The best cell phone plan can save you money, get you more data, and give you flexibility in upgrading your phone. There are lots of options available in the US, from low-cost prepaid plans to traditional two-year contracts and early-upgrade programs. The basics of reception, cost, and phone availability still apply though.
I'll go over the different types of plans and highlight my picks for the best of each option. There are hundreds of plans available, so I'll concentrate on the carriers with the best nationwide coverage and pricing. Examples given will be for a typical smartphone user that needs a few GB of data and wants to upgrade their phone every two years.
Cricket vs Virgin Mobile vs T-Mobile vs Verizon
There have been a lot of changes in the US wireless industry over the past few years, but in some ways the offerings look more similar than ever. A common cell phone plan has unlimited calling and texting with a specified amount of data. Verizon and AT&T put a hard cap on the data, while T-Mobile and most prepaid cell phone plans give you a certain amount of 4G data and unlimited 2G data after your 4G allotment is used. Prepaid plans tend to be contract-free, which requires that you purchase a phone at full price or bring your own. T-Mobile also follows this model now, but allows you to pay off the phone in monthly installments. Verizon and AT&T still offer traditional 2-year contract plans, but also offer early-upgrade plans. These early-upgrade plans require an additional fee and seldom make financial sense.
Verizon still has the best nationwide LTE coverage, but AT&T is catching up and also has a very fast 4G HSPA network. T-Mobile and Sprint's LTE coverage lag far behind, so they have been forced to offer interesting plans with lower prices. Meanwhile, there are several prepaid plans that run on AT&T or T-Mobile's network, giving consumers some great choices. Here is an overview of some of my picks for different types of plans.
The best cell phone plans for typical users
Cricket runs on AT&T's LTE network and with 2.5GB for $35 is a great deal. They also offer 5GB for $45 or 10GB for $55. Those prices include a $5 discount for enrolling in autopay. Cricket also offers nice discounts on multiple lines, making them a great choice for individuals or families. The only downside is speeds are capped at 8Mbps. Straight Talk also runs on AT&T and offers 3GB for $45 without capping data speeds (see picture to the right). Straight Talk plans are available through Walmart or online.
update 5/8/15: Straight Talk's $45 plan now includes 5GB of high-speed data if you bring your own phone. Phones bought from them will continue to get 3GB.
Lots of low-cost data
T-Mobile has a unique $30 plan that is only sold through Walmart. It comes with just 100 voice minutes but unlimited texts and 5GB of LTE data. If you need lots of data at a low price and are ok with T-Mobile's coverage this is the plan for you.
MetroPCS runs on T-Mobile's network, so I wouldn't recommend it against Cricket or Straight Talk except that they offer a $60 plan with fully unlimited data. Sprint offers a low-cost unlimited plan for iPhone users (and $10 more for Android users for some reason).
Best possible coverage
Verizon's single-line plans aren't cheap, but they have the best coverage in the country. There is also a $60 plan with 1GB.
T-Mobile's plans are interesting. For the same $60, MetroPCS offers a plan with unlimited data on the same network. However, T-Mobile's plans include lots of extras: rollover data, unlimited international texting and 2G data, tethering, music streaming doesn't count against data, and more.
Republic Wireless has plans starting at just $5. Their phones use custom software that uses wifi for calls and texting whenever possible to reduce cellular data usage. This limits the selection of phones they offer, but they do have some nice Motorola phones at discounted prices.
Boost and Virgin are two other low-cost prepaid options that run on Sprint's network. Boost's $35 plan offers unlimited calling and texting and 2.5GB of 4G data, but video streaming is limited to 3G speeds. Virgin $35 plan offers 100 minutes, unlimited texts, and 2.5GB of data, but no longer sells the iPhone. Virgin also offers low-cost family plans with shared data.
You may have noticed I didn't mention AT&T, and that's because it's hard to recommend their high-priced contract plans against prepaid options that run on the same network.
Best cell phone plan
Most of the options here are contract-free prepaid plans, and that's not a mistake. These plans run on the same networks as the big carriers for much lower prices, with the added bonus of no contracts. They also come with much lower (or no) taxes and fees, saving you even more money (taxes and fees on a contract plan are tens of dollars per month). If you're comfortable paying full price for a new phone or bringing your old device, they will save you hundreds of dollars. You can also upgrade your phone as frequently as you'd like, or keep your phone longer if you're happy with it.
I tried several of these plans before picking Straight Talk. One of the nice things about a contract-free plan is you can move to a new carrier whenever someone is offering a better deal or coverage. I suspect most typical smartphone users would be perfectly happy with a prepaid plan. Friends that I've convinced to try it certainly are.