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Choosing the best wireless carrier for your needs can be an overwhelming and challenging task. Between the carriers battling with commercials and marketing, fine print, plans always changing, limited-time offers, and a shift away from smartphone subsidies you can spend a lot of time sorting it all out.
In today’s article we’re going to take a look at deconstructing the complicated nature of the wireless carrier world and providing concrete steps you can use to make sure you’re getting the best service at the best price for your needs. Skip to the ‘Do This’ section at the bottom if you want to get right to next steps.
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Background, Expectations, & Best Practices
First, let’s talk about hardware. The way that carriers are handling smartphone sales now may be different from what you’re used to, depending on the last time you did an upgrade. For awhile most of the major US carriers offered a standard $450 subsidy (discount) on smartphone purchases when signing or re-signing a 2-year contract.
Verizon and Sprint are the last two carriers that offer the option (typically only for existing customers) but they’ve made it more expensive than choosing carrier financing or purchasing outright (we’ll break it down further in a moment).
AT&T & T-Mobile only offer financing or full-price purchases (carriers will always push financing, if you know you’d like to buy full-price, it’s usually easiest to purchase outright directly through Apple). The smaller carriers typically don’t provide any subsidies or financing.
Here’s the simplest way I know how to break down why you aren’t paying more now that carriers have mostly ended subsidies:
With a subsidy you would receive a $450 discount, so a $649 iPhone would cost $199. However, carriers inflated their bills to make up for this. The industry standard line fee was $40/smartphone and then you would also pay for your data/text/talk plan.
When you purchase an iPhone or other smartphone at the true full-price or use carrier financing (financing plans are 0% interest), line fees with most of the carriers are between $15-$25 depending on which generation of plan you have. So you’re not getting a discount on the hardware, but you’ll see the discount on your monthly bill via the lowered line fee.
With the newest plans for both AT&T and Verizon, lines fees are now $20 for each smartphone on your plan. So on an average plan you’re saving $20 per phone each month by financing or purchasing full-price, over 24 months you get discounts of $480 vs $450 that the old subsidized option would provide. Carriers also usually charge higher activation fees for 2-year contracts than financing or full-price purchases.
Additionally, if you keep the same device past 24 months you continue saving with the lower line fee for each smartphone. All in all, carriers are being a bit more transparent with what you’re really paying for. The more rare, older plans with a $25/month line fee may be the one scenario when sticking with a 2-year contract may be less expensive (but you could save money by upgrading your plan to a newer one with a $20/month line fee.)
On the whole you’re not paying more for your iPhone with carrier or Apple financing than if you purchase outright. But there are some nuances that may influence you to spend more. All of the major carriers offer 0% interest financing. The most common term is 24 months, but some like AT&T offer a 30 month term.
If you choose to keep your device through the end of the installment plan you will own your device. You can also pay off your device in full at any time without penalty and most carriers offer an upgrade option after 12 months (this varies by carrier). If yearly upgrades are important to you Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program may be a good fit and it isn’t tied to any one carrier.
Remember when looking at carrier websites that plan costs won’t include monthly device financing costs. Depending on your iPhone, payments will usually range from $16-40/month per device.
It seems that Sprint is the only carrier that offers a true lease (you won’t own your device at the end of the 18 month term). This option is almost never a good choice as you pay for 75% of the device in monthly payments then return the device to Sprint. An 18 month old iPhone is usually worth a good amount more than 25% of its original price, so financing or buying your iPhone is usually the more cost-effective option.
One tricky part about financing is that you may be tempted to buy a more expensive model when you look at the cost split over 24 months. At a glance $4 or $8 more a month per device to upgrade to another model might not seem like a lot, but it’s $100-$200 per device in total.
Another thing to ask your carrier is if financing will require a credit check or if you are already pre-approved.
This happens to be my preferred way to purchase, but comes down to personal preference. I like the ease of not messing with financing paperwork, I’m free to sell my phone at any point and I’m not tied down to any carrier since I purchase unlocked models directly from Apple. I also find it helps me budget and plan more intentionally.
Making sure you have good coverage with your carrier can be a bit tricky as sometimes the coverage maps don’t translate exactly to real-world use. Taking a look at a carrier’s website for coverage is a good start, but don’t rely on it solely. Also some of the carriers have different map views, make sure to notice if the map is only showing voice, data or both when checking coverage.
If you’re considering switching carriers, talk with family, friends, and co-workers to see who has first-hand experience with that carrier in your area. Most carriers have a 14-day return policy, so if worse comes to worse you should be able to cancel within that time period and return any devices.
