More people should be looking to ditch their unlimited data plan

Verizon logo
Verizon logo (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The advent of unlimited data plans in the U.S., taking off starting in 2017, has simplified billing and relieved stress for a ton of people. Per-gigabyte data plans started to seem antiquated — and potentially expensive — as we headed toward a future of video calls, multiplayer gaming, sharing huge photo and video files, and all-streaming media consumption. But now that we're all on unlimited data plans, it's reasonable to ask if we maybe went a bit too far in desiring unlimited data and are now getting a raw deal.

How to save money by switching from a Big Three carrier to an MVNO

Fear of data overages led us to sign up for unlimited — but not everyone benefited.

Our fear of data overage charges that led us to sign up for unlimited offerings didn't end up saving us much money, if any. Data plans are, well, still expensive in the U.S. Even though the plans have been simplified into a single "unlimited" umbrella where we don't have to watch gigabytes, the prices aren't particularly low to reflect the one-size-fits-all simplicity. To get an unlimited plan in the U.S. that isn't completely barebones — aka one that includes extras like hotspot and 5G access — you need to spend $70 at T-Mobile, $75 (plus taxes) at AT&T and $80 (plus taxes) at Verizon. And of course, as we know, there are plenty of asterisks involved with that "unlimited" data usage — and in each case there's a higher unlimited tier with more tacked-on features.

I noted back in early May that my Google Fi bills have been tiny thanks to its usage-based billing system that charges for data by the gigabyte in a time where the coronavirus pandemic has us all traveling less. When we're spending less time at home and on Wi-Fi, data usage reduces dramatically — but unless you have an innovative data plan like Google Fi's, your bill is just as high as it ever was. It's a perfect example of how an unlimited plan just doesn't make sense for everyone. Outside of the current situation, there are still many people who just don't use much mobile data — yet they've been pulled into paying for unlimited anyway.

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

But what can you do when all three (RIP, Sprint) major carriers only offer unlimited plans? The answer for a ton of people is to get a prepaid phone plan — but unfortunately that "prepaid" word kills the discussion with most, no matter how well they would be served by making the switch. But if you're feeling fleeced paying for unlimited data even though your own data needs haven't changed dramatically in the last few years, you really need to consider it.

The decision is simple: if you know you're going to regularly use a lot of data, say 10GB or more per month, then stick with your unlimited plan. You're loving the move to unlimited because you can keep using a ton of data and no longer worry about excess charges or pre-determined slowdowns. But there are a lot of people out there who switched to unlimited plans because their carrier gave them no other choice, not because they needed to.

Think of prepaid service as a no-frills offering, not a second-rate one.

The second part of choosing to get a prepaid plan is whether you currently have a multi-line plan or not. If you have just a single line, you're a prime candidate for a prepaid plan. If you have two or more lines, the big U.S. carriers actually have a solid offering that makes the per-line costs quite close to prepaid offerings; and the simplicity of being billed once for both lines sure is nice. But if you're perhaps part of a "family" plan with friends, or hanging onto your parents' plan years later, it may still be worth considering heading out on your own for the independence of being billed on your own.

So, why not give prepaid a look? If the "prepaid" word seems somehow negative or lower quality, it shouldn't. Think of prepaid service as a no-frills offering, not a second-rate one. The data is the same, and the networks are the same — you're just only paying for what you actually use. And in many ways, the billing is simpler than the big carriers. You can enroll in auto-pay, there's often no additional taxes or fees charged beyond the advertised price, and in some cases you can pre-pay for six months or a year for a true "set it and forget it" experience. Nothing is simpler than that.

Best prepaid phone plans

You shouldn't be subsidizing people on the network using 25GB of data while you use 3GB.

Offers with ultra-low-cost prepaid offerings like Mint Mobile (opens in new tab) bring you upwards of 12GB of data per month for under $30. T-Mobile's Metro prepaid plans get you 10GB for $40, Verizon's prepaid plan has 16GB (with rollover) for $45 (opens in new tab), and AT&T's prepaid plan offers 8GB (with rollover) for $50 (opens in new tab). If you haven't looked at prepaid in a while, you may be surprised to see the data is plentiful and cheap — and it has no grey areas about what you're paying for or how much you get to use. And because the data allotment is defined and prepaid, there's no chance of accidental overages or big bills — a main contributor to many people switching to unlimited plans in the first place.

