In the wireless industry, you can’t spell “unlimited” without footnotes. While plans sold under that name really do offer no-limits calling and texting, their data use only rates as cap-free if you stick to Web browsing on your phone and don’t use it as a mobile hotspot.

Some subscribers have resented carriers nibbling away at the notion of unlimited data, so these firms have increasingly responded by adding extra tiers of unlimited plans that for $10 or $20 more a month, let customers buy out of many of these restrictions.

Which can be fine! People who stick to on-phone use don’t have to pay for features they don’t use, and even the pricier plans represent a much better deal than wireless offerings of a few years ago. But sometimes your own phone makes it hard to tell what plan bests fit your usage.

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Consider Sprint’s news of two weeks ago: It replaced a single unlimited-data deal with a pair of plans, Unlimited Basic and Unlimited Plus. This new proposition requires a careful choice about how often you’ll use your phone’s mobile-hotspot feature, in which you share the phone’s bandwidth with a tablet, laptop or other nearby device via Wi-Fi.

Specifically, Unlimited Basic (from $60 a month for one line to $140 for four) allots 500 megabytes of mobile hotspot use while Plus (from $70 a month for one line to $180 for four) offers 15 gigabytes.

These replaced the current  “Unlimited Freedom” plan, which cost $60 for one line, $100 for two or $160 for four lines and came with 10GB of mobile hotspot data.

Competing entry-level plans either ban mobile hotspot use (AT&T) or limit it to painfully or uselessly slow speeds (3G at T-Mobile, 600 kbps at Verizon). So Sprint bestowing at least half a gig at LTE speeds is good–unless you can’t tell if you’ve gone over that limit recently.

How much do you use your phone as a mobile hotspot?

That’s tricky to find out on Apple’s iOS. On an iPhone, the data-usage numbers are in the Settings app–open it, tap Cellular, then scroll down, tap “System Services” and then look for “Personal Hotspot.” This shows a raw total since you first began using an iPhone or you can reset that current-period total by tapping a button at the bottom of that screen.

To get a better view, install the carrier’s My Sprint app, which will offer that hotspot-usage figure–and should, even if just added, display that data breakdown over the last month.

Note that it is possible to have an iPhone itemize per-app data consumption by billing period: T-Mobile iPhones do just that.

This same feature is standard on Android phones, regardless of carrier. Open the Settings app, type “data usage” into the search box, and you can bring up a chart showing how much data each app consumed since the last automatic monthly reset of this total.

The other big gap between Sprint’s two unlimited plans is streaming video. Basic limits that to a DVD’s 480p resolution, while Plus supports high-def streaming.

Choosing between them involves not math but subjective judgments about the value of video on your phone. That will pivot not just on how often and for how long you watch video but the size of your phone’s screen: The limits of 480p resolution may bug you too much on a display bigger than 6 inches.

More: Is the $15-a-month Sprint unlimited deal that good? We surveyed the competition, and nothing comes close

Do you use it internationally?

International roaming is another way to sell different levels of unlimited data. But unless you’re constantly jetting off to Mexico or Canada, even Basic’s 5 GB a month of high-speed roaming data in those countries is more than enough; the 10 GB quota of Plus will be superfluous in practice.

Finally, wireless carriers are increasingly fond of bundling streaming-media freebies. But here, too, Sprint’s bonus for paying extra isn’t much: Plus adds the Tidal streaming-music service on top of Hulu’s ads-included video service that both plans bundle.

If all of these fine-print features seem too complex, just remember this: Now that the carriers no longer require two-year contracts, you can cheap out at first and then switch to a more expensive plan should subscriber’s remorse set in later.

(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance, a property of Verizon’s Oath media division.)

Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at


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