The Best Cell Phone Plans from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile

We've looked at all the current cell phone plan options and listed our picks below based on speeds, price, data caps, coverage, and potential discounts.

Table of Contents

The Best Plans for Most People

Our recommendations are based on common usage and mostly ignores short-lived perks. For example, some companies attempt to justify higher prices with 6-12 of Netflix, Disney+, or some other kind of subscription. While these benefits may make the plan cheaper overall for a year or so, most people stick with their cell provider for longer than that — and now you're just stuck with a higher-priced plan.

  • T-Mobile Essentials is a great plan for most people. It includes what most people need in a clear way and for a good price. T-Mobile's network coverage has grown to the point where it's now as good or better for most cities. True, the hotspot is limited to 3G speeds, but AT&T and Verizon plans at the same price level don't even include any hotspot data.
  • AT&T Unlimited Starter is a good plan, especially if you live in an area with AT&T U-Verse available (you can check local ISPs here). The slightly higher cost is not justified for most users to get ActiveArmor. These are security features that we'd generally recommend using third-party apps for to avoid tying yourself down. You also get 6 free months of Stadia Pro. If you don't know what that is, you, like most people, won't see any real benefit.
  • Verizon Start Unlimited is significantly more expensive. They don't guarantee any “premium data access” and you don't get “5G Ultra Wideband” – Verizon's term for 5G that is actually faster than the competition. For the money, we feel you're better off with one of the other companies, or at least paying Verizon $10/line/mo. more for one of their “More Unlimited” plans below.

All of these plans have mobile data that is technically “unlimited,” but your data will be throttled at a certain point when there is network congestion, e.g. after work on weekdays. T-Mobile is the most transparent about the number. We had to poke around to find AT&T's caps, and Verizon is tight-lipped about them.

Given that “hotspot” is a default Android and iOS system feature that just uses cell data, we don't like that all 3 providers are trying to charge more to not break things your phone can already do. Most users aren't big hotspot users, though, so it tends to not be a big deal unless you're trying to use the plan as your primary internet connection.

What about coverage?

We took coverage and speeds into account, but in the modern era there is actually little to differentiate the top 3 carriers. People who haven't shopped for phone plans in a while may be surprised to learn that most networks have very similar coverage.

4G Home Coverage
5G Home Coverage
US Land Coverage

With a maximum of a few percentage points difference in home coverage, most people are unlikely to notice a huge difference.

It should be noted that Verizon's 5G “Ultra Wideband” coverage does tend to be faster, but the actual speeds will not be felt by most people under most current uses. For example, it's still rare to use a cell phone data plan to stream 4k video.

Sprint and T-Mobile, once seen as companies with less-than-adequate coverage, have definitely improved their overall competitiveness and coverage ever since they merged back in 2018.


The Best Premium Plans for Any Price

For some people price is simply not a factor. With price discounted as a major factor, here are the plans we would recommend.

The big question you have to ask yourself here is: will you be using more than 40 GB of data each month? For most people who connect to WiFi networks at home and work, the answer is no, and so speed will matter more. In this case, Verizon will usually leave you waiting less.

However, if you do travel across the US or work in a more mobile environment, AT&T and T-Mobile say they will not slow down your plan (as much as possible) at any capped speeds. Network speeds will still be slower when the network is busy, but they won't throttle you specifically.

  • Verizon Get More Unlimited is probably going to be fastest for most people. Do know that after using 50 GB (far more than most people use) your speeds may be throttled when the network is busy. There are other inclusions, such as dicovery+, Apple Arcade, and Google Play Pass for 12 months. Also included is Apple Music, 600 GB of Verizon cloud storage, and 50% off connected device plans. Aside from Apple Music, most people don't know what any of these things are. Someone who uses all of these services might actually find a great bargain through Verizon's high-end plan.
  • T-Mobile Magenta Max is a better idea if you travel around the country and stream to your phone nonstop. The company will make every effort to keep your high speeds coming, even when the network is busy.
  • AT&T Unlimited Elite scores similar to the T-Mobile premium plan. If you really like the ActiveArmor advanced security features, use Stadia (free for 6 months), watch HBO rather than Netflix, or live in an AT&T wired internet area, AT&T may be the way to go.

