Selecting Cellular Data Plans – Pricing & Carrier Guide

Selecting your ideal cellular carrier and plan can be an overwhelming adventure, especially for nomads who need to replace a home internet connection while being mobile.

This guide is here to help you do that, and is a living document that we'll keep updated as each of the four major carriers change around their plans and offerings.

When considering cellular plans, we are focused on finding the best options for keeping a nomadic household online.

We are only interested in data that can be shared with your laptops and other gadgets, not just consumed on a single phone or tablet. Data that is “unlimited” but throttled to super slow speeds isn’t particularly interesting for this comparison either.

 

Most nomadic households also need a voice line or two as well, so we do factor in voice somewhat into our analysis.

But the focus here is on data. Lots and lots of glorious data!  As a result, this guide offers very detailed information.

Included in this guide:

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Postpaid Plans and Features for the Four Carriers

Shopping the direct postpaid plans offered by the carriers is typically the first stop for most consumers. Postpaid means that you pay for your service at the end of the month, and the carriers tend to give higher priority and customer service to their consumer postpaid plans.  Because you are paying for service after delivered, the carrier will want you to establish an account with them based on your credit record.

Postpaid plans also traditionally associated with contracts - although options exist to avoid contracts on postpaid plans if you're willing to purchase your cellular devices on your own instead of subsidizing or financing them.

Here are the postpaid plan options offered by each of the four major carriers:

Verizon Plans & Features

On July 7, 2016 Verizon introduced the 'New' Verizon Plan, and then in February 2017 Verizon revised things further introducing the Verizon Unlimited option, Verizon's first official unlimited offering since 2011. In August 2017, they revised their Unlimited Options again renaming their unlimited plans as Beyond Unlimited and Go Unlimited.

This current Verizon plans include::

  • Small - 2GB - $35/mo (plus $20/line access fees)
  • Medium - 4GB - $50/mo (plus $20/line access fees)
  • Large - 8GB - $70/mo (plus $20/line access fees)
  • Go Unlimited - $75/month (single line), $65/line (2 lines), $50/line (3 lines), $40/line (4+ lines)
  • Beyond Unlimited - $85/mo (single line), $80/line (2 lines), $60/line (2 lines), $50/line (4+ lines)

+ Additional devices:  You also pay an additional "line access fee" to add tablets and Jetpack hotspots at $20/mo each, and you can have up to ten lines sharing a plan.

Data Only: Verizon also has data-only shared plans for customers that do not have a smartphone line, though there is no unlimited option and the costs for large buckets of data quickly gets stratospheric (100GB for $730/month).

Here are some of the most interesting policies and perks of the current Verizon plans:

  • Unlimited Talk & Text
  • Carryover Data: The Verizon S, M & L plans now include 'Carry Over Data'.  If you don't use all of your allotted data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used the next month. But you cannot build up a balance - the unused data expires after just one month.
  • Safety Mode & Data Boost: Verizon's tiered data plans now include the ability to turn on 'Safety Mode' to eliminate the risk of surprise overage charges for using too much data. With Safety Mode enabled, data will simply be slowed down for the remainder of the month to 2G-speed (128 kbps) once the high-speed data is used up. If you do need more fast data, you can manually purchase a "Data Boost" for $15/GB as needed.
    • PopData: For those on tiered data plans, Verizon allows the purchase of 30 minutes ($2) or 60 minutes ($3) sessions of unlimited "PopData" when needed. This is an interesting option for those needing to handle a bulk upload (posting to YouTube), but for most people this is just a gimmick.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All Verizon plans include mobile hotspot use. However, there are limits on the "unlimited" plans:
    • Go Unlimited: Mobile hotspot speeds are always capped at 600 kbps speeds.
    • Beyond Unlimited: Includes 15GB of 4G high-speed mobile hotspot before reducing to 600kbps for the remainder of the month. This 15GB usage cap applies even to standalone Jetpack hotspot lines sharing an unlimited plan.
      • A data boost of 5GB of mobile hotspot data can be purchased for $35 - and each line can have up to 20 data boosts (ie. up to 100GB) per billing cycle. This is a flexible, albeit pricey, way to temporarily add a bunch of data when needed sporadically.
  • Video Throttling: New as of August 23, 2017, all Verizon plans (even legacy and tiered data plans) are subject to 720p video resolution caps on smartphones and 1080p on tablets & tethered devices. For $10/month you can override this on 4K compatible devices. Go Unlimited plans are subject to video throttling to 420p.
  • Network Management: Beyond Unlimited plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage per line in a month. Go Unlimited is always subject to network management. Tiered data plans are not subject to network management.
  • Unlimited Domestic Roaming: Verizon imposes no limits on domestic roaming for calls or data when you are off their network, making Verizon's coverage map seem even larger than it already is. The new Unlimited plan though claims that domestic roaming may be capped at 2G speeds, and Verizon has sent out termination letters to unlimited customers who primarily utilize their extended LTE network coverage.
  • International Roaming: For customers with the new unlimited plans, roaming in Mexico and Canada includes 500MB/day of high-speed data per line at no extra charge. Verizon also offers a 'Travel Pass' which allows you to use your plan internationally. In Mexico & Canada the cost is $5 per 24-hours on tiered data plans (free for Unlimited), and in other countries it is $10 per 24 hours. Charges are only imposed when you actually use the plan, and there is a 500mb per day limit.
  • Device Lock/Unlock Policy: For years, Verizon's device unlocking policy was top of the pack in terms of consumer friendliness - all devices were sold unlocked and could immediately be used with other carriers if necessary. But in early 2018, Verizon decided to violate the restrictions that forced them into these consumer friendly unlocking policies, which were required as part of a spectrum auction deal in 2018. And it is probable that the FCC, who would need to enforce these regulations will look the other way. Therefore, be ready to get educated on new unlocking policies beginning in Spring of 2018. More info: Verizon To Begin Locking Phones
  • Verizon raised prices somewhat when it rolled out the New Verizon plan, so some RVers have been holding on to this generation of plan.
  • Do be aware that these older plans lack Safety Mode to avoid overage charges, and have no Carryover Data.

