A Guide to Picking the Right Phone Plan

When you prepare to buy a new phone, you should also assess whether it’s time for a new wireless plan. Here are some steps to make that process easy.

CreditCreditGlenn Harvey
Brian X. Chen

It’s phone season!

That’s when companies like Samsung, Apple and Google begin releasing new mobile devices. The phone makers all get busy doing so in about a month — which means it is also time to think about whether you need a new phone plan.

Buying a new phone is an ideal time to consider picking a new plan. For one, cellular networks and phones keep getting faster, meaning you will almost certainly use your next phone more and gobble up larger amounts of data than before. (If you share a family plan with data-hogging children, this will definitely happen.)

For another, in the last three months of the year, carriers sometimes run promotions offering discounts on new phones if you switch to their network. So if you do your homework, you could get both a discounted phone and a better plan.

Let’s make one thing clear: You can’t beat the house. Telecommunications is one of the world’s most lucrative industries, and wireless carriers will turn a profit no matter what. That’s why you must be judicious and pick a plan that maximizes value.

“Diving into carrier services is like diving into an ocean and trying to swim with sharks,” said Toni Toikka, chief executive of Alekstra, a research company that studies phone bills. “Those animals are predators and you are prey. They will eat you sooner or later.”

So it’s best to get ahead of the curve. Choosing a phone plan is easier said than done, so I sought advice from Alekstra and teamed up with Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews products, to highlight some of the best wireless packages, whether for individuals, couples or families of four.

Here’s a guide to choosing the right plan for you.

It doesn’t matter what plan you pick if you end up on a network with lousy cell service, so choosing a carrier with strong coverage in your hometown is a good starting point.

How do you figure out what’s good? One approach is to visit each carrier’s website and look at their coverage maps, which offer a glimpse of whether they have cell towers deployed throughout your neighborhood.

But coverage maps offer an incomplete assessment. Say, for example, that Verizon’s map says your neighborhood in New York is blanketed with cell service. If there are many Verizon subscribers living there, the network could lack the capacity to provide consistent service to everyone. So take coverage maps with a grain of salt.

For another measure of network quality, turn to independent tests on the carriers. PC Mag, for example, recently published results on the fastest and most reliable networks. AT&T and Verizon were neck and neck, T-Mobile lagged only slightly behind Verizon and Sprint was a distant No. 4.

Word of mouth goes a long way. If you are thinking about switching to a carrier, check with friends in the neighborhood who subscribe to that network first for an assessment on speed and reliability. The more data you have, the better.

How much data do we really need? This is a tough question because most of us don’t know how many bytes we consume when we stream a song, load a photo on social media or send a message.

Everyone’s data use varies, so you will have to look at your monthly data consumption and calculate an average. On your carrier’s website, log in to your account and look up your data use summaries.

You can also check data use directly from your mobile device. Here’s how to do that for each carrier:

  • For AT&T subscribers, place a phone call to *DATA# (*3282#). AT&T will send a text message showing the amount of megabytes you have used out of your monthly allotment.

  • Verizon subscribers can place a call to #DATA (#3282). Verizon will send a text message containing a report of data use.

  • Sprint customers can send a text containing the word “Usage” to the number 1311. Sprint will respond with a message containing a data summary.

  • T-Mobile subscribers can place a call to #WEB# (#932#). T-Mobile will respond with a data summary.

Here’s where things get tricky: If you plan to buy a new phone that is much faster than your current one, you should err on the side of buying more data. For example, if you have a five-year-old iPhone and use three gigabytes of data a month, and you intend to buy a new iPhone this fall, consider upgrading to a plan with five gigabytes. You will most likely use more data with a faster device.

Carriers offer plenty of attractive perks, like free international roaming packages and so-called unlimited data, to persuade you to switch to their networks. Don’t let these perks drive your decision because there are always caveats, Mr. Toikka said.

For example, T-Mobile offers free international roaming, which lets you use a cellular data connection in more than 200 countries at no extra charge. The caveat is that free roaming only gets you access to slow wireless speeds, and you have to pay extra if you want faster internet access. (If you want to travel with your phone, you are probably better off using a foreign SIM card, as I detailed in a previous guide.)

Unlimited data is another example. In the American wireless market, unlimited isn’t truly unlimited. Virtually every unlimited plan has some form of a cap, or a threshold that, once surpassed, results in slower data speeds. So if you have a dream of using an unlimited phone plan as your primary internet connection at home, it’s not going to happen.

If you want to skip the homework, Wirecutter identified a few plans that are suitable for some typical lifestyles:

  • The best plan for most people on a single line: Verizon’s five-gigabyte plan. This package includes more data than most people need, and the carrier has the best coverage in most parts of the country. It costs $55 a month if you enroll in automatic payments.

  • The best plan for data hogs: T-Mobile’s Magenta unlimited plan. If you guzzle copious amounts of data, T-Mobile’s unlimited plan is reasonably priced at $70, and its network provides good coverage. (Just be aware that the unlimited plan has limits: If you use more than 50 gigabytes, you may notice reduced speeds until the next billing cycle.)

  • The best plan for couples: Consumer Cellular’s two-line plan. A lesser-known brand, Consumer Cellular is a reseller of AT&T and T-Mobile services, and it consistently gets high customer satisfaction scores. This plan comes out to $65 for two lines with five gigabytes each, a generous amount of data for the price.

  • The best plan for a family of four: Consumer Cellular’s four-line plan. Similar to the above plan, this one comes out to $105 for four lines with five gigabytes each. One caveat: If your family’s data use exceeds 30 gigabytes, Consumer Cellular shuts off data service. For heavy data guzzlers, Metro by T-Mobile offers the best value at $130 for four lines of unlimited data.

Brian X. Chen is the lead consumer technology writer. He reviews products and writes Tech Fix, a column about solving tech-related problems. Before joining The Times in 2011 he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. @bxchen