Cell phone data plan comparison: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and more

woman talking on cell phoneCell phone data plans are hard to escape these days as hundreds of thousands of Google Android phones and Apple iPhones are activated every day. These smartphones bring access to the Web, streaming music, videos and apps -- all of which require a data connection to work. Most carriers now require a data package of some kind to be sold alongside these phones.

Over the past year carriers have rolled out many plan changes, switching from a one-size-fits all expensive unlimited data plan to cheaper, tiered-data plans. This choice is a double-edged sword. Many consumers would benefit from a smaller data plan and the carriers are competing on the cost of such plans, but also banking on the confusion of consumers to understand just how much data they need. Also, bundling data with minutes and other features makes comparison shopping troublesome.

On the heels of Verizon's new lower data plans, we've dug into the nitty gritty of cell phone data to find the plan pricing at the four major carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, as well as the plans available from several pre-paid carriers like Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile.

The following chart compares the cost of just the data plans for the four major carriers. If the data plan price cannot be removed from a package of minutes, as is the case with Sprint smart phones, a price is not listed. The next chart will help you compare the cost of data plans and minutes.

Data Plan Pricing for Major Carriers (as of October 28, 2010):

Feature Phone/smart phone smart phone only
User Type low data usage high data usage
AT&T $15/Mo for 200MB $25/Mo 2GB
Sprint $15/Mo unlimited (no smartphones) Only bundled with minutes
T-Mobile $24.99/Mo for 200MB $39.99/Mo Unlimited
Verizon $15/Mo for 150MB $29.99/Mo Unlimited

Because many carriers bundle the data plan with minutes, making a data plan-to-data plan comparison difficult, we've compiled the following chart that compares the price of minutes, data and sometimes texting to help you figure out which carrier would be the best deal for you. While the differences may seem minor by month, the annual cost can vary hundreds of dollars between each plan.

Data Plan Price Comparison with Minutes and Texting for smart phones (as of October 28 2010)

Carrier/Plan 300-500 Minutes Cheapest Data 300-500 Minutes and 2GB to Unlimited Data 500 to 1200 minutes and 2GB to Unlimited Data Unlimited Minutes, Texting and 2GB to Unlimited Data
AT&T $54.99 $64.99 $84.99 $114.99 ( 2GB Data)
Sprint NA $69.99 $89.99 $99.99
T-Mobile $54.98 $59.99 $69.99 $79.99
Verizon $54.99 $69.98 $89.98 $119.98 (5,000 texts)
Virgin Mobile ------- $25.00 $40.00 $60.00
Boost Mobile ------- ------- ------- $50.00

Bolded:
Prices include unlimited texting

With the new tiered-data plans, many users who don't plan to watch streaming movies or listen to services like Pandora can survive on the lower-end plans. If you are a streaming media junkie who isn't around a reliable WiFi connection, you will often want to go for the higher-end or unlimited data plans.

The good news is that the data plans can be switched easily on most carriers allowing you to pick one and evaluate your usage after a month or two. the other good news is that going over the limit is generally more affordable now, though you'll want to check with your carrier instead of assuming it has a heart.

If you want to further compare plans and coverage, we suggest you check out BillShrink's free cell phone price comparison tool, which can even analyze your current usage to help you find the best plan for your needs and location.

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