for $80, XXL gets you 40GB for $100 and finally unlimited gets you uncapped high-speed data for $75. Sprint also does $20 monthly access fee's like AT&T. So if you choose the 3GB plan, which most looking for a single line do, that'll cost you $75 if you lease the Galaxy Note 5, per month.
These data plans are essentially data buckets. So when you add more lines to your account, they share the data that is already there. For instance, if you were to get four Galaxy Note 5's, that would be $100 for the leases, $80 for the access fee and then if you decide to get the L data plan that would be $60. Added up that's $240 per month for four lines with 12GB of data. Now, where things get interesting is if you choose unlimited. That's $150 for four lines and the access fees go away. Dropping the price to $250 for unlimited data for four lines.
T-Mobile seems to be the easiest to explain, on the surface, but boy do things get complicated. For new customers, they offer 2GB, 6GB and 10GB plans as well as their unlimited high-speed data plan. Priced at $50, $65, $80, and $90 respectively. T-Mobile doesn't do data buckets, so this is the data for each line you get with the carrier. You also still have your device installment rate, which can be as high as $25/month per line. At least the math is a bit easier here.
For example, we'll choose the Galaxy S7 which would cost you $0 down and $27.92 per month for 24 months. Pair that with the 2GB plan, that brings your total to $77.92 per month before taxes and other fees. Pretty easy to calculate. With a 5GB plan that would jump to $92.92 per month.
When it comes to family plans, T-Mobile is almost always running some sort of special. Currently they are offering four lines of unlimited high-speed data for $150 per month (that's $50 per line with the fourth line free). We urge you to check their site to see their most up-to-date promotion for family plans. Now, T-Mobile allows you to adjust the data per line. So you can have everyone with 2GB or have someone with unlimited, two with 6GB and one with 2GB. It's all up to you. Since 6GB is the most popular, we'll use that for our example. Four lines with 6GB of data each is $160. Add on four smartphones and that's $271.68. Now that price is higher than Sprint, but it's also twice the data.
Believe it or not, Verizon's plans are pretty straight forward as well. As far as their data plans go, we have S which is 1GB for $30, M which is 3GB for $45, L which is 6GB for $60, XL which is 12GB for $80 and XXL which gives you 18GB for $100. Access fees are $20/month for smartphones, $10 for tablets and hotspots and $5 for a connected device.
Here we'll use the Droid Turbo 2 as our example phone. The Droid Turbo 2 will cost you $624 full retail or $0 down and $26 per month on Verizon EDGE. Those looking for a single line with 3GB of data, that will cost you about $91 (data is $45, access fee is $20 and installment is $26). If you need a bit more data, perhaps the 6GB plan would be a better fit. It would come in at $106 per month. These prices are before taxes and fees as well.
For family plans or just multi-line plans, things don't change too much. For four lines, that's $26 per line for a Droid Turbo 2, making it $108 per month. With 12GB of data that's $80, and four lines with access fees would also be $80. Making a total cost of $268 for four lines. And if you need the 18GB plan, that brings your total to $288 per month. It's also worth mentioning that every phone on the XL and XXL plans will get an additional 2GB of data per month for free, as long as you stick with Verizon. So on a family plan with four lines, that can really add up.
As you can see in the chart above, it's pretty tough to compare the four carriers side-by-side since they all have vastly different data plan sizes and costs. If you're looking for the absolute cheapest, that would be Sprint. However, if you are looking to get the most bang for your buck, you may do better with Verizon or T-Mobile. As always, before you decide on a carrier, it's best to look at their coverage maps. The ones listed on their site can be a bit biased. So we recommend you check out Sensorly's maps. Their maps are based off of crowdsourced data from every day users like you. So their coverage is more up-to-date and more accurate than the carrier's own coverage maps.