How to Pick the Right Cell Phone Plan for You

You might have your phone all picked out, and your provider might be down to a couple of options, but what about your phone plan itself? Unlimited text and voice are almost a given today unless you are getting a pre-paid phone, and in which case this article is not for you. There is also the matter of your data plan and other potential benefits. A phone plan has become so much more than it used to be, and there are more facets to the choice than there ever were before.

We understand that this can all be a bit confusing, and there is plenty of fine print to comb through. We cannot read through every potential deal for you, as there are simply too many variations and providers (and providers like to change their terms regularly.) What we can tell you is that there is a perfect plan for you if you are willing to look and we can guide you down the right path to it. You know what you want or you can quickly learn. After clarifying that, it is just a process of elimination.

Here are some of the fundamental questions you should ask yourself if you are picking out a phone plan or thinking about switching:

How Many People Will Be on Your Plan?

The more people that are on your phone plan, the cheaper it will be for each person. While a single person getting a plan could easily get a bill that is more than $100 a month (without even going to the highest tier of service), a group plan could easily reduce that cost to less than $40 per person. If you cannot get everyone on board early on, you can almost certainly add more people to your plan as time goes by. Phone companies love getting more people under their purview.

You might be single or have a small family, but keep in mind that you do not need to necessarily sign up with family members, despite some plans being called family plans. Whether it’s trusted friends, close roommates, or your current romantic partner, there are plenty of potential options to work with. Even getting three people for a short period can make a world of difference in your monthly bill, as long as you can trust them to pay their share.

There is also the matter of what services and how much data you need (more on that below). We recommend unlimited data for most group plans because of the affordability and the fact that you cannot or do not want to control everyone’s usage. Otherwise, double check how much data everyone uses, and overestimating is much cheaper in the long run than underestimating.

How Much Data Will You Actually Use?

When people sign up for a data plan, many people often underestimate or overestimate just how much mobile data they use. It’s no surprise considering how much data some apps use or how much video and other content people stream on their phones. It’s easy to forget to connect to Wi-Fi a few times a month, which can truly eat into a data limit.

Even basic video when used regularly can run through a data plan. If you have 10GB on your plan each month, that is a little over three hours of HD streaming on YouTube, and most people stream more content than that in a day. This is not considering everything else you do with your phone, from GPS to music streaming to online messaging (lots of pictures can tally up quickly). You might be careful about your data usage, but be extra careful that you do not become overconfident about it.

It is generally most cost-effective to find a data plan that is reasonable for the amount of data you use. Most times, an unlimited data plan makes the most sense. This is especially the case with larger families that might perhaps not be as disciplined with their data.

Unlimited data might also simply be a default for a provider, or just a few dollars more. This can be wonderful in an emergency or on a trip where having a backup connection to the world without limits can be an immense relief. Furthermore, the relief of not having to count GB or worry about what you are doing on your phone in that regard might be worth the price difference. Value is measured in more than dollars.

If you have a data plan already, you can likely check how much data you are using right from your phone, and get a readout of how much data you used over the last year or so. We recommend making sure that you have more data each month than the maximum amount you used in the last year, just to be sure.

Talking and Texting

Nearly every phone plan will have unlimited talking and texting. While that might not have been the case a decade ago and the oldest of plans might not have that updated yet, consider it a must-have. You should be unimpressed by any plan that doesn’t offer it unless you are getting a pre-paid phone or something very specific.

International talking and texting might be a slightly different matter. Most phone companies will have different rates for this, but consider why you’d pay for international rates when you can simply use an online service with your data plan to communicate instead? Of course, there might be extenuating circumstances, and international rates can quickly build up a massive bill every month. You may, however, be able to get unlimited texting and talking to nearby countries. This might be helpful if you live near the border, visit frequently or have relatives living there.

International travelers might want to look at international trip or day passes that you can sign up for, allowing you to pay $5 a day or something similar to not have to worry about international phone usage. If you do not travel often, noting these options will be enough and you can build the extra cost into your travel budget.

In either case, be on the lookout and note that it exists, but otherwise focus more on data, coverage, and other aspects of the plan.

Coverage, Speed, and Service Quality

In terms of simply being able to talk on the phone with someone else, most of the major providers have full coverage across most of the United States. Tunnels are tunnels, but if a provider doesn’t offer decent coverage in your city, then it doesn’t matter how great their other services or plans are.

Between the major networks, Verizon is on average the fastest,. You should check other independent websites to investigate what speeds you will be working with in your area. Over a certain level you might not notice much difference, but what that level is will be up to you. You should not make the decision in the hope of an upgrade in the future, even with the 5G rollout.

Above all else, check the service in your hometown and the surrounding area. If there is anything but stellar coverage, look at other plans and save yourself from a lot of frustration. Next up check for towns and cities you frequent (perhaps your workplace if you have a longer commute, or cities you visit frequently either for enjoyment, business, or to see family). Most networks are expansive enough to handle most areas now, but it cannot hurt to check. If you live and work in a heavily rural area, then you should pay special attention.

Related to all the above, what will the quality of service be like when you use your phone? Will all calls come in clear and without delay (at least on your end)? If yes, then proceed. If not, then consider another provider. Remember that you will use your phone regularly, and even the slightest of problems can become grating over time.

Available Phones and Discounts

While the phone plan itself can be the major portion of the bill you get each month (as you might expect), the other half or so of it can be the smartphone you get when you pick up a plan, assuming you are not bringing your own device. Given that a phone can easily cost $1000 and certainly more than $500 if you want one that will last and be high-end in terms of features and capabilities, your phone is a major consideration for your bill, even with the cost spread out over 12 or 24 months.