Another trick to make sure a different network will work for your needs is to start a new number with the new provider while keeping your existing. If it works out you can port your number over later, if not you can cancel and save the hassle. Depending on the carrier and your iPhone, you may be able to use your existing iPhone with both numbers. Another option is to borrow an older device from a friend or family member to test things out.
As of this writing Verizon has the most coverage in the most places, followed by AT&T. T-Mobile and Sprint have less overall coverage but service is typically a bit cheaper. At this point most carriers will offer fast enough LTE speeds for most users in decently populated areas.
All of the major carriers have release updated unlimited data plans in the last couple of months. You may be able to save some decent money by looking at these options, but another important thing to know is if you really need an unlimited plan (check out our comparison of the new unlimited plans).
There’s no doubt these new plans will typically save you money compared to old unlimited plans, but you might be able to save a lot more if you don’t opt for an unlimited plan at all.
Most carrier plans offer unlimited texts and calling with all plans, so data usage is what you want to take a look at. You can find your historical data usage on your carrier’s website. As an example, Verizon has a link to usage on its homepage. Alternately you can call your carrier’s customer service number (dial 611 for most) and ask for your data information.
Make sure to get several months of history to be able to make the best decision going forward. Most of the carriers’ plans feature shared data, so however many devices you have on your plan will share the same bucket. If you have an older plan or a smaller carrier you may have individual data per device/line.
If you end up calling, letting the representative know that you’re shopping around for the best service and price (they’ll often ask anyway) which should prompt them to see how you could save money by sticking with your existing carrier. If you’re not sure about changing your plan check out some other options before making a decision. Apple Store’s are a great place to get plan comparisons (even if you’re not buying). They have good software that can compare most of the major carrier plans and they aren’t on commission.
If you don’t have a discount on your wireless plan already, make sure to check with your carrier. Everything ranging from an employer, student, or military discount may apply.
Smaller Carriers (MNVO’s)
If you feel like you’re still paying more than you want for wireless service it may be worth checking out a smaller carrier or MNVO. MVNO’s (mobile virtual network operators) use the airwaves of the major carriers and include carriers like Cricket, Boost, Straight Talk and others in the US.
They usually offer pre-paid service at more affordable prices. Although these carriers are often viewed as second-class, they are continually improving and in some cases may be just as good an option as a one of the major four carriers.
An important thing to keep in mind is what major wireless network the smaller carrier is using. Cricket uses AT&T for its network (it was actually acquired by AT&T a bit ago as well), Boost uses Sprint, Straight Talk uses a different network depending if you need GSM or CMDA service. You can usually find coverage maps on the smaller carriers’ websites.
Two of the most interesting smaller carriers in my opinion are Cricket and Ting. First up Cricket offers great service via AT&T with really affordable plans that include taxes and fees. Single line plans start at $30/month and you can get a plan for 5 smartphones with 3 GB of LTE (high-speed) data per phone for $100 flat. Like the major carriers have followed suit on, if anyone goes over their data, there are no extra charges, your data is just slowed down.
I’ve used all of the major carriers except for Sprint and was disappointed with how much we were paying even after discounts and owning our iPhones outright. We gave a shot to Cricket over a year ago and have been super happy with the service and we’ve cut our wireless bill in half. We have the same coverage we had with AT&T and have never had dropped a call.
One caveat, in densely populated areas AT&T customers do get priority over Cricket customers, so there is a chance if you may not get as good of an experience in big cities. But personally, I haven’t had any issues at all while using Cricket in cities like Chicago and San Diego.
This is another interesting provider with really flexible plans. They use Sprint and T-Mobile for their service depending if you need CDMA or GSM. The way they approach pricing is you only pay for what you use each month. Ting is particularly worth a look if you don’t use a lot of data.
There are definitely a lot more options when it come to the smaller carriers, just make sure to find out what network they use before giving them a shot. You can also try the same trick mentioned earlier, start a new line with a MNVO and see what you think for a month. There are no contracts with almost of the smaller carriers, so you don’t really have anything to lose.
- If you’re not sure, find out what plan you have now and how much you’re paying. Is it one of the current offerings or an older plan?
- Find out how much data you’re using compared to how much you’re paying for.
- Discover for yourself or ask your carrier if a newer plan would reduce your monthly cost. Compare to other carrier options.
- Pop into an Apple Store to get some help. They have slick software to easily compare the major providers and they’re not on commission.
- Double check about potential discounts if you don’t already have one.
- Weigh the pros and cons of a smaller carrier to see if it’s worth giving one a shot.