T-Mobile has carved a niche for itself in the U.S. with their all-in pricing (i.e. taxes and fees baked into plan costs). The carrier's straightforward lineup of unlimited offerings have proven eminently popular and shepherded in the "unlimited revolution," as other carriers have sought to imitate T-Mobile's success. The carrier's ONE plans are still some of our favorite unlimited plans on the market, packed with tons of features and reasonably priced.
In evaluating plans, we looked at the four major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — and what they offer. We also evaluated five discount carriers: Boost Mobile, Cricket, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin, and to help you stretch your dollar even further, we looked at plans from several smaller discount carriers. In addition to price, we considered network coverage and performance, including results from our own 4G network testing in half-a-dozen cities. In some cases, total savings on one carrier’s plan outweighed the performance edge another carrier might enjoy; other times, network performance was a deciding factor in our choice.
Today's teens (and, admittedly, many of us) treat their smartphones like permanent appendages, texting, Facebooking, Instagramming, streaming and playing games like the outside world doesn't exist. If you're the parent of a data-hungry teen, unlimited plans can be the way to go, since they eliminate concerns about overages. Alternatively, you might consider a bare-bones "lifeline" cell phone plans that provides your teen with a means to make a calls, and not much else.
Disclaimer: The information featured in this article is based on our best estimates of pricing, package details, contract stipulations, and service available at the time of writing. All information is subject to change. Pricing will vary based on various factors, including, but not limited to, the customer’s location, package chosen, added features and equipment, the purchaser’s credit score, etc. For the most accurate information, please ask your customer service representative. Clarify all fees and contract details before signing a contract or finalizing your purchase.
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If your usage doesn’t fall into our specific categories, you can do your own calculations using WhistleOut’s carrier-comparison tool. It even lets you filter by network, so you can ask it for only, say, prepaid options that resell AT&T service. But this comparison tool requires careful reading: Like Google searches, it shows featured (aka, sponsored) results before organic ones. It also includes far more services than we cover here and shows not just plans with the required amount of data/minutes/texts but also those that exceed your needs, producing a cluttered presentation overall.
Most cellular customers in the United States subscribe to plans that are set up as post-pay, which means they are billed monthly and obtain service if they have good credit. A growing number of subscribers are also choosing prepay services (Pay-as-you-go) which provide both advantages and disadvantages in comparison to prepay, but for some it is the only way they can have a phone.
Usually, unlocked cell phones have the carrier's branding on the device. To test whether your phone is locked, insert a Telestial SIM Card or a SIM Card provided by a different carrier (than that of your device). If your device connects to a network and you are able to use the service, your phone is not locked. If your device does not connect to a network or you are unable to use the service, your phone may be locked.
If you use more than 5 GB of mobile data most months, if you travel outside the country regularly, or if you want the greatest variety of phone choices, you should consider T-Mobile One Plus. This plan combines T-Mobile One, the carrier’s standard $70 subscription plan with the $15 T-Mobile One Plus add-on (which adds HD streaming video and LTE mobile hotspot speeds and ups T-Mobile’s included Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi from one hour per flight to unlimited.) At $85 per month, T-Mobile One Plus beats Verizon’s $85 Beyond Unlimited plan once you account for the taxes and fees that Verizon doesn’t list but T-Mobile folds into that total—and T-Mobile offers a wider choice of phones and delivers much better international-roaming options. Like its competitors, T-Mobile does reserve the right to “deprioritize” your data above a certain threshold, but it now sets this “soft cap” at 50 GB a month—more than twice that of AT&T and Verizon.
If your usage only slightly exceeds the cap on a service’s limited-data plans—say, you use 3.25 GB in a month and your carrier offers a 3 GB plan—you should see if that plan lets you roll over unused data from months when you don’t hit your maximum. Also, see if that service offers unmetered slow 2G service once you exhaust your high-speed data, so your phone will still always get basic (read: slower) Internet access. These features may let you choose a less expensive plan.
Given that a traveler is always on the go, battery life matters the most. Apart from that, a good camera and global compatibility with different cellular networks is a big factor. Looking at these criteria, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge fits the bill. It’s priced well, supports various global networks including VoLTE, and has a 12MP camera and good battery life with 3600mAh capacity.
Sarah Schlichter is IndependentTraveler’s Senior Editor. She hails from Maryland and now resides in Pennsylvania, where she sings in a local community choir and enjoys experimenting with different international recipes (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires — no humans or animals were harmed). The smell of Sarah’s delicious Moroccan couscous ignites a wave of envy in the office when she brings in leftovers for lunch. Sarah, IndependentTraveler’s resident travel expert, has visited more than 25 U.S. states plus dozens of countries including Belize, Guatemala, Morocco, Canada, Dominica, the U.K., Norway, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand … just to name a few.
But speeds in other countries may range from 2G all the way to 4G—that could be the difference between downloading a web page in a few seconds (4G) to downloading a web page in three minutes (2G). depending on how much data you use or how much congestion there is. You can find out what data speeds to expect in AT&T’s comprehensive international coverage chart.
A similar option to purchasing a phone abroad is to purchase a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card to use in your own cell phone while you’re traveling internationally. A SIM card is the part of a cell phone that holds the identity information and other personal data; if you switch your own SIM card for one that you purchase in another country, you can have all the benefits of a local phone (such as low in-country calling rates and a local phone number) without having to buy a whole new phone.
Straight Talk’s 10GB plan typically expires after 30 days, unless you opt to automatically refill your account. But you can also purchase in three-month, six-month and yearlong increments at a discounted rate. Straight Talk contracts with each of the big four nationwide carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The network you use will depend on where you live and the phone you activate.
The one place where AT&T holds a competitive advantage is in its bundles. In mid-2015, AT&T merged with satellite TV provider DIRECTV, making bundling discounts available for the first time. In 2018, the DIRECTV live streaming service is paired with its unlimited phone plans, providing more than 30 live TV channels that you can stream on any platform.
Anyone who travels wants to be able to take decent photos on the move and the 16MP rear camera on the OnePlus 3T is a solid performer. It’s not the best out there, but if you’re taking photos mainly in daylight, you’ll have no complaints. The colors are accurate, details sharp and because of the 6GB of RAM, it’s easy to take multiple shots with no delays after the button press.