When you get your plan, check to see if you need a new phone as well. Most phones only last a couple of years before they show their age, and there is a sense that you are expected to upgrade your phone regularly, if only because of increasing standards from apps and operating systems (and shortening battery lives). When getting a new plan, check what phone discounts and offers you can get and what might be possible.

When you switch providers, you may or may not be able to keep your phone, depending on whether the phone is compatible and what your providers are like. If you are changing plans within the same provider, you will probably not have an issue at all, and might not even need to make any adjustments to your phone on your end. If by switching, however, you can get a nice deal or discount on a new phone, you might want to take it.

If you are bringing your own device to the deal, ensure it is compatible, though this will almost always be the case.

Will You Be Bundling?

While many people would associate bundling with internet or television service before anything else, more telecommunication companies are offering bundles that can include mobile service as an option. While the total bill might be higher, with a bundle you might get service packages and plans you otherwise wouldn’t. You also might be able to make savings on other services for your household. Even saving $10 a month can be worth it.

Even if you only want one additional service, there is likely a plan and company that will be good for you. You are more likely to find something decent with internet, but anything is possible. Major providers are generally uniform across the country with such deals if they are available. Just be sure that you are getting a plan in your bundle that you would be happy with on its own.

Bundles might include TV service or internet service, both important in this day and age. You might also get a bundle with a landline phone, but outside of some business purposes why would you want one in this day and age?

Additional Perks and Benefits

While originally additional perks and potential prescriptions were not part of the deal, some phone plans might try to get you set up with subscriptions to things such as Disney+, HBO Max, or other premium channel subscriptions (especially if there is a TV service bundled in there). Others still might have music service subscriptions, letting you make the most of your data while you are on the go.

There might also be travel benefits, allowing you to not worry about international charges and letting you work with networks wherever you travel, ensuring you have service at all times at a reasonable price.

With these perks, remember that many of them are relatively limited (often for six months.) Also, remember the monetary value of them often is not worth all that much. Do you actually plan on using these services and would do so even if they did not show up on a phone plan, or are you trying to convince yourself that you will? If you are doing the second, it will not last several months for you and it should not be a deciding factor.

Fine Print and Details

The fine print is often redundant, boring, and not applicable to your case 90 percent of the time. It is still important that you read it and do so thoroughly, on every document that you receive when signing up for your plan. This simple act can prevent you from getting stuck in an unwanted contract or paying more than you thought you would.

You will want to look out for:

  • Any regular fees or requirements that you might have to pay outside of the advertised rate for your plan. While there are taxes that will apply to every plan, you should still know about them and factor their cost in. Everything from late fees to activation fees should also be mentioned.
  • The length of your plan’s contract as well as what will happen after the initial introductory period. Does the contract renew, or will there be a price hike after the first year?
  • Whether there are any limitations. While they might advertise data and voice as unlimited, after a certain point of usage you might find your service throttled.
  • Anything else that looks confusing or suspicious to you. Thanks to the internet, you can easily look up the language to see what it means.

Never feel rushed when deciding on a plan, even if you are talking to a sales representative. Also, remember that you can back out before confirming your services.

Customer Service

There is not too much to say about customer service except that most people do not consider it important until they need it. While most telecommunications companies do not have the best reputation for customer service, and for a good reason, they are not all equal and some have attempted to improve in recent years.

You probably know wonderful customer service when you see and hear it. Look up methods of contacting customer service with your provider. Are they available at all hours, and by live chat (if your phone isn’t working, how can you expect to call customer service)? What do other people say about them? Is there a location in your area you can go to if needed? While customer service probably will not be the deciding factor for you, it can help if you consider it vital or are on the fence between a few providers.

Major Provider or a Cheaper Option?

While there are plenty of facets to look at when picking out a phone plan, one distinction to make is between the major providers and other providers that can offer you a cheaper deal. When you search online, you might find two types of plans:

Plans major providers such as AT&T or Verizon

Usually, a bit pricier but they come from a big name and have all the perks attached to service. They are reliable, there are clear lines of customer service (bad as that customer service may get with some providers), and often come with additional benefits, prioritization, and subscriptions that can save you money.

In these cases, you are also likely to experience rate hikes after the initial introductory period, though carefully read through the terms and fine print of every service agreement you might be considering. These will be clearly advertised and you will not have to look hard for them.

An MVNO operator

These provide services to customers via an existing network and generally provide a cheaper rate. Sometimes these plans might be a slightly lower priority or be a bit more sparse on extra perks, but if all you are looking for is a basic phone plan or data service, you have your own phone already, or you hardly ever use your phone in the first place (or just use Wi-Fi all the time), then they could be for you and using one can save you a few hundred dollars each year.

In terms of service quality, most of these providers piggyback off of the infrastructure and service of a major network. Some might work off of Verizon, for example, and the coverage will be practically the same.

The cheapest options often have strict limits, which might only be the best choice if you are looking for a phone for emergency purposes. They might be harder to find, and you might need to put more effort into researching them. Many also operate entirely online.

Between these two types of options, only you will know what is best for you. It might be good if you can plan ahead or ask around to see if the service you be right for you or your friends or family. Testimonials and reviews from people in your situation can be the best predictor of whether you will be happy with a plan.

Conclusion

We cannot tell you which plan to choose for yourself and your family, but we hope that with all the above information you can more easily make that choice for yourself. Take your time with this if you can, as the choice you make here will be the difference of hundreds of dollars each year and the usefulness of one of the main devices you use every day (likely for hours each day). Please use this article for reference as you feel the need and we wish you the best with your new plan.