Best cell phone plans in 2021: The best options for your monthly phone service

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Any time’s the right time to make sure you’ve got one of the best cell phone plans for your smartphone. Because wireless providers are always introducing new plans, something might have come along that’s better — and cheaper — than your current plan.

Best cell phone plans: quick links

Best cheap cell phone plan: Mint Mobile
Best option for coverage: Verizon
Best unlimited plan on a budget: Visible
Best family plan: T-Mobile

Case in point: A month or so ago, I had to contact my wireless provider about a data syncing issue that was causing problems with my tiered data plan. In the course of talking to my carrier, I discovered that a different plan not only offered more data but cost less than the plan I’d held on to for years. You can bet I switched my plan even though I wasn’t upgrading to a new phone.

So how do you choose the best cell phone plans? It’s not always as easy as going for the cheapest cell phone plans or the best phone carriers. Beyond just dollars and cents, you need to consider which phones are supported by which wireless carriers and what coverage and data speeds are like in the area where you’ll use your phone the most. 

To make the decision easier, we’ve gone through each carriers’ plans to figure out which one is the best cell phone plan for your particular needs. You’ll find our top picks and a little bit of helpful advice on how to choose the plan for you.

Cheap cell phone plans

Simply want a cell phone plan on a budget? There are plenty of carriers that can offer you a cheaper plan if you don’t mind sacrificing your data cap somewhat.

If you’re the kind of person who occasionally uses social media and the essential apps like Google Maps, WhatsApp or general browsing of the internet, you could get away with a plan offering anywhere from  1GB to 4GB of data each month. Depending on the wireless provider you use, you can get your costs down somewhere between $10 and $15. In fact, three of the four plans below hit that price range, and the fourth gets less expensive the longer you stick with it.

Mint Mobile | 4GB | $15/month – Best overall cheap cell phone plan
Mint Mobile has quickly become one of the best carriers for those on a budget. While 4GB isn’t a huge amount, Mint’s cheapest cell phone plan will be perfect if you’re mainly using your phone for a bit of social media, internet searches and less data intensive apps like Google Maps. Mint piggybacks off of T-Mobile which covers 62% coverage of the country. It is important to keep in mind that after three months, Mint Mobile will require you to pay for a whole year to hold onto the $15/month price.

Pros: Very affordable, decent amount of data
Cons:
Offer changes after 3 monthsView Deal

Tello Economy | 1GB | $10/month – Lowest priced cell phone plan
Mint’s offering is an excellent plan with a great price… but you can go cheaper. Tello’s Economy plan secures you a monthly price of $10 but the first three months cost just $5. However, you will find yourself limited at 1GB. While you do get unlimited calls and texts, some will find that data cap quite limited so this really is just for those after the lowest monthly cost.

Pros: Cheapest cell phone plan, unlimited calls and texts
Cons:
Very limited on dataView Deal

T-Mobile Connect | 2.5GB data | $15/month – Low cost cell phone plan from a big name carrier
The T-Mobile Connect plan gives you 2.5GB of data each month for just $15. (That’s an increase over the old amount of 2GB.) Need more than that? Upgrade to the 5.5GB T-Mobile Connect option for $25 a month. There’s a big limitation to T-Mobile Connect plan, as you might imagine. Once you use up your allotment, you’re out of data for the rest of the billing cycle. Many rival plans simply slow your speeds when you hit your monthly limit. At least your data pool gets larger over time. T-Mobile says it will add 500MB every year for five years while keeping that $15 price the same.

Pro: Low costs, 500Mb data boosts annually
Con: Out of data once you hit your capView Deal

Verizon | 15GB prepaid | $45/month – Best prepaid for coverage
Verizon’s regular $45-a-month prepaid plan currently offers a much larger pool of data, with 15GB included every month. The $45 rate reflects a $5 autopay discount, but Verizon’s prepaid discounts don’t stop there. Hold onto your Verizon prepaid plan for three months and you’ll save another $5. At nine months, Verizon takes off an additional $5. That means after 10 months, you’re paying $35 a month for the same 15GB of data. Along with the pricing and data benefits, Verizon is also the carrier with both the best speeds and coverage.

