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Best Low-Cost Cell Phone Plans

Bree Fowler
·10 min read

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

The pricing practices of the major cell phone carriers can be so convoluted that you almost need an advanced degree in math to decipher them.

Plan costs vary widely depending on the number of lines and the amount of data you need. There are different thresholds for data throttling, international service, and hot spot usage. And some plans offer a smorgasbord of free content from streaming services, which can be hard to value.

And now, months after Sprint and T-Mobile officially closed their merger, the Sprint plans and brand have been retired.

The advent of 5G service has further complicated matters, with carriers once again restructuring their plans. In some cases, the service is included; in others, it’s not.

In fact, 5G service might not be up and running where you live. While 5G networks are expanding, they’re still far from complete. So be sure to check a carrier’s coverage map before signing up for service.

To make life easier for you, we’ve evaluated the plans offered by the major carriers, creating tables that present the service-cost breakdowns for one to four family members for both light and heavy data use.

All you need to do is figure out how much data your family uses and where that data goes. Some carriers will make you pay extra if you want high-definition video streaming or high-speed mobile hot spot service. They may also make you buy a more expensive plan if you want overseas service.

We generally omit the short-term specials designed to lure customers from rivals when we evaluate these plans because of the many caveats and the extremely short life spans of the deals. The benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone, for example.

We focus here on the remaining big three brands—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon—because they dominate the market. But consumers looking for better deals and better customer service should review the offerings from the smaller companies, too.

Our ratings, which feature about 20 providers, are based on the experiences of about 100,000 Consumer Reports members. You’ll find AT&T and Verizon near the bottom of the chart. T-Mobile rates slightly higher than the others. (Ratings are available to CR members.)

Check out our buying guide on cell phones and services for more tips on choosing a plan.

AT&T

AT&T has three levels of service that include unlimited data. And all of them feature access to what AT&T says is now a national 5G network (you can check the carrier's maps to see how much coverage there is where you live).

The least expensive plan, Unlimited Starter, will run you $75 per month for one phone. As you add more lines, the per-phone rate drops from $70 ($140 for two lines) to $51.67 ($155 for three) to $40 ($160 for four).

The plan offers unlimited talk, text, and data in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It also includes unlimited texting from the U.S. to more than 120 countries.

Video streams at DVD quality, and AT&T reserves the right to slow your data speeds when the network gets busy.

The next step up, Unlimited Extra, costs $10 per month more for one line. A four-line bundle will cost you $20 per month more, for a total of $180.

For that you get 15 gigabytes of mobile hot spot data per line and 50GB of “premium data” to share. You aren’t subjected to slower data speeds until you go through all that data in a month.

With the Unlimited Elite plan, video streams in HD and your mobile hot spot data allowance gets bumped up to 30GB per line. You also get 100GB of premium data.

But the big carrot is that AT&T throws in access to the newly launched HBO Max, which could be nice if you don’t already subscribe.

All those extras don’t come cheap, though. That package will cost you $95 per month for one line and $220 for four.

But AT&T will now let you mix and match your levels of service on multi-line plans. So you may be able to shave a few dollars off your monthly bill if you limit the more expensive levels of service to just a line or two.

Don’t need unlimited data? Like the other carriers, AT&T has scaled back its options. Right now there's just one choice that provides unlimited talk and text with 4GB of data per line. That plan starts at $60 per month for one line and goes up to $200 for four.

But, these days, that’s not a lot of data. And if you exceed that allowance, AT&T will charge you $10 for each 2GBs of data you use before your billing cycle is up.

Needless to say, this is a bare-bones plan. Streaming is at standard definition, and 5G connectivity isn't included.

And if you need several lines, it's actually cheaper to just sign up for Unlimited Starter (which includes 5G and doesn't involve overage charges). For example, four lines with 4GB plans will cost you $200 per month before discounts, but four lines with Unlimited Starter service costs $180.

And don’t forget that whichever AT&T plan you choose, if you sign up for automated payments and paperless billing, you get a $10 monthly discount for one line and $20 for two or more lines.

Number of People

4GB of Data Per Line

Unlimited Starter1

Unlimited Extra2

Unlimited Elite3

1

$60

$75


$85

$95

2

$110

$140

$150

$170

3

$150

$155

$170

$200

4

$200

$160


$180


$220

T-Mobile

As part of the merger deal with Sprint, T-Mobile has pledged to not raise prices for at least three years. It also says it won’t charge extra for 5G.

