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November 10, 2017

Best Small Data Plan

by John_A

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A good small data plan does exist, even if nobody advertises them.

Unlimited plans get all the press and all the glitter, but most people don’t need one. That’s why small data plans still exist and are popular options.

Shopping for a phone plan is unnecessarily difficult, especially now that all four big U.S. carriers want to force you to the more expensive unlimited data offering. But there are alternatives if you dive deep into a carrier’s website, and some of them are a decent value.

We did the digging, and here’s what we found.

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AT&T

AT&T’s best single-line value for folks who don’t want or need unlimited data is their $45 AT&T Prepaid offering. There are some cheaper plans like the Prepaid $35 plan or using a single line on the Mobile Share Advantage Family Plan for $30, but you’ll get far less data to use each month for very little difference in price. A look at the Prepaid $45 plan

$45 per month 6GB LTE dataUnlimited talk and text in the USUnlimited talk and text to Canada and MexicoRoaming in Mexico & Canada (Talk, Text & Data)Unlimited text to over 100 countries

Once 6GB of high-speed data is used, you’ll be slowed down to 128kbps data speeds for the remainder of the month. AT&T also offers a discount for multiple lines on one account. You save $5 for each line up to a maximum of five (a $20 total).

For comparison’s sake, this same plan with unlimited data is available for $65.

AT&T also offers a $35 monthly plan with all the perks above and a 1GB monthly data allotment. Signing up for Autopay will save $5 each month on all Prepaid plans.

The comparable 6GB Mobile Share Advantage postpaid plan (you’ll need to use a postpaid plan you finance a phone through AT&T) comes in at $60 per month, but includes rollover data.

See plans at AT&T

Sprint

In addition to its prepaid plans, Sprint offers a postpaid option for folks who only use a small amount of data each month.

$45 per month 2GB LTE data (including tethering)Unlimited talk and textUnlimited international text

Customers who sign up for autopay can save $5 per month. Sprint advertises its 2GB plan as “the lowest price entry plan among national carriers.” This is true if you use autopay, but in many cases, a few dollars more gets you a plan with double the data.

For reference, Sprint’s single-line unlimited data plan is $60 per month.

One thing we will have to say here is that Sprint makes it easy to shop for what you need. This postpaid option isn’t buried or hidden behind several pages that feature the unlimited plan.

See plans at Sprint

T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s only postpaid plan for new customers is its unlimited offering. It does have several prepaid options available.

$45 per month 4GB of LTE data (including tethering)Unlimited talk and textMusic Unlimited (stream music without using your data)Wi-Fi calling

T-Mobile also offers the same plan with 6GB of LTE data for $55 per month. International talk and text packages are extra and start at $5 per month. The fine print for T-Mobile’s Simply Prepaid plan has a few things that need mentioning. You are given 50MB of out-of-network roaming each month, and calling plan options only support a two-party conversation; Conference calls may cost extra.

For reference, T-Mobile’s unlimited prepaid plan is $75 per month.

T-Mobile is the king of “limited time offers” and have a current prepaid promotion that’s pretty darn great.

$50 per month 10GB of LTE data (including tethering)Unlimited talk and textMusic Unlimited (stream music without using your data)Wi-Fi calling

The fine print on this one reads: Plus taxes & fees. Limited-time offer, subject to change. Compatible device and qualifying plan req’d.

See plans at T-Mobile

Verizon

$35 ($551) 2GB of LTE data (including tethering)Unlimited Talk and TextRollover data (30 days maximum)Additional data for $15 per gigabyte

1All Verizon plans have a $20 line-access fee.

Verizon offers this plan with more monthly data in two other options: 4GB of LTE data for $50 per month and 8GB of LTE data for $70 per month. Also note that a $20 line access fee is required for each phone using any of Verizon’s “Small Data Plans.”

All postpaid plans allow you to continue to use data at lower speeds once your monthly allotment is reached. These postpaid plans do not include any equipment fees if you need to buy a phone from Verizon.

