A good small data plan does exist, even if nobody advertises them.
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.
AT&T offers unlimited and "data share" postpaid plans for customers who are buying a phone (they are required as part of the NEXT program). If you bring your own phone, you will need to use its prepaid goPhone plans.
|$45 per month||6GB LTE data
Unlimited talk and text in the US
Unlimited talk and text to Canada and Mexico
Roaming in Mexico & Canada (Talk, Text & Data)
Unlimited text to over 100 countries
Once 6GB of 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 $30 monthly plan with all the perks above and no bundled data allotment. Data packages are $5 for 250MB.
In addition to its prepaid plans, Sprint offers a postpaid option for folks who only use a small amount of data each month.
|$40 per month||2GB LTE data (including tethering)
Unlimited talk and text
Unlimited international text
Sprint advertises its 2GB plan as "The lowest price entry plan among national carriers." However, Verizon offers a 2GB plan for $35, and 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.
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 text
Music Unlimited (stream music without using your data)
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 mentioned. 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.
|$35||2GB of LTE data (including tethering)
Unlimited Talk and Text
Rollover data (30 days maximum)
Additional data for $15 per Gigabyte
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.
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.
The best small data plan
There are a few things in common with all four carriers: The listed prices in all advertisements are for customers who use autopay for their monthly bill. Each carrier slows down your data to 2G speeds once you hit a cap on data, which is right around 20GB per line. And no carrier guarantees great coverage, no matter what their coverage maps might say.
Verizon offers the best small data plan in the U.S.
Overall, Verizon has the best small data plan you can buy in its 2GB for $35 option or the 4GB for $50 option. Here's how we reached the decision.
Which companies offer the coverage you need? Having a cheap cell phone bill isn't so great if your phone doesn't work where you need it to work. Verizon has the best coverage of any U.S. carrier. We're not basing this on surveys or coverage maps; this is based on real-world use all over the country. While there are some places where you won't have a Verizon signal but will have coverage from another carrier, these are few and far between.
Extra data at $15 per GB makes a big difference. If you're looking for a plan with just a bit of LTE data, knowing that you can buy more at any time is great. When paired with a $35 monthly plan and Verizon's coverage, it's hard to beat if you don't use much data. With the 4GB plan for $50, you also have a great option if 2GB just doesn't cut the mustard.
Unlimited low-speed data and 30-day rollover for unused data are great features. While it would be nice to see Verizon refund you for unused data each month, carrying it over to the next month is the next best thing. And while low-speed data on Verizon can be frustratingly slow, it's fast enough to let you check your email or read Twitter (or order another Gigabyte online if you need more for the month).
Coverage, coverage, coverage. Even if you only use a little bit of data each month, you need to know you'll have a good connection when you need it. Coupled with the low cost of the entry level 2GB plan and the $15/GB buy up, this is the best small data plan you can buy in the U.S. The only time you should consider anyone else is if you're streaming music and use a service that's covered under T-Mobile's Music Unlimited feature and live where T-Mobile has great service.
The best news is that everything here is subject to change at any time! Because the market has become so competitive for unlimited data, companies will constantly be adjusting prices and features. When one company makes a move the rest will soon follow with their own new pricing or other offers.
We'll keep things updated here as changes happen and maybe next month we'll be recommending a different company.