Postpaid plans will require a credit check in advance, customers who are unable to go through the credit check or can't pass it may be subject to a $450 deposit to activate an account. Each new device activated on the account is also subject to a $35 activation fee. Verizon allows their postpaid accounts to be suspended in up to 3-month increments, for a maximum of 6 months a year.

Verizon Recommendation

If you are forced to pick just a single cellular carrier to keep connected via while RVing, Verizon remains the obvious choice for their network - but options for getting plans with a usable amount of data are pricey or difficult.

But just like it would be foolish to jump out of an airplane without a reserve parachute, it makes sense to keep a secondary cellular plan on board too for the situations where Verizon is lacking.

We recommend a Verizon + T-Mobile or Verizon + AT&T combo, and for those who need more redundancy - nothing beats having all three on board.

AT&T Plans & Features

Tiered Data Plans

The data-limited AT&T Mobile Share Plans are currently on their third iteration in two years - Mobile Share Flex - which replaced Mobile Share Advantage in January 2018. The Flex plans are very similar to the previous advantage plans except they offer less value - they either cost more or provide less data for the same price.

The Mobile Share plans offer shared pools of data available ranging from 1GB for $35/mo on up to 20GB for $110/mo. However, you must also pay a "line access charge" for every device sharing in the data - $20/mo for smartphones and hotspots, and $10/mo for most other devices.  With the line access charges, plus taxes and fees, these plans can be very expensive for the amount of data they provide.

Unlimited Data Plans

Starting on March 1, 2018 AT&T rolled out two new revised unlimited data plans - Unlimited Enhanced Choice and Unlimited Enhanced Plus.

The plans are only available for smartphones and tablets.

Here's an overview of AT&T's current plan policies and perks:

