15.9 C
New York
Sunday, May 19, 2024

What’s the Best Unlimited Phone Plan? Let’s Break It Down

"Unlimited" is a funny term, because it often comes with a whole long list of footnotes, terms, conditions, and exceptions. Mercifully, all of the Big Three cellular companies have, by now, ditched throttling on their highest-paid tiers and include 5G data access in all their unlimited plans. Yet there are still many differences in the services they offer, and from tier to tier within each company.

Cheaper “unlimited” tiers, too, still have rules on how much unlimited data you get before they start limiting you. Data throttling is the practice of reducing your data speeds after you hit a certain threshold of data used in a month or during times of congestion. It's been a fixture of cell service plans for years—even on so-called unlimited plans.

Below, we've highlighted what each of the major carriers offers for “unlimited” individual and family plans to help you figure out which unlimited plan is best for you, and your budget. Check out our guide to cheap phone plans if you don't want unlimited data.

Updated February 2022: Choosing three lines on T-Mobile's unlimited plans is now no more expensive than two lines, which makes it cheaper than the AT&T and Verizon plans. Verizon's unlimited Just Kids tier has been phased out, but it has significantly expanded the perks of two of its tiers: the Play More and Do More tiers. We've also updated our recommended phones with our favorite Android and iPhone models, replacing older models.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-Year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.

Best OverallT-Mobile Essentials, Magenta, and Magenta Max Plans

The Essentials plan (with autopay, taxes/fees not included): 1 Line for $60/month | 2 Lines $90 | 3 Lines $90 | 4 Lines $105 | 5 Lines $120

T-Mobile has three unlimited plans: Essentials, Magenta, and Magenta Max. Magenta Max (starting at $85) promises to be truly unlimited and not throttle your data after you hit a certain usage amount, even in times of congestion. In the past few years, T-Mobile has won speed and coverage awards from OpenSignal and other companies that monitor service quality.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Essentials is the basic, best choice for most people with big families. The Magenta Max plan offers 40 GB of hot spot data and is a good value if you tend to use more than 50 GB of data a month and hate being throttled, or if you plan to travel abroad a lot, since it also includes international data.

WIRED: 5G data speeds are available on every tier, as is international texting and unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada (possibly nonfunctional 2G data speeds on Essentials, 5 gigabytes of 4G LTE on the Magenta plans). Those aged 55-plus can also subscribe for discounts on any of the three tiers. The Essentials and Magenta plans will not throttle back your data speeds until you've used 50 gigabytes or 100 gigabytes of LTE data, respectively, which is quite a lot. On the Magenta plan, you also get a “free” subscription to Netflix because, hey, why not? On the Magenta plans, you get unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi and texting on flights with Gogo.

TIRED: The Essentials and regular Magenta tier still throttle data. The Essentials plan only includes 3G speeds if you use your phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot, which is terribly slow. You have to pay $25 more per month (!) for the Magenta Max package to get HD video streaming, or pay $3 for a day pass on lower plans to get HD video streaming. There aren't a lot of great reasons to go with the standard Magenta plan.

Will your phone work? T-Mobile has a Phone Compatibility Test that lets you search to see whether your phone will work on its network. Most unlocked phones should work, especially those that also work on AT&T, but see our section below for our favorite devices and more info on how to liberate a phone from your current carrier.

AT&T Is More ExpensiveAT&T Unlimited Starter, Extra, and Elite Plans

The Unlimited Starter plan (with autopay, taxes/fees not included): 1 Line for $65 | 2 Lines $120 | 3 Lines $135 | 4 Lines $140 | 5 Lines $150

Like T-Mobile, its $85-a-month Elite top tier includes 4K video streaming capability and has no data throttling, but the Starter Unlimited plan isn't competitive with T-Mobile's basic Essentials plan. AT&T also still pushes its older Mobile Share Plus data-sharing plans, which aren’t much cheaper and give you less for your money. There are three unlimited plans: Unlimited Starter, Unlimited Extra, and Unlimited Elite. We've detailed the pricing structure for its Starter tier below.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

WIRED: Every tier includes 5G data speeds. You won't be throttled at all on the Unlimited Elite plan, and on the Unlimited Extra plan you won't be throttled until you hit 50 gigabytes of data. If you're on the Unlimited Elite, you get a big 40-gigabyte bucket of mobile hot spot to tether to other devices, free access to HBO Max, and 4K video streaming. The middle Extra tier offers 15 gigabytes worth of hot spot, but without the free HBO Max and 4K streaming; it only offers standard-definition video streaming.

TIRED: For the base Starter plan, data throttling could kick in any time there's network congestion, no matter how little data you've already used. The Starter tier also doesn't include any Wi-Fi hot spot, unlike T-Mobile's cheaper basic Essentials plan, which does include unlimited (but slow) 3G-network data. It doesn't have HD video streaming or international data either.