At the end of the day your first question should be whether top speeds or total bandwidth per month is more important to you. If 50 GB won't be a problem, you can't go wrong with T-Mobile or AT&T's premium plans either, and you should be able to decide based on the included perks and coverage in your area.

Budget Cell Phone Plans

If you don't qualify for a military, senior, first responder, or company plan, please make sure to look at budget cell phone providers like Mint. These companies, called MVNOs, provide service at a discount using the larger cell providers' networks.

If you'd prefer to stick with the larger carriers, a pre-paid plan is the way to go. Not only does this not require an excellent credit score, but you can save a ton of money as long as you stay connected to WiFi and avoid streaming video when you're not.

Those who save the most money with budget and pre-paid plans are those who remember to connect to WiFi and avoid watching video on the go.

  • T-Mobile Connect is the clear winner for budget plans. Not only is the price lower, but the plan includes access to 5G speeds, while AT&T and Verizon keep budget plans limited to 4G speeds. If 2.5 GB isn't enough for you, you can upgrade to 5.5 GB for $25/ mo., but these budget plans are best for people who use very little data by connecting to WiFi.
  • AT&T Prepaid 8GB is actually a pretty good plan for the money, but you need to have $300 to drop right away. The company does have options like $30/mo for 5GB if the initial price is too much, but T-Mobile is better for most. AT&T may be a great option if you tend to use data very little some months and more data some months, as you can roll over a previous month.
  • Verizon 5GB has a complex pricing scheme where you need to sign up for 9 months just to make it competitive, which is the main reason it's hard to recommend over AT&T. Budget plans include 5G, but not Verizon's premium “Ultra Wideband” 5G. The 15 GB prepaid plan may be good for heavy users, as it eventually drops down to $35/month, but this is hard to recommend as a “budget” plan. Note that all pricing includes a $5/mo. discount for setting up auto-pay.

Luckily, providers have moved past gauging customers for overages. If you exceed your data cap with any provider you are simply throttled to slower speeds, which is enough data for browsing, but not enough for music or video to stream at quality. If you spend a lot of time abroad, make sure to look into additional costs with these plans — even if you are simply going to Canada or Mexico. These tend not to be “buy it and forget it” kinds of plans, so consider the plans above if research and management is going to be too much for you.

The Best Family Plans

The math for the best plans changes a little as you begin to add on lines. For example, 1 line may cost $70/mo. on an unlimited 5G plan, but with 5 lines you only pay $30/mo/line. We're going to assume a plan of 5 lines, but note that the plan may be a little more expensive if there are only 3 in your family. This shouldn't impact which plan is best unless your family plan is 2 people or fewer.

Priority #1 is avoiding fights between family members about who used what data and caused everyone else's data to get throttled. For the sake of your sanity we strongly recommend avoiding the budget plans and prepaid plans above to save a few bucks. Most unlimited plans from major carriers include data on a per-line basis. If someone gets throttled for exceeding (for example) 50 GB, it affects only them.

  • T-Mobile Essentials is once again a great value per dollar spent. Sure, you don't get free Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, ESPN+, or anything else included. But if you assume savings of $16 / mo. / line at 5 lines, we're pretty sure most people would be better off buying the streaming services they use a-la-carte with the extra $80 / month or $960 / year in savings.
  • Verizon Play More Unlimited may be a better choice for those who want access to Verizon's fast 5G Ultra Wideband speeds. While this is a bit of a marketing gimmick (all true 5G could be this fast if carriers wanted it to be), it is also faster on average than the competition in the large cities where it's available. The included streaming services and perks may help make up for some of the additional cost, but that's not a good reason to buy the plan. Note that Do More Unlimited is priced similarly, but it's really only worth it if you plan to use a cellular modem as well — a viable and under-appreciated home internet option for rural areas.
  • AT&T Unlimited Extra isn't necessarily a bad plan. You'll probably want at least 50 GB in guaranteed “premium data” (the guaranteed fast speeds before your connection is throttled during busy periods) so the family isn't complaining about slow speeds. If someone does complain, they should have received a text that they'd almost used 50 GB, and they can be held accountable for their own usage. This price bump, however, leaves AT&T in the “why?” category. It's more expensive than T-Mobile and not as fast as Verizon's network. Plans are priced such that unless you have a specific reason to stick with AT&T (such as living in an AT&T internet area, or buying a DIRECTV bundled deal) there's not a clear reason to pick any plan.