*See plans at Verizon

The best small data plan

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This is hard, because there is no one small data plan that stands out.

AT&T’s $45 plan offers a great value with 6GB of data and AT&T has good nationwide coverage. T-Mobile’s promotional plan with 10GB for $50 is a better deal, but limited time could mean anything and T-Mobile isn’t going to be a great option for people in rural and exburb areas. Sprint can get you online for cheap once you enroll in Autopay, but a 2GB plan on a struggling network isn’t very exciting. Verizon’s data plans are priced right, their network is great almost everywhere in the country, but the $20 line access fee brings the price up to $55 each month.

Where you live will determine which small data plan is best

Coverage, coverage, coverage. We can’t say it enough — a data plan is no good unless it works in the places you need it to work.

Pricing is important. We’re not trying to deny that. But saving $5 or even $10 per month for service you can’t use is not a good value. The same goes for plans with more data. Having more GB per month that you’ll never use because the service is bad is not a good plan for you, no matter the pricing or perks. That’s why our pick for the best small data plan is split into three different sections.

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Overall, AT&T offers the best small data plan as of November 2017

A few factors influence our decision here, and it’s important to understand them in case our pick isn’t the best for you.

  • Coverage. AT&T has a very good nationwide data network, and they are using remote and small cell solutions to combat the congestion that happens everywhere there are more people than a network can handle.
  • Phone choice. A lot of phones are optimized for AT&T’s network, but almost every phone from any company you buy in 2017 will work on AT&T. That means a $50 Android phone from Amazon or a $1200 256GB iPhone X.
  • International perks. International use isn’t the most important part of our decision making process, but knowing you can call or text a friend or relative in Canada or Mexico is pretty awesome. So is being able to use your phone while on vacation in Aucopolco or Prince Edward Island.
  • More data than you need at the same price as others. You’re shopping for a small data plan, but the same $45 you’ll spend at another carrier gives you 6GB of LTE data to use. Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Check the coverage maps. Check with your friends. Check the forums and ask other folks in your area. If AT&T has the coverage you need, this is the plan to pick.

See at AT&T

The alternatives

We said AT&T covers almost everyone in the U.S. There are places where you won’t be able to use AT&T, though. If this means you, then you likely only have one choice.

Verizon’s coverage makes their small data plan a must-have for many. Most people in the United States are concentrated in urban and suburban areas. But some of us aren’t, and even more of us work in places far away from the concrete and asphalt of a city. Verizon will give you the best coverage and you’ll have 2GB of data for $55 each month.

See at Verizon

There are also a whole lot of us in a whole lot of places where coverage isn’t really an issue. When every carrier will give you the service you need, there’s another option if you are shopping today.

That T-Mobile limited-time offer. 10GB for $50 is easily the best value here. If T-Mobile has the coverage you need and you’re shopping right now, it’s a simple choice — go magenta. Just take a long look at the coverage situation and make sure you’re part of the 95%+ that can use T-Mobile.

See at T-Mobile

An MVNO is might be the best answer

Looking at all the offerings from the carriers above, one thing is clear:

The Big Four carriers want you to sign up for an expensive unlimited plan, and their pricing on small data plans often is so close to the unlimited plan that it’s difficult to recommend them.

There is a better solution that will fit almost anyone, and it’s because all four carriers have agreements with alternative carriers, or MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators). A prepaid option from an MVNO is mostly identical to the prepaid plans from the carriers themselves, and you’ll find a wider selection of plans, and usually with a better price. Companies like Cricket, Straight Talk, or Mint SIM can beat the Big Four’s pricing and give you the same service on the same network.

Update November 2017: This article was updated with the most current information from all carriers.

Carriers

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  • Which unlimited plan should you buy?
  • Verizon’s Unlimited plans: Everything you need to know
  • Everything you need to know about the T-Mobile ONE unlimited plan
  • Everything you need to know about the AT&T Unlimited plan
  • Everything you need to know about Sprint’s Unlimited Freedom plan
  • Join the Discussion

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