Selecting cellular data plans can be an overwhelming adventure - there are just so many options out there and cellular companies frequently change their offerings.
Plans come with a lot of fine print, and in particular, the carriers don't necessarily design and market their plans to those seeking a home internet replacement.
This guide is written to help you understand the different types of plans out there so that you can make the right choices for your needs.
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Who To Buy Your Plan From
The first confusing point about cellular data plans is all of the available choices. However, it's important to remember there are currently only four major nationwide carriers in the US - Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint - most every cellular data plan will run on one of these networks, even if it has a different brand name.
Each major carrier has postpaid and prepaid direct plan offerings, their own prepaid brands, and official and unofficial resellers.
The carriers tend to give their own postpaid plans the premium access to their networks, and then priority goes down from there. This can impact things like the speeds you'll receive, roaming partnerships (thus coverage), features and latency.
To put it simply, when all other factors are equal, carrier postpaid plans will have the best performance, though the difference may not always be noticeable.
Carrier Direct Postpaid Plans
Postpaid means that you pay for your service at the end of your billing month, and the carriers tend to give higher priority and better customer service to these plans.
Because you are paying for service after it's delivered, the carrier will want you to establish an account with them based on your credit record. If you can't pass their credit check, you may be required to put up a deposit.
The credit check requirement also means that if you don't have a US billing address then you probably can't acquire these plans, which means they are probably not an option for most foreign visitors.
Postpaid plans are traditionally associated with contracts although many options exist to avoid contracts if you're willing to purchase your cellular devices on your own instead of subsidizing or financing them.
In general, postpaid plans are going to have the latest and most popular features - like better customer support, mobile hotspot, and other perks. They're also most likely to include domestic and international roaming agreements and will have the fastest speeds on the network. Also important to note is that postpaid plans are usually grandfathered when they are retired.
Of course, these perks come with a price - these also tend to be the most expensive plans.
Postpaid carrier direct plans are usually the first preference for those who depend on mobile internet - but they are also usually come with lower data bandwith caps, particularly for hotspot and tethered data.
Carrier Direct Prepaid
All of the carriers also offer direct prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans that allow customers to only pay for service when they need it, rather than making long-term commitments. This makes setting up service easy without any contracts, going through credit checks or giving up your personal information.
Although these days, most carriers add incentives for automatic monthly payments by setting up an account with them - making the plans less 'pay as you go' and less anonymous.
These plans are usually offered on the carrier's website, corporate stores or authorized resellers and are branded as the carrier's prepaid service (ie. Verizon Prepaid, AT&T Prepaid, etc.).
The plans usually cost less than their postpaid equivalents but lack some of the features or come with additional restrictions. For example, they might be subject to de-prioritized service, more aggressive mobile hotspot caps & restrictions, lack of domestic roaming, less international support and more.
Prepaid Brands, MVNOs & Resellers
Moving beyond plans available directly from the carrier, there are dozens of alternative options available on the mobile market. These options tend to be month-to-month (no contract), don't require credit checks, and may not always be officially authorized by the carriers.
Some of these options are also more easily available to non-US residents who are traveling within the US.
There is a huge diversity of choices and it can quickly become overwhelming and confusing to navigate those options. Here at the Mobile Internet Resource Center, we focus on options that offer at least a few GB of mobile hotspot data.
Alternative cellular plan options tend to be classified into three categories - but the lines can get quite blurred:
Each carrier also has their own independent prepaid brands that they utilize to target niche markets.
For example, AT&T owns Cricket, Verizon owns Visible, T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile and Sprint owns BoostMobile. You acquire these plans at branded storefronts (ie. you can't go to an AT&T store to get a Cricket plan).
The plans will often mimic the carrier-direct prepaid options or might offer slightly different benefits and restrictions. These plans will also tend to be slightly deprioritized over carrier direct prepaid traffic and may be missing other features.
MVNOs - Mobile Virtual Network Operators
MVNOs buy service in bulk from the major carriers and resell it under their own brands with their own terms and provide their own customer service. These "virtual" carriers usually directly negotiate and operate under authorized contracts with one or more major carriers to resell service.
The advantage of MVNO plans is there are a lot more options and you can often get better deals and higher usage caps than you can by buying direct from carrier.
MVNO's are usually not allowed to advertise who is providing the underlying network but if you explicitly ask or do some online digging, it isn’t hard to figure out which data network is behind any given plan (resources: MVNO’s on Wikipedia & BestMVNO).
Some MVNO's use color codes to signal which network the plan is on - Red for Verizon, Blue for AT&T, Pink for T-Mobile and Yellow for Sprint.
Some examples of MVNOs include StraightTalk, Consumer Cellular, Project Fi and FreedomPop. None of these companies are owned by the carriers themselves and are operated completely independently.
These are companies that have acquired lines of service from the major carriers and then are reselling services, typically as rental or leased options. Unlike MVNOs who tend to have a specific agreement with the carriers to resell services, resellers don't always have explicit arrangements.
These may be legit, or could be operating in legal grey areas. They could be reselling lines specifically against a carrier's terms of service (such as providing a tablet unlimited SIM card for use in a data hotspot device), or going through master agents who do have legit business agreements with the carriers.
It can be hard to tell, and the reseller isn't likely to be upfront either way. This uncertainty means there is a lot more volatility and churn in the reseller market than other markets as options come and go.
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The additional content found in the member section of this guide includes:
Downsides of Reseller Plans
While resellers and MVNO can net you better terms and pricing than direct with the carrier sometimes - they do come with some considerations.
Data Plan Types
This section goes over unlimited, tiered, data only and connected car p/lans
Understand the features of your plan - this section goes over hotspot versus on device data, roaming and video services.
Tips for Comparing Plans
When shopping for plans, there are multiple factors you should use to compare them - from coverage, costs and discounts.
Should get pursue a contract or avoid them?
This section shares a lot of tips and tricks for reaching the right people to get the service you need.
Grandfathered & Retired Plans
What happens when a carrier discontinues a plan you love? Do you get to keep it forever?
Terms of Service Considerations
This section goes over some of the common terms of service that consumer either knowingly or ignorantly violate to use their data plan how they desire.
Assembling a GREAT Cellular Data Plan Arsenal
Assembling a great setup usually requires multiple plans, and occasionally switching things up. This section goes over how to best do this.
Keep Learning - Go to School
Continue to the next recommended guide in this series at:
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