The company launched what it calls a nationwide 5G network late last year, but the coverage remains limited. By adding Sprint’s network to its own, T-Mobile can expand the footprint and provide a wider range of 5G spectrum.

The carrier offers a trio of unlimited talk, text, and data plans but no way to share a bundle of data with family members.

T-Mobile’s most basic service, Essentials, costs $65 for one phone and $100 for two. A four-line bundle will run you $125.

That gives you unlimited talk, text, and data on the T-Mobile network. Mobile hot spot data is unlimited but capped at 3G speeds. The plan offers unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico, too (though data moves at a turtle-slow 2G speed). Texting is free in about 210 other destinations.

The company reserves the right to slow your data speeds at any time. With the other two unlimited plans, that happens only once you hit the 50-gigabyte mark in a given month, the company says. And Essentials customers who use more than 50GB a month could see their speeds slow even more.

The downside? Unlike with T-Mobile’s other plans, the monthly rate doesn't include taxes and fees or Netflix. Video streams in standard definition.

If you’re looking for a more traditional T-Mobile service, the company’s Magenta plan starts at $75 for one line and $130 for two. That includes the taxes and fees, which alone make this plan a better deal for many families.

T-Mobile throws in a basic-level Netflix plan, access to the new Quibi streaming service, and 3GB per month of 4G hot spot data (3G hot spot data remains unlimited). You also get 5GB of high-speed data when traveling in Canada and Mexico (in addition to unlimited talk, text, and 2G-speed data). In other countries, texting and 2G-speed data is free.

For those racking up the frequent-flyer miles, T-Mobile also includes free texting and 1 hour of free WiFi on flights equipped with the Gogo service.

Those looking for the highest level of wireless service, including HD streaming, can sign up for Magenta Plus, which starts at $90 for one phone and $150 for two. The complementary Netflix service gets bumped up to a standard subscription, and the high-speed mobile hot spot data allowance rises to 20GB.

International data is faster, though still technically at 2G speeds, and your Gogo service includes unlimited texting and WiFi.

Like the other carriers, T-Mobile offers a discount for enrolling in autopay. In this case, it’s $5 per line per month for a maximum of eight lines. Those savings aren't reflected in the table below.

Number of People

Essentials1

Magenta2

Magenta Plus2

1

$65

$75

$90

2

$100

$130

$150

3

$120

$135

$155

4

$140

$160

$190

Verizon

Verizon offers four kinds of unlimited plans. All come with unlimited talk, text, and data (in Canada and Mexico, too, along with unlimited texting in another 200 countries).

After that, the perks vary with the plan.

The least expensive option, Start Unlimited, costs $80 for one phone and includes DVD-quality streaming and six-month trials of Disney+ and Apple Music.

But it doesn’t offer 5G service. And Verizon reserves the right to slow your data speeds when the network gets busy.

With Verizon’s more expensive plans, that’s not the case. If you choose one of those three options, 5G service is included and the carrier won’t slow your speeds until you go through 50GB of data in a given month.

There are different extras for each plan, though. Play More Unlimited, which starts at $90 per month for one line, throws in HD video streaming, 15GB of 4G hot spot data per month, and full subscriptions to Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. You also get six months of Apple Music.

The Do More Unlimited plan also starts at $90 per month, but it’s designed with the multitasking worker in mind. You get HD streaming, 15GB of high-speed hot spot service, a 50 percent discount on a tablet or jetpack (mobile hot spot device) unlimited plan, and 600GB of Verizon cloud storage.

What’s the trade-off? Instead of free Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu subscriptions, you get six-month trials of each, plus a six-month trial of Apple Music.

For the person who wants everything, Get More Unlimited starts at $100 per month for one phone. It bumps your high-speed hot spot allowance to 30GB per month. And HD streaming, Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu, and Apple Music are all included, along with the 50 percent discount on a tablet or jetpack plan and 600GB of Verizon cloud storage.

Don’t need unlimited data? Verizon still offers plans with shared bundles of gigabytes. Right now your options are 5GB and 10GB. We’ve priced those out in the table below.

With any plan, Verizon will give you a $10-per-device discount each month if you set up automatic bill payments. That discount isn’t reflected in the rates listed in the table.

Number of People

5GB of Shared Data

10GB of Shared Data

Start Unlimited1

Play More Unlimited2

Do More Unlimited2

Get More Unlimited2

1

$65

$75

$80

$90

$90

$100

2

$100

$110

$140

$160

$160

$180

3

$135

$145

$165

$195

$195

$225

4

$170

$180

$180

$220

$220

$260