Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

How to Pick Your Perfect Mobile Phone Plan

The ways you use your device — calling and texting, browsing the web, posting to social media, streaming — will help you narrow possibilities

spinner image hands reaching out of smart phones holding credit cards
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Getty Images (4))

Choosing a mobile phone plan is a lot like ordering pizza.

The task is straightforward until you realize the number of choices. Picking the right cellphone plan for your lifestyle and budget can be overwhelming.

Not everyone needs the same services. Some use their device only to talk or text and don’t care to explore the free features hidden in their smartphones. Others need a robust data plan to browse the web, download apps, post to social media, read email, shop online and stream music while on the go.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine. Find out how much you could save in a year with a membership. Learn more.

Join Now

The four largest carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, UScellular and Verizon — and many of the smaller resellers known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) have voluntarily adopted a 12-point consumer code created by their trade group, CTIA — The Wireless Association, originally known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association. The disclosures include rates and terms of service, access to customer service, coverage maps and a trial period during which you can switch without penalty if you decide you don’t like the provider.

But what doesn’t exist is an easy way to compare plans, similar to the broadband “nutrition labels” that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be requiring of the largest internet providers starting April 10. Here’s how to do your cellphone homework.

1. Determine what you need

Mobile phone plans usually offer two buckets of service: One bucket is talk and text. Text will sometimes be referred to as SMS, an acronym that stands for short message service. The second bucket is data, what you use when you access the internet to browse the web, post on social media and read email when your phone is not hooked up to Wi-Fi.

While most plans include unlimited talk and text, you’ll pay more for unlimited data, which allows you to get on the internet when you’re away from home.

“It’s important to first know what you need,” says Lisa Eadicicco, senior editor at the tech website CNET. “Take a look at how much data you’re already using before you consider switching plans [or providers] so that you’re not overpaying for what you don’t need.”

But you also don’t want to be stuck with too little data, she says.

Do you like to watch video while waiting to board a plane or sitting in a doctor’s office? Do you use your phone’s map apps to navigate to new places? Are you listening to your playlists from Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music or Spotify as you take a walk around the neighborhood?

All those little habits use cellular data. If you choose a plan that offers less data than you usually use, you’ll get hit with overage fees that could cost you more in the long run.

2. Look at the quality of the cellular signal

Websites may tout a particular cellphone provider as the best in the country, but what really matters is the signal strength in your neighborhood and at places you frequent.

Just about every company offers a coverage map online that allows you to type in addresses, including your own. Search for the name of a carrier and “coverage map,” and you’ll see whether your place, your favorite golf course and your grandkids’ home has strong 5G, 4G LTE or 4G coverage.

“Both price and network quality have become equally significant factors for customers age 50 and above,” says Carl Lepper, senior director with JD Power’s Technology Media and Telecom practice. Older adults are less likely to put up with poor signal quality and lack of reliability to save a little money. 

5G coverage, short for fifth generation, is especially important because new phones are likely to operate on the faster 5G networks and fall back to 4G only when necessary. But 5G service needs more cell towers than the old 4G because its radio waves have a shorter range. The 5G signal also has more problems passing through walls and windows to get inside a building.

Technology & Wireless

Consumer Cellular

5% off monthly fees and 30% off accessories

See more Technology & Wireless offers >

Coverage maps may show pockets of spotty coverage if you live in the mountains or a rural area. Ask your neighbors about the quality of their coverage for additional insight.

3. Check out family, reseller and ‘senior’ plans

Older adults do pay attention to cost, says Tim Bajarin, a veteran technology analyst and chairman of the San Jose, California-based market research firm Creative Strategies.

You may want to join forces with others in a family plan to take advantage of volume discounts for buying lines in bulk. If keeping your phone number is important, you’ll probably need to partner with nearby family members in the same service area as you.

Benefit from excess capacity. Mobile virtual network operators, resellers that lease wireless capacity at wholesale prices from companies that own the cell towers, are usually less expensive than the big four carriers. But call quality should be comparable because these MVNOs, such as Charter, Consumer Cellular, Dish, Mint Mobile and Spectrum are using the major carriers’ networks, he says.

“MVNOs came out of the deregulation a few years ago to help boost competition. They’re generally more responsive when it comes to service,” Bajarin says. “Plus, the majority of them have retail outlets all over the country, such as in malls and strip plazas, so you can walk in and troubleshoot anything related to the line.”

You can also find out from them exactly which major carrier’s service they are reselling, which can give you insight into the quality of the service in your area if you’ve been talking to your neighbors.

These MVNOs generally have you pay for your minutes up front, before you use them, which is called a prepaid plan. And expect no frills like the free streaming services you might get with certain AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon plans, although at least a couple of MVNOs such as Cricket, which AT&T owns, and Metro by T-Mobile, buck that stereotype. 

The big companies most often offer postpaid plans. You’ll see your tab at the end of a billing cycle.

“Those who stay with the big guys are doing it more for the network and convenience, and likely not price shopping,” Lepper says.

But they may choose the big guys to be first in line during rush hour. MVNO customers don’t get priority during peak periods, which may be important if you work remotely and rely on your cellphone. The reseller’s customers may experience slower speeds when using data compared to those on the main carrier’s network, often referred to as “throttling.”

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134


Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Get a perk for your age. Some of the larger carriers offer 55-plus discount plans with unlimited data. But read the fine print before you commit, Eadicicco of CNET says.

Some allow a limited number of lines per account without an option to add more. Other plans aren’t offered in all states.

“If you are active, maybe traveling in a motor home and don’t spend a lot of time in one place, then an unlimited plan is ideal so you can share photos and video chat with the kids or grandkids without worrying” about going over a monthly data allowance, Bajarin says.

4. Calculate the total costs

Even though MVNOs are generally cheaper, if a large provider offers additional services, you may be able to bundle your internet, phone and TV together for a discount, Eadicicco says.

“There’s a comfort level [with bundling],” Lepper says. “There’s one bill, bundles can help you save money and the small guys can’t offer this.” It’s the telecommunications version of home and auto insurance discounts.

Typically, you need to commit to a contract to benefit from bundling. If you drop a service, such as cable TV, the other services will go up in price.

This story, originally published Sept. 29, 2021, has been updated throughout.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?