Buying a smartphone plan has become a bit more complicated in the past year, as carriers have started offering more options than just the standard two-year contract. That's not a bad thing for consumers -- in many cases, it can actually be very good -- but it can be confusing.
So, whether you're buying a phone to send to campus with your college-bound child, researching plans to go with a new phone you may be eyeing in the fall, or getting a really early jump on Christmas shopping, here are a few tips to choose the phone plan that's best for you.
Figure out your priorities: When looking at buying a phone these days, the first step should be figuring out how much data you need. As you research plans on different carriers, you may adjust your needs based on what you're willing to pay. But going in with a clear picture of how much data you use -- whether it's a lot or almost none -- will be your best guide for finding a plan that fits you. If you're more of a talker than a surfer -- a rarity these days -- you can skimp on the data part of the plan and focus on talking and texting. If you're a big app user, listen to a lot of music, or will need the phone to do a lot of research or work, then it's more important to go for carriers with more generous data plans to help avoid overage fees.
Sprint, for instance, offers the most plans for unlimited data of the four major carriers, which start at $60 a month. But Sprint doesn't have a good reputation for data speed in most places, though calls are generally fine. Verizon and AT&T, meanwhile, have no unlimited data plans but do have good, broad coverage with plans that should satisfy most data users for about the same price. T-Mobile's network also has a fairly good reputation for data and voice -- starting at $50 a month for a phone plan -- but its fastest network speeds aren't available in as many places across the country when compared to its larger competitors.
Location, location, location: You should also consider where you're going to be using the phone the most. That sounds like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of parents who buy phones for their college-bound kids, only to find that their carrier of choice has horrible coverage on campus. And asking around has its benefits -- just looking at a map won't tell you if Verizon has a dead zone in the science building or that Sprint just doesn't want to work in the freshman dorms.
Think about commitment: The new wave of plans introduced over the past year has been aimed at the growing number of people who are sick of getting locked into a two-year contract every time they buy a new phone. For those who like to upgrade frequently, or have particularly bad luck with cracked screens, you might consider a plan that lets you upgrade your device more quickly.
T-Mobile is the champion of this kind of plan -- it doesn't offer anything else -- but will require you to buy your device separately. New T-Mobile smartphone plans start at $50 a month for 1 GB of data. For 3GB, it's $60 a month; an unlimited plan runs $80 a month. Other carriers have followed suit with options that require consumers to pay for their devices separately from the phone plan, which lets customers avoid early upgrade fees.
These plans allow customers to purchase a device in monthly payments. AT&T's Next plan lets you switch in 12 or 18 months, rather than two years; Verizon's Edge program lets you upgrade every year. At Sprint, the "Easy Pay" option lets you upgrade your phone whenever you want and pay the device cost over two years.
But if you're not the kind of person who needs to get a new phone every year, you might prefer a contract plan in order to subsidize the price of your device. A new, two-year contract phone at AT&T, Verizon or Sprint with 2 GB of data, for example, should still cost you less than paying the monthly fees and device cost on T-Mobile.
Just adding a line? For families, the options get a little more interesting, because you'll be sharing pools of data and talk time among multiple lines. Sprint recently introduced all-new family plans that offer 20 GB of data split among up to 10 lines for $100 a month, though users can opt for a range of plans that run between $20 and $150 a month based on how much data they want to use.
Sprint's $100 plan compares well with family plans from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile because of how generous it is with data -- 20 GB is a lot, even shared. (The average smartphone user goes through a little more than 1 GB of data a month, according to a 2013 survey from Fierce Wireless and the NPD Group.) So while you may want to avoid overages, you should also make sure you're not leaving data on the table.
The benefits of jumping ship: Wireless phones are a cutthroat business these days, and there are plenty of deals to be had if you're willing to switch carriers. This week, T-Mobile announced that it is offering a free year of LTE data to anyone who convinces a friend from a different network to switch. (The person who switches also gets a free year of data, of course.) Keep an eye out for deals like these, particularly if you're unhappy with your current network, to get the most out of a new plan.