Pros: Lots of data under current promotion, great coverage and speeds
Cons: Not the cheapest prepaid aroundView Deal

Unlimited cell phone plans

On the opposite end of the spectrum to the cheap plans above, unlimited cell phone plans are often going to be among the most expensive on the market. But if you’re glued to your phone to stream Netflix on the go, scroll through Facebook and power through lots of data each month, the additional cost of an unlimited plan could well be worth it.

Realistically, you should expect to pay at least $30 here, though the bigger carriers charge between $60 and $90 a month for unlimited data. Those more expensive plans include more perks, such as free streaming service subscription, increased data for hotspots, and more. Unlimited plans often include 5G coverage, too.

Verizon | Do More Unlimited | $80/month – Best unlimited plan for coverage
It might not be the cheapest option around, but thanks to its impressive 70% 4G LTE coverage across the country and position as the fastest wireless network, Verizon and its Do More Unlimited plan is going to be the best choice for a lot of people. Yes, it does cost $80 for a single line of unlimited data but that price includes access to Verizon’s fastest 5G service, 50GB priority data and free subscriptions to a number of streaming services, highlighted by Disney’s streaming bundle. The per-line charge also drops the more lines you add to your plan — a good thing for families. Just be aware that some of the free services are limited trials, such as a new perk that gives Do More customers six months of Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass.

Pros:
Excellent coverage, free streaming subscriptions, 5G access
Cons: Not the cheapest option for unlimited dataView Deal

T-Mobile | Magenta unlimited data | $70/month – Best value unlimited plan from a main carrier
T-Mobile’s $70 option provides a great mix of value and performance. While this middle-tier plan cuts a few features like HD streaming (you can pay extra to add it via Magenta Plus), the Magenta plan is worth it for this more attractive price. With this plan you get unlimited priority data and free Netflix when you’ve got two or more lines on your plan.

 
Pros: Attractive perks, affordable price
Cons: HD video streaming costs extraView Deal

Mint Mobile | Unlimited data | $30/month – Unlimited data on a budget
Mint Mobile once again pops up as the affordable option, especially when it comes to unlimited data. Piggybacking off of T-Mobile’s network, Mint Mobile will only charge you $30 its unlimited plan. While that is a great price, you won’t be surprised to hear that it does come with some catches. Mint’s speeds — both for 4G and 5G — are slowed after your first 35GB of data usage and Mint’s plans can start to get pretty costly after the first three months, with large upfront costs to get the best rates. If these two issues are putting you off, Visible’s $40 unlimited plan is a great alternative.

Pros: Cheapest overall unlimited plan, 5G speeds
Cons:
Speed restrictions, price increases after 3 monthsView Deal

Visible | Unlimited data | $40/month – No-strings-attached unlimited data on the cheap
If Mint’s prepay requirement is too much to ask, consider Visible as an alternative. While not as inexpensive as Mint, Visible’s $40/month rate for unlimited data is still one of the lower rates you’ll pay. Visible is also a Verizon MVNO, so you’re getting the benefits of Verizon’s network — including 5G coverage on supported devices. That per-line rate drops as you add more lines, too.

Pros: Low rate, excellent network performance
Cons: Data can be slowed if network is congestedView Deal

AT&T | unlimited Elite plan | $85/month – AT&Ts feature-packed unlimited plan
AT&T’s top unlimited data plan costs more than the best cell phone plans at T-Mobile and Verizon. But it offers one perk those plans don’t — free access to HBO Max, one of the better streaming services out there. When you consider than an unlimited plan at AT&T also gives you access to the carrier’s 5G network, it’s clear unlimited data is the way to go.

Pros:
Unlimited 5G data, free HBO Max
Cons:
ExpensiveView Deal

Family cell phone plans

When shopping for a family plan, cheaper isn’t always better. More expensive options tend to have larger data caps (or unlimited data), better coverage and more perks. 

