The beauty of the unlocked, contract-free phone is that you get to choose a carrier with the price and plan that suits you best. And if you find a better deal down the road or you're not happy with the service, it's a simple matter to switch.
Do you get what you pay for?
Sounds great, right? Here come a few caveats. For starters, MVNOs don't always deliver the same features and coverage as their Big Four brothers, despite operating on the very same networks. Virgin Mobile, for example, lacks the nationwide roaming coverage afforded by Sprint, meaning voice calls from the boonies might cost you extra. And Cricket Wireless charges Android users extra for its mobile-hotspot option -- and doesn't offer it at all for iPhone owners.
Then there's data. All the "starting at" prices listed in the carrier descriptions that follow include at least some data in their plans. However, as is the norm these days, virtually all the carriers will cap your throughput at a certain point, giving you X-amount of 4G speed and then dropping you back to a slower rate of throughput (usually something akin to 2.5G, but this isn't always specified). In other cases, your plan might include only, say, 500MB of data, after which you'd have to pay per-megabyte overage charges.
How much data do you really need? That can be hard to judge. Back in 2013, a Nielsen study pegged average U.S. smartphone use at just 733MB per month. By the end of 2014, that number had skyrocketed to 2GB. And in the first quarter of 2015, it was up to 2.5GB, according to industry analyst Chetan Sharma. If you've never tracked how much data you consume in a month, or you know it varies a lot, you might want to consider a carrier that offers pay-as-you-go billing, rollover data or a refund for unused data.
Make sure, too, to read all the fine print. Does your MVNO include things like picture messaging? RingPlus, for example, charges extra for each MMS you send. And what about porting your number? There might be a fee. A few carriers, including TextNow, have problems handling short-code text messages, which are used to deliver everything from Amber Alerts to airline boarding passes to Starbucks deals. Figure out what's important to you and what you can do without.
Don't want to make sacrifices? You may not have to: In the past year all four Big Four carriers have made significant changes to their offerings, especially when it comes to pricing and family plans. For example, as of press time, Sprint and T-Mobile each offer four-line plans for $120 per month, or $30 per person. (See: Good News from the Big Four's Price War.)
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