Of course you're losing out on extra features of a traditional carrier plan, like simple phone financing, in-store customer support, congested network prioritization, and the like — but with savings in the hundreds of dollars per year, you may be willing to give those up. And most importantly, if you weren't paying to use an "unlimited" amount of data to begin with, it's going to feel great to only be paying for the amount of data you actually use — not subsidizing the people on the network using 25GB per month while you use 3GB.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • I actually went the prepaid route last December. It was the best decision I made regarding my phone plan. I only pay $43 a month for T-Mobile , haven't had a issue so far service wise.
  • This Month, just a little over 100GB, the rest of today and in 9 days My cycle starts over again.
    I consistently use More than 100GB every month just on My line.
    One month I had used just over 330GB in 1 month on My line.
    I NEED an Unlimited Plan.
    Now that there's 5G, it will be a LOT Easier to blow by 100GB even faster.
  • ATT unlimited tablet MB prepaid?
  • That's impressive. And as I note in the article, there are obviously people for whom the unlimited plan makes a ton of sense. Most people don't use this much data, or anywhere near it.
  • I value the unlimited national calling more than the 20GB of 4G Data I get, after which is throttled to 3G. I consume most of my data at home via cable WiFi, which obviously does not impact mobile data. $75 a month in 🇨🇦 dollars is good value for me.
  • My wife and I each get 16GB a month on AT&T Prepaid (they were running a double data special last summer). With auto pay discounts we pay $76 a month total, so $38 per line. plus it has rollover so I usually have over 20GB available each month.
  • I for one prefer the unlimited plans and don't have to worry about the data limits. I easily go over 10 GB so pay or GB plans aren't that great for me.
  • This article is nonsense. Just because the author does not need unlimited data doesn't mean the rest of us is in the same boat. And the claim that it's sooo expensive is crap too. I have 4 lines on Verizon - 2 phones, 2 tablets. All have unlimited with Hotspot capabilities. Monthly bill $170.
    I live rural with no real high speed internet. Verizon is a life saver for us. The only phone company in the area charges an arm and a leg for their crappy service. So unlimited IS essential!
  • Clearly you didn't read the article.... 
  • Nowhere did I say that everyone should leave unlimited plans. I recognize that a lot of people benefit from the simplicity of unlimited or do use a ton of data. But that's not the case for everyone, and those who have access to good Wi-Fi and use less mobile data shouldn't be stuck overpaying for unlimited they don't need.
  • Been thinking of a Verizon PrePaid plan or alternative for some time but hearing from folks who live and travel in the rural West outside of the major cities or highways, connection speeds are either throttled to a point of not being able to use or reception quality that literally stinks. I've yet to read real reviews of inexpensive plans that offer true high quality connections. Sure, sitting at home, using wifi, almost any plan will get you connected. However, these are 'mobile phones' were talking about and I want quality connections, not some garbled, throttled mish mash, especially in rural Colorado and the West.
  • Verizon is the worst with their deprioritization. I would look at other carriers otherwise you may get data that is not even usable. 
  • The Title of the Article is Wrong.
    MORE People Should get Unlimited Plans!
    More People who are Now staying Home are Now realizing the Capabilities of their Phones and the limitations.
    5G phones are coming into their own and will mature with time which will make consuming MORE Data, FASTER.
    More people are consuming More Data through their Mobile Devices away from home every day.
    The people who were content with 2GB of Data are CRYING about those Data Plans and have Upgraded.
    2GB, 5GB, 10GB, 20GB, 50GB, 100GB, 200GB and so on.
    One day eventually people will be consuming more than 100GB in less than 1 Weeks time.
    So as I said before, the Title of the Article is WRONG!
  • Not really. Most who are at home have Wifi so are not "blowing through the plans" Also not sure how you are using over 100gb in a week unless you are not working. 
  • Anyone who has ever been deprioritized knows that no amount of saving make up for the unusable speeds they give when deprioritized. 
