Some of us get excited about shopping for a new phone (New technology! Megapixels! Fancy screen!), but none of us enjoy shopping for a new phone plan. It’s always been a confusing experience, and things aren’t getting any easier to understand in the era of 5G.

With more 5G spectrum coming online this year — and carriers inventing more words for it— understanding what a phone plan includes and picking the right one is difficult. While we can’t promise to make it an enjoyable experience, we can help you do a little homework ahead of time to make it less painful.

If you prefer to cut right to the chase, we’ve got two recommendations from the major US carriers for you: T-Mobile’s Essentials if you’re looking for unlimited and Verizon’s 10GB Shared Data plan if you’d rather have a set amount of data each month.

T-Mobile’s Essentials plan is your best bet for a cheap phone plan with unlimited data: at $60 per month for a single line, it’s the least expensive unlimited plan from a major carrier and includes some nice extras like wireless hotspot data (at slower 3G speeds, but better than none at all — which is what you’ll get on comparable plans).

Verizon’s 10GB Shared Data plan is $65 per month for a single line and should provide plenty of data for most people. Verizon lets you roll over unused data and includes mobile hotspot usage for no extra fee.

We’ll go into more detail about these plans and some of our recommendations for the best cheap unlimited plan, best premium unlimited plan, and best cheap by-the-gig plan a bit later, but first, take a look at a few things to consider before you pick a plan. If you also happen to be shopping for a new device, we’ve got suggestions for the best phone you can buy right now and the best phone under $500.


This is an obvious — and important — first consideration in your mobile plan shopping process. On a high level, you’ll want to know which wireless carriers cover your area. If you’re in or near a major city, you’re pretty much guaranteed service from any of the major carriers. If you’re in a rural area, you may have fewer choices and a smaller, regional carrier might serve your needs better.

Carriers’ published coverage maps are a good starting point. They’re not reliable enough to gauge coverage in a particular neighborhood or on your street, but they can help identify carriers without a significant presence in your area. Check US Cellular’s coverage, too, since it tends to offer service where some of the major carriers don’t.

PCMag provides a thorough, balanced evaluation of the major carriers’ network performance across the country every year; take a look at the 2021 results. And it doesn’t hurt to poll your co-workers and neighbors about their wireless service for more data points.


When you start shopping around, you’ll see some very attractive prices on the major carriers’ unlimited plans, like $30 or $45 per month. Remember that those are prices per line on your account, and the prices carriers like to show you are based on their best per line rate, which is usually available when you have four or five lines. If you’re shopping for a single line, expect to spend around $70 per month, plus taxes and fees in most cases. For four lines, expect around $140 for your total bill.

The quoted prices on carriers’ websites also include a discount for signing up for autopay. If you’re not comfortable signing up for autopay, you’ll need to add a little more to your monthly bill — $10 per line per month in most cases.


Plan costs add up fast, but there are ways to save a little bit if you’re okay with looking outside of the big carriers’ marquee plans. If you’re a lighter data user, a shared data plan with a set allotment of data per month can save you a bit of money. AT&T and Verizon both offer such plans starting around $50 per month for a single line. (All of T-Mobile’s plans offer some kind of “unlimited” data service.)

Shared data plans seem to be on their way out, and carriers will be much happier to steer you toward an unlimited plan. There are some downsides to shared data plans, too. They tend to be limited to 4G or low-band 5G, which isn’t a big deal now but could be in the next few years. But on the plus side, both Verizon and AT&T allow mobile hotspot use on their shared data plans, which isn’t an option on either carrier’s basic unlimited plan.

Which brings us to one of the great mysteries of carrier unlimited plans: they aren’t really unlimited. Even the most expensive unlimited plans include limitations on how much data you can use via mobile hotspot. Most plans also include monthly data thresholds that, once exceeded, leave you subject to temporary slowdowns in times when the network is busy. Before you pick an unlimited plan, it’s a good idea to read up on the fine print so you know just what you are (and aren’t) getting.


Signing up with a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) can also help you save some money. These companies resell service on the major carriers’ networks, so with a couple of exceptions, you’re getting access to the same network for less money. These plans are better suited for those who don’t need the absolute best network speeds because they typically include lower prioritization thresholds than the major network plans.

Many MVNOs are set up to operate without retail locations, too, which could be a positive or a negative depending on if you prefer to walk into a store to troubleshoot issues with your connectivity. They’re also more eagerly adopting eSIM, which many newer phones support and which removes the need to wait for a physical SIM card to pop into your device.

Generally, you’ll find more plan options with set data limits per month than the few shared data options that remain with the big carriers. You’ll als