Before you switch wireless carriers, read this

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and more. Don't dive into the dizzying world of cell phone rates without asking yourself six important questions.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra GPE

Finding the right carrier matters.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Researching all those carrier websites to find the right cell phone plan is an exercise in patience and exhaustion.

All those numbers from carriers competing for your dollars -- monthly rates, gigabytes (GB), connection fees -- are enough to make you dizzy or crazy or both.

So before you join a carrier for a new time or switch to a new one, ask yourself these questions first.

1. Are you free to go?

Carrier contracts in the US are quickly becoming things of the past, but you still have to make sure you're free and clear to start up somewhere new without getting hit with penalty fees. Or maybe not, as long as you have an exit plan.

If you've bought a phone with another carrier, double-check to make sure you've paid off your phone in full, or else you may need to pony up for the rest you owe. But before you do, see if the carrier you want to switch to offers to pay out the rest of your debt. Some do, some don't, so ask.

2. Will you need to buy a new phone, or do you have one already?

Unless you're bringing your own phone to a network, you'll need to buy one, which means you'll be paying for the whole thing up front, or by monthly installments -- these are payments you'll need to factor in as you calculate how much you want to pay your new carrier each month.

Also: Some carriers make you buy a new phone from them, like Republic Wireless, and if you plan to bring your own phone, make sure it's unlocked and works on your new network (GSM, such as AT&T and T-Mobile versus CDMA, like Sprint and Verizon). When in doubt, give customer service a call.

3. Individual or family plan?

Are you looking for yourself or for a group? A shared plan or family plan, which splits a monthly bucket of data among two to four phone lines, usually wind up being cheaper per month than going solo. The downsides? You get a smaller amount of data for yourself, and you can't predict how many GBs everyone else will use.

Big national carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon have the most straightforward shared plans; prepaid carriers like Cricket Wireless and resellers like Republic Wireless require more math on your part to calculate.

Read our family plan breakdown here.

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Carriers sometimes cut you a break on certain phone models.

Sarah Tew/CNET

4. Is low price something or everything?

How important is price to you? If you need the absolute lowest rate, shop during seasonal sales, like national holidays, back-to-school season, and Dads and Grads. Some carriers will cut you a better deal if you bring your number over from a previous carrier or trade in your old phone. Occasionally, you'll find a deal that pairs a specific phone model with a particular rate plan.

There may be other, less tangible perks to paying a little more than rock bottom, like better coverage where you like to vacation or perks like a fuller phone selection. Carriers also lure customers with programs that let you save this month's unused data for next month, for example, or stream music and videos from certain sites without charging you for all that data use (that last is T-Mobile, by the way).

5. How flexible do you need to be?

Carriers have largely done away with two-year contract pricing, but you can still get it if you want. Or, you could buy your phone outright in a lump sum, or through monthly installment pricing. As a benefit of this, the dreaded ETFs (early termination fees) of yesterday are gone -- but you're still on the hook for paying off the hardware before you switch (see no. 1 above).

So, if you need to be able to switch carriers at a moment's notice, you may want to scrape together the full retail amount and buy the phone in full. If the new carrier doesn't work out and you do bolt, keep in mind that you usually get a 14-day grace period for major problems, like if the phone hardware or network coverage don't pan out.

6. How good is carrier coverage in your area?

This is the most important, so listen up. The fanciest phone on the market won't get you anywhere if you can't get data or voice service. Ask your friends, colleagues and neighbors how good their reception and signal strength are where you work and live.

coveragemap.jpg

RootMetrics' free coverage maps zoom into neighborhoods.

RootMetrics

Network strength is so incredibly variable, and can change by time of day, weather and even where you are inside or outside a building. It changes, too, since carriers upgrade their networks or adjust their towers all the time. Because of that, we can't recommend a single carrier that's guaranteed to work for you, but a lot of people turn to RootMetrics, which is an independent company that routinely tests network strength across the US.

(A few years ago, we joined RootMetrics for a ride-along to see exactly how data-testing worked.)

Know your carriers

Need more information? Read on to get to know four categories of US carriers and how much you'll pay for each GB of data.

  • National: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are the national carriers, often called the Big Four. They have the most customers and maintain the networks that tier-two carriers and resellers use.
  • Regional: US Cellular is a self-sufficient regional network that doesn't cover every city, but it's a good option if you mostly stay within its network footprint.
  • Prepaid: The Big Four carriers own Cricket (AT&T), MetroPCS (T-Mobile), and Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile (Sprint).
  • Resellers: Everyone else -- Republic Wireless, Straight Talk (Tracfone), Ting, GIV Mobile, Google Fi and so on -- leases network capacity from at least one of the Big Four, so you're riding on their network, either solely or in combination with Wi-Fi (Google Fi and Republic Wireless).

