Your cell phone plan doesn’t have to break the bank. You can avoid expensive contracts and control how much you spend on your phone plan by picking a prepaid plan. With a prepaid plan, you buy service — data and access — before you use your phone. Prepaid plans let you purchase in increments of a month, a quarter, a half year or even a full year, with prices that depend on how long you commit to the service. Prepaid plans vary widely in terms of service and price, so compare plans to pick an option that makes sense for you. There are plenty of affordable prepaid plans to choose from, and most include unlimited calls and texts, as well as data options.
How to choose a plan
To choose the right prepaid plan, you must figure out how much you can spend, how much data you need, and how many calls you make and texts you send per month. Then, you can comparison shop. There’s a big difference between the three major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile — and some of their smaller mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) counterparts. Smaller carriers all operate in conjunction with the Big Three and all offer prepaid options, often at a better value than the major carriers’ own prepaid plans. Pay attention to details, as cheap deals may not be worth it if they limit speed and access too much. All carriers offer monthly discounts for autopay.
There are two major kinds of prepaid plans: Monthly and pay-as-you-go. Monthly plans run for 30 days, after which you can top up (pay) for the next month in advance. As long as you pay the bill, you have service. A pay-as-you-go plan can run yearly with a fixed expiration date. And of course, wherever you buy your phone — whether from a carrier or independently — you’ll have to pay for that handset upfront as well. That’s one reason why prepaid phones are sometimes considered budget items, though that has changed over time. While there’s no special kind of prepaid phone, you still have to make sure that your phone will work with the prepaid plan you choose.
Coverage is critical. Since all carriers piggyback on one of the Big Three, once you know which network a company uses, you can determine whether its coverage will serve you. For those who seek lower bills, an MVNO, which rents space on the Big Three’s networks, may give you the prices you seek even though customer service may be inferior to primary Big Three standards.
Prepaid plans have a few downsides. For one thing, they don’t offer as many perks as postpaid plans, like access to Netflix, that may come with some unlimited data plans, and prepaid plans can be throttled when network traffic gets heavy, or the plan caps data speeds as a matter of policy.
Below are some of the plans available today if you’re exploring a prepaid option. There’s no single best plan for everyone all the time, and the carriers switch up their deals quite often.
T-Mobile’s Simply Prepaid plans offer 30 days of service in which you get various combinations of unlimited talk and text and 4G LTE data. It includes an unlimited 3G Smartphone Mobile Hot Spot, international calling, and wi-fi calling. T-Mobile’s prepaid plans accommodate up to five lines and include hot spots. The Data Maximizer feature provides optimized video streaming at 480p+ (DVD-quality) for mobile viewing. It also includes visual voicemail, letting you view all your voicemail messages as a list without having to dial in. Mobile Without Borders lets you use your phone while traveling in Canada and Mexico. It starts at $40 per month for a single line and offers up to 10GB of domestic 4G LTE data. A $50 plan for one line features unlimited 4G LTE. For $60 per month you get everything in the $50 plan plus a hot spot up to 10GB 4G LTE, then unlimited at 3G speeds.
T-Mobile add-ons include international calling and texting. For $5 a month, you get unlimited data, calling, and texting in Canada and Mexico and up to 5GB of 4G LTE data. For $15 a month, you get unlimited international texting, unlimited calling to landlines in more than 70 countries, and to mobile numbers in more than 30 countries.
AT&T offers several basic prepaid plans ranging in price from $25, $30, $40, and $50 per month, and if you choose auto pay new customers can save $15 off that monthly tab, while current customers get a $10 discount. The two cheaper plans offer 5GB and 8GB of data respectively that rolls over and includes a mobile hot spot, HD streaming video, unlimited text to 100 countries, and a multi-line discount. The two most expensive plans include unlimited data, with the most expensive plan offering 5G data. The $50 plan and up throws in talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico. AT&T will throttle data speeds if the network is congested and if you use up your high-speed data allotment, it will also slow down data speed to 128Kbps. If you’re interested in one of these plans, keep an eye out for online offers, as sometimes AT&T will offer discounted rates for their prepaid plans.
Verizon offers four prepaid plans at $40, $50, $65, and $76 per month for 5GB, 15GB, unlimited, and unlimited plus data (including 5G ultra wideband), respectively, on both 4G LTE and 5G where available. All phone plans include unlimited talk and text in the U.S., unlimited text to over 200 countries outside the U.S., and a mobile hot spot. Family plans are available up to 10 lines. The $76 per month plan includes unlimited calling to Canada and Mexico. During high network volume, data may be slow, and once your high-speed data is used (including the hot spot), you will get 2G speeds for the rest of the month, which will affect streaming video or audio. A $5 per month loyalty discount applies after three months of service, while an additional $5 per month applies after 9 months of service, for a total of $10 per month on plans $40 or higher, which deeply discounts the cost of your overall service.
