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How to Pick Your Perfect Cellphone Plan

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

Closeup of women's hands holding a smart phone

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If everyone used mobile devices in the same way, picking the right phone plan would be easy.

But we know that’s not even close to being true for the 97 percent of U.S. adults ages 50 to 64 — or the 92 percent of those 65 or older — who own a mobile phone. Picking a plan often seems overwhelming.

Some use their device only to talk or maybe text with friends and family while others also may need a robust data plan, so they can browse the web, download apps, post to social media, read email and stream music.

Along with deciding on a carrier, you also must figure out if you should go “unlimited” with your services or buy buckets of time or data. Should you go prepaid or postpaid? What’s the cellular reception like in your area for a carrier you’re considering? Should you bring your own phone to a carrier or add one on as part of your package?

Frankly, it could all make your head spin. We can help. Here are several considerations when choosing a phone plan that meets your needs and budget.

Total bill is biggest concern

“When choosing a phone plan, price is the biggest consideration in the 50 and older crowd,” says Ian Greenblatt, managing director for technology, media and telecom intelligence at J.D. Power. The California-based company, known for its automotive awards, also analyzes data from other industries.

Some 50 percent of those surveyed in the company’s 2021 U.S. Wireless Total Ownership Experience Study said cost is the dominant reason for going with one plan over another; 43 percent said quality, Greenblatt says.

“Interestingly, the under-50 group prioritized ‘network quality’ as the number 1 criteria, followed by price and then service plan options,” he says. “Remember, J.D. Power has no opinions.… We simply report the voice of the customer and amplify it back to the companies based on what the data tells us.”

Tim Bajarin, a veteran technology analyst and president of the San Jose, California-based market research firm Creative Strategies, agreed that “for most seniors, the monthly cost of a phone plan is the number 1. I usually direct people to the Wallet Hub Cell Phone Savings Calculator, which breaks down how much you’re paying over two years.”

Unlimited data: biggest factor in cost

Unlimited data will raise the price of a phone plan. Most plans include unlimited talk and text, but you’ll pay more for unlimited data, which means you can access the internet on your device when you’re away from home. At home, you can use your Wi-Fi network to cut down on cell plan data totals.

“Whether you go with unlimited data boils down to your lifestyle,” Bajarin says. “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 your monthly data allowance].”

On the flip side, if you’re at home a lot or you simply don’t use your phone for things like this, you can go with a more modest data plan — or none at all. Bajarin says Verizon’s 55+ Senior Phone Plan and AT&T’s Wireless Plan Discount for Seniors are both $60 a month, or $80 for two lines for those 55 and older, an average savings of $5 to $15 per line compared to their regular unlimited plans. T-Mobile also has comparable plans for those 55 and older, but with several variables to choose from, as outlined on its 55-plus plans web page.


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If you don’t need unlimited data, Bajarin says, “Mint [Mobile] is considered one of the best carriers for value, as it offers 4 gigabytes (GB) of data for $15 a month for three months, and after that you can renew for about $12 a month if you commit to a year.”

Owned by actor Ryan Reynolds, who does most of its advertising, Mint Mobile is an example of a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), a prepaid carrier that operates on the infrastructure of existing national cellular networks. For instance, Mint uses T-Mobile's network. Customers of Consumer Cellular, which has a 5 percent discount for AARP members, can choose between AT&T or T-Mobile networks.

It’s important to know how much data you use, says Jason Leigh, research manager for the mobility team responsible for 5G and mobile operator research at International Data Corp. (IDC). About 14 percent of all respondents said they use more than 10 GB of data per month while 40 percent had no idea how much they used, according to IDC’s 2021 U.S. Mobile Consumer Survey.

“Therefore, if you use less than, say, 10 GB, then just go with a data bucket plan opposed to unlimited,” he says. Americans ages 55 to 64 made up 22 percent of this survey of 2,001 adults, while those 65 and older made up 19 percent. For the 55 to 64 group, 9 percent said they use more than 10 GB of data, compared to 4 percent for those 65 and older.

Prepaid versus postpaid

Leigh echoes Bajarin’s advice on first assessing your lifestyle: “Your first step in choosing a plan is to think about how you use the phone.” After all, older adults vary a lot in their habits, Leigh says.

“Some are tech savvy, and they like streaming video, using social media and casting a video to their big screen [television] at home, which will be different usage than by someone who just wants a flip phone in the glove box if the car breaks down,” he says. “Carriers, across the board, have seen an uptick in unlimited data plans as many customers don’t want to worry about going over their data bucket plan, which could double your bill. To remove the unknown, many want a fixed fee, and they’ll go with an unlimited data plan if that makes sense for them.”

Prepaid and postpaid plans each have their pros and cons, depending on your needs and budget, Leigh says. With a prepaid plan, mobile phone users pay in advance for the month of telecom services they use. With a postpaid connection, customers use the services first and pay for them later, toward the end of the monthly bill cycle.

Prepaid plans tend to be less expensive, “so more ideal for those on a tight, fixed income, perhaps,” says Leigh, but they usually come with more restrictions and fewer perks. “And with prepaid, you need to ask yourself, ‘How much work do I want to put in to managing my usage?’ ” by predicting how much data you’ll use in a given month.

