Half of us are on the wrong cell phone plan.
How could this be? The simple answer is that carriers are changing their plans all the time, adding the best features only to their newest plans so if you haven't switched plans recently, you're likely getting an older, crankier version of what they offer now.
To figure out if your plan's falling short and you're are on the wrong plan, here's a simple check list.
- You want to scream when you open your wireless bill
- You're paying for more data than you use
- You run out of data every month (and go slow)
- You pay for unlimited data and use very little
- Your phone drops out all the time
- You're paying for services you don't use or forget what they do
As a rule of thumb, anything over $100/mo for a single line is too much. And, anything over $300/mo for a family is crazy.
You're on the wrong cell phone plan, if
1) You've had Bill Shock
If you've opened the monthly bill for your service plan and you couldn't believe what you are seeing, that's called Bill Shock. It can be cured, but it requires you to diagnose what went wrong in the first place.
You're not to blame - this affliction happens every day, all around the country and there's only two known cures for Bill Shock.
- Learn what caused the big bill and then change your behavior
- Learn what caused the big bill, then switch plans to accommodate your needs.
We'd recommend option two, and switching plans to get what you need. It's no fun getting slapped by a carrier and tip-toeing through your cell phone plan.
Some common things that cause bill shock are...
* Taxes, Fees & Surcharges
Commonly known as 'First Bill Shock', this is where you signed up for a $120 plan and your first bill comes in at over $200 with all the add ons for line fees, taxes and surcharges.
Solution: Both Cricket and T-Mobile now offer 'all in' prices where the sticker price is the price that you pay on your bill (taxes and fees are all included in the single monthly price).
* Data overages
Data overage charges occur when you've gone over your data usage amount and been billed at a crazy high rate for the additional data amount. Your 1GB plan might be $50/mo normally, but you accidentally went over this limit used an extra 1GB of data. For this, you were charged $150 for the extra data.
Solution: If this has happened to you recently, we urge you to switch or update your plan. None of the new plans in the market will charge data overages, but your carrier won't put you on the latest plan automatically so you may be on an old plan construct where overages still exist. If you are in a contract, switch to get out of it, or call your current carrier and work with them to switch to a plan which has no overages.
* International Usage / Roaming
There's nothing worse than coming home from a holiday and getting a huge bill. If you travel a lot, we recommend T-Mobile or Sprint or pre-purchasing an international roaming bolt-on before you leave the country. Also, if you are in one country for an extended period, you can easily get a local SIM card and prepaid plan. We've covered each of the options here in our guide to International Roaming.
* International calls
If you've picked up your phone at home and just started talking away with a friend overseas, you might have been charged at the top international calling rate (the rack rate).
With carriers, the rack rate for international calls is what you pay if you just pick up your phone without any preparation. However, if you pre-purchase the international calling plan from your carrier for a monthly fee of $10 or so, you will pay heavily reduced rates for international calls.
This is the difference between being charged $1/min rack rate vs 5c/min on the calling plan. In terms of bill shock, let's say you need to speak to a relative in England quite a bit during the holidays, 5 hours at rack rate would add $300 to your bill for the month, but only $15 if you'd pre-purchased the calling plan.
2) You're paying for more data than you use
If you've got a big monthly bill for 5 unlimited data lines but your family is mostly on WiFi, then you could be paying for more data that you actually use.
It’s like the story of Goldilocks: You don’t want a plan that gives you too much data or too little...You want the plan that fits your needs just right.
In other words, a plan should offer enough gigabytes so you can do as much (or little) on your phone as you need.
If you're not sure about all things data, our guide can help you figure out how much you need.
For example, if you only average 1GB on a 2GB per month, you may want to switch to a plan with a lower data amount which can save you on your monthly bill. AT&T's unlimited plan is over $95/month (and only available with a DIRECTV subscription) but you can get 3GB of data per month from another carrier for under $30/mo.
If you’ve picked unlimited data because you’re concerned about data overage fees, know that most carriers have done away with these charges. Now most providers will slow your speed down until the end of your monthly billing period and there will be no fees. However, this only applies to the carrier's latest plans. If you are on an older plan, this plan may still come with a data overage fee. If you're an older plan, switch or upgrade with your current carrier ASAP.
Some plans offer a data roll-over feature where that little extra at the end of month can be "rolled over" and added into your next month's data allotment. For example, if you have a 2GB plan and you use only 1GB, next month you will have 3GB to use. This feature is usually only available on specific data plans from a limited set of carriers, and each carrier differs on how long those leftovers last -- some, like AT&T, have them expire after one month while others, like T-Mobile, let you keep them indefinitely and allows the roll-over amounts to accrue up 20GB.
Don't know how much data you use?
You can check your account on your carrier’s website, or check on your phone. Download the free app Data Tracker and track it over a few months so you can get an average
3) You run out of data every month (and go slow)
If you find yourself frequently going over your data limit and having your speeds slowed down or throttled, your plan probably isn’t providing you with enough data. There's few things more irritating than waiting for pages, maps or videos to load. Whatever you are saving on your cheaper plan, you’re probably paying for in frustration.
