Best unlimited phone plans in 2021 – CNET

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Sarah Tew/CNET

When it comes to picking a wireless plan for your new phone — whether you have an iPhone, Galaxy or other Android, or even a flip phone — things can quickly get complicated. Unlike with home internet, where there often may be only one or two available options, most of the US can pick wireless plans from several competitors at different price points that offer similar claims of performance or coverage. 

For this roundup, I’m going to focus on the three major carriers — Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T — combing through the multiple postpaid unlimited plans available to find the ones that provide the most perks and value for single lines and for families of four.

Know your area

Before we get to the plans, to get the best deal you need to make sure you have the coverage that you need. This makes it very hard for us to give a blanket recommendation of any one carrier. T-Mobile’s service in New York may be excellent, but if you’re in rural Iowa, Verizon is more reliable. 

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Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

While your mileage may vary, the good news is that these networks are growing and improving all the time, particularly as the three major players race to blanket the US with 5G. It’s quite possible that a decade ago you left a network complaining about their sparse service, but now it has beefed itself up because of that arms race to acquire customers.

If you know any friends or family in your area that already use the carrier you are considering, ask about their experience. You could also go to a carrier’s store and see if they offer any free ways to try out the service before switching over, such as T-Mobile’s Test Drive

Know your discounts

One other thing to keep in mind: discounts. All of the carriers offer additional discounts which you could be eligible for depending on your employer, military status, student status or age.

First responders, military members, veterans, nurses and teachers can get discounts on every major carrier. Verizon has discounts for students, while T-Mobile’s Work perk could knock $10 a month off a Magenta Max plan, with AT&T offering a similar program for its Unlimited Elite plan that it calls Signature. 

If you’re 55 or older, you may also be eligible for a discounted plan: T-Mobile offers discounted plans nationwide for as low as $55 a month for two lines, meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T offer similar options but only for Florida residents.

Now onto the picks.

Best for value: T-Mobile Essentials, $60 for a single line, $105 for four lines

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Those looking to save the most on unlimited service from the major carriers may be best with T-Mobile’s Essentials. Unlimited talk, text and data are included for all of the carrier’s base unlimited plans. In this price-focused comparison, T-Mobile’s option comes in at $60 for a single line, $5 a month cheaper than AT&T’s Unlimited Starter and $10 less than Verizon’s Start Unlimited. 

In addition to being $5 cheaper than AT&T’s option, T-Mobile’s Essentials includes unlimited mobile hotspot (albeit at slower “3G speeds”), giving you a little more flexibility. All three carriers offer 5G access with their base plans. We should note Verizon’s Start Unlimited does not support its fastest forms of 5G, but it’s unlikely you will be missing out on taking advantage of those speeds this early in 5G’s lifecycle anyway. You can always reevaluate your options next year after Verizon starts turning on its newest flavor of the wireless technology

The savings of T-Mobile’s plan also becomes more pronounced the more lines you add. Two lines of Essentials is $90 a month, while a similar offering from AT&T or Verizon runs $120 a month. Three lines will currently also run $90 at T-Mobile thanks to a promotion, compared to $135 monthly at AT&T or Verizon. The four-line option is $105 at T-Mobile, compared to $140 at the other carriers. 

These prices do come with a couple of caveats: Unlike T-Mobile’s Magenta or Magenta Max plans, taxes and fees are not included in any of these prices, making the actual total higher. All the deals also require that you set up AutoPay and paperless billing.

Best for perks: Verizon Play More Unlimited, $80 for a single line, $180 for four lines

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CNET

If you’re looking for freebies with your wireless service, Verizon has one of the most aggressive bundles out there with its Play More plan ($80 a month for one line, $45 a month if you have four lines). 

In addition to the Disney Bundle — which consists of Disney Plus, ESPN Plus and Hulu — the carrier is also throwing in a year’s subscription to Apple Music and Discovery Plus. 

A recent addition gives you a year of either Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass for gaming on your iPhone or Android phone respectively.