Bajarin agrees: “Postpaid gives you the most peace of mind, as you’re not worried about data cutoffs.”

Coverage areas, plus 4G and 5G

Another consideration when choosing a carrier and plan, is the quality of service in your area.

“All the carriers publish pretty good coverage maps, so do your research before committing,” Bajarin says. “This is especially important in rural areas as you might not get good coverage if the demand isn’t there” for carriers to invest in the area.

Get recommendations from your neighbors and friends and family who live around you, Leigh says.

“Sometimes there are random pockets of weak spots,” he says. “Generally speaking, urban and suburban areas will look the same for most of the carriers. Coverage is pretty ubiquitous there. But reception could be spotty in remote areas or even if you’re in a basement.”

"Do your research before committing. ... Generally speaking, urban and suburban areas will look the same for most of the carriers. Coverage is pretty ubiquitous there. But reception could be spotty in remote areas or even if you’re in a basement.”

— Jason Leigh, International Data Corp.

The good news: Carriers offer more flexibility than before, and will usually let you try out the service first, Leigh says. “If it’s terrible reception, you can switch, which isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be, plus you can port your existing phone number over to another carrier if need be.”

Going with a carrier that offers 5G coverage is an important consideration if your mobile phone supports it, Bajarin says, since 5G has faster speeds; lower latency, which means nearly instant responsiveness when you tap something online via your phone; and fewer issues when in an area with a higher concentration of people, such as a ballgame.

“We are evolving from 4G to 5G over the next few years, so make sure your plan includes 5G and higher-speed connections,” Bajarin says. “If you’re on a video call with the kids, and they’re on 5G but you’re on 4G, it will work, but the quality of the video will be better if you’re both on 5G.”

And you don’t always have to pay more for 5G. He cites AARP’s partnership with Consumer Cellular, an MVNO that includes 5G coverage — if your phone supports it.

However, Leigh says he doesn’t think 5G is as big of a deal for most older adults: “Don’t be overly influenced by the shiny object, aka 5G, as 90 percent of seniors may not appreciate the speed difference over 4G, when, say, watching Netflix.”

Big-name carriers or MVNOs?

Bajarin says MVNOs often will be less expensive than the big-name carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and UScellular — and call quality should be comparable because they use the same networks.

“MVNOs came out of the deregulation a few years ago to help boost competition,” he says. “As to why go with the ‘big guys,’ they’re generally more responsive when it comes to service. 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.”

Leigh agrees: “It’s true MVNOs may skimp on customer service. While the difference in network performance may be negligible [compared to big national carriers], to save money they may not have a retail presence.”

Even though MVNOs are generally cheaper, it pays to do homework if a larger carrier offers home services. You might be able to save by bundling together internet, TV service and maybe a landline for your home.

Both MVNOs and big carriers support bringing your own device or folding the cost of the phone you buy through them into a two-year cellular plan. Leigh says you aren’t likely to pay more for the device by leasing it if you don’t want to buy an unlocked phone outright, which could be costly.

Figuring out what you’re going to use the phone for, and where, will largely dictate which mobile phone plan to embrace.

This story, originally published Sept. 20, 2021, has been updated with an additional company that offers cellphone plans.

Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.

Companies that offer cellphone plans

At least two dozen companies, including the four companies that have their own cell towers, offer cellphone service at varying prices.

AT&T
Affiliated network: AT&T, both prepaid and postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, AARP discount, “seniors” plan, 5G support

Boost Mobile/Virgin Mobile
Affiliated network: T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Consumer Cellular
Affiliated networks:
AT&T and T-Mobile, postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, AARP discount, “seniors” plan, 5G support

Credo Mobile
Affiliated Network: Verizon, postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount

Cricket Wireless
Affiliated network:
AT&T, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Good2Go Mobile
Affiliated networks:
AT&T and T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: No multiple line discount but has refer-a-friend promo

Google Fi
Affiliated networks:
T-Mobile/Sprint and UScellular, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Lively (previously GreatCall)
Affiliated network:
Verizon, prepaid
Other services: AARP discount on health and safety package, “seniors” plan

Metro
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Mint Mobile
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Reach Mobile
Affiliated network:
Verizon, both prepaid and postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Red Pocket Mobile
Affiliated networks:
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, prepaid
Other services: 5G support

Republic Wireless
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, prepaid

T-Mobile (includes Sprint)
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, both prepaid and postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, “seniors” plan, 5G support

Tello
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: “Seniors” plan, 5G support

Ting
Affiliated networks:
T-Mobile and Verizon, both prepaid and postpaid
Other services: 5G support

Twigby
Affiliated network:
Verizon, prepaid
Other services: “Seniors” plan, 5G support

Ultra Mobile
Affiliated network:
T-Mobile, prepaid
Other services: 5G support

UScellular
Affiliated network:
UScellular, both prepaid and post paid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

USmobile
Affiliated networks:
T-Mobile and Verizon, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, “seniors” plan, 5G support

Verizon
Affiliated network:
Verizon, both prepaid and postpaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, “seniors” plan, 5G support

Visible
Affiliated network:
Verizon, prepaid
Other services: Multiple line discount, 5G support

Xfinity Mobile
Affiliated network:
Verizon, prepaid
Other services: “Seniors” plan, 5G support

Source: AARP research

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