The best value does tend to be around the four-line mark but there are also plenty of two-line plans if that suits you better. Realistically, for four lines of data, you should expect to pay in excess of $100 and anywhere up to $200 depending on the plan and carrier. 

T-Mobile Magenta | 4-line family plan | $140/month – Best value family plan
Even as carriers offer multiple tiers of unlimited data plans, T-Mobile Magenta is still the best choice for families. It gives a family of four unlimited data for $160 a month, though occasional discounts to additional lines sometimes lower that cost. As of this writing, for example, T-Mobile is waiving the $20 monthly cost of a third line of data, bringing the total bill for a family of four down to $140.

Pros: Third line for free, free Netflix, 5G available
Cons: Can’t mix-and-match unlimited plansView Deal

Verizon Start Unlimited | 4-line family plan | $140/month – Best family plan for coverage
If you want the best coverage on 4G LTE while signing up to a family plan, Verizon is going to be the way to go. While it doesn’t offer Verizon’s usual streaming service benefits, you do get 5G access to Verizon’s nationwide 5G coverage (though not the faster Ultra Wideband towers), unlimited mobile hotspot and calls and texts across all of your plans. However, if coverage isn’t a concern for you, the T-Mobile offer above is a better value.

Pros: Excellent coverage, unlimited hotspot on all plans
Cons: T-Mobile’s plan offer more valueView Deal

Visible Party Pay | 4-line plan | $100/month – A family plan for non-families
Visible’s family plan is slightly different for the rest because… well, it’s not necessarily for families. Called “Party Pay,” you can bundle together multiple Visible users under a single party, scoring a discount on each individual line. Everyone has their own plan with separate data, calls and texts caps and their own bills — just at a discounted price. This works great for groups of friends, housemates and more and is arguably one of the cheapest family plans around.

Pros: Big discounts available, don’t have to be a family
Cons:
Can get complicatedView Deal

Prepaid cell phone plans

For a lot of people, prepaid phone plans are going to be the best way to go. They are often some of the most affordable plans around, offering flexible contracts that usually have no contracts or credit checks.

If you don’t want to get tied to a contract, that flexibility to cancel anytime will be a huge bonus. While these plans tend to focus on more affordable, low data contracts, you can also get unlimited data plans or slightly more expensive options with more benefits.

Mint Mobile | 10GB | $20/month – Best value prepaid plan
Mint Mobile is arguably one of the best providers of prepaid plans in the US. While it has quite a few available options, the overall best value seems to be its 10GB for $20. While that isn’t the cheapest price available at Mint, it’s the best mix of data and costs. Mint Mobile piggybacks off of T-Mobile and offers free hot spotting and access to 5G where it is available. But “prepaid” at Mint really does mean prepaid — to get the lowest possible rate, you’ve got to buy a year of service in advance after your first three discounted months.

Pros:
Very affordable price, free hot spotting
Cons: Might not be enough data for someView Deal

AT&T | 8GB 12-month prepaid | $25/month – Great value on AT&T
The main carriers rarely offer the best value prepaid plans and these tend to be more common from MVNOs. However, AT&T can be slightly more affordable and flexible than the likes of Sprint or Verizon. While you can pay for one month at a time, the best price is going to come from investing in a 12-month prepaid with AT&T, offering 8GB for $25 a month. If you prefer to go month by month, you can get 15GB for $40 after a $5 autopay discount.

Pros: Major carrier, good amount of data for price
Cons: Best prices require a longer contract
View Deal

Metro by T-Mobile | 10GB | $40/month – Best prepaid plan on T-Mobile’s network
Metro by T-Mobile uses T-Mobile’s network — including the carrier’s extensive 5G coverage — to provide cell phone service. While Metro can’t match Mint and other prepaid rivals for cost, it does offer a big pool of data, at 10GB. A Music Unlimited perk lets you stream music from 40 services without it counting against your monthly data, allowing to stretch your allotment further.View Deal

How to choose the best cell phone plan for you

Price is a big consideration when looking for the best cell phone plans, especially if you’re getting more than one line for other members of your family. Most carriers offer escalating discounts as you add lines, so you’ll want to compare the total cost of your plan based on the number of lines that require service.