  • With a passing mention of network prioritization, the author really does a disservice to those considering a change in plan type/usage. Sure the perks offered on the postpaid plans are more bait and switch than value provided. But if you live in a densely populated area, MVNO's ala prepaid does save you some cash at the expense of having an actual data connection. In NYC, I have tried the following, all in same year 2019 (AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile). I had postpaid and then tried prepaid. ALL prepaid, even direct from carrier offerings were aggressively network DEprioritized. It happened daily. And I am NOT a heavy data user (avg 3GB-6GB/month). Add in the atrocious customer service that is often attached to those MVNO's and heaven help you if you have an even slightly complicated issue to resolve. You will LITERALLY spend HOURS/DAYS in unproductive chats, forced to battle restarted scripts. The carriers KNOW EXACTLY what they are doing though. Make the prepaid cheap enough, but make the experience so bad customers will flock back. Unless they are masochists.
  • I dropped my T-Mobile unlimited plan and switch to the pay as you go Google Fi plan. $30 plus taxes is far cheaper then the $80 I was paying. Since I am home almost all the time I can't see using more then 1GB a month for some time. I only regret I didn't do this 2 months ago.
  • With the promotions I got in on with T-Mobile a couple years ago during the carrier wars I have 3 lines unlimited (with no restrictions on video quality and 10GB hotspot for each line) for $100 after taxes and fees. Two of the lines also qualify for $10 off (kickback) if I use under 2GB in a month on those lines for a potential of $80. Usually I pay $90 or $100 though. I think I'll stick with what I have.
  • I have that exact same plan -- 2 lines unlimited for $100, and then I got a third line free during a promotion. And then Kickback to discount the bill if I use less data. All of which means I can never change anything or leave T-Mobile because I will never get a deal this good again. :P
  • Good advice to not pay for what you don't/won't use. I'm a fan of MVNOs as their unlimited data plans are less likely to overcharge for data. My personal favorite is Visible. I have my daughter and wife on the plan as friends and we pay 30 per person with unlimited data for all. 5g is a pipe dream for now, but will have to see if we need it once it's everywhere
  • Fi is only a good option if you 1. Are a very light data user or 2. On WiFi all the time. If you are a normal user, it's not really cheaper than the other options/carriers.
  • The author is just stating the obvious to what people already do with their phone plans. Most people have common sense enough to choose a plan that suits them the best financially whether limited or unlimited. Also being pretentious about the unlimited plans being expensive? They're not expensive at all for what you're getting if you use a large amount of data. Geezus 🤦🏽‍♂️
  • "...if you use a large amount of data."
    Like you, the author made the distinction between heavy data users and light data users. Geezus There are tons of people out there that really don't understand at all what phone data is. They get the unlimited plans despite the fact they have access to WiFi at work and home and don't use much data anywhere else. Many have misconceptions like they need data to make calls or text. They're not stupid, they're just tech ignorant. I've tried to enlighten several non-tech oriented friends, family members, and coworkers about data; Much like the article above. About 10 seconds into the conversation, their eyes glaze over and they politely nod in agreement. I doubt I've ever convinced any one of them to get off an unlimited plan. I would like to see stats from the carriers on what percentage of their unlimited data plans that use less than say 5 gigs. I can't back this up, but I imagine it would be a significant percentage. This was an underlying point in the article, but unfortunately, the data-ignorant don't read AC.
  • Metro PCS with Unlimited data 3 lines for $90.
    I personally used 30+ gigs every month though my wife and kid uses less then 5.
    $90 for completely unlimited service is great. Hopefully they get 5g service eventually.
  • Have Verizon prepaid and love it. 6 gb $36.50 a month. And your article is NOT CORRECT about lack of in store service. I've gone to my local verzion store for assistance.
  • I used to have the grandfather Unlimited plan on Verizon, until about a year ago. I use 40 to 90GB a month on my phone, half of that is by hotspot. So you can see why I would not want to give it up, but it was $$$. I switched to Visible (who uses Verizon), with 3 lines and pay $30 a month (including tax) per line. I still use the same amount of data in the same way with no issues what so ever. Only thing that Visible doesn't have at the moment is 5G. I'm 100% fine with that.
  • My crappy home broadband went out completely in April and since I am not letting anyone into my home yet to fix it or get a new broadband company, I need my T-mobile unlimited data plan.