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Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

The Best Cell Phone Plans of 2016

Updated: Jun 15, 2016 10:45 AM ET | Originally published: Jun 13, 2016

To help you get the best, lowest-cost choice for your needs, MONEY combed through almost 90 plans offered by 10 major carriers. We compared prices for phone and two years of service, looking closely at hidden fees, coverage, discounts, and other factors, picking the best plans for every kind of user. (See full methodology.)

One finding: With the Big Four carriersAT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—focused on premium service, users may find better deals on budget brands, such as Boost Mobile and Cricket. These secondary providers, many of which lease network service from the industry heavyweights, “are a great way to save money,” says Brendan Gill, co-founder of OpenSignal, which maps wireless coverage.

What do you give up to get a lower price? You’ll typically need to pay upfront for your phone—about $650 for premium models, though some carriers offer discounts—instead of paying it off over time. The bargain providers also tend to have a more limited selection of phones, and network performance may lag that of the Big Four. “There’s always going to be a tradeoff,” says Mark Lowenstein of consulting firm Mobile Ecosystem.

Whether you need a reasonably priced way to connect with family and friends, ultra-reliable coverage, or a generous data allotment for movie and music streaming, MONEY has you covered. The following contains our picks for low, typical, and high data consumption, plus a few other special circumstances. One of these cell phone plans should be perfect for you.

Correction: Due to a technical error, an earlier online version of this story misstated plan details for Boost Mobile Family Plan and for Cricket Pro. The errors have been corrected.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Light Users (Individual)

Winner
Boost Mobile
Data Boost 2GB

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $35, or $30 with auto pay
Data: 2GB
Phone payment ­options: You must buy the phone outright.
Two-year total cost: $1,275

If you’re mostly trading messages with friends and family, you don’t need much data. Even 1,000 emails a month would take no more than a quarter of a gigabyte. The downside: While big providers wrangle over heavy data users, there are fewer deals for you. Here we looked at plans with up to 2.5GB per line.

Why it wins Last year’s winner in this category takes the top spot again, offering an even better deal: twice the data for the same low price. Indeed, Boost offers 2GB for less money than the other carriers. Enroll in auto pay and you’ll save another $5 a month.

TRADEOFF Boost runs on Sprint’s network, which has the most ­limited 4G LTE coverage of the Big Four, according to coverage-research firm OpenSignal.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Light Users (Family)

Winner
Cricket Basic With
Group Save Discount

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $100
Data: 2.5GB/line
Phone payment ­options: You must buy the phones outright.
Two-year total cost: $5,100

If you’re mostly trading messages with friends and family, you don’t need much data. Even 1,000 emails a month would take no more than a quarter of a gigabyte. The downside: While big providers wrangle over heavy data users, there are fewer deals for you. Here we looked at plans with up to 2.5GB per line.

Why it wins On AT&T subsidiary Cricket, you get coverage that’s similar to AT&T’s, notes OpenSignal’s Gill, for about a 30% discount. Users have given Cricket high marks for customer service, J.D. Power finds.

TRADEOFF There’s a $25 activation fee per line if you buy in a store (it’s waived online).

RUNNER-UP If low cost is all that matters, Boost Mobile’s Data Boost 2GB family plan is cheaper. But the Boost plan has less data and runs on Sprint’s network, which has more limited coverage than AT&T.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Typical Users (Individual)

Winner
Virgin Mobile $40 Unlimited

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $40, or $35 with an iPhone and auto pay
Data: 4GB
Phone payment ­options: You must buy the phone outright.
Two-year total cost: $1,390

The industry’s data increases are being driven up by the heaviest streamers. But you may not actually want to watch TV and movies on your small screen—or pay for the privilege. To get the best picks for you, we focused on plans with 3GB to 5GB per line.

Why it wins When it comes to customer care, Sprint subsidiary Virgin Mobile USA is America’s favorite small carrier, according to J.D. Power. This well-priced plan has more than enough data for the average user, plus extra perks for iPhone fans: a $5 monthly auto pay discount and a 16GB iPhone 6s price that’s $100 below retail.

TRADEOFF You can’t bring your own phone or buy an unlocked phone somewhere else—­devices from other carriers don’t work on Virgin Mobile.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Typical Users (Family)

Winner
Boost Mobile
Family Plan 5GB

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $140, or $135 with auto pay
Data: 5GB/line
Phone payment ­options: You must buy the phones outright.
Two-year total cost: $5,445

The industry’s data increases are being driven up by the heaviest streamers. But you may not actually want to watch TV and movies on your small screen—or pay for the privilege. To get the best picks for you, we focused on plans with 3GB to 5GB per line.

Why it wins Sprint subsidiary Boost Mobile’s perks give it an edge. Everyone gets 5GB, without having to share. Music streaming on Pandora, iHeartRadio, and three other services won’t cut into your data. You earn an extra 500MB of data for every three on-time payments. And you get a $100 discount on the 16GB iPhone 6s.

TRADEOFF In places where Boost’s network doesn’t deliver coverage, you’ll get only 50 minutes of talk on other networks before service cuts out.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Extreme Users (Individuals)

Winner
Cricket Pro

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $60, or $55 with auto pay
Data: 10GB
Phone payment ­options: You must buy the phone outright.
Two-year total cost: $1,995

If you’re bingeing on Hulu nightly, you’re not alone: Video now eats up half of all data traffic. Streaming costs add up quickly—so for you, we focused on plans with 6GB or more per line.

Why it wins The AT&T subsidiary offers big data at a great price. Even if you stream a lot, “10GB should be more than plenty,” says NPD Group’s ­Brad Akyuz, especially when paired with Wi-Fi. And unlike most rivals, Cricket’s sticker price includes taxes.