With prepaid carriers and resellers:

  • You'll typically to pay in full, without installment pricing options (but some do have this).
  • Slightly different phones on sale with generally less selection.
  • Prepaid carriers and resellers (sometimes called MVNOs, or "mobile virtual network operators") don't require credit checks.
  • Resellers often let you bring your own compatible device, though not always.

Individual data plan costs, in chart form!


For the pricing breakdown in the chart below, we chose plans that were close to 10GB of data; this amount is pretty easy to chew through when you consider all that data navigating and music streaming. It assumes that you already have a smartphone, so we're not artificially inflating the final monthly bill with the full or monthly cost of a phone (which varies).

Start with a plan in this range and track your data usage through your smartphone's built-in app (usually a Settings sub-menu). You can always adjust your data amount as you go.

Total data Cost per month Fee per line Total cost Total cost per GB
Verizon 12GB $80.00 $20.00 $100.00 $8.33
AT&T 15GB $100.00 $15.00 $115.00 $7.67
T-Mobile 10GB $80.00 Included $80.00 $8.00
Sprint 10GB $100.00 $15.00 $115.00 $11.50
US Cellular 4GB $65.00 Included $65.00 $16.25
Cricket 10GB $60.00 Included $60.00 $6.00
Virgin Mobile 6GB $50.00 Included $50.00 $8.33
Boost Mobile Unlimited $60.00 Included $60.00 Varies
MetroPCS Unlimited $60.00 Included $60.00 Varies
Republic 5GB $85.00 Included $85.00 $17.00
Straight Talk Unlimited $45.00 Included 45.00 Varies
Ting 2GB $81.00 Included $81.00 $40.50
GIV Mobile Unlimited $60.00 Included $60.00 Varies

AT&T

Verizon

  • Total monthly bill (12GB): $100
  • Overage penalty: $15 per GB
  • Access fee is more expensive when phone is subsidized with a 2-year contract
  • No data rollover -- use it or lose it

T-Mobile

  • Total monthly bill (10GB): $80
  • Data Stash program provides 10GB of extra "free" data at start
  • You can roll over unused data to use in next 12 months
  • Unlimited access to select music and video streaming services

Sprint

  • Total monthly bill (10GB) : $100
  • Save $15 per line if you port your existing phone number to Sprint and agree to automatic payments or installment
  • No overage fees; data throttled to 2G speeds after allotment used up
  • No data rollover -- use it or lose it

US Cellular

  • Total monthly bill (4GB): $65
  • No credit check or contract
  • Supports bring-your-own-device
  • Data throttled after 4GB

Virgin Mobile

  • Total monthly bill (6GB): $50
  • Uses Sprint network
  • Offers international calling and text
  • Add-on data packages for $5/GB
  • Unlimited access to select streaming music services

Boost Mobile

  • Total monthly bill (unlimited 4G data): $60
  • Uses Sprint network
  • Offers international calling and text
  • Add-on data packages for $5/GB
  • Unlimited access to select streaming music services

Cricket Wireless

  • Total monthly bill (10GB): $60
  • Uses AT&T network
  • Unlimited international texting to 38 countries
  • Includes international talk and text to and from Mexico and Canada
  • Free access to high-speed data while traveling in Mexico and Canada

MetroPCS

  • Total monthly bill (unlimited 4G data): $60
  • Uses T-Mobile network
  • Unlimited access to select music and video streaming services

Republic Wireless

  • Defaults to Wi-Fi connections but uses Sprint's network for data
  • Unused data is credited towards next bill
  • Must buy a Republic Wireless phone; BYOD (bring-your-own-device) not an option

Straight Talk

  • Exclusive to Walmart
  • Uses "Big Four" networks; varies based on smartphone
  • Data speeds throttled after 5GB
  • "You can bring your own compatible phone (also known as BYOD)"

Ting

  • Subscribers can tailor plans based on minutes,messages, data
  • Data costs 1.5 cents per megabyte after 2GB
  • "You can bring your own compatible phone (also known as BYOD)"

GIV Mobile

  • Uses T-Mobile network
  • Includes unlimited global texting
  • Includes credits for international dialing
  • Data speeds throttled after 10GB
  • 8 percent of your bill goes to charity

Article updated February 3, 2016 at 8:00am PT.

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