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.
Editors' note: For a more current version of this advice, please check out Switching Cell Phone Carriers in 2022: What to Know Before You Switch Carriers. The original story continues below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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Article updated February 3, 2016 at 8:00am PT.