MONEY Tech

The Best Cellphone Plans of 2014

No matter what type of cellphone user you are, MONEY found a mobile plan that's right for you.

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Paul Windle

Haven’t shopped for phone service recently? You’re in for a shock. “In the past year plans have changed more than in the previous five,” says ­Logan Abbott of comparison site Wirefly.com.

Forget choosing among the Big Four and their handful of offerings: Today’s market is made up of an overwhelming mob of carriers and options. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, the recent news that the Federal Trade Commission is accusing T-Mobile of “cramming,” or billing customers for unauthorized services, may have you wondering if your provider is ripping you off. (The short answer: It may have in the past, but these days, probably not. For more, read Time’s story on cramming and how to spot it.)

Perhaps the biggest change to the industry is the shift away from two-year service contracts. Now you can choose a contract plan, with a discounted phone and high monthly rates, or a cheaper option that requires you to pay upfront for a new phone or bring your own. (Phone compatibility varies.) We found that noncontract plans came out on top in nine of 10 categories. Plus, the longer you keep your phone on a noncontract option, the better the deal gets.

The rise of smaller carriers also looks like good news. These firms have finally become a viable option, with access to the newest phones and reliable coverage, thanks to arrangements that let them use big companies’ nationwide networks. One potential downside is that the larger firms usually prioritize their own users, so the little guys’ customers may have to contend with less coverage or slower data speeds, says Mike Dano of cell news publication Fierce Wireless. Unless you use a ton of data, though, it’s not much of an issue.

Overall, cell coverage has improved. Verizon and AT&T still generally have the broadest networks, though “everyone has gotten better in the last six to 12 months,” says Bill Moore, president of service-rating firm Root Metrics. To see which carriers’ networks have the best performance where you live, go to Rootmetrics.com and enter your address.

For cellphone users, this all boils down to one thing: There’s probably a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today.

To help you find it, MONEY parsed more than 75 options from a range of carriers. We started by grouping plans into categories based on features such as talk, text, and data packages. Next, we added up the price of two years of service, plus the cost of a 16GB iPhone 5s for each plan member for all 75+ option. We used the phone price offered by the carrier (full price for non­contract plans and subsidized prices for contract options), then sorted these results by price. Finally, we factored in phone choice, as well as network quality and customer service scores from Root Metrics and J.D. Power.

All family plans are for four people. We consider up to 1GB of data per person light use, 2GB to 3GB average, and 5GB or more heavy. All plans are chosen based on domestic use. For information about international use, read our story on using your cellphone abroad.

Best for Light Callers

If you only use your phone for calls, texts, and occasional web surfing, you likely don’t need more than 1GB of data. Cricket offers you the best price.

Individual Plan:
Cricket Basic
Family Plan:
Cricket Basic
Monthly bill $40* $100*
Two-year cost with phones $1,610* $5,000*
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 500MB 500MB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network AT&T 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Smartphone options start at $50 Includes the option to
pay off new phones over time

Best Individual Plan: Cricket Basic

Sign up for auto bill pay, and this plan drops to $35. Cricket, now owned by AT&T, offers a range of phones, and, like many noncontract options, lets you bring your own. Go over your data limit? The carrier will slow your service rather than charge you extra.

Glitch: Cricket taps into AT&T’s network, but its data speed is slower than that of the larger carrier.

Best Family Plan: Cricket Basic

For a family that doesn’t use that much data, Cricket’s price is a head-turner—especially when you consider that it includes taxes and fees. The carrier’s use of AT&T’s cell towers gives it greater reach than many providers in this price range.

Glitch: Unlike the majority of family options, you cannot add tablets or other devices to this plan.

Best for Typical Users

Do you use your phone to post on social media, browse the web, and get directions when you’re on the move? Chances are you still only need 2GB or 3GB a month. These plans will offer you the best value.

Individual Plan:
Straight Talk Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 3 GB
Monthly bill $45 $140
Two-year cost with phones $1,730 $5,952
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 3GB 3GB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network Multiple 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Wal-Mart and online Will pay your termination fee
if you switch carriers

Best Individual Plan: Straight Talk Unlimited

This plan is just $41.25 a month if you pay for a year upfront. Straight Talk uses all four big carriers; the network you’ll use depends on your phone and area, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com.