Will your phone work? AT&T has a Device Compatibility PDF you can use to check your current phones. Unlocked GSM phones work on AT&T and T-Mobile.

Verizon Is the Most ExpensiveVerizon Start, Play More, Do More, and Get More Plans

The Start Unlimited plan (with autopay, taxes/fees not included): 1 Line for $70 | 2 Lines $120 | 3 Lines $135 | 4 Lines $140 | 5 Lines $150

Verizon still has the best coverage, but T-Mobile and others are giving it a run for its money. The carrier finally got rid of its confusingly named double unlimited plans, GoUnlimited and BeyondUnlimited, only to replace them with four unlimited plans. You can choose between Start Unlimited, Play More Unlimited, Do More Unlimited, and Get More Unlimited. The Just Kids tier (for, you guessed it, children) has been phased out. We've outlined pricing for the starter tier below.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

The Play More package includes Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu, and either Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass for as long as you have the phone plan. You're no longer limited to a year. You also get six months of Apple Music for free. The other $80 tier—the Do More package—includes up to 50 percent off a qualifying smartwatch, tablet, hot spot, or Hum in-car Wi-Fi device, plus one free TravelPass day a month, 600 gigabytes of Verizon Cloud storage, and six months of Disney+, Apple Music, and a choice of Apple Arcade or Google Play Store. Whew. Both the Play More and Do More plans come with a 50-gigabyte cap on data before throttling.

WIRED: Like the competition, every plan includes 5G data access. If you live in a rural area, Verizon has the strongest coverage, according to OpenSignal. Every plan includes six free months of Apple Music and six months of Disney+. All tiers include talk, text, and data to Mexico and Canada and international texting. The top-tier Play More Unlimited and Get More Unlimited plans now include access to Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+.

TIRED: If you're on the basic Start Unlimited plan, there's no Wi-Fi mobile hot spot, and Verizon may throttle your internet speed during any “congestion.” It includes 5G access, but not 5G Ultra Wideband access, which is Verizon's fastest 5G connection. You also have to step up another $10 per month for 4K streaming, as Starter only allows 480p SD streaming. Verizon has two plans priced at $80 per month (for a single line).

Will your phone work? Verizon has a Device Compatibility Search tool you can use to check if your phone is supported on the network. The carrier used to only support CDMA phones, but most unlocked GSM devices these days will work.

Why We Recommend Unlocked Phones

If you bought your phone from your wireless carrier (most people do), it was probably sold to you as a locked device that works only on one wireless carrier. We recommend you buy devices unlocked online instead because they will work on other networks, allowing you to switch.

As long as you’ve fully paid for your phone, your wireless carrier is obligated to unlock it for you. Just take it in or ask about procedures on how to unlock a device. (Read more at FCC.gov.)

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

If you bought your phone unlocked, there's a chance it will work on every major carrier. Most devices will either work on either AT&T and T-Mobile, which are known as GSM carriers, or Verizon, which uses a technology called CDMA. Sometimes a device will partially (or mostly) work with a carrier, so it’s worth giving it a shot! Try WillMyPhoneWork.net if you’re unsure of compatibility.

Our Favorite Unlocked Phones

If you need to buy a new phone (or a couple for your posse), we have suggestions. For starters, check our Best Cheap Phones guide for our favorite devices that cost between $200 and $500. We also have guides on our favorite iPhones and favorite Android phones.

The Google Pixel 5A ($449) is our favorite phone. At WIRED, we're big fans of the Pixel 5A. It’s available at Amazon. The 2020 iPhone SE ($399) is another good choice if you want an Apple device on the cheap, although you might want to wait until the rumored 2022 iPhone SE launches. Amazon has a good selection of other unlocked phones.

Pro tip: Check the phone's model number at WillMyPhoneWork.net to be sure it'll work on your carrier. Again, chances are high that an unlocked phone won’t work on Verizon.

How to Check Network Quality in Your Area

If you live in a rural area, do some research before you switch your carrier. Ask neighbors, friends, and relatives nearby what their coverage is like and use OpenSignal and RootMetrics to track how effective networks are in your area. Just enter your address and you’re good to go. If you own a second home or travel for work, check those addresses too. Chances are high that all three wireless carriers will work just fine, but it’s smart to check before switching.

If you're not using your current unlimited plan as much these days, we have a guide on how to temporarily suspend your phone account, plus some alternative carriers to switch to if you want to save some dough.


More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!How Telegram became the anti-FacebookA new trick lets AI see in 3DLooks like folding phones are here to stayWomen in tech have been pulling a “second shift”Can super-fast battery charging fix the electric car?👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database💻 Upgrade your work game with our Gear team’s favorite laptops, keyboards, typing alternatives, and noise-canceling headphones

Related Articles

Latest Articles