Cell phone plans are about more than just the amount on your bill each month, though. You also need to consider who offers the best coverage in your area and whether they support the phone you’ll want to use. Our guide to the best phone carriers can answer some of those questions, but you’ll also want to ask friends, neighbors and co-workers about how a specific carrier’s coverage is at your home and office, if you’re looking to switch wireless providers.

Speaking of switching carriers, the major carriers are all willing to pick up some of the cost to get you to switch. These promotions can vary over time, so we’d suggest keeping an eye on any new carrier deals when you’re mulling a switch, as you could find extra ways to save money.

Wireless carriers have spent the past several years building out their 5G coverage, and if you’ve got the right 5G phone, you can benefit from faster speeds if a carrier offers 5G service in your area. T-Mobile includes 5G coverage with its Magenta Plan, and Metro By T-Mobile customers with unlimited plans can also access T-Mobile’s 5G towers with a compatible smartphone. AT&T had required you to sign up for its most expensive unlimited data plan options for 5G, but now any unlimited plan qualifies for coverage. Verizon includes full 5G coverage in three of its four unlimited plans currently, but the cheapest plan, Start Unlimited, costs an extra $10 per month on top of the regular $70 rate if you also want 5G Ultra Wideband. Both AT&T and Verizon have extended 5G coverage to prepaid customers with unlimited data plans.

  • What is 5G? The definitive guide to what wireless carriers are doing

What kind of cell phone plan do I need?

eSIM

(Image credit: AndreyPopov)

As you would expect, there is no simple answer to this and the question is more about what is the best plan for you. This will obviously depend on a wide variety of factors.

For those on a budget and looking for some flexibility, a prepaid cell phone plan will be an excellent way to go. These are often the cheapest options and the lack of contracts is going to be a massive bonus, especially if you like to change up carriers frequently.

If you frequently stream Netflix on the go, like to play games on your phone or just generally drain your data at impressive speeds, an unlimited plan is an excellent way to go — especially as 5G becomes more common.

The best cell phone plan carriers
Best cheap carrier Best for coverage Best for unlimited Best family plans Best prepaid carrier
Carrier Mint Mobile Verizon Visible T-Mobile Mint Mobile
Best plan 4GB – $15 Unlimited Do More – $80 unlimited plan – $40 T-Mobile Magenta – $140 10GB – $20

Family cell phone plans are an excellent way to save money, especially as many carriers offer discounts as you add more lines to your plan. It will be no surprise that this is the way to go for the average family.

If you are simply after the lowest price possible, carriers including Mint Mobile and Tello can offer you really low costs if you don’t mind sacrificing some data. 

Realistically, cell phone plans tend to fall into one of these categories: cheap, prepaid, family, unlimited, kids or seniors. If you work out which one you fit into best you can narrow your search drastically.

MVNOs and main carriers: what’s the difference?

MVNOs are a slightly strange concept but they do offer an excellent way to get a cell phone plan on a budget. So what are they and how do they differ from the main carriers.

Firstly, it’s important to note the main carriers. These are: AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, which absorbed Sprint in 2020. You can also include US Cellular in that group, though its coverage remains regional compared to the Big Three carriers. These brands use their own technology and run their own regional cellular networks.

MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) on the other hand are brands that don’t own and operate their own technology and instead ‘piggyback’ off of the services of one of the above brands. This allows them to be far cheaper than the main carriers but does mean they are the first to be restricted during peak usage periods and don’t get access to as many additional benefits.

MVNOs are also far less likely to offer 5G (though that’s changing). We explain more about this in our MVNO guide, but the main players are:

  • Mint Mobile: runs on T-Mobile
  • Metro by T-Mobile: runs on T-Mobile
  • Cricket Wireless: runs on AT&T
  • Visible: runs on Verizon
  • Boost Mobile: runs on T-Mobile and Sprint

Cell phone plans comparison

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