2022: how to research new cell phone plans?
August 25, 2022 5:44 PM   Subscribe

For years we've had an AT&T cell phone family plan, deeply discounted because of Mr. Blah's job. That discount ended, and we're currently spending around $175/month for 3 phones + 24GB of data. I feel like we can do better, but looking at phone plans and the associated advertisements is breaking my brain. Help?

We still need: 3 phone lines, at least 24GB of data but we could probably use a bit more because every now and again we go over because KidBlah is a college student and part-time numbskull.

We do not need: new phones (all of us have very new phones), other bells & whistles that I probably don't even know about.

We currently have Spectrum home internet (no cable or satellite provider), and I see they have a much cheaper mobile plan...but data is throttled after 20GB.

What should I do here? I feel completely uneducated, so please educate me.
posted by BlahLaLa to Technology (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I have my family (4 lines) on Mint Mobile and it's worked well for us. Data is per line, so you can tailor it to your needs. Target sells SIMs and I believe they come with a test SIM that you can use for a week.
posted by donpardo at 5:53 PM on August 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

I recommend Visible, which uses Verizon's network. Very simple plans -- now either $30 or $45 per month and no extra fees or whatsoever.
posted by zeikka at 5:56 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seeing donpardo's comment we have used Mint Mobile previously, but moved to Visible as they use T-Mobile's network which doesn't have that good coverage at Northeast ski mountains. Offerings are very similar and can recommend both (if you have coverage where you need it).
posted by zeikka at 5:59 PM on August 25, 2022

One of the T-Mobile prepaid plans would probably do everything you need. (I have one of the cheaper "Connect" plans, which are great if you don't need much data.)
posted by belladonna at 6:07 PM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have T-Mobile Magenta, pay $35/ month/ line. I get up to 50gb of data before throttling. I have tested this and when I hit 50, I noticed no slowdown. My daughter, on my plan, watches videos all day long and has never hit her throttle. I also get free Netflix, Free MLB, 6 months free of The Athletic, I think of Paramount+. Every time I had a customer service issue, they went my way. When traveling overseas, it did not cost me anything.

I also like the fact that the $35/line is all in; it is inclusive of taxes, fees and other scam charges.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:17 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Is that 24GB on each line, or shared?

If you're not actively getting some kind of "bill credit" from buying a new phone, you probably should be on a prepaid plan. These have less bells and whistles than a normal "postpaid" plan, their service is usually deprioritized (meaning that postpaid data gets a higher priority than prepaid), and customer service is worse, but they are far cheaper. Deprioritization can be annoying if you spend a lot of time in an area where everyone else is using their phone and the mobile towers are congested.

For example, AT&T prepaid currently has a deal which is $25/month per line with 16GB (48 GB total, but not shared), if you pay the entire year ($300). This would be $75/month for all three of your lines plus taxes. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile (note that Visible is entirely owned by Verizon) have month-to-month plans that hover around $50/month for unlimited, and then third parties such as Ting and Boost have even cheaper ones (but I've heard the customer service is somehow even worse).
posted by meowzilla at 6:18 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have six people on a plan with Consumer Cellular. I am very happy with the service, and I think your phones might be able to unlock to it. We don't use quite that amount of data, but they have an unlimited (50GB) plan, and with three phones that is $90/mo

Consumer Cellular Plans
posted by nickggully at 6:22 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The current 24GB is shared. The $175 is after taxes and all fees.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:28 PM on August 25, 2022

posted by WizKid at 7:50 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think people are (rightly) skeptical about Wirecutter picks, but their overview of cell plans is a pretty good thing to read to at least orient yourself.
posted by caek at 8:16 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend Visible enough. I joined it as a result of reading about it here, and I've never regretted it. It's $30/month for unlimited data if you don't need international calling/data - the $30 plan does cover Canada and Mexico for talk and text - and $45 if you do. I've never ("never" being defined as since I joined in January) had an issue with data throttling, coverage in the US is very good (it's Verizon's network), and it's nice to not have to worry about data caps, like, ever.

Oh and? That $30 or $45 is inclusive of all taxes and fees. So what you see is what you pay. They don't have a "family plan" as such, you'd need three separate accounts, but once you set up the accounts, your interactions with Visible are minimal and done through an app. It's super low stress.
posted by pdb at 8:21 PM on August 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

I asked this question a couple months ago. Prepaid plans feel cheap but they're the way to go.
posted by geoff. at 8:33 PM on August 25, 2022

I recently stitched to Mint, and while the service is definitely not as good as Verizon’s it is good enough and quite inexpensive.
posted by sacrifix at 9:05 PM on August 25, 2022

I’ve been prepaid for… well, 17 years now. Currently we’re on Total Wireless, we’ve been with them for 4-1/2 years. $60 gets us two lines of unlimited talk and text + 30 GB shared data, throttled down to 128kbps after the 30GB.

