TIME Smartphones

Which Wireless Plan Is Cheapest?

It's 2014 and wireless carriers are changing all their plans. This used to be a lot simpler.

Smartphone wireless plans didn’t used to be so complicated. You handed over about $200 for the phone, tried to get by with the minimum amount of voice, text and data — most carriers charged about $70 per month — and paid a little extra if you needed more.

Now, carriers want you to figure out exactly how much data you’ll use, down to the gigabyte. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile would also like you to stop paying up-front for a subsidized phone and instead pay the full price in monthly installments. In exchange, they’ll give you cheaper service, and may even let you upgrade to a new phone more often. But the discount you actually get depends on which carrier you’re on, how much data you’re using and how many people are on your family plan.

And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the carriers change their pricing structures again. That’s what happened this week when Verizon announced its “More Everything” plans, and last week when AT& T introduced its Mobile Share Value plans. The goal of both plans is to make early upgrades less of a ripoff than before.

So here’s what we’re going to do: Below are two charts comparing the prices of the four major carriers as they exist in February 2014 March 2014 April 2014. First we’ll compare their standard plans, and then we’ll compare the early upgrade plans, in which you trade up to a new phone every year. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume everyone’s getting a $200 phone, like a 16 GB iPhone 5s. Finally, we’ll calculate the long-term costs in a few different scenarios.

Best of luck to you in figuring it out. The carriers certainly don’t make it easy.

Verizon vs. AT&T vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile

Here’s the breakdown by carrier without any early upgrade privileges. The first section shows monthly service pricing for a single phone with unlimited talk and text, with additional charges listed below. In all cases, we’ll assume everyone’s getting a 16 GB iPhone 5s or a comparably-priced phone once every two years:

Verizon AT&T Sprint T-Mobile
< 500 MB $55 (250 MB) $60 (300 MB) - -
500 MB $70 - - $40
1 GB $80 $65 $70 $50
2 GB $90 $80 - -
3 GB $100 - - $60
4 GB $110 $110 - -
5 GB - - - $70
6 GB $120 $120 - -
8 GB $130 $130 - -
10 GB $140 $140 - -
> 10 GB $10 per 2 GB Varies - -
Unlimited - - $80 $80
Upfront Phone Cost $200 $200 $200 $0
Monthly Phone Cost $0 $0 $0 $27 for 24 months
Second Line $40 $40 $60 to $70 $30 to $50
Third Line $40 $40 $50 to $60 $10 to $30
More Lines $40 $40 $40 to $50 $10 t0 $30
Mobile Hotspot? Included Included $10 (1 GB) Included

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A few observations based on the chart above:

  • An individual, moderate data user would pay the least through T-Mobile. at $2,088 over two years, but Sprint’s unlimited plan isn’t much more expensive at $2,120 over two years.
  • If you’re an individual who burns through enough bandwidth to justify unlimited data and needs mobile hotspot, Sprint’s price jumps to $2,360. T-Mobile’s 5 GB plan is a little cheaper at $2,328 over two years, but unlimited data is much more expensive, at $2,568.
  • Individuals who can get by with just a little data will spend the least through Verizon ($1,520 over two years on a 250 MB plan) and AT&T ($1,640 on a 300 MB plan).
  • T-Mobile doesn’t do shared data for families. Additional lines start with 500 MB, and increase in $10 increments for 2.5 GB and unlimited data. A family of four, each with 2.5 GB of data, would pay $5,952 over two years — much less than any other carrier.

Verizon Edge, AT&T Next, Sprint Framily and T-Mobile Jump Compared

Early upgrade plans are trickier, because they all work a little differently. With AT&T and Verizon, you pay off the full price of the phone in monthly installments, which is a lot more expensive in the long run than getting a $200 subsidized phone. But in exchange, they give you a discount on service, and you can trade up to a new phone once per year at no extra charge. With T-Mobile, you’re already paying monthly installments and getting cheaper service, but for $10 extra per month you can trade up to a new phone twice per year. You also get insurance for lost, damaged or stolen phones.

Sprint’s “Framily” plans are even wackier. The base price is $55 per line with 1 GB of data. For each additional member who joins, everyone on the plan pays $5 less, down to a minimum of $25 per month per line. So for example, a “Framily” of three with 1 GB of data each would each pay $45 per line. The silly name comes from the fact that you can have friends or family on the same plan, with the option to pay separate bills. But Sprint’s plan also has one big catch: You can only upgrade every year if you have an unlimited data plan. Otherwise, you can only upgrade every two years.

Perhaps we should let the chart speak for itself. This time we’ll assume you’re getting a new 16 GB iPhone or comparably-priced phone once per year:

Verizon Edge AT&T Next Sprint Framily T-Mobile Jump
< 500 MB $45 (250 MB) $45 (300 MB) - -
500 MB $60 - - $50
1 GB $70 $50 $55 (no early upgrade) $60
2 GB $80 $65 - -
3 GB $90 - $65 (no early upgrade) $70
4 GB $100 $95 - -
5 GB - - - $80
6 GB $110 $105 - -
8 GB $120 $115 - -
10 GB $115 $115 - -
> 10 GB $10 per 2 GB Varies - -
Unlimited - - $75 $90
Upfront Phone Cost $0 $0 $0 $0
Monthly Phone Cost $27 for 24 months $32.50 for 20 months $27 for 24 months $27 for 24 months
More Lines $30 for plans under 10 GB
$15 for 10 GB or more
$25 for plans under 10 GB
$15 for 10 GB or more
Subtract $5 from all lines for each extra line (down to $25) $40 – $60 second line, $20 – $40 additional lines
Mobile Hotspot? Included Included $10 (1 GB) Included

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More observations:

  • A family of four using 10 GB per month on Verizon would pay exactly the same amount as a family with 12 GB on T-Mobile, at $6,912 over two years, but the data would be apportioned differently. The Verizon family would pool its data together and could upgrade once per year at no extra charge, while the T-Mobile family would get 3 GB per person, and could upgrade once every six months. (AT&T is only a little more expensive, at $6,960 every two years.)
  • If you have four lines on AT&T Next or Verizon Edge, you might as well get a 10 GB plan. It’s cheaper than the 4 GB plans on either carrier, because the line access fee is much less on 10 GB or higher plans.
  • Verizon Edge isn’t a great deal if you don’t use much data or don’t have other people on your plan. But it can be cheaper in the long run if you do.
  • AT&T’s new 2 GB pricing puts an individual plan at $2,320 over two years. T-Mobile’s costs plan, which offers 3 GB of shared data, is still a little bit cheaper at $2,328.
  • Want more evidence that wireless carriers keep their pricing in sync? AT&T and Verizon both charge $250 per month for 10 smartphones and a 10 GB shared data plan. That’s exactly how much Sprint charges for 10 “Framily” lines with 1 GB each. (If you can keep your mega-family to 30 GB or less, AT&T and Verizon are the way to go. Otherwise, put everyone on an unlimited Sprint Framily plan.)

Of course, pricing isn’t everything when picking a wireless carrier. The quality of service in your area and the availability of phones that you want can be just as important. But if you’re looking to make a switch and don’t know where to start, hopefully we’ve helped you do the math.

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