Glitch: Like most low-cost carriers, Straight Talk may not allow you to tap into another provider’s network if you venture out of its service area.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 3GB

At this price point, it’s a duel between Cricket and T-Mobile, and for those who seek faster data speeds, T-Mobile wins out. Does someone in your clan have a tablet? You can add it, and 1.2 GB of data to use with the device, free through 2014.

Glitch: This network is fast in many metro areas, but it isn’t as broad as those of Verizon and AT&T.

Best for Bargain Hunters

Users who want a ton of data at the lowest possible price should check out these options.

Individual Plan:
Metro PCS Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 5G
Monthly bill $60* $180
Two-year cost with phones $2,089** $6,912
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data Unlimited 5GB per person
Data overage? None Speed slows
Network T-Mobile 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Top customer service marks from J.D. Power T-Mobile’s network speed has improved recently

Best Individual Plan: Metro PCS Unlimited

This affordable offering from T-Mobile-owned Metro PCS is one of the few true unlimited plans still available today. “Their data isn’t throttled at all, and it is fast,” says Bournique.

Glitch: The carrier doesn’t sell iPhones, but does offer the popular Samsung Galaxy S 5.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 5GB

Finding a competitively priced plan that combines a boatload of data with a fast network isn’t easy. Simple Choice, however, is a good pick, particularly in cities, where T-Mobile is at its fastest. The plan also includes a perk for international travelers: free data when abroad.

Glitch: T-Mobile can be patchy in rural areas.

Best for Power Users

If you’re willing to pay more for the most reliable networks, buy one of these plans.

Individual Plan:
Verizon More Everything
Family Plan:
AT&T Mobile Value Share
Monthly bill $120 $210
Two-year cost with phones $3,080 $7,640
Can you bring a phone? No Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 6GB 20GB shared
Data overage? $15 per GB $15 per GB
Network Verizon 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment iPhone 5s is $200 Option to pay off phones
over two years vs. upfront

Best Individual Plan: Verizon More Everything

The only contract plan in our guide, this More Everything option costs the same as AT&T’s competitive plan (and less than other high-end Verizon options). Given the choice, we recommend the speed and reliability of Verizon’s widespread 4G LTE coverage for heavy phone users.

Glitch: Watch those hefty overage fees.

Best Family Plan: AT&T Mobile Share Value

Though similar in price and features to Verizon’s noncontract plan, AT&T noses ahead because more phones are compatible with its network. Also, note that AT&T bested its big rival in J.D. Power’s wireless customer care survey.

Glitch: Yes, it’s $40 more than you’d pay with T-Mobile, but AT&T has wider coverage.

Best for Frequent Upgraders

Always want the latest phone? Go with AT&T.

AT&T Next 12
Monthly bill $98
Two-year cost with phones $2,340
Can you bring a phone? No
Minutes Unlimited
Texts Unlimited
Data 2 GB
Data overage? $15 per GB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Only AT&T has the Amazon phone

Best Plan: AT&T Next 12

Insist on having the latest phone? Try AT&T. Next costs the same as a similar Verizon plan, but AT&T wins, since it’s “the leader in getting the hottest devices,” says CNET writer Maggie Reardon. On this plan you lease your phone over 20 months and must return it if you upgrade sooner.

Glitch: If you haven’t yet paid 60% of the old phone’s value, you must pony up the remainder to trade up to a new model. Still, that’s cheaper than buying two phones at retail price.

Best Basic for Couples

If you and your spouse don’t use your phones a lot, Consumer Cellular has the best plan for you.

Consumer Cellular
1,200 minutes/1 GB
Monthly bill $60
Two-year cost with phones $2,740
Can you bring a phone? Yes
Minutes 1,200 shared
Texts 5,000
Data 1 GB shared
Data overage? 25 cents per MB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Sears and online

Best Plan: Consumer Cellular 1,200 Minutes/1GB

This Consumer Cellular option is dramatically cheaper than competitive plans, making it a great pick for couples who don’t spend a ton of time on their phones. The carrier also has a reputation for good customer service. A bonus: Consumer Cellular recently added new phones, including the iPhone, to its device lineup.

Glitch: This is one of the few plans that still caps talk minutes and text messages, though you can pay to add more.

Find a great plan that requires you to switch carriers? Read more about how to break up with your current provider here.

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