  • AT&T Stream Saver & HD Video: All current AT&T plans (even unlimited) now come with the Stream Saver featured enabled by default, which throttles video streams to 480p "DVD Quality" resolution so that streaming video uses less data. This feature can be manually turned off to enable 1080p resolution on Unlimited Enhanced Plus.
  • Mobile Hotspot: All AT&T Mobile Share plans include mobile hotspot use, letting you share your metered data however you wish. Unlimited Enhanced Plus plans include 15GB of high speed mobile hotspot use on smartphone and tablet plans. Unlimited Enhanced Choice plans do not include mobile hotspot as a feature on smartphones and tablets.
    • The  new Enhance Plans do not allow the addition of data only devices, such as mobile hotspot devices.
  • No Overage Charges: The Mobile Flex plans drop to 2G (128kbps) speed when all the high-speed data allotment for the month is used up, avoiding overage charges.
  • Rollover Data: AT&T Mobile Flex plans include Rollover Data.  If you don't use all of your allotted data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used the next month. But you can not build up a balance - the unused data expires after just one month.
  • Unlimited DirecTV Streaming: AT&T owns DirecTV, and to encourage customers to sign up for both services streaming from the DirecTV app on a smartphone or tablet does not count against AT&T monthly data caps or towards network management thresholds on unlimited plans. Of course, AT&T Unlimited customers can stream any video service desired, but usage does count towards network management thresholds.
  • Domestic Roaming: AT&T's network has a decent sized off-carrier roaming area, with domestic data roaming limited to 400MB per month. If you exceed that, your data access may be shut down until you are back on AT&T native towers. AT&T also specifics that domestic roaming may be throttled to 2G speeds at all times.
  • International Roaming: AT&T's international features are a bit confusing.
    • Mobile Share Flex: Mobile Share Flex plans with 10GB+ of data can automatically be used just like in the US in Mexico (some devices are exempt and will incur charges - check with AT&T before traveling), but not in Canada. Plans with less data get 1GB of high-speed Mexican data, but the feature must be turned on in advance before a trip. However, if a customer uses more than 50% of their data in Canada or Mexico for two consecutive months, the feature may be removed.
    • Unlimited Plus/Choice Enhanced: The AT&T Unlimited Enhanced plans have a "Roam North America" feature that allows for free voice, text, and data roaming in Canada & Mexico. Full and unrestricted plan data usage is allowed in Mexico/Canada, however roaming off AT&T's network partners may be limited to 2G speed.
    • Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America, and Asia Pacific
      • With activation of the International Day Pass feature (no charge to activate), AT&T customers can use their existing plans and all of their plan's features (including high-speed unlimited data) for $10 per device per 24-hour period. Note that the fine print indicates that this feature will be removed from the account if the majority of a  customer's usage is international for two months in a row.
      • A monthly Passport Package can also be activated (warning: these are pricey)
    • Rest of the World: A monthly Passport Package can also be activated (warning: these are pricey)
  • Network Management: Unlimited Enhanced plans are subject to "network management" once an unlimited customer has used more than 22GB on a line in a month. Once this threshold is reached, AT&T "may slow data speeds" during periods of network congestion.
  • Device Lock/Unlock Policy: AT&T requires devices to be fully paid off, and service active on a line for at least 60 days before it will process an unlock request. In our past experience, getting devices unlocked on AT&T often requires hours on the phone and occasionally results in failure and frustration when AT&T determines it is just not able to process a requested unlock.

AT&T Retired these plans on Feb 28, 2018 - these details are left here for those grandfathered in on the plan.

AT&T also offers two unlimited data plans, each offering unlimited talk and text. The Unlimited Choice starts at $60/month for a single line but is capped at 3 Mbps speeds and only includes SD video. Unlimited Plus start at $90/month for a single line. There is no speed cap, and smartphone & tablet lines include 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot data.

Here's an overview of AT&T's plan policies and perks:

  • AT&T Stream Saver & HD Video: All current AT&T plans (even unlimited) now come with the Stream Saver featured enabled by default, which throttles video streams to 480p "DVD Quality" resolution so that streaming video uses less data. This feature can be manually turned off to enable full-resolution HD streaming.
  • Mobile Hotspot: All AT&T Advantage plans include mobile hotspot use, letting you share your metered data however you wish. Unlimited Plus plans include 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use on smartphone and tablet plans, and internet only devices can be added with no mobile hotspot cap. Unlimited Choice plans do not include mobile hotspot as a feature on smartphones and tablets. Internet only devices on the choice plan do not have a data cap, but are still limited to 3Mbps speed.
  • No Overage Charges: The Advantage plans drop to 2G (128kbps) speed when all the high-speed data allotment for the month is used up, avoiding overage charges.
  • Rollover Data: AT&T Advantage plans include Rollover Data.  If you don't use all of your allotted data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used the next month. But you can not build up a balance - the unused data expires after just one month.
  • Unlimited DirecTV Streaming: AT&T owns DirecTV, and to encourage customers to sign up for both services streaming from the DirecTV app on a smartphone or tablet does not count against AT&T monthly data caps or towards network management thresholds on unlimited plans. Of course, AT&T Unlimited customers can stream any video service desired, but usage does count towards network management thresholds.
  • Domestic Roaming: AT&T's network has a decent sized off-carrier roaming area, with domestic data roaming limited to 400MB per month. If you exceed that, your data access may be shut down until you are back on AT&T native towers.
  • International Roaming: AT&T's international features are a bit confusing.
    • Mexico: Mobile Share Advantage plans with 10GB+ of data can automatically be used just like in the US in Mexico (some devices are exempt and will incur charges - check with AT&T before traveling), but not in Canada. Plans with less data get 1GB of high-speed Mexican data, but the feature must be turned on in advance before a trip. However, if a customer uses more than 50% of their data in Canada or Mexico for two consecutive months, the feature may be removed.
    • Canada & Mexico: The AT&T Unlimited plans have a "Roam North America" feature that allows for free voice, text, and data roaming in Canada & Mexico. However, if a customer uses more than 50% of their data in Canada or Mexico for two consecutive months, the feature may be removed.
    • Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America, and Asia Pacific
      • With activation of the International Day Pass feature (no charge to activate), AT&T customers can use their existing plans and all of their plan's features (including high-speed unlimited data) for $10 per device per 24-hour period. Note that the fine print indicates that this feature will be removed from the account if the majority of a  customer's usage is international for two months in a row.
      • A monthly Passport Package can also be activated (warning: these are pricey)
    • Rest of the World: A monthly Passport Package can also be activated (warning: these are pricey)

NOTE:  AT&T's Unlimited plans are subject to "network management" once an unlimited customer has used more than 22GB on a line in a month. Once this threshold is reached, AT&T "may slow data speeds" during periods of network congestion.

