Updated from 8:13 a.m. to include additional information regarding T-Mobile data plans.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Finding the best monthly wireless plan used to be easy. You went into a store, selected a phone and how many voice calling minutes you needed and were then given a monthly price. They never really warned you about all the taxes and fees you'd would find on your monthly statement. You just signed an agreement and you were on your way.
It's much more complicated these days. Now you need to decide how you intend to pay for your phone, how much wireless data you need each month (unlimited voice calls and messaging are usually included) and whether you're part of a "group" which qualifies for special discounts.
So, what are the best plans you can find for your brand new Android smartphone?
AT&T (T) calls its offering AT&T Next. Once you decide which phone you want you only have to pay all the taxes up front. AT&T will then split the actual cost of the phone into 20, 24 or 30 monthly payments. With the Next plan you can trade in that iPhone for a newer model after either 12, 18 or 24 payments.
In the unlikely event you grow tired of your new Android phone you can opt to trade it for a different phone after as few as two months. Under AT&T's Pay to Upgrade option all you have to do is make a lump payment of the remaining 12, 18 or 24 monthly phone payments you originally agreed to. OK, that's just dealing with the actual phone.
Then, you add the monthly service charges. Those are a little more straightforward. Just a little. For 1 GB of wireless data under AT&T's Mobile Sharing Plan the cost is $25. That's in addition to the discounted monthly Next access charge of $25 for a total of $50. 2 GB of data adds up to $65/month. And 3 GB is $65,, while 5 GB has a $95 monthly service charge.
All of this does get cheaper if you're part of a family or group. The more monthly wireless data you share the cheaper it comes out to per person. AT&T largest bundle offers 100 GB of shared data for $375/month plus those devices access charges.
While Sprint (S) offers a $50/month single-line service plan for iPhones it will cost you $60 for the same unlimited talk, text and data for your Android smartphone. It's still a great price for unlimited service (when you're using Sprint's network and not roaming) but less great than what they offer iPhone users.
There's also a lot of fine print to deal with. First of all there's a $36 (per line) activation fee. The plan "Includes unlimited domestic long distance calling, texting and data. Third-party content/downloads are an additional charge. International services are not included." And then there's what that unlimited plan doesn't include: "Monthly charges exclude taxes & Sprint Surcharges [incl. USF charge of up to 16.10% (varies quarterly), up to $2.50 Admin. & .40 Reg. /line/mo. & fees by area (approx. 5-20%)]." Yes, all carriers add fees and have to collect taxes but make sure you read everything to know what's in store for your billing.
Sprint also offers Family Sharing plans with a $15 monthly access charge. Data "buckets" run from $20/month for only 1 GB to $100 for 20 GB and up to $225/month for 150 GB that as many as 10 users can share.
T-Mobile (TMUS) was the first major carrier to emphasize the trend breaking down phone purchases/leases (T-Mobile calls it "Jump!") and monthly service charges which the self-proclaimed "Un-carrier" calls "Simple Choice."
There's a $50/month 1 GB of LTE data plan. Actually, you get 2.5 GB per line through 2015, Add $30 for another phone and $10 for each additional phone on the same bill. With four or more phones each user gets 4.5 GB per month through 2015,
There's also a new unlimited plan for two or more family members. For $100/month two people get unlimited 4G/LTE data (along with all the other unlimited services). The only real limit is that the deal is said to be a "limited time offer."
So, for two people, the choice is either $80/month for 1 GB of data each or $100/month for unlimited data. Nothing in between. Don't forget, we're talking about cellular data. Using your phone to surf the Web on a Wi-fi network (at home or away) doesn't count toward your monthly cellular data limits.
T-Mobile also announced it will offer the rolling over of any unused cellular data to customers with plans of 3 GB or more each month. Beginning in January instead of losing those unused megabytes DataStash will let customers bank them in their accounts for a year. Then, it can be used when it's really needed. T-Mobile is giving subscribers an additional 10 GB of data at the start to sweeten the deal.
Verizon (VZ) Edge is what the nation's "largest, most reliable" nationwide carrier calls its handset payout plan. Edge customers can opt for a single-line monthly service plan for a little as $45 (with 1 GB of data) or $65/month for 2 GB. If you're not enrolled in Verizon Edge add $15/month to those prices.
The company's bulk-rate discount offering is called the "More Everything" plan. You buy the phone (with Edge, or pay the full price upfront) and then a $40 Monthly Access Fee plus the cost of your bucket of shared data. You have many options. For example, Verizon offers 3 GB for $60, 10 GB for $80, 20 GB for $150 all the way up to 150 GB for $750/month. Verizon gives a monthly access fee discount ($25 each phone) for Edge payout users.
So, for a family of four, access fees for four phones come to $160, plus 10 GB of data ($80) equals $240/month for wireless services. If you pay off your phones with Verizon Edge that's discounted to $140/month.
As with all the different offerings from each carrier you need to make sure you read and understand all the fees, taxes and conditions buried in the fine print before you agree to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each month on cell phone services.
-- Written by Gary Krakow in New York.
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