A Guide to Cell Phone Plan Features
You may see features thrown around when picking a cell phone plan. Features such as “premium data,” “mobile hotspot,” or “eSIM.”
But what do those features mean?
What benefits do they really add to your cell phone plan?
Here is an explanation of the most popular cell phone plan features and what they mean:
Premium Data (also called “priority data”) refers to having an allotment of data that has a higher priority on the network.
This means that in crowded areas, like sports games, concerts, events, airports, etc., your data speeds will be slightly faster than someone who does NOT have priority data (also called being “deprioritized”).
Data speeds refer to how fast the maximum speeds are for a cell phone plan.
Most plans have full-speed data, meaning they don’t limit the speeds in any way. However, some carriers, such as Visible, can limit the speeds on their plans. The Visible Base plan is limited to 200 Mbps maximum speeds.
Video Streaming Quality
Video streaming quality refers to the typical resolution at which you can stream video with no buffer.
Carriers limit video streaming quality by first identifying if video content is being consumed and then limiting your maximum cellular data speeds.
Here are examples of the speed caps carriers impose for different video resolutions:
- 480p: speeds limited to about 1.5 Mbps
- 720p: speeds limited to about 2.5Mbps
- 1080p: speeds limited to about 4Mbps
- 4K: speeds are not restricted and above 25 Mbps
You can get around a video streaming limit by using a VPN.
How does this work?
A VPN hides your network traffic from your carrier. That means they cannot tell if you are on YouTube or browsing an awesome site like BestPhonePlans.net. And if a carrier cannot tell what site you are on, there is no way for them to identify you are consuming video content and impose a speed cap.
So the carriers will always give you full-speed data when you use a VPN.
Unlimited Slow Data (or Unlimited 2G Data)
A lot of prepaid cell phone plans say “data speeds reduced” after your high-speed allotment, or that they include “unlimited 2G data” after your 4G LTE or 5G balance is used up.
For example, Mint Mobile’s 5GB plan says “data speeds reduced after 5GB but data is unlimited.”
And Tello says, “All data plans come with unlimited 2G data after you've used your 4G LTE/5G balance.”
What does this mean, and what is really going on here?
What is happening is that instead of shutting your data off completely, prepaid carriers such as Mint Mobile, Tello, and others are slowing your speeds down significantly after your high-speed allotment is used up. A lot of carriers indicate this by saying “unlimited 2G data,” which can mean speeds anywhere from about 50 Kbps to 512 Kbps.
It does NOT mean that you will connect to the 2G network.
In fact, all 2G networks have been shut down in the United States.
Instead, the carriers will artificially limit your speeds on the 4G LTE and 5G networks. The amount you are slowed down depends on what plan and carrier you are on. For example, Mint Mobile’s 5GB, 15GB, and 20GB plans slow your data speeds to 128 Kbps, but the unlimited plan only slows you to 512 Kbps.
Meanwhile, all of Tello’s plans will slow your speeds to a measly 64 Kbps after your high-speed allotment is reached.
What kind of performance can you expect on these 2G speeds?
Check out my 2G speed test article to see a real-life example of what the experience is like.
Most tasks, such as streaming music, sending iMessages, replying to emails, and getting Google Maps directions will work fine, but just take a while to load. Other tasks, such as watching YouTube videos, are unbearably slow.
The bottom line is your phone will still work after your high-speed allotment has been depleted, but you will be very thankful when your plan replenishes in the next billing cycle.
The mobile hotspot feature, also called “hotspotting” or “tethering,” allows you to share your phone’s cellular connection with your other devices.
Your phone basically makes its own Wi-Fi network that you can join from your laptop and tablet so you can get connected to the Internet.
Using the hotspot feature typically draws from your plan’s high-speed data allowance, so it is important to use it mindfully. Some plans may limit the amount of hotspot data you can use per billing cycle. Other plans may even limit data speeds you can get over your hotspot connection. Visible, for example, gives you unlimited hotspot data but limits speeds to 5 Mbps.
MMS (Multi-Media Messaging) is the ability to send and receive picture and group messages.
Visual voicemail allows you to see your voicemail messages in a visual interface.
You can typically see all your missed messages, a transcription of each message, and have options to call the person back or delete the message.
Without visual voicemail, you need to call your voicemailbox each time you want to listen to your messages.
Wi-Fi calling allows you to make and receive phone calls over a Wi-Fi connection. It works even if you don’t have cell reception.
The fifth generation of wireless network technology. Having a plan with access to 5G will give you the best data speeds available. Getting 5G requires a 5G capable phone.
eSIM stands for “embedded SIM.” It is a tiny digital SIM card built into the logic board inside your phone.
SIM stands for “subscriber identity module,” and it configures how your phone connects to the network and has your phone number on it.
Getting a cell phone plan that supports eSIM will allow you to activate the eSIM on your phone, if your phone has one.
Most phones that have an eSIM built in are typically dual-SIM phones, which means you can activate two cellular plans at the same time on a single device. This can be helpful if you want to combine your work and personal phone numbers onto a single device.
Domestic roaming lets you connect to partner carriers in areas where your primary carrier does not have coverage.
For example, T-Mobile does not have coverage in Vermont, so T-Mobile customers will roam on the AT&T network in that area.
International roaming is where you connect to a partner carrier in a foreign country to get talk, text, and data service while you are traveling. Learn more about international roaming.
Stateside International Calling
Stateside international calling lets you place calls from within the United States to other countries and destinations.
If you need to make a call while you outside of the U.S., then you would need a plan with international roaming.
Or you can use FaceTime, WhatsApp, or other online chat services to make a call over the internet instead of an actual cellular voice connection.