Data Only Plans

AT&T offers four different post-paid plans for data only devices: Data Connect, Mobile Share Data, Connected Car and Wireless Internet.

DataConnect

This plan does not use shared data - a data allotment must be purchased for each device.

  • Eligible Devices: Limited to a few data-only devices. DataConnect comes in two flavors with prices and data allotments that depend on the type of device:
    • Tablets, Connected Cameras:
      • 250MB - $15/mo
      • 3GB - $30/mo
      • 5GB - $50/mo
    • Mobile Hotspots, USB Modems, netbooks:
      • 10GB - $50/mo  (Note that a hotspot on DataConnect will get twice the data for the same $50/mo compared to a tablet)
  • Rollover Data: None. Data allowances, including overages, must be used in billing period or will be forfeited.
  • Data Overages: Additional data will automatically be provided in increments of 250MB at $14.99 on a 250MB plan or 1GB at $10/GB on the 3GB and larger plans.
  • International Roaming: Not included - If roaming outside the U.S., international data rates will be charged.  Some devices are eligible for AT&T Passport International data packages.
  • Tethering: Allowed on hotspots. Otherwise only allowed on Tablets that have the 5GB option.
  • WiFi Access: Includes access to AT&T's domestic public wifi hotspots
Connected Car

The AT&T Connect Car plan is an unlimited plan available only to select vehicles with built-in hotspots, such as GM's OnStar and Ford's SYNC systems.

Vehicles without a built-in hotspot are not eligible for this plan.  For other vehicles, the AT&T website will direct consumers to purchase the Mobley which can only be activated on Mobile Share Flex or DataConnect plans. The ability to activate the aftermarket Mobley plan on the Connected Car Unlimited plan retired in September 2017.

  • Eligible Devices: Vehicles with a built-in cellular hotspot.  A full list is available on the AT&T Connected Car website.
  • Price: $20/month per vehicle, maximum of 3 vehicles per account (3 vehicles on plan results in $60 monthly plan charge).
  • Data: Unlimited, subject to network management at 22GB.
  • Rollover Data: None. Data is unlimited.
  • Data Overages: None. Data is unlimited.
  • International Roaming: Limited to network affiliates in Canada.  No other international roaming allowed.
Wireless Internet

AT&T Wireless internet provides a "home" telephone line and data.  It is intended to service rural areas without landline internet service.

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  • Eligible Devices: Only available with the Wireless Internet device.
  • Data Allotment Options:
    • 10GB - $30/mo
    • 50GB - $40/mo
    • 100GB - $80/mo
    • There is an additional $20/month line access charge.
  • Rollover Data: None. Data allowances, including overages, must be used in billing period or will be forfeited.
  • Data Overages: Additional data will automatically be provided in increments of 1GB at $10/GB for the 10GB plan and 10GB at $25/GB for the 50GB and 100GB plans.
  • International Roaming: None allowed - this plan is intended to be a rural home internet replacement.
  • AT&T Stream Saver & HD Video: Comes with the Stream Saver featured enabled by default, which throttles video streams to 480p "DVD Quality" resolution so that streaming video uses less data. This feature can be manually turned off to enable full-resolution HD streaming.
  • Non-Complying Devices: Sim cannot be moved to another device.  AT&T fine print indicates a "non-complying device" allows AT&T to change the customer's plan to one that complies with the device.  Bottom line - don't move your sim to another device.
Mobile Share Data (Grandfathered)

Mobile Share Data plans are not available online - they can only be purchased at an AT&T store or by calling AT&T directly.  These plans appear to be unavailable to new AT&T customers but may be available to existing customers.  The Mobile Share Data plan can be shared by up to ten data-only devices. Smartphones are not eligible for this plan.

