Before you change your wireless plan, you’ll want to make sure you have answers to these questions.
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the ever-changing worlds of streaming and telecom. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Switching wireless providers isn’t easy. Although there are three major networks in the US, the actual number of wireless carriers and plans is significantly higher. Sifting through it all of the confusing mess can overwhelm the best of us. We want to help make this process a bit easier. Here’s a guide to how to choose a cell phone plan in 2022.
In the US there are three major networks: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. All three offer services directly and have robust nationwide networks that offer 4G LTE and 5G.
The most important aspect of choosing a network is finding one that works in your area. This makes it very hard for us to give a blanket recommendation of any one carrier. For example, T-Mobile’s service in New York may be excellent, but if you’re in rural Iowa, Verizon is more reliable.
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While your mileage may vary, the good news is that these networks are growing and improving all the time, particularly as the three major players race to blanket the US with . It’s quite possible that a decade ago you left a network complaining about its sparse service, but now it has beefed itself up because of that arms race to acquire customers.
If you know any friends or family in your area that already use the carrier you are considering, ask about their experience. You could also go to a carrier’s store and see if it offers any free ways to try out the service before switching over, such as . Those interested in trialing Verizon’s service can do so through (so long as you have an unlocked iPhone).
Visible, Google Fi and Mint Mobile are just a few of the many MVNOs that rely on larger networks.
While AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon operate the major networks, there are a number of smaller wireless providers that offer service on their airwaves. First, there are the prepaid brands each carrier owns. Verizon has Visible, AT&T has Cricket and T-Mobile has Metro. All use their parent’s respective networks for service.
As for smaller players, they too rely on the larger networks for service. Mint Mobile and Google Fi, for example, use T-Mobile’s network, while cable companies Comcast and Spectrum rely on Verizon for their respective Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile brands.
Boost Mobile, , uses a combination of T-Mobile while Dish builds out its own 5G network.
The benefit of these smaller carriers — many of which are known as something called MVNOs (or mobile virtual network operators) — is that you can get access to the larger provider’s service at a more affordable rate. If you found that Verizon works best where you live but its service is too pricey, switching to Visible, Spectrum Mobile or Xfinity Mobile could potentially allow you to keep similar coverage but pay a bit less (though you may lose out on some other perks like free streaming services).
We’ve , including who uses which network and some of the trade-offs you’ll want to keep in mind.
Getting a new iPhone at a deep discount from a carrier often requires a big commitment.
Two-year contracts have thankfully largely disappeared from the US wireless market. Unfortunately, they now seem set to be replaced by increasingly longer installment plans.
With , AT&T required agreeing to a 36-month installment plan as part of its terms to get a free device. T-Mobile has been asking for a commitment of 30 months to get its deals while Verizon experimented with going from 24 months to 30 months.
Verizon has since followed AT&T and only offers 36-month installment options. T-Mobile still has options for 24 months, though pricier devices like Samsung’s would need a 36-month plan should you want to finance it monthly.
With these longer timelines you can get a pricey new phone for significantly less, but you need to stay on that carrier (and potentially with a pricier unlimited plan) for two or three years. If you leave before that time has passed you risk needing to pay out the balance owed on the phone, which some providers require before they “unlock” the device to be used on other networks.
A good thing, however, is that the major carriers often offer several hundred dollars when you switch to subsidize the change. But you will want to check your account online or go into your carrier’s store to find out how much you might still owe on your phone before you leave.
The modernization of phones and networks means that your existing phone will probably work just fine on a new carrier and all the major wireless carriers offer a similar assortment of the latest devices, particularly when it comes to the iPhone and the Galaxy lines.
To make the most of any switch you’ll probably want to take this opportunity to upgrade your device, as there are often good deals on adding a line or opening a new line. If you’d rather keep what you have, your existing device will probably work just fine so long as it is unlocked from your prior provider.
Keep in mind that all of the carriers offer additional savings that you could be eligible for depending on your employer, military status, student status or even age. If you’re on a family plan, perhaps a family member qualifies even if you don’t.
First responders, military members, veterans, nurses and teachers, in particular, can get discounts from every major carrier. Verizon offers discounts for students, while T-Mobile’s Work perk could knock $10 a month off a Magenta Max plan and AT&T offers a similar program for its Unlimited Elite plan that it calls Signature.
If you’re 55 or older, you may also be eligible for a discounted plan: T-Mobile offers discounted plans nationwide for as low as $55 a month for two lines, while Verizon and AT&T offer similar options but only for Florida residents.
This could save you money if you switch, or potentially lower your current rate a bit and save you the hassle of changing providers.
If you have the right Verizon plan you could get free Disney Plus.
Many of the major carriers bundle in perks for using their higher-end unlimited plans, particularly streaming services. Verizon offers the Disney Bundle (Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus) to those with its Play More and Get More unlimited plans, AT&T offers HBO Max with its Unlimited Elite and T-Mobile offers Netflix, and offerings. The Paramount offer is also available even to those with older T-Mobile or Sprint plans.
Even prepaid and smaller carriers like Cricket (HBO Max with Ads), Metro by T-Mobile (Amazon Prime Video) and US Mobile (a variety of options) offer perks with their unlimited plans.
In addition, some Verizon plans (like the top Get More option) include Apple Music, while T-Mobile’s Magenta and Magenta Max also offer GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi. T-Mobile’s Metro offers 100GB of Google One storage as well as an Amazon Prime membership. AT&T gives six months of free gaming with Google’s Stadia Pro and Nvidia’s .
If you’re already paying for one or more of these subscriptions, switching to the right provider could be a way to help you save even more.
We’ll continue to update this with more cell phone plan tips.
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