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AT&T vs. Verizon vs. T-Mobile vs. Sprint: How to save and get the cheapest phone plan

We help you avoid all the fine print and tedium that comes with choosing a phone plan.

Josh Miller/CNET
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You know exactly what new smartphone you want to buy, but choosing a phone plan is not as straightforward. Which plan is the most affordable? How much are extra lines? Should I get a prepaid plan or a postpaid plan? We are here to help with answers to those questions and more.

Which carrier has the cheapest plans?

All of the carriers offer unlimited talk and texting, so your decision will likely come down to the cost of data. Unfortunately, there are no apples-to-apples here. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon's data plans are all slightly different.

This handy chart I made below should help. It compares the total cost over two years on each carrier except T-Mobile -- more on the "uncarrier" later. To make things as easy as possible, I added up the costs of carrier activation fees, monthly line access charges, financing a new $649 phone (the price of a 32GB Google Pixel or iPhone 7) and a monthly data plan over 24 months -- this does not compare taxes, surcharges or other regulatory fees (and my sanity hopes you'll understand).

Total cost for a single line and a new phone over 2 years

Carrier One-time activation fee Monthly cost of $649 phone Monthly access charge Monthly data plan Total cost over two years
AT&T Next Every Year Plan $25 $27/month $20/month 3GB for $40/month $2,115 ($88/month)
Verizon Plan $30 $27/month $20/month 5GB for $35/month* $1,998* ($83/month)
Sprint Installment Plan $25 $27/month $25/month 3GB for $25/month* $1,880* ($78/month)
Sprint 18 Month Lease $25 $27/month $25/month 3GB/month for $25/month* $1,418* (18 months at $79/month)

* includes $5/month AutoPay discount

What about T-Mobile and unlimited data plans?

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As of today, all four major carriers offer unlimited data plans.

Josh Miller/CNET

I didn't include T-Mobile in the previous section because the carrier only has an unlimited data plan. But as of today all of the major carriers have unlimited data plans. A single line of unlimited data on Sprint is $50/month, T-Mobile $70/month, Verizon $80/month and AT&T $100/month.

Here's a chart comparing the total cost between carriers of a new phone and a single line on an unlimited data plan.

Single line unlimited data plans and cost of new phone over 2 years

Carrier Data throttled after One-time activation fee Monthly cost of $649 phone Unlimited data Monthly cost Total cost for single line over 2 years
AT&T 22GB/month $25 $27/month $100/month* $3,074 ($128/month)
Verizon 22GB/month $30 $27/month $80/month* $2,599 ($108/month)
T-Mobile One 28GB/month $20 SIM starter kit $26 upfront, $26/month $70/month* $2,350 ($98/month)
Sprint 23GB/month $30 $27/month $50/month* through March 2018, then $60/month* $1,999 ($83/month)

* includes $5/month AutoPay discount

A warning: There's definitely some fine print here.

  • AT&T, Sprint and Verizon plans do not include taxes, surcharges or additional fees which depending on where you live can be a significant cost
  • At the time of this writing, Sprint's $50/month promotion expires March 31, 2018 at which point a single line will increase to $60/month.
  • Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon plans include a $5 per month AutoPay discount.
  • Verizon and AT&T limit data speed and priority access after 22GB, Sprint after 23GB and T-Mobile after 28GB.

Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint include high-definition video streaming with their plans. AT&T has it too, but defaults video-streaming to standard definition (think DVD quality). AT&T calls this service "stream saver". Despite the so-so name, AT&T lets you disable stream saver in favor of high-definition video at no additional cost.

Most of the carriers include a mobile hotspot allowance with their unlimited plans. Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon allow up to 10GB of hotspot data a month. AT&T does not, but the carrier does let you tether to a connected car.

Additional line costs for unlimited plans are all over the place. AT&T offers a free fourth line in the form of a $40 a month bill credit (after two months of service). Sprint gives you a third, fourth and fifth extra line for free until March 31, 2018 after which, Sprint's unlimited plan reverts back to regular pricing: $60/month for first line, $40/month for second line and $30/month for lines three through five.

Below is a chart comparing the various prices of adding extra lines to your unlimited plan.