  • Eligible Devices: Tablets, Laptops/Netbooks, Mobile Hotspot devices, Gaming devices.
  • Data Allotment Options: Many options ranging from 4GB for $30/mo to 50GB for $335/mo. Data is shared by up to 10 devices on the plan.
  • Device Access Charges: Each device on the plan must also pay a monthly access charge.
    • Laptops/netbooks, Mobile Hotspots: $20/month.
    • Tablets, Gaming Devices: $10/month.
  • Rollover Data: None. Data allowances, including overages, must be used in billing period or will be forfeited.
  • Data Overages: Additional data will automatically be provided in increments of 1GB for $15/GB.
  • International Roaming: 15GB and larger plans include Mexico roaming. All other roaming will incur roaming fees.
  • Tethering: Allowed.  Limited to five devices simultaneously.

AT&T Recommendation

AT&T lags a bit behind Verizon in terms of raw geographic coverage and is often bested by the performance of T-Mobile.

AT&T's coverage is often strong in areas where other carriers are particularly weak, such as in remote west Texas, the Florida Everglades or in some areas of the Alaskan wilderness. And when Verizon towers are saturated, often nearby AT&T towers are still steaming along.

Verizon and AT&T together make a particularly potent combination for those who are optimizing for the best possible cellular connectivity. And some nomads are choosing to give AT&T a try as their primary data network.

T-Mobile Plans & Features

In August 2016 T-Mobile launched the "all unlimited" One and One+ plans, and in January 2017 T-Mobile retired its popular Simple Choice plans for new customers leaving the One plans as the only choice. In August 2017, T-Mobile added a senior plan with reduced pricing for account holders 55 years of age and older.

Current Plans

  • T-Mobile One smartphone and tablet plans start at a base price of $70 for unlimited talk, text, and data. If you need more than a single line, things get progressively cheaper the more lines you add.
  • T-Mobile offers 'Amp Up's to the base One plan that add on features like high speed mobile hotspot use, HD video and international roaming increases.

Here are some of the most interesting policies and perks of the T-Mobile One plan:

  • Unlimited (Almost) Everything: Talk, text, and on-device data are unlimited and there are no overage charges to worry about. But there ARE some important restrictions to be aware of.
    • Network Management: Customers who are in the top 3% of heaviest users on T-Mobile (currently those using 50GB/mo) are subject to network management once they have crossed this monthly threshold, which means that their ongoing usage will be slowed down relative to other T-Mobile customers - but only when towers are congested.
    • Domestic Roaming Limits: After 200mb of domestic roaming data usage, T-Mobile cuts off roaming network usage until your next billing cycle, or until you're back in a native area.
  • HD Video Streaming: The base One plan only includes 480p video resolution. However, upgrading to One+ or One+International allows for full HD resolution video streaming.
    • SD Video in Canada & Mexico: While usage is still unlimited in these countries, video will be throttled down to 480p.
  • Mobile Hotspot: All T-Mobile One plans include mobile hotspot use at 3G (512kbps) speeds. One+ customers (+ $10/mo) get 10GB of 4G  high-speed mobile hotspot or tethering use, and then 3G speeds for the remainder of the month for tethering. Customers who are paying the $25/mo "One+ International" upgrade get unlimited high-speed hotspot usage.
    • De-Prioritized Data: On-device data speeds are prioritized over mobile hotspot speeds, so on congested towers there may be a noticeable performance hit.
    • Primarily For On Device Usage: T-Mobile reserves the right to contact customers 'to discuss options' for those using the plans primarily as a mobile hotspot.
    • Standalone Hotspots: The One plans support smartphones and tablets, and dedicated hotspots and routers can NOT be used with unlimited plans. Metered data-only plans are still available for these types of devices.
  • Taxes & Fees Included: Beginning in January 2017, all T-Mobile One plans are flat priced and inclusive of taxes & fees.
  • The Uncontract: T-Mobile promises to never raise your prices or cancel your plan, even if the plan you are on is retired for new customers.
  • T-Mobile Tuesdays: Every Tuesday T-Mobile customers get something free for logging in to a special website. In the past it was weekly fully free pizza, though the offers have not been nearly as exciting in a while.
  • Gogo Inflight Wi-Fi: T-Mobile One plans include one hour per flight of free Gogo access to get a smartphone online, and for $5/mo the One+ plan adds unlimited Gogo usage and a few other perks.
  • International Roaming:
    • Mobile Without Borders - Canada & Mexico: All T-Mobile plans can be used anywhere in Mexico & Canada just as if you were at home, including tethering! T-Mobile does reserve the right to enforce a policy that the plan needs to be used 'mostly' in the USA, so extended snowbirds should be wary.
    • Simple Mobile - Rest of the World: T-Mobile plans include free unlimited international text messaging, and free unlimited data in over 140 counties internationally at a slow (but useable) 256kbps speed. T-Mobile also has reasonable rates for voice calls too.
  • Device Lock/Unlock Policy: T-Mobile requires that the device must be fully paid off, and active for at least 40 days. T-Mobile also restricts customers to just two unlock requests per line per year.

