AT&T & TMobile / Dose

What You Need To Know About Picking An Unlimited Wireless Plan

None of the plans are truly unlimited.

Welcome to the Glad You Asked series, a shame-free zone where we tackle topics you’re too embarrassed to ask even your BFF about. Don’t worry, we gotchu.

Remember how all the big cell phone providers used to offer unlimited data? I remember paying $30 a month for all the data I wanted from Verizon. Then, in the space of a few months, all the major carriers started forcing customers to choose plans that limited data use to 3GB or 4GB a month, for example.

It was a real slap in the face, because suddenly we had to be careful about accessing the internet from our phones.

But unlimited data is back, baby. As of February, all four of the major wireless companies in the country are once again offering unlimited data plans.

So what’s the catch? And which plan is the best?

Let’s dive in.

First of all, none of these plans are truly “unlimited.”

The “unlimited” plans now offered by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and TMobile each come with a usage threshold where, once you hit it, your internet surfing can be “throttled.” Verizon’s unlimited plan (which is $80 a month), for example, offers 22GB of full-speed data. Beyond that point, the company reserves the right to “prioritize your data,” which is double-speak for throttling. Throttling means you’ll still be able to use apps on your phone, but things will load at slower speeds and video won’t stream in HD — especially if you’re in a congested area.

So your data is unlimited, but after a certain point things might start moving significantly slower.

AT&T has the same throttling threshold as Verizon does. Sprint’s unlimited plan (which is $50/month, for now, anyways) has a slightly higher data cap of 23GB. TMobile offers the highest data cap of the four carriers (28GB).

Each of the four providers limits “tethering.” Tethering is when you use your phone as a sort of portable WIFI network — aka a “mobile hotspot.” This is a great feature because it lets you go online from your laptop in the park on a nice spring day, for example.

But AT&T’s unlimited plan (which is $90/month) prohibits tethering entirely, and the other three carriers limit your tethering usage to 10GB a month, which is a lot, but not that much.

Here are some other caveats:

  1. You have to sign up for automatic payments to get unlimited plans from Verizon, TMobile and Sprint. (If you’re an existing Sprint customer, bad news — the company’s unlimited plan isn’t available to you at all). AT&T doesn’t require aut0-pay for its unlimited plan.
  2. Verizon, TMobile and Sprint all require you to enroll in paperless billing to qualify for their unlimited plans. I can’t imagine why this would pose a problem, but it’s good to know anyways.
  3. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint charge extra taxes and fees for their unlimited plans. TMobile does not.
  4. If you stream a lot of music or video, there are significant differences between the four plans. Neither Verizon, AT&T or TMobile limits the resolution of streaming video on their unlimited data plans, but Sprint limits the quality of video streams to 1080p.

So which plan is best?

Gizmodo and Whistleout — a site that exists solely for comparing wireless plans — both say TMobile’s unlimited plan is the best deal based on price and features. TMobile’s plan is a flat $70/month (no extra taxes or fees) and that includes unlimited calling and texting in addition to the limitless data.