If you're constantly in the slow lane because you've been 'throttled', you may want to consider increasing the data on your plan, and the good news is that with so much competition among the carriers, you may not have to pay much more to add data. In some cases -- especially if you consider going with a value-driven prepaid carrier -- you may even have to pay less to get more. Every carrier is increasing the data that they offer to customers so if you haven't changed plans recently, look around.
Many carriers do offer add-on data options to their plans but each carrier operates differently with this feature and you can't rely on this feature. Some carriers will allow a mid-month add on and others won't and you'll be waiting until next month for the new data amount to kick in. With plans offering 10GB for $50/mo, we'd recommend getting a plan that has enough for your average monthly use.
WiFi Vs Cellular
Alway make sure that you're connected to your home / work WiFi networks. If you don't see the little WiFi indicator when you're at home, you're burning cellular data
4) You pay for unlimited calls, texts and data but use very little
Sometimes bigger is better, but not when you don't need it.
If every month you're only using a few gigabytes and you're on an unlimited plan, you're most likely paying more than you need to. But no worries, you're just a switch away to a lower data plan that's just waiting to save you money.
And remember, since the epoch of data overage fees is pretty much over, if you happen to choose a data amount that's a bit short, the worst that will happen is a bit of frustration about the slower speeds... until the start of your next billing period or you can buy a bit more data to see you through until the end of the month.
Our tip is to Goldilocks it out — focus on the finding data that you use, rather than just buying unlimited without thinking.
Other considerations for mobile data plan are:
Mobile hot spots: this feature allow you to use your phone (and data) to set up an internet connection for your other devices such as your laptop or iPad. The devices will run off your cellular network and munch away on your cellular data. This is a great option if travel a lot or are often away from WIFI network and need an internet connection on your other devices.
Regular use of the hot spot feature will require a substantial amount of data on your plan. If you're interested in using your phone as a mobile hot spot, (and impressing your techie co-workers) our hotspots guide can get you started.
Unlimited Music Streaming: This option allows you to stream unlimited music from certain third-party services like Pandora, Spotify and Amazon music without using any of your data. Those of us who love music or live with teenagers know that this could be a very practical plan add-on... if we often stream away from our home or work WIFI.
Unlimited Video Streaming: A few carriers, namely AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, offer the perk of streaming video from certain services like NetFlix, YouTube or DirecTV without using any of your data. You may have heard terms like zero-data or zero-rated advertised with these plans which only means that you can stream these certain services while on the cellular network without using any (zero) of your data. If you can't live without your Netflix binges, this could be a great perk if you're often watching on-the-go.
5) Your phone drops out all the time
If you can’t use your phone, your frustration with your service plan and carrier will be ready to boil over.
However, it's not always the carrier at fault. If you’re consistently noticing your calls dropping or your texts aren't sending, it might be a provider coverage issue, or it might be a phone issue where your phone is not compatible with the latest coverage signals from the carrier.
Typically, older phones will not get the best coverage from carriers. Carriers are always rolling out new network equipment, but if your phone is three years old, your phone antenna was not aware of these networks when it was built. Additionally, some phones from third party resellers on eBay are international phones where they are not mapped perfectly for US network signals and miss some of the bands, meaning that you are not getting the optimal experience from you carrier.
Check out the provider coverage maps to see which carriers provide the best signal to your home (as well as your routes to and from work and other areas you spend time).
You can also check out Rootmetrics, an independent, third party who regularly tests mobile performance in major metropolitan areas, to see coverage performance scores of the big 4 carriers.
That said, all four major carriers generally provide strong coverage — within a few percentage points of each other — throughout the United States. In the cities, you won’t notice much difference between the major carriers but in the more remote areas (and on those long, windy country roads) your best bet for a strong signal will be with #1 and #2 coverage-ranked Verizon or AT&T (or a small--and most likely — cheaper carrier like PagePlus or Cricket Wireless who use their networks, respectively).
Coverage quality depends on your device
In general, newer phones get far better coverage than older models because they have the radio technology to tap into the new, faster "spectrums" rolled out by carriers.
If your phone’s a vintage model know that you may have coverage issues regardless of which carrier plan you are on.
6) You're paying for services you don't use or forget what they do
A great cell phone plan gives you what you need, but why pay for extras like "add-on" features that you pay for but don't use?
If you don’t use it, lose it.
Features like roadside assistance, technical support or additional cloud memory storage may seem nice, but if unused are only costing you extra. It's highly likely that a sales person sold you these extras at the point of sale but if you don't need them, kill them.
And, you may be paying for services that you already have with your other paid subscriptions. Businesses like AAA, Costco or Amazon Prime include features like roadside assistance and extra memory storage with their paid memberships.
Also, if you’re paying extra on your plan to set parental controls on your child’s phone, know that most likely your child’s device already comes with parental controls -- both Apple iOS and Android operating systems provide limited monitoring options. If you want more options like GPS tracking, time limits, many third-party software offer more options than the carrier’s parental control features for a cheaper price.
In addition, If you're paying extra each month for international calling and texts, consider instead using free internet apps such as Skype and WhatsApp that allow you to communicate with family and friends in other countries.
If your current plan is the right...or the wrong one, it's always a good idea to shop around to be sure you're getting the best value.
Because most carriers offer no-contract plans, meaning you are free to change your plan at any time, consider checking if your carrier offers a plan with a lower amount of data at a lower price.
On the wrong plan? It's easy to switch...