T-Mobile began phasing out Simple Choice plans in September 2016, and eliminated them in January 2017. However, they have gone on record that they will grandfather these plans for as long as customers keep paying their bill. These plans had tiered high-speed data caps, Binge On unlimited video streaming and Data Stash.

In particular, we regularly recommended the $35/month 6GB data only plan.

Here are some of the key features of this plan:

  • International: Binge On video streaming is not included outside the USA. Simple Choice customers can purchase pricey Data Passes for 3G international speeds for outside of North America.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: T-Mobile plans include mobile hotspot use, however they do prioritize on device data over tethered / mobile hotspot data on all smartphone and tablet plans when on congested towers.
  • Data Roll Over: Any high-speed data you don't use is rolled over into 'Data Stash' for up to a year. You can accumulate up to 20GB in this account, to use when you need it.
  • Overage Charges: T-Mobile never charges overage fees. Once you hit your high-speed data cap, you are simply slowed down to 2G speeds for the rest of the billing period.
  • Streaming:
    • Simple Choice - Binge On! All Simple Choice plans (postpaid) with 6GB of data or more include video streaming that does not count against your high-speed data cap on partnered networks (including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBONow, YouTube, etc.), but at DVD-quality lower resolution. It officially only works on-device or when tethered to a laptop - but many have reported success using the service now with Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, FireTV, etc (be sure to carefully watch your data usage!)  They also include free music streaming over many services. (Note, their Prepaid plans do NOT include the video streaming.) Binge On usage does count towards network management thresholds and is subject to slower speeds for high usage customers when on congested towers after using 32GB of data in a month.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: Include 14GB of high-speed mobile hotspot use, and are subject to network management.

Note: Reseller Millenicom still offers the Simple Choice data-only plans with the same pricing and benefits.

T-Mobile Recommendation

T-Mobile is the carrier to watch right now as their network expansion plans are impressive.  They may seriously challenge Verizon and AT&T in terms of coverage by the end of 2018.

While T-Mobile's coverage has been constantly expanding, at this time we still can not recommend T-Mobile as a primary carrier for travelers who need the most coverage nationwide.

But as a secondary carrier T-Mobile has a LOT to offer. Particularly for those needing great international support, T-Mobile is hard to beat.

Sprint

Sprint comes in last primarily because of its limited coverage.  It can be a good secondary option in urban areas and along major highways, but lack of coverage in many areas of the country relegates it to, at best, a supporting role for most travelers.

Policies & Perks

  • Domestic Roaming: Has a 100-300MB roaming cap per month on all of their data plans. If you go over, they start charging overage fees of 25 cents per megabyte. That can add up very quickly!
  • International: Sprint's international plans can be a bit confusing:
    • Premium International Experience Unlimited Freedom plan customers get free LTE data roaming, texts and voice calls in Mexico & Canada - deemed the "Premium International Experience."
    • Sprint Global Roaming Those who are not on an 'unlimited Freedom' plan are eligible for this option. You get free unlimited data, text messaging, and voice calls for 20-cents a minute – but data speeds are limited to 2G (64kbps) speed on the Global Roaming plan, even in Canada and Mexico. You must sign up for this 'add on' at least 3 days in advance of your international usage.
    • Data Passes If you are not eligible for the "Premium International Experience" (aka, on an Unlimited Freedom plan), but you still need faster access at faster than 2G speeds, you can purchase data passes. These passes provide you with full speed data for $2 a day or $10 a week - limited to the constraints (data limits) of your plan.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All Sprint tiered data plans include mobile hotspot use, and their unlimited data plans include 10GB of 4G high-speed use. You can add another 10GB of hotspot data to a line for an additional $30/ month ($25/ month for a tablet). Sprint does not offer unlimited hotspot data on any plan.
  • Data Roll Over: Sprint will roll unused data from their 10GB hotspot data only option to the next month, giving a potential 20GB of data available. This is not true for unused mobile hotspot data on a regular Freedom Unlimited phone line.
  • Overage Charges: Sprint never charges overage fees. Once you hit your high speed data cap, you are just simply slowed down to 2G speeds for the rest of the billing period.
  • Streaming: All streaming counts against data caps on Sprint. On unlimited plans, streaming is at available at HD resolution. Unlimited plans include a basic subscription to the Hulu streaming service.
  • Device Lock/Unlock Policy: Sprint requires devices to be fully paid off and active for 50 days, but once they are eligible Sprint automatically unlocks them.

Unlimited Data Plans

  • Sprint offers an unlimited smartphone plan called Unlimited Freedom that includes 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use, and is subject to network management after 23GB of use. HD video streaming is included, but music & gaming may be restricted in speed.

