Earlier this week, Verizon shocked us by resurrecting its unlimited data plan, albeit with some caveats. It turns out that if you use a lot of data, the plan is a pretty good deal. Because Verizon is the nation’s largest wireless carrier, it didn’t take long for the other majors—T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T—to follow up with their own updated unlimited offerings.
Finally, for the first time in more than five years, US wireless customers have a range of “unlimited” plan choices. But which plan is the best? Although the basics for what each carrier offers is similar, there are different trade-offs.
Price Per Line
All four carriers offer various pricing per line of service. To get the best prices for each carrier, you have to enable autopay on your account. If you don’t enable autopay, prices will be at least $5 a month higher ($10 for multiple lines).
Sprint: $50 a month for a single line (this price will go up to $60 a month starting March 2018). Sprint charges $40 for a second line (which means the price for two people is $90 now, and will go up to $100 in March 2018). Sprint is also running a promotion that will give third, fourth, and fifth lines of service for free, through March 2018.
That means that if you sign-up now, you can get up to four lines of service for just $90 a month, before taxes and fees. After March 2018, the price becomes $30 for a third line, $30 for a fourth, and $30 for a fifth line. That means that if you had five lines of service, the price would go from $90 (in 2017) to $190 in $2018, thanks to the additional fees.
This is all to say that although Sprint is a good deal right now, you need to be aware that this is promotional pricing and it WILL INCREASE next year.
T-Mobile: $70 a month for a single line, $30 for second line. For three lines of service, T-Mobile charges $140 a month, $160 a month for four lines, and $180 for five lines.
Verizon: $80 a month for a single line. Two lines is $140 a month, three lines is $160 a month, four lines is $180 a month, and five lines is $200 a month.
AT&T: $90 a month for a single line. Two lines is $145 a month, with each additional line (up to eight) costing an additional $20. Three lines is $165 a month, four lines is $185 a month, an five lines is $205 a month.
Winner: Sprint for single line, T-Mobile for multi-lines. Although Sprint has a great promotion right now for multiple lines, those prices will increase substantially in 2018, so buyer be aware that the bill you pay could double in 12 months time. Verizon’s pricing is better than it was for some of its pre-unlimited plans, but it’s still more expensive than T-Mobile or Sprint. AT&T has the highest prices at the single and multi-line levels.
How Much Data Can You Actually Use
Of course, “unlimited” isn’t really unlimited. Each carrier includes provisions in their contract that gives them the option of slowing down, or “de-prioritizing data” for customers who use a certain amount of data. There isn’t a guarantee your data is throttled, but the carrier has the right to slow you down once you hit a certain point.
AT&T and Verizon both put 22GB as data limit per line. Sprint has the option of throttling data at 23GB. T-Mobile says it won’t consider throttling your data until you’ve hit 28GB of usage per month.
Who Lets You Tether
With the first iteration of “unlimited” plans, tethering was usually off the table. It used to be that if you wanted to tether with Sprint or T-Mobile’s unlimited plans, you had to pay an additional fee each month. But Verizon changed that when it included 10GB of hotspot or tethered data with its unlimited plans; most of the other carriers have followed suit.
Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all include 10GB of hotspot data with their plans. On T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon, if you go past 10GB, you’ll be put on 3G data afterward. That’s not great, but it’s better than what Sprint does. Sprint will limit you to 2G data speeds if you blow past that 10GB tethering limit.
Winner: T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon. All limit you to 10GB and throttle to 3G after, but 3G is a lot better than 2G.
What About Video Streaming?
Another caveat with “unlimited” plans is the quality of video you can stream. Sprint and T-Mobile used to limit video streaming to 480p resolution on their unlimited plans, but after Verizon declared “no limit on video streaming,” both carriers acquiesced.
On T-Mobile, you’ll have to use the T-Mobile app to enable HD video, otherwise it will still default to lower resolution data. T-Mobile’s Binge-On plan also means that certain video services (Hulu, Netflix, YouTube), are zero-rated, and won’t count against your data limits. The caveat here is that if you use Binge-On, the video quality will be lower.
Sprint’s new unlimited plan includes streaming video up to 1080p. Verizon puts no limits on video streaming, but it will count against your data cap.
AT&T will default to lower quality streams (480p) with its StreamSaver program, but you can turn the feature off in your settings. AT&T zero-rates video from DirecTV Now, so if you subscribe to that service, that video won’t count against your data caps.
Winner: Draw. All offer about the same features. The zero-rating with T-Mobile’s Binge-On cold be a boon for customers who stream lots of video, but you’re going to have to do so with lower quality streams.
T-Mobile’s prices include taxes and fees, so theoretically, it will be lower than the prices from other carriers.
AT&T offers a $25 a month discount on DirecTV or DirecTV Now, so if you’re interested in getting cheaper TV along with your cell phone, AT&T’s slightly higher prices may be worth considering.
We should also note that Sprint’s pricing is only applicable to new customers right now. Existing customers should call Sprint to see if the new “unlimited” features, including hotspot and HD video, can be added to their accounts.
AT&T and Verizon generally have the best networks, followed by T-Mobile, and then followed by Sprint. T-Mobile LTE speeds are often as fast as those on Verizon, but if you’re in a smaller area, you may want to visit a store first to get a sense of your coverage area.
If you are switching to Verizon from another carrier, check to make sure your phone has the Verizon radios needed to connect. Most modern smartphones (including iPhone and Samsung phones) will, but if you have an older phone, it may lack a radio needed on the Verizon network. The same is true of Sprint, check this list to see if your existing smartphone will work on Sprint’s network.
Based on price and features, T-Mobile has the best unlimited plan for most users. The caveat is that you will need to manually enable HD video (it’s not automatic) and depending on where you live, coverage could be worse than it is with AT&T or Verizon.
Sprint has a good offer for new customers, especially for the first year, but you’re going to pay a lot more for your service after that year is up. Verizon’s plan is often cheaper than what the company was charging users on limited data plans, and if you don’t want to switch service providers and area already with Verizon, it’s worth looking into. AT&T remains the most expensive of the four options, but now that it includes tethering, the plan isn’t as bad as it was.
Update: Feb 27, 2017: AT&T has updated its unlimited plans to be more competitive. We’ve adjusted the text in the article accordingly.