Confused by Your Cell Phone Bill? How to Understand What You’re Paying For

Remember the days when everyone had a traditional home landline and you only needed to remember one phone number to contact anyone living under the same roof? With everyone sharing the same line, messages were often lost in the shuffle and family members were forced to wait their turn to make calls, making communication difficult. Times have certainly changed.

Today, most people have shifted from home phones to individual cell phones, each with their own number. Communication might be easier, but if you’re on a family plan, deciphering the household cell phone bill can be complicated and confusing. With so many plan options, potential overage charges, and promotions, how do you make sense of your bill? As you review your monthly charges, keep these tips in mind so you understand exactly what you’re paying for.

cell phone bill

Understand your current plan

Do you know the requirements of your current plan? Keeping track of your calling, texting, and data limits, and how much is allocated to each person on your plan, helps you identify any extra charges you might be hit with.

Some plans include unlimited calls, texts, and data, while others allow you a certain amount each month that can be shared with everyone on your plan. Other plans bill based on each line’s usage — if one member uses more than what is allotted, you will incur extra charges. Some plans allow you to roll over any unused minutes or data to the next month. With all these options, understanding what’s included in your plan is the first step to breaking down your cell phone bill.

cell phone bill

Know your provider’s key terms

Your cell phone bill might have different key terms depending on who your cell phone provider is. Most providers use these same basic terms:

Minutes are the number of minutes spent talking on a cell phone.
Messages are the number of text messages exchanged (includes incoming and outgoing).
Usage charges typically cover overage charges or costs for domestic or international roaming outside of your plan.
Data covers any on-network data consumed, including visits to websites, app usage, streaming movies, and music. On-network means cellular data served by your provider — any data used over WiFi is not included in this number.

Keeping an eye on each line’s data usage is important. Most households share data, so if one member is overusing their share, your bill will reflect that. If other household members use less than their allotment, you’re fine, but keep an eye on your data because it can get used up quickly, especially if your teen begins streaming a lot of videos.

Some cell phone companies provide a section called “What’s Changed” so you can easily identify additional changes or charges for the new billing period. For example, if you added a new line or changed your plan, it will show up here. If a new charge pops up, compare your current bill to a previous bill to help assess what changed and to identify any possible trends in your family’s usage. Some terms that might appear under “What’s Changed” include:

Roaming charges — charges for calls, texts, and data used outside of your service area or network.
Activation fee — a one-time fee that is included on your bill if you added a new line to your account.
Directory Assistance — calling 411 or (area code) 555-1212 for directory assistance will cost you extra.
Operator-Assisted calls — any calls to the operator asking for assistance are an additional charge.
Features charges — extra features, such as call forwarding, call waiting, caller ID, and three-way calling, are not usually included in a plan and are an extra cost.

cell phone bill
Know what the extra fees and taxes are for

In addition to usage and extra feature charges on your cell phone bill, several other fees and taxes are often reflected on your bill that are not included in your base rate. They often show up on as a “monthly fee” or “minimum monthly usage fee” and can include:

911 — this fee helps fund access to emergency services in your local area.
Universal Service Fund — required by the federal government to provide services for rural and low-income communities. All wireless providers must pay this fee, which is often passed down to customers.
State Telecommunications Excise Surcharge (also known as Gross Receipts Tax Surcharge) — helps cell phone providers recover state and local taxes owed to the government.
Regulatory Charge — another fee some providers charge to reduce costs that occur from complying with various government regulations.

Taking the time to scrutinize your cell phone bill can be eye opening. Data overages, roaming charges, and extra fees can all add up, leaving you with a bill that might not necessarily be meeting all your needs. If it’s time to switch, call or visit your provider’s website to find a plan that’s right for your family.

Lori Cunningham is a family tech advocate and contributing writer for Xfinity Mobile. Known for her ravenous curiosity, she started to share her passion with others who love or may be intimidated by technology. 






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