Pop Quiz: How Much Data Are You Actually Paying For?

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This post comes from partner site WhistleOut.com.

Gone are the days of worrying about how much you’re paying for talk time and texting. As a general rule, “unlimited nationwide talk and text” means exactly that. But the same can’t be said about data because not all data plans have been created equal. This is especially true because every mobile company plays by a different set of rules when it comes to their data plans.

Answering the following four questions will help you discern how much you’re actually paying for your data plan — and whether you need to change.

1. Does your carrier offer you enough coverage?

Before you can even consider a carrier’s various data plans, you will need to know the coverage they offer in your area — and other areas you frequent. No matter how good of a deal you might get on a data plan, if you can’t connect, you’re paying way too much.

Verizon offers 70% nationwide coverage, AT&T offers 58%, Sprint offers 27% and T-Mobile offers 59%. But just because Verizon offers more coverage than all the other carriers, that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get better service with them in your city than you would with Sprint. To find out more, check out their coverage maps for your area.

2. How much is your carrier charging for high-speed data?

Although you’ve signed up for an unlimited data plan, it’s not safe to assume that you’ll get an unlimited amount of 4G LTE data, which is high-speed data. In fact, if it’s the least expensive unlimited option offered by a carrier, then it’s likely that you’ll get an unlimited amount of data — but only a portion of it will be 4G LTE — and it will be slower when the network is busy.

The high-speed data buzzwords you want to look for as you shop for an unlimited plan are “4G LTE, LTE or Premium Data” — and they all mean the same thing. Middle-range unlimited plans tend to offer around 25GB to 50GB of premium data, and the most expensive unlimited options will give you 50GB to 100GB of premium data.

When you sign up for a limited data plan from a major carrier — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, or T-Mobile — then you’re safe to assume that the 2GB plan you’ve signed up for will give you 2GB of premium data. However, carriers are now sneaking in “line access fees” associated with those lines, which can add $20 per month per line to your bill, so read the fine print. You don’t want to end up paying more for a plan limited to 2GB than a midrange unlimited plan!

3. Can you use your data to create a hotspot?

Many people need data because they would like to connect other devices (such as a laptop) via their mobile plan. However, not all data plans will allow you to do that. If you need hotspot data, there are a few things you need to consider:

  • Many limited data plans will allow you to use up to your cap for a hotspot, but if you exceed that, it can get very expensive.
  • All unlimited data plans limit the amount of hotspot data you can use, so read the fine print.
  • All mobile companies will allow you to buy a hotspot plan, but that’s not always the most cost-effective option.

When I needed a ton of hotspot data, I chose to sign up for Verizon’s most expensive unlimited data plan. Not only did it come with 75GB of premium data, but it gave me 30GB of hotspot data to use each month and included a ton of perks, too! But be careful because some carriers will limit your hotspot to 3G speeds, so make sure to check if your plan limits your hotspot speeds, too.

4. How much data do you actually use each month?

Before you sign up for an unlimited plan, make sure that you actually need that much data. If you consistently use 5GB each month, then it doesn’t make sense to pay more for a plan that gives you additional data that you won’t use. You can find out how much data you’re using each month by looking at your data history in your mobile account portal.

If you don’t use that much data each month, but still want to ensure you have it, make sure to compare limited data plans. Sometimes you can get an even better deal by going for a prepaid plan that will allow you to pay one lump sum for the whole year, no added “line access fees” — just unlimited talk, text, and a limited amount of data.

In fact, AT&T is offering a deal just like that right now. You’ll get one full year of unlimited talk, text and 8GB of data for just $300 upfront. That averages out to $25 per month. Imagine not having to think about your mobile bill for one full year.

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