Comparison of carrier additional line costs for unlimited plans

Carrier First line cost Second line cost Third line cost Fourth line cost Fifth line cost Total monthly cost - Max number of lines
AT&T $100/month* $40/month $40/month $0/month n/a $180/month - 4 lines
Verizon $80/month* $60/month $22/month $18/month n/a $180/month* - 4 lines
T-Mobile $70/month* $30/month $41/month $19/month n/a $160/month* - 4 lines
Sprint pre-March 31, 2018 $50/month* $40/month $0/month $0/month $0/month $90/month* - 5 lines
Sprint post-March 31, 2018 $60/month* $40/month $30/month $30/month $30/month $190/month* - 5 lines

* includes $5/month AutoPay discount

Are prepaid plans a better deal than postpaid?

The newest iPhone sold on Sprint's prepaid plan is the 3-year-old 5S.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It depends on the carrier. Up to this point, all of the carrier plans mentioned in this article have been postpaid -- you pay monthly after you use the service. Prepaid plans are also monthly, but you pay in advance for the data you think you will use. If you need more, you buy more. Prepaid phone plans also don't have a contract.

What really makes prepaid plans cheaper is the lack of a monthly line access fee. Over two years this fee can cost you as much as $600 on a postpaid plan. Carriers make up for the this fee by charging more for data. AT&T and T-Mobile prepaid plans will save you some money compared to their postpaid ones. Verizon's prepaid plan is pretty close in cost to its postpaid plans, and while both Sprint's prepaid and postpaid plans are ridiculously cheap you can save hundreds going prepaid.

So what are the downsides? The process of constant filling and refilling your data plan can be exhausting. Though, there are options for AutoPay. AT&T will even give you a $5/month discount when you use AutoPay for a prepaid GoPhone.

Another downside is the lack of family/multiple line options and pricing. Handset selection can be a negative, too. Sprint has a limited number of phones that work with its prepaid plans -- the newest prepaid flagship phones available are the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S3. On the other hand, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon offer prepaid access to newer phones like the iPhone 7 and Samsung S7.

The chart below compares the cost for prepaid plans on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The cost includes activation fee and monthly data plan charges for 24 months -- it does not include the cost of your phone.

Prepaid plan comparison (without cost of phone)

Carrier One-time activation fee Monthly data plan Total data plan cost for two years
T-Mobile $20 SIM starter kit 3GB for $40/month $980
AT&T $25 + $5 SIM card 3GB for $40/month* $990
Sprint $0 3GB for $45/month $1,080
Verizon $0 5GB for $50/month $1,250

* includes $5/month AutoPay discount

How does Google's Project Fi fit into all this?

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Google's Project Fi service works only on the Google Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X.

Josh Miller

Project Fi is Google's high speed phone service which uses a combination of Wi-Fi networks and data from carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile to always keep you connected. The unlimited talk and text plan costs $20/month ($15/month on a family plan) which is similar in cost to the line access fees AT&T, Sprint and Verizon charge on postpaid plans. The data rate is $10 per 1GB.

These prices apply internationally, too. Google Fi is supported in over 135 countries, so if you're traveling abroad you pay exactly as much as you'd pay at home.

Project Fi has no contracts and works a bit like a prepaid plan where you pay everything up front. If you have leftover data, your account is credited with whatever you didn't use. So you only pay for what you actually use. That's nice.

The downsides with Project Fi are that it only works on the Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X phones and connectivity might be spotty in areas where Sprint and T-Mobile's coverage is thin.

Is it true that I can get a monthly discount by enrolling in AutoPay?

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All carriers offer AutoPay discounts as well as chatbots named Jessica.

Screenshot by Patrick Holland/CNET

Yes, it is true! All four major US carriers offer a $5 monthly discount for using AutoPay, which automatically deducts money from your bank to pay your bill. Over the course of two years, this discount can save you $120.

However, AT&T will only give you an AutoPay discount if you're on a prepaid GoPhone plan and Verizon only offers the discount for certain data plans.

I'm still not sure what plan is best for me, what should I do?

This has been a comparison of pricing for the major carriers, but smaller carriers' pricing can sometimes be equally competitive. The costs of a carrier phone plan is only part of the bigger picture. For many, a network's coverage and data speeds are just as important if not more so. It's also worth asking around to see what your friends and family's experiences are with a particular carrier, too. This is especially important if you're entering into a family or sharing plan with them. But ultimately, it's your decision. If you think you're paying too much, you probably are and should start shopping around. If you're happy with what you got, consider sticking with that carrier and plan.

If you still haven't considered where to buy your phone or if you should get an unlocked one, we can help with that, too.

Links to each carriers unlimited plans: Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon.

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