All told, the perks quickly add up if you use any of these services. The Disney Bundle normally runs $14 a month, Apple Music is $10 and Discovery is $5. Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass each run $5. 

That’s potentially $34 a month in services. Verizon offers these benefits as part of its Play More and Get More plans, but for most people, the Play More choice is the best fit. Get More runs an extra $10 a month ($90 a month for a single line, $220 a month for four lines) and adds an extra 15 GB of high-speed hotspot data, 50% off a connected device (like a monthly plan for tablet or smartwatch) and 600 GB of Verizon’s Cloud Storage. 

Something to note: These perks are often limited to one per account, so only one line on a family plan would qualify to open a Disney Plus account and get it covered by the carrier. 

Verizon also lets you “mix and match” plans when you have multiple lines. 

If you have four people on your family plan, only one needs to have Play More to get the perks for the whole family. The rest can be on the cheaper Start Unlimited, which would make four lines $150 a month as opposed to $180 a month if all four lines had Play More. And after one year goes by, you should evaluate whether the Play More plan still provides enough perks when the subscriptions to Apple Music, Discovery Plus, Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass run out.

Read more: Best streaming service deals

T-Mobile is the runner-up with its Magenta plan ($70 a month for a single line, $140 a month for four lines). Among the perks in this plan are unlimited international data (albeit at slow “2G speeds”) when traveling in over 210 countries, an hour of Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi, T-Mobile Tuesdays weekly giveaways and the bundling of Netflix’s $9 a month Basic plan (which is limited to watching on one screen at a time and without HD). It also now offers a free year of Apple TV Plus.

Its pricier Magenta Max plan comes with Netflix’s more popular $14-a-month Standard plan (which allows for HD streaming on up to two screens at once), faster international data and unlimited Gogo Wi-Fi on flights. Unlike the Essentials plan discussed earlier, T-Mobile also includes taxes and fees with the pricing of its Magenta and Magenta Max plans. 

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HBO Max is only included with AT&T’s Unlimited Elite plan. 


Angela Lang/CNET

AT&T’s unlimited plans don’t have much in the way of perks. If you want HBO Max you’ll need the carrier’s top Unlimited Elite offering ($85 for one line, $50 a month if you have four lines), though like Verizon you can mix up the plans on your account so that only one line has the Elite and the others are on more affordable options like Starter. 

As with Verizon and the Disney Bundle, T-Mobile’s offering of Netflix and Apple TV Plus — and AT&T’s offering of HBO Max — is limited to one subscription per account, not one for each line you have. 

Why get unlimited? 

If you’re on T-Mobile, all of your plans are unlimited. AT&T and Verizon, however, still offer some tiered data plans. 

Although everyone’s wireless needs are different, for most we think unlimited plans make the most sense especially when it comes to choosing a new plan. 

For one line, a 5GB shared data plan at Verizon is $55 for one line, or $130 for four lines. This plan has unlimited talk and text, but after you use up 5GB of data — and it’s 5GB shared with all your lines, not 5GB for each line — your speed will drastically slow until the end of your billing cycle. If you want faster data in the interim, you need to pay an absurd $15 per gigabyte. 

Verizon’s basic unlimited plan — called Start Unlimited — is $70 a month for one line, or $140 for four lines. 

AT&T’s option isn’t much better. It has a 4GB plan that runs $50 a month for one line ($160 for four lines). Each line here gets 4GB of data, but if you go over that threshold in a month you are paying $10 for every 2GB.

The company’s basic unlimited plan, called Unlimited Starter, is $65 a month for one line or $140 for four lines. 

If you have one or two lines and don’t use a lot of data you may be fine with one of these plans or the older plan you currently have. For most, however, we really do believe unlimited is the best choice when choosing a new plan. 

We will keep updating this article as new unlimited plans and better deals emerge. In the meantime, if you know of a better wireless plan deal or have your own favorites, drop them into the comments or message me on Twitter @eliblumenthal.

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