Though most people simply accept the plan given to them by their current carrier, the truth is that carrier plans have gotten extremely competitive over the last few years. Between solid prepaid offerings and some serious competition from upcoming carriers like T-Mobile, even the biggest, most stubborn companies like AT&T and Verizon have refocused their efforts on providing consumers some serious value with their plans. While some plans are most certainly cheaper than others, and some carriers have stronger rural networks, assuming you live in an area that features coverage from all four networks, you should find yourself in luck when it comes to picking a new plan—especially when it comes to picking a plan that features unlimited data and tethering.
Originally, most carriers throughout the United States offered unlimited data plans for a flat rate for any smartphone user, but with the rise of fast 4G LTE data, that all changed. With more users than ever suddenly using data to stream Netflix, download files, and tether their phones Carriers went from unlimited plans to setting strict data caps, and offering users on family plans shared data buckets. Suddenly, data overages were a thing you had to worry about, tethering was an add-on option, and data plans got more expensive for less than what you were used to. Thankfully, both the prepaid market and a refocused T-Mobile came together to begin offering consumers additional deals that made it a whole lot easier to pick the plan right for you.
Nearly every carrier in the United States now offers some sort of unlimited plan, and tethering is often included once again at no additional charge. But not every plan is created equal, and you’ll want to make sure you know what to look for when shopping for a carrier. Though each network now sells itself as unlimited, there are often some secret or hidden limits to your service that can interrupt your service if you aren’t careful.
So what should you look for in an unlimited plan? Is T-Mobile’s plan really as good as what we’ve seen from AT&T or Verizon? Which carriers come with limitations, and which include additional bundles at no extra charge? And are any plans designed for family members? These are all important questions that we intend to answer in this guide to the best unlimited data carriers in the United States. Let’s dive in.
Postpaid or Prepaid Carriers
The first major question you’ll want to ask yourself is this: do you want to go ahead and dive into a relationship with a postpaid carrier, or would you rather stick it out with prepaid carriers? Postpaid carriers are the majority of what most Americans use, and all four national carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint—all use postpaid plans with their customers. Postpaid simply means you’re entering into an agreement with the carrier at the time of signup, and you’ll be sticking with that plan and paying at the end of each month until that agreement is complete. For years, most postpaid carrier agreements were held together with a service contract, typically for two years. You’d receive a phone at a lower subsidized cost, and in exchange, you would stick with that carrier for the two years you agreed. After that, you could change the terms of your service, or leave altogether.
Nowadays, however, contract agreements are more or less a thing of the past, replaced mostly by lease plans on phones. Instead of paying $200 or $300 down on your device as a subsidized cost, you pay either the full cost of your phone (whether it be $300, $600, or $1000) and the phone is yours, or you pay the cost of the phone over a certain amount of time (it depends on the carrier, but the average span would be about two years overall). When the payments are complete, the phone is yours to keep; alternately, you can typically pay on the phone for a certain period of time (twelve months, for example), then return the phone and get a new one from your carrier, with restarted payments. This upgrade method depends on the phone and the carrier.
Prepaid carriers, meanwhile, typically require you to bring your own device or to buy one outright from their store. Typically, prepaid smartphones lean toward the budget end of the market, though Samsung is pretty good about making sure the big prepaid carriers in the United States have access to their newest Galaxy S-lineup of devices. Carriers like MetroPCS, Ting, Total Wireless, and Straight Talk all work over other carrier’s networks, operating as MVNOs, which often means you can get top-tier plans for just a little bit of cash, though not every prepaid carrier offers an unlimited plan. For the ones that do, we’ll be covering them in our list below.
Are These Carriers Really Unlimited?
Short answer: no. Truly unlimited data died at the turn of the last decade, with Verizon, AT&T, and eventually the rest doing away with their unlimited plans in favor of plans with set caps. And even then, those plans weren’t fully unlimited, often featuring soft caps that could potentially knock you off the plan if you weren’t careful. Current day data plans are a bit more open about their soft caps, though you’ll still have to read the fine print or use Google for a straight answer.
The two biggest limits come in the form of soft data caps that slow your internet connection for the month after you surpass a certain level of data usage, and limits on the quality of streaming video you can watch on mobile networks. Both of these depend on the carrier, so we’ll cover them in more detail below in a case-by-case basis, but the core of each of these plans limits the actual amount of 4G data you can consume to a number between 22GB and 50GB per month. Once you’ve passed this threshold, you’ll be limited by speed for the rest of the month. For most users, they won’t hit this limit; the amount of WiFi in most people’s lives covers the majority of their usage. Unfortunately, for a select group of users, you’re likely to find that running up on that limit is a monthly occurrence, and while you’ll avoid being charged overages for every gigabyte, you will have to deal with 2G speeds on your device.
The other issues comes with streaming video over your mobile network. Every carrier now limits the resolution you can stream video at while under their unlimited plans, and while not everyone will care about this, it is worth paying close attention towards. No carrier is aligned on this, so we’ll also discuss this in further detail for each carrier, but it’s important to know going into an unlimited plan with these carriers that you will likely find yourself watching YouTube or Netflix at 720p or even standard-definition 480p.
Should I Switch to an Unlimited Plan, or Stay on My Current Plan?
Well, that depends on your current plan. The unlimited plans offered by the four national major carriers in the United States can get expensive, especially if you have a family of four or more and plan on purchasing your devices through a lease, which often means that your account will increase in price. Several carriers, including Verizon, have done away with their employee discounts featured through manufacturing partners like GM or Ford, which often let customers have a reduced special price on their monthly plan.
If you fall into that category, you could see your price increase by up to 40 percent, a terrible bargain when considering your other options. Instead, these carriers have replaced these plans with introductory “rewards” schemes that offer you points based on the cash you spend them. Overall, it’s a downgrade, and a serious option to consider if your employer currently subsidized the plan.
That said, plans like T-Mobile and Sprint also offer add-ons with their monthly fees, which means for some consumers, it could save you some cash on certain services you might already use. Whether or not this is true really depends on your current situation, but for many, we expect users to find that sticking with their monthly capped plan will depend on how much data they use and how much more they can afford to spend on cell phone service.
So, which unlimited plan is right for you? There’s no obvious winner, especially since every carrier has different strong and weak sections of coverage throughout the country. Not every carrier has perfect coverage, and no matter how good a deal seems, putting coverage ahead of unlimited data is typically a smart idea. In no particular order, here’s what each carrier’s current unlimited plan options look like, complete with details on tethering, throttling, and pricing, and what you can expect from their coverage. Let’s take a look.