Recommendation: If you're sticking to urban areas and traveling mostly interstates, Sprint, particularly one of the high bandwidth or unlimited MVNO options, may be a worthwhile part of your arsenal. But for most travelers, Sprint is not an ideal option.

MVNO, Reseller and Prepaid Plans

Aside from postpaid plans direct from the carrier, there are many alternative plans on the market available. These options tend to be month-to-month (no contract), don't require credit checks (you pay in advance of your service period), 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 for a bit.

There are so many of these type choices out there and it can become overwhelming and confusing to navigate those options. Here on the Mobile Internet Resource Center we focus on the options that offer at least a few GB of mobile hotspot data. You'll find these options listed below in our Data Plan Selector.

Alternative cellular plan options tend to be classified into three categories - but the lines can get quite blurred:

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 tend to be directly negotiated and authorized contracts with the carrier to resell services.

Via an MVNO you can often get better deals and higher usage caps than you ever could by buying direct from carrier.

Usually, an MVNO is 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 examples of MVNOs include StraightTalk, Consumer Cellular, and FreedomPop. None of these companies are owned by the carriers themselves and are operated completely independently.

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 super-easy without requiring signing contracts or going through credit checks.

They also all have their own independent prepaid brands that they utilize to target specific markets. AT&T owns Cricket, Verizon owns Visible, T-Mobile owns MetroPCS and Sprint owns BoostMobile.

Resellers

These are companies that have acquired lines of service from the major carriers and then are reselling services - they might also call them rentals or leases. Unlike MVNOs who tend to have a specific agreement with the carriers to resell services, resellers don't generally 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, or going through master agents who do have legit business agreements with the carriers.

The Downside of MVNOs, Prepaid & Resellers

The four major carriers often favor their own name brand postpaid service over the cut-rate wholesale services they offer to MVNOs and resellers. And sometimes reseller plans that appear on the market are not officially authorized by the carrier.

While service provided by a prepaid, reseller, or MVNO may take advantage of the same underlying network, these plans can often have limitations for the trade-offs of lower costs and less commitments.

Those limitations may include:

  • Lack of mobile hotspot use on smartphone/tablet plans (or caps in place).
  • Hard throttling - caps on data speed in place all of the time .
  • Network management when on congested towers.
  • Reduced video resolution for streaming services.
  • Traffic in general de-prioritized over direct carrier traffic.
  • Lack of access to domestic roaming partner coverage (just the carrier's natively owned coverage).
  • Lack of international calling or international roaming.
  • Lack of features like Wi-Fi Calling or VoLTE.
  • Lack of direct carrier customer support - you have to deal with your reseller to elevate any carrier issues.
  • Limited choice of devices that the plan can be used on.
  • Devices used or purchased via a prepaid service may be locked in by the reseller for a significant amount of time, allowing those devices to not be used on different services for a while.
  • Terms and conditions can change at anytime, and existing plan holders tend not to get grandfathered in as often as on postpaid plans.

But the biggest downside is that the offerings may not last - and when the plans change, they are often not grandfathered in.

Every so often a reseller comes along with an offer that seems too good to be true. And all too often these offers, and even the reseller itself do not last for long once the underlying network provider starts to object or they realize their costs to deliver the service are higher than anticipated.

Remember these?

  • Millenicom: A previous staple in many RVer’s mobile internet setup for affordable Verizon data plans, until Verizon pulled the plug in 2014.
  • OmniLynx: In 2015 RVers who jumped quickly were able to get a couple months of unlimited Verizon data cheap from OmniLynx - before that deal evaporated and service was discontinued.
  • Karma’s Neverstop: Originally launched in November 2015 as an unlimited Sprint plan, but limits were slapped in place once Karma realized it could not afford the amounts of data its customers were consuming. Soon after Karma completely discontinued the plan.
  • Harbor Mobile: In May 2016, an AT&T business reseller offering great rates, was shut down by AT&T giving customers only 2-days to seek an alternative.

The important lesson here is to be ready to jump on great offers when they come along, but to be wary.

Always have a backup plan in place in case service gets cut off suddenly. Don't port in phone numbers that you want to keep long term unless it's a reliable long term company that has been in business a while ('fly by nights' may need to shut down quicker than you have an opportunity to port your number back out.).

Always keep in mind that the “no contract” terms go both ways!

And ALWAYS resist the temptation to break existing contracts or give up irreplaceable treasured grandfathered plans for a reseller’s offer which may not last.

Additional Member Only Content

If you're a MIA member, please log in to see the rest of this guide - which contains our extensive price comparison grid of many plans we're tracking, discounts offered by the carriers, suggested carrier combos and further tips.

