How to choose a cell phone plan in 2021: What to know before you switch carriers


Sarah Tew/CNET

Switching wireless providers isn’t easy. Although there are three major networks in the US, the actual amount of wireless carriers and plans is significantly higher. Sifting through it all is a confusing mess that can overwhelm the best of us. We want to help make this process a bit easier. Here’s a guide on how to choose a cell phone plan in 2021.

Read more: Best unlimited phone plans in 2021

Which network works best for you? 


Sarah Tew/CNET

In the US there are three major networks: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. All three offer services directly and have roust nationwide networks that offer 4G LTE and 5G. 

As we’ve written about before, the most important aspect of choosing a network is finding one that works in your area. 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. 

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 the smaller and prepaid players


Visible, Google Fi and Mint Mobile are just a few of the many MVNOs that rely on larger networks. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

While those three carriers operate the major networks, there are a number of smaller wireless providers that offer service on their airwaves. First, there are the prepaid brands each carrier owns. Verizon has Visible, AT&T has Cricket and T-Mobile has Metro. All use their parent’s respective networks for service. 

As for smaller players, they too rely on the larger networks for service. Mint Mobile and Google Fi, for example, use T-Mobile’s network while cable companies Comcast and Spectrum rely on Verizon for their respective Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile brands. 

Boost Mobile, which is now owned by Dish, uses a combination of T-Mobile and AT&T while Dish builds out its own 5G network. 

The benefit of these smaller carriers — many of which are known as something called MVNOs (or mobile virtual network operators) — is that you can get access to the larger provider’s service at a more affordable rate. If you found that Verizon works best where you live but their service is too pricey, switching to Visible, Spectrum Mobile or Xfinity Mobile could potentially allow you to keep similar coverage but pay a bit less (though you may lose out on some other perks like free streaming services). 

We’ve broken down a few of these providers, including who uses which network and some of the tradeoffs you’ll want to keep in mind. 

Know how much you owe on your installment plan


Getting a new iPhone at a deep discount from a carrier often requires committing to stay for two to three years. 

Patrick Holland/CNET

Two-year contracts have thankfully largely disappeared from the US wireless market. Unfortunately, they now seem set to be replaced by increasingly longer installment plans.

With the iPhone 13 deals, AT&T required agreeing to a 36-month installment as part of its terms to get a free device. T-Mobile has been asking for 30 months to get its deals while Verizon has been experimenting with going from 24 months to 30 months. 

The perk of these longer timelines is the ability to get a pricey new phone for significantly less. The downside, is you need to stay on that carrier (and potentially with a pricier unlimited plan) for two or three years. Leaving before that time has passed and you risk needing to pay out the balance owed on the phone. 

The good news is the major carriers often offer several hundred dollars to switch to subsidize the switch. But you will want to head into your account online or go into your carrier’s store to check how much you owe on your phone before you leave. 

One good thing that has changed: The modernization of phones and networks means that your current phone will probably work just fine on a new carrier and all the major players offer a similar assortment of the latest devices particularly when it comes to the iPhone and the Galaxy phone line.

To make the most of any switch you’ll probably want to take this time as an opportunity to upgrade your device, but if not you can rest easy knowing your existing device will probably work just fine.  

Know your discounts

As we’ve written before, something else you’ll want to keep in mind are the discounts. All of the carriers offer additional savings which you could be eligible for depending on your employer, military status, student status or even age. If you’re on a family plan, perhaps a family member qualifies even if you don’t. 

First responders, military members, veterans, nurses and teachers, in particular, can get discounts on every major carrier. Verizon offers 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.

This could work for saving you money if you switch, or potentially dropping your current rate a bit lower and save you the hassle of moving providers. 

Understand the perks


If you have the right Verizon plan you could get free Disney Plus. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Many of the major carriers bundle in perks for using their higher-end unlimited plans, particularly streaming services. Verizon offers the Disney Bundle (Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus) to those with its Play More and Get More unlimited plans, AT&T offers HBO Max with its Unlimited Elite and T-Mobile offers Netflix and Apple TV Plus with its Magenta and Magenta Max offerings. 

Even prepaid and smaller carriers like Cricket (HBO Max with Ads), Metro by T-Mobile (Amazon Prime Video) and US Mobile (a variety of options) offer perks with their unlimited plans. 

Read more: Best streaming service deals

Beyond streaming, some Verizon plans (like its top Get More option) include Apple Music while T-Mobile’s Magenta and Magenta Max also offer GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi. T-Mobile’s Metro offers 100 GB of Google One storage as well as an Amazon Prime membership. AT&T gives six months of free gaming with Google’s Stadia Pro. 

If you are already paying for one or more of these subscriptions, switching to the right provider could be a way to help you save even more. 

We’ll continue to update this with more cell phone plan tips.