One thing to keep in mind is that prepaid plans typically don’t have the same roaming that postpaid plans do. There are less and less gaps in coverage; I’ve noticed that areas that used to have no service on our plan now have LTE, and we travel across the Navajo Nation and southern Utah on occasion, or to Grand Canyon. I have coverage *almost* everywhere but there are some spots where I don’t (911 should still work, there’s usually signal in the areas where my phone doesn’t work). Those areas, however, are getting smaller and smaller. But if you travel in far flung areas on a regular basis, it might be something to keep in mind.
posted by azpenguin at 9:23 PM on August 25, 2022

How did that discount end? AT&T doesn't reverify FAN/Premier/Signature discount eligibility once it's done. (More likely you're still getting the discount but got caught out by the recent $12 a month increase on Mobile Share plans)

The current pricing for 3 lines of AT&T' unlimited premium plan is $50 a month per line (assuming you're willing to do autopay and paperless billing) with any signature discount, whether through work or an affinity program (if you don't currently have a signature discount, AARP is only $16 a year and membership gets you the discount). It's $45 per line on unlimited starter. You'd be fine with starter if you're fine with the speed you've been getting on your existing Mobile Share plan, they're the same priority. Premium does have a higher priority, included roaming in most of the western hemisphere, and 50GB of hotspot data, but it doesn't sound like you really need any of that.

None of their current unlimited plans have caps that change your data priority after exceeding them. There is a limit on using your phone as a hotspot that varies depending on which plan you select.

All that said, unless you will make use of the free roaming in most of the western hemisphere that you get with Premium and aren't interested in any of the phone promos (like the $800/$1000 towards the expensive Samsung phones or Pixel 6 Pro for trading in an old Galaxy S in any condition or the $2 a month Pixel 6a), there's not a lot of reason to stick with postpaid, especially if the network isn't congested where you live.

Personally, I'm stuck with at&t regardless because they're the only carrier in my area whose network doesn't fall over after a hurricane since they have generators at most of their cell sites, but stuff like that is highly location dependent.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of MVNOs despite using them for a few years, mainly because they can't directly deal with network/provisioning issues. It can often be like pulling teeth to get the "real" carrier to solve problems, but it can eventually be done.

Also, if you bought your phones from AT&T, make sure you get them unlocked before trying to switch carriers. You can get the unlock done even if you're no longer a customer, but it can be more difficult. You can have the new carrier send you SIMs, but don't port until you know the phone isn't still SIM locked to AT&T.
posted by wierdo at 9:39 PM on August 25, 2022

Examine Cricket if it's available in your area. It runs on 5g AT& T lines, or LTE if 5g isn't available.

We have five phones on the Unlimited Core plan and it's $125. (Three phones would be $90.) The Core plan used to have a max high-speed of 26gb/line before it slowed, since it switched to 5g, it's just "if the network is really busy". Which we haven't seen happen, in either metro or rural areas. They have a plan above it, with "premium data", that never slows the traffic even when it's busy, and three lines on it appears to be $110.

We're obviously really happy with Cricket, and think people we know are crazy for staying on AT&T, even though the quality is the same on Cricket but with a much better price.
posted by stormyteal at 12:14 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

As I've mentioned previously before, my wife and I switched to Mint Mobile and have been quite happy so far... The bang for the buck and simplicity have been really nice, and you can get 3 unlimited lines for $90 a month if you want to splurge, or get a line for $15 if you aren't using a lot of data... Figure out who is using what, and you can save a lot by tweaking each line, as donpardo mentioned above.

Check out this recent Ask for more recommendations....
posted by rambling wanderlust at 4:48 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'll nth Visible. I found it here on the Green. I've been a happy customer for years now.
posted by kathrynm at 6:06 AM on August 26, 2022

I have Google Fi, which is Google's fantastic, but little-known and little promoted cellular plan. It gives you data service on two mobile networks (T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular), which a compatible phone (just about any of the recent ones) will intelligently switch between. It also uses Wi-Fi to make calls and send texts whenever available.

Google Fi has two unlimited plans and a flexible plan. We use the Unlimited Plus plan which starts at $65 per month and comes with 50GB of data. It costs $135 a month for the three of us. It used to be $150 and 22 Gb, then they increased the data and lowered the bill. They do that, which I like.

The combination of networks means my phone seems to have coverage everywhere.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:07 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

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