Plan Guide

Here are all of the plans we're tracking on each of the carriers - from resellers, MVNOs, prepaid and more.  Use the filter buttons to find the plans that you're seeking, and click on the squares to get more information on the plans:

U.S. Cellular

The largest regional carrier offers plans that include nationwide coverage, but not for primary use.

FreedomPop

FreedomPop offers free cellular plans on Sprint and global plans including T-Mobile & AT&T.

Straight Talk

A TracFone brand available at Walmart offers prepaid mobile hotspot plans, primarily on Verizon and AT&T.

Virgin Mobile

Subsidiary of Sprint, offering prepaid smartphone plans with mobile hotspot use.

Simply Prepaid

T-Mobile’s lower cost prepaid native cellular phone & data plan.

Project Fi

Google’s unique MVNO option that combines the coverage map of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

Karma Go

Karma’s proprietary mobile hotspot provides service powered by Sprint.

$149

H2O Bolt

Reseller of AT&T offering dedicated data plans for mobile hotspots.

Postpaid Sprint Plans

Sprint’s own postpaid native cellular phone & data plan.

Sprint Prepaid

Sprint’s own prepaid native cellular phone plans.

MetroPCS

Owned by T-Mobile, MetroPCS offers competitive prepaid smartphone and standalone hotspot plans with tetherable data.

4G Antenna Shop

Offers month-to-month no contract plans on T-Mobile, AT&T and sometimes Verizon.

Sprint Unlimited Plan

This plan is now discontinued, and replaced with an Unlimitedville Rental Plan.

Consumer Cellular

Reseller of AT&T and T-Mobile, offering smaller data plans with mobile hotspot use.

Mobile Solutions (Defunct)

Offers month-to-month no contract unlimited plans on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. But poor customer service reported.

Boost Mobile

Subsidiary of Sprint, offering prepaid smartphone and mobile hotspot plans.

Join the MIA

Charge (Defunct)

Now defunct, Charge offered prepaid never expiring data on the Sprint network for smartphones and mobile hotspots.

Cricket Wireless

Subsidiary of AT&T offering prepaid smartphone plans with data usage.

Unlimitedville Rental Plans

Unlimitedville offers one-stop shopping for unlimited data plan rentals on AT&T, T-Mobile, & Verizon.

Non-Profit Sprint Unlimited Data Plans

A clause in the Sprint Clear WiMax purchase allows for non-profits to offer low cost unlimited data plans.

Tello

A Sprint MVNO with ‘build your own’ plans and either prepaid or pay-as-you-go options.

Millenicom

Offers T-Mobile smartphone and data plans at lower costs but with all the T-Mobile postpaid perks.

Wireless Home Phone & Internet

AT&T’s cellular data plan intended for homes, offers more GBs for the dollar.

Credo Mobile

Verizon reseller that includes mobile hotspot use on tiered data plans.

Boom! Mobile

Verizon reseller that includes mobile hotspot use on iPhones, and no roaming restrictions.

Republic Wireless

A Sprint / T-Mobile MVNO

Teltik

T-Mobile authorized reseller offering prepaid business plans with most of the perks of a direct T-Mobile account, at competitive prices.

US Mobile

T-Mobile & Verizon MVNO featuring smaller, hotspot ready, full speed data buckets on customizable plans.

Xfinity Mobile

Xfinity Mobile offers an unlimited data plan for Comcast cable TV and internet customers.

Skyroam

Global mobile hotspot with a virtual-SIM that allows you to purchase day passes for unlimited international use.

$99 - $149

Simple Mobile

A T-Mobile MVNO offering an unlimited data plan with tethering capabilities.

Unlimited LTE Advanced

Unlimited LTE Advanced offers an unlimited, prepaid, no credit check hotspot plan on the T-Mobile network.

Mint Mobile

Mint SIM offers multi-month prepaid plans with tethering capabilities on the T-Mobile network.

Pure Talk USA

AT&T MVNO offering prepaid smartphone plans with capped data usage and hotspot capability.

Wireless Internet Router & Data Plans by AT&T

AT&T’s cellular data plans & router intended for homes, but usable on the road for some.

$199

FMCA Data Plans

FMCA offers data plans on the Verizon and Sprint networks for FMCA members.

Konnected Router & Data Plans

An upstart in the mobile internet business, offering a mobile router packaged with unlimited type data plans in the near future.

DataPass

T-Mobile, Verizon & Sprint based MVNO.

UnlimitedToGo Rental Plans

UnlimitedToGo offers one-stop shopping for unlimited data plan rentals on Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Red Pocket

MVNO Red Pocket offers capped data plans on T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon & Sprint

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