We think most people will be better off saving money each month, as the network coverage and speeds for all carriers is now comparable. Power users may want faster speeds, but most families will be at home when very high speeds are required.

The Best Plans for Other Groups

If you're in one of the groups below, consider plans that give you specific benefits.

  • The best plan for seniors: T-Mobile's Essentials 55+ at $55/mo for 2 lines beats most other plans, which are usually $80/mo for 2 lines
  • The best plan for international travelers:
    • For single-destination trips, it's usually best to buy a pre-paid SIM or connect a pre-paid plan with SIMless phones. You can often find these in airport vending machines. Make sure you know what's compatible with your phone, which varies by country. Buying a dual-SIM phone from Samsung's Galaxy line or OnePlus's flagship phones limits how much you miss on your regular line, but you'll have to remember the costs associated with using your US-based line.
    • Verizon‘s International Monthly Plan is $100/mo. for 5 GB, and allows you to go between 185+ countries, but extra data is a brutal $20 per GB (AT&T's plan is even more expensive). If you don't need fast speeds, T-Mobile is a better option, with 256kb/s speeds included on Magenta Max plans to 210+ countries with calls costing $.25/minute.
  • The best plan for small-to-medium sized businesses:
    • If you intend to use devices that are customer-facing, e.g. on point-of-sale tablets, you'll want something that won't ever be throttled. Delays can frustrate customers and make your business look bad, so we'd recommend T-Mobile‘s Business Unlimited Ultimate for $40/line/month if you have 6+ lines. Crucially, this is one of the few business plans with no caps on premium (aka priority) data.
    • If the devices are mostly used for staying in touch and communication, T-Mobile wins again, but with the much cheaper Business Unlimited Select at $25/line/month with 6+ lines.
  • The best plan for military veterans:T-Mobile‘s Magenta Military plan is probably the best option for $25/line/mo. with 4+ lines. It includes 50 GB of premium data in the US and 2G abroad. If using the phone's data abroad, however, we would definitely recommend paying $10 more per month per line to get Magenta MAX Military for 2x the data speeds. It's still slow, but international data will cost you dearly with other carriers.
  • The best plan for first responders: T-Mobile Magenta First Responder is just like the military plan for $25/line/mo.
  • The best plans with no contract: Basically every plan on this page has no contract if you bring your own phone or buy an unlocked phone outright. T-Mobile is a good option otherwise, as they simply charge you the full price of the phone broken up into 24-month payments. If you cancel early you'll usually only need to pay the remaining cost of the phone. AT&T and Verizon can both charge hefty cancellation fees for subsidized plans.

Cell Carriers Need to do Better

It seems necessary to call out some problems we cell in cell phone plan marketing. For example, Verizon makes a big deal on their page about “giving more to military and veteran families” or “putting first responders first.” This seems pretty disingenuous given that a 5-line plan will cost you $40/line/month whether you served in an active duty warzone or spent your days in an air-conditioned office. There is no real discount in some cases. We think companies should either offer real discounts or stop pretending they do.

Second, we're surprised and frustrated no cell company appears to be offering a low-cost plan that won't be throttled during busy times, especially for first responders. This seems short-sighted after carriers got burned by bad press when they throttled firefighters' phones while they were trying to combat a fire. Verizon, which came under the most scrutiny, still doesn't offer a plan they won't throttle, and you'll have to pay more for a plan that will keep its premium data speeds with AT&T and T-Mobile. Do you want legislators getting involved? Because failing to fix the problem is how you get legislators involved.


Final Thoughts on Cell Phone Plans

It may look like we favor T-Mobile, and there's a simple reason for this. Their plans tend to be cheaper. We do not let payouts or commissions influence the recommended plans on this page. If we did, we certainly wouldn't be recommending T-Mobile as much as we do on this page.

In the past we may have recommended Verizon for better coverage or AT&T for certain devices, but the competing networks have caught up to the point where most customers will be happy with any carrier if they're happy with the price. Mobile carriers are now trying to add new security features, perks, and bundled services to differentiate themselves. While these may sometimes matter, we've made the case above that these benefits will usually not pay for themselves, especially in family plans where the price increase to get little perks makes no sense. The focus, instead, has moved to how much data can be used before being throttled for most users.

If you're not happy with the prices or data caps you see here, make sure to enter your zip code here to see if you have other options in your area.