Choosing a new wireless mobile phone plan can be daunting with so many options: Prepaid, postpaid, family plans and unlimited plans. And, of course, all the plans have other things to consider, like data allowance, contracts and coverage areas.
So, how do you know which one is right for you? We’ll help you understand each plan to make that decision easier.
What is wireless data?
Mobile phones can connect to a local Wi-Fi network, like in your home or a coffee shop, or via your carrier’s cellular network and data plan.
Wireless data uses radio spectrum to transmit signals your cell phone carrier accesses. Your proximity to cell towers defines the strength of your signal, so knowing your carrier’s coverage area is very important.
Our use of wireless data has grown tremendously over the decade. In fact, wireless data traffic shows a 190X increase from 2010 to 2022. This is expected to continue, with 5G’s share of data traffic to grow to 66% by 2028.
Nearly 100% of the U.S. has access to 4G data, and as 5G expands, 4G demand will wane.
That doesn’t mean 4G will disappear overnight, “Mobile carriers will use existing 4G LTE networks to provide their customers cell service well into the next decade. 5G networks will work with 4G — not outright replace it. The upshot is that 5G-capable cell phones will still use 4G technology,” reports WilsonPro.
Types of wireless data plans
We’ll break down the types of wireless mobile data plans and explain the pros and cons of each. The choice you make really depends on what you need from a phone. If you want cheap cellphone service, prepaid is usually the best option.
Also known as pay-as-you-go, this type of plan allows mobile phone users to purchase data before they use it and control how much they spend, all with no monthly commitment or contract. Prepaid plans do not require credit checks and can be started and ended whenever the user decides by an auto prepay set up or purchasing a recharge card from a store. These plans can be inexpensive, with most starting around $20/mo. and therefore are very cost-effective. For example, Visible by Verizon is $20/mo. and Mint Mobile offers an even cheaper unlimited data plan for $15/mo. when you commit to three months.
A downside is that you need to have an existing phone for a prepaid plan: you can’t finance an upgraded phone as you can with a contract post-paid plan. You can pay for unlimited data with a prepaid plan, but ways to save like a family plan for multiple devices aren’t available. You’ll also have to pay for extras like hotspot data.
Postpaid plans are the more traditional plans you may be familiar with. You pay at the end of the month for the data you used. Many postpaid carriers offer no-contract options with this plan now, but be aware that if you’ve purchased a phone from them, you are on the hook for however long that payment plan was set up for.
Perks of postpaid plans include promotions like gift cards, free hot spots, free or discounted streaming services and more that your carrier uses to entice your business. You also have the flexibility to have multiple lines in family plans and unlimited data usage. Check your carrier for other perks like military or senior discounts.
Postpaid pricing can be higher than prepaid. For example, with AT&T, you can get unlimited talk, text and data, with 5G hotspot data for $65.99/mo. per line.
If you need multiple phone lines, a family plan might be the answer. You can often get a discount per each line you add. Most plans offer four or more lines and give you control over what data is available on each line. This is helpful if you have teens and you need to ensure no data overages.
This is the most popular plan in the U.S. If you use your phone for absolutely everything, from shopping to controlling your house thermostat, you should consider an unlimited data plan. The price is usually a bit higher than other plans but could be worth it so you don’t incur overage charges.
Your U.S. carrier phone may not work in other countries. Your data does not work, so you’ll need to switch to an international plan, which most carriers offer. Don’t forget you’ll also need an international SIM card and a compatible charger.
For an example of available international plans, T-Mobile offers 5G plans for international travel in 215 countries and destinations for $90 to $180/mo. for three lines.
Data rollover and carryover
Data rollover or carryover will allow you to “roll over” any unused data at the end of your billing cycle to the following months. Some carriers, like AT&T, only allow you to roll over and use the data for the following month.
“According to a survey conducted by XYZ Research Group, it was found that 65% of mobile users waste a significant portion of their monthly data allowance,” reported Utilities One.
To eliminate the risk of losing the data you are paying for, consider looking for a carrier that offers data rollover.
Shared data plans
Family plans are a great way to save money and control data use. However, you don’t need to be related to share a cellphone data plan. The main carriers like AT&T offer shared data plans, starting at $20/mo. per line. These plans are also great for businesses and can include data sharing on tablets, laptops and other devices, not just your mobile phones.
Verizon’s 5GB and 10GB data sharing plans are no longer available to add to accounts and now the company recommends unlimited plans.
Data caps and throttling
Some mobile plans have data caps and carriers will charge overage fees if you go over them. Throttling can occur when you’ve gone over your limit. You’ll need to watch out for throttling if you use a mobile virtual network operator or MVNO, a cell phone carrier that piggybacks onto a major carrier, like Mint Mobile does with T-Mobile. T-Mobile customers are considered priority and if there is a heavy usage block of time one day, your MVNO service may slow down or be throttled.
On most phones, you can set a warning to alert you when you’re nearing your data limit. You can also set an amount of time allotted to use, which can be useful if you are monitoring your child’s phone.
A setting to watch out for is “switch to mobile data automatically” whenever your device is away from a Wi-Fi connection. If you forget to set it to automatically look for Wi-Fi, you could be unnecessarily wasting your data.
Minimizing wireless data use
There are some ways to curb data use on your phone, recommended by Utilities One:
- Turn off background apps
- Use Wi-Fi whenever possible
- Be aware of apps that use a lot of data and when they’re running
- Check your video streaming settings and lower the resolution
Subscription-based mobile data plans
Most postpaid or prepaid phone plans can be subscription-based, meaning you have subscribed to a monthly renewable plan with set data limits. It doesn’t have long-term commitments but does require you to pay upfront costs for your device. The monthly rates tend to be higher as well.
Bundling a mobile plan with internet
If you have an internet provider you are happy with, check if they also offer mobile plans. Bundling your internet and mobile phone can often save you money. Several internet providers offer bundles: Spectrum, Optimum, AT&T, T-Mobile and more.
Providers like Spectrum and Xfinity require customers to be internet subscribers first and then you can take advantage of their mobile plans. Carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are mobile-first, so you can get your cellphone plan and then pick from their internet service plans, often getting perks like gift cards or streaming service access as well as saving money.
Pricing ranges from $15 to $85 or more per line, per month, but discounts for bundling can save you up to $25/mo.
Wireless mobile data FAQs
Unlimited means you have no limit on the amount of data you can use on your cell phone, with no fees for being over a limit and no slowing down of your speed. However, check the plan details because sometimes there are exceptions in cheaper plans that do include data throttling.
Most mobile phone users fall between 5 to 10 GB a month in date use. It depends on how you use your phone.
Current period roaming is the amount of data you have used when roaming abroad in the current period.
Data use on a cellphone is how your time is spent accessing the internet or the mobile network. You can have a data restriction or cap, or you can get an unlimited data plan.
Written by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
Robin Layton is an editor for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. She built her internet industry expertise writing and editing for four years on the site, as well as on Allconnect’s sister site MYMOVE.com. … Read more
Edited by:Camryn Smith
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