We focus on the Big Four because they dominate the market. But consumers looking for a good deal or great customer service should also check out smaller companies. Our ratings of 20 providers are based on the experiences of about 100,000 Consumer Reports members. The Big Four are all near the bottom of the chart, though T-Mobile rates somewhat higher than its competitors. (Ratings are available to members.)
Verizon’s plans are consistently more expensive than those of its competitors. For example, the T-Mobile One unlimited plan starts at $70 for one line, with data speed throttled at 50 GB. Verizon’s basic unlimited plan, by comparison, starts at $75, with data speed slowed at unpredictable times based on congestion. The next tier guarantees fast speeds until you hit 22 GB, with a price hike up to $85; the most advanced plan, with throttling at 75 GB, costs $95 for a single line.
For example, let’s say you’re using a Mint Mobile plan while you’re on a business trip to Dubai. You open up WhatsApp to call your spouse, who then passes the phone to each of your kiddos before you have to end your 30-minute call and go to dinner with a client. That means you’ve used about about 22.5 MB of data,4 so that one call just cost you $4,50. It adds up fast.
Why we love it: In addition to HD streaming, a 20GB mobile hotspot allowance, 500GB of Verizon Cloud, and a massive 75GB data de-prioritization threshold, Verizon's Above Unlimited includes unlimited talk/text/data in Mexico and Canada and 5 TravelPasses/month for use in more than 130 countries (each TravelPass entitles you to 24 hours of your regular unlimited benefits while abroad). All backed, of course, by Verizon's awesome network. It may be expensive, Above Unlimited delivers the goods.
Another option besides making a traditional cell phone call is using a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service such as Skype, which connects calls via an Internet connection. Skype can be used on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Skype users can talk to each other for free, and can make calls to landlines and cell phones at affordable rates. However, remember that even if you’re not making international calls over your phone’s cellular network, you’ll still need to have an international plan in place to avoid exorbitant data charges (or find a free Wi-Fi connection so you don’t have to use your data).
If you travel farther from home, things get pricier. Monthly travel plans to 140 other countries, like Germany and France, cost $25 per month. On top of that, you’ll pay $1.79 per minute for talk time and 50 cents for every text message you send. (Verizon also charges 5 cents for every text message you receive.) You’ll get 100MB of data during the month, and all data overages will cost you $25 per 100MB of additional usage.
Due to constantly shifting promotions and terms, family-plan pricing is difficult to sort through. Our Verizon single-line pick isn’t competitive here because all of the lines on a Verizon subscription share the same data bucket. Verizon’s largest capped-data option is 8 GB, so if that won’t cover your family’s usage, you have to upgrade to more expensive unlimited data plans: $130 for two lines of not-so-versatile Go Unlimited and its limits on mobile-hotspot and streaming-video use ($160 for Beyond Unlimited), or $160 for four lines of Go Unlimited ($200 for four lines of Beyond Unlimited).
A mobile phone manufacturer is the company that designs and produces the physical phone. Some manufacturers have contracts with certain carriers, so in many cases you can only get certain phones with certain carriers. Read through some cell phone reviews on these different manufacturers to get a better idea of the type of phone that each manufacturer produces. Browse Wirefly for exclusive cell phone deals from all manufacturers and carriers.
To use Telestial SIM cards, your device will need to be GSM-compatible (Global System for Mobile Communications). In the United States, some carriers like Verizon and Sprint use CDMA 2G/3G networks, which is a different technology to GSM networks (which is used by just about every other country in the world). CDMA networks too are moving towards GSM technology, especially utilising the high-speed LTE networks.
Among the basic-economy, entry-level versions of unlimited data, Sprint deserves some credit for requiring the fewest compromises beyond the streaming-video 480p resolution enforced by all four: Sprint’s Unlimited Basic, $60 for one line, still includes 500 MB of LTE hotspot use (more than I use in most months) and overseas roaming (though at slower speeds). T-Mobile Essentials, at $60, offers only free texting overseas—international voice and data are extra—and limits hotspot use to 3G speeds (although OpenSignal rated its 3G downloads highest among all four). Verizon’s $75 Go Unlimited caps hotspot use at a punitive 600 Kbps, while AT&T’s $75 Unlimited & More bans hotspot use outright.
Excluding plans that don’t let you bring your own device, Metro by T-Mobile, formerly MetroPCS, has the best rates for two-line scenarios—$70 for 5 GB each on two phones. That pricing easily beats T-Mobile’s own prepaid plans, and Metro by T-Mobile’s data caps exempt streaming video (at the cost of limiting its resolution to DVD-quality 480p resolution, although you can opt out of this Data Maximizer feature if you want).
International cell phone options are as varied as travel styles. The always-on-the-go globetrotter who spends her morning in Europe and goes to sleep in North Africa probably carries her own high-tech international calling device. The college student studying in Italy may have a local cell phone that only works in his overseas home. The leisure traveler who wants a cell phone in case of emergency on her yearly vacation may rent a phone and drop it in the mail when she returns home.
Sprint Unlimited Plus Plan: $70/mo. for line 1, $50/mo. for line 2 & $30/mo. for lines 3-5 with autopay. Non-Financed Promo: Up to 5 new lines on Unlimited Plus. Pay additional $10/mo/line after Financed device upgrade. Credits applied within 2 bills. Includes unlimited domestic calling, texting, 15GB LTE MHS, VPN & P2P & data. MHS reduced to 3G speeds after 15GB/mo. Third-party content/downloads are add’l charge. Plan not avail. for tablets or MBB devices. Select Int’l svcs are included for phone lines. See sprint.com/globalroaming. Subsidized devices incur an add'l. $25/mo. charge.