TRADEOFF Cricket caps download speed at ­8Mbps—a third slower than T-Mobile’s average. That shouldn’t affect ­video, says Gill, but it may slow downloads for big apps or email ­attachments.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Extreme Users (Family)

Winner
T-Mobile Simple
Choice 10GB

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $140
Data: 10GB/line
Phone payment ­options: Pay in 24 monthly installments, lease through an early upgrade program, or buy outright.
Two-year total cost: $6,040

If you’re bingeing on Hulu nightly, you’re not alone: Video now eats up half of all data traffic. Streaming costs add up quickly—so for you, we focused on plans with 6GB or more per line.

Why it wins T-Mobile’s Simple Choice delivers a mix of benefits. Each line has three times what the average user consumes monthly—and videos on Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and other services won’t count toward your data limit. (See sidebar at right.) The data is fast too: T-Mobile is tied with Verizon for LTE speed, according to OpenSignal.

TRADEOFF While T-Mobile brags that it has no “activation fee,” new customers do have to buy a $20 SIM Starter Kit for each phone ­(included in our cost calculation).

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Fast, Broad Coverage (Individual)

Winner
Verizon L

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $80
Data: 6GB
Phone payment ­options: Pay in 24 monthly installments, lease via an early upgrade program, or buy the phone outright.
Two-year total cost: $2,590

Even on the Big Four, you probably get speedy 4G LTE coverage only up to 87% of the time, OpenSignal finds, because reception can vary when you’re indoors or on the move. Willing to pay more for stronger signal and service? For you, MONEY looked only at plans on the larger carriers with at least 4GB per line—just above average use—and prioritized network quality and coverage over cost and other factors.

Why it wins Verizon is No. 1 in network quality and coverage, and now offers 6GB for $5 less than last year. Its high prices are worth it for people who live or travel outside metropolitan hubs. “In the rural areas—that’s where Verizon really stands out,” says OpenSignal’s Gill.

TRADEOFF You pay extra for Ver­izon’s network­—almost twice as much as on MONEY’s pick for Typical Users.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Fast, Broad Coverage (Family)

Winner
Verizon 20GB

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $200
Data: 20GB shared among four people
Phone payment ­options: Pay in 24 monthly installments, lease via an early upgrade program, or buy the phones outright.
Two-year total cost: $7,480

Even on the Big Four, you probably get speedy 4G LTE coverage only up to 87% of the time, OpenSignal finds, because reception can vary when you’re indoors or on the move. Willing to pay more for stronger signal and service? For you, MONEY looked only at plans on the larger carriers with at least 4GB per line—just above average use—and prioritized network quality and coverage over cost and other factors.

Why it wins Verizon’s family packages give you lots of options. You can add a tablet for $10 a month, or connected devices (like smartwatches) for another $5. And the whole family gets Verizon’s superfast, super-reliable coverage.

TRADEOFF Blow past the data limit and overage fees will run $15 per GB.

RUNNER-UP If you rarely use your phone outside urban areas, T-Mobile Simple Choice 10GB delivers a better deal. While T-Mobile’s overall coverage is weaker, it bests Verizon in data speeds and data allowance and costs about $60 less a month.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Frequent Upgraders

Winner
T-Mobile Simple Choice 6GB With JUMP! On Demand

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $65 plus device cost ($27 per month for the 16GB iPhone 6s)
Data: 6GB
Two-year total cost: $2,228

As two-year contracts fade away, early upgrade programs have gained new importance. Plans differ, but you’ll gener­ally lease a phone, then return it—in good condition—to trade up to a newer model. For those of you who always want the new, new thing, MONEY calculated how much it would cost to get a new device now, upgrade after 12 months, and keep that phone for 12 more months.

Why it wins Upgrades are cheap and flexible on T-Mobile, and other perks sweeten the deal. Payments are based on an 18-month lease, but you can trade for a new phone up to three times a year—you just start over with new installments based on the new phone’s price. You also get other benefits, like video streaming that doesn’t count toward your data limit. And T-Mobile is No. 1 in customer care, J.D. Power finds.

TRADEOFF Your phone is not really yours, so if you do want to own your device or switch carriers, you’ll have to pay the remaining balance.

Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Best for Data-Hungry Kids

Winner
Boost Mobile Family Plan

Plan terms
Monthly cost: $150, $145 with auto pay
Data: Get two lines at 2GB each and two lines with unlimited high-speed data
Phone payment options: You must buy the phones outright.
Two-year total cost: $5,685

Families often have widely varying needs, as younger users stream far more than their parents. “There is a direct correlation between how much data is consumed for video and age,” says NPD Group’s Akyuz. You don’t want to pay overages if your kids hit the limit; nor do you want your service interrupted. These family plans have two lines with up to 2GB and two lines with at least 6GB—and ­MONEY paid extra attention to overage policies.

Why it wins Everyone gets what he or she wants, for a great price. You get 2GB of high-speed data, which is plenty for email and browsing. The kids get plenty of data for hours of music and video streaming. And if your teenager decides to binge on Netflix, it won’t affect your service—or your wallet.

TRADEOFF Even on the “unlimited” lines, users could hit a speed bump: When there are a lot of other people using the network, the Sprint subsidiary says it may slow data speeds for anyone who has consumed 23GB.

Choose Your Plan

With MONEY's exclusive new cell phone plan tool, just plug in the number of people on the plan, the data consumed by each person, how often you’d like a new phone and which type of device you’re looking for. Then, we'll show you the top five options that fit your needs without overspending.

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