Boost Mobile specializes in no credit check, single-line, monthly prepaid plans with unlimited talk and text ranging from $10 per month to $60 per month for 1GB to 35GB plus hot spots. You can order up to five lines on the family plan for $80 to $100 per month for 35GB of data. Multi-month plans are available in quarterly, semi-annual, and annual intervals from 1GB to 14GB, ranging from $8.33 to $20 per month. The $60 plan includes HD video streaming up to 1080p, music up to 1.5Mbps, and gaming up to 8Mbps. Family plans cost up to $220 for up to five lines with unlimited talk, text, and data and streaming for gaming, music, and video.
Cricket Wireless, owned by AT&T, offers five plans ranging from $30 per month to $60 per month, layering on various features for each price hike. The cheapest plan is all talk and text, and 5GB of data. Unlimited talk and text with 10GB and unlimited data range from $40 to $55 per month. Unlimited data that does not slow down with network traffic costs $60 per month and adds a 15 GB mobile hot spot, 150GB of cloud storage, and HBO Max with ads. The $55 per month option has unlimited data but slows down with network traffic, with SD quality video streaming at 480p. The most expensive options also include unlimited calls, texts, and picture messages to and from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. and unlimited texts to 37 countries. Cricket offers two international packages alongside a minimum $40 plan: Cricket International costs $5 a month with calls to 35 countries, while Cricket International Extra costs $15 with unlimited messaging in 35 countries and 1,000 minutes of calls to 31 other countries. Four lines cost $100 per month with data speeds of 8Mbps.
Google Fi, an MVNO service whose network combines U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile, offers a single plan with flexible pricing starting at $20 per month and is available for one to six people. Fi-compatible phones switch between the carriers based on network congestion and signal strength. The plan covers unlimited talk and text and free international text. Data costs $10 per 1GB of 4G LTE — you pay only for what you use and are refunded if you don’t use your contracted amount. With its bill protection feature, you don’t get charged for additional data when you hit the maximum 6GB, though data used over 15GB will be throttled. Other perks include no-fee tethering, free texting, and access to high-speed data at $10 per gigabyte in some 200 countries. It also offers an unlimited plan for a flat rate of $70 per month with up to 22GB of high-speed data.
Learn more at Google
Straight Talk, a partnership between Walmart and TracFone, features coverage across all three major networks in the U.S. — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — and it’s compatible with most unlocked phones. The carrier’s monthly prepaid plans start with Basic for $30 a month, which includes unlimited texts, 1,500 minutes of talk, and 100MB of data. Additional plans for $35, $45, and $55 per month offer 10GB and unlimited data respectively, plus between 5GB and 15GB of hot spot use, with speeds dropping to 2G when you hit the limit. Altogether, Straight Talk offers 11 major plans, including time interval extended plans for three, six, or 12 months. Straight Talk doesn’t offer group plans, but you can add a second line for a total of $90 per month, which includes 100GB of cloud storage for each line plus some international options for calls worldwide and a lower-priced plan that includes Canada and Mexico.
Republic offers phone plans designed for households of one or two people. There are no group or family plans, and while you can bring your own phone to Republic Wireless, not every model is supported. The service, which connects via T-Mobile for its data plans, offers calls over wi-fi. Like Google Fi, Republic can switch between wi-fi and cell networks without dropping calls. Single-line plans cost $20, $40, and $60, while two-person plans cost $30, $60, and $90. All include unlimited talk and text and wi-fi calling. Mobile hot spots and international calling are included in the most expensive plans.
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile, formerly known as MetroPCS, has four main plans that cater to any budget, backed by a robust network that claims to cover 99% of the population and includes 5G where available. For $30, $40, $50, and $60 per month you can get 5GB, 10GB, or unlimited 4G LTE. Google One is included for customers on the $50 plan (for Android phones), and customers on the $60 monthly plan now get Google One and an Amazon Prime membership. Hot spot data is included in the $50 and $60 plans. You can add up to five lines per account.
Learn more at Metro
Mint Mobile is a prepaid carrier linked to T-Mobile. All of its plans now include unlimited talks and text, free calling to Canada and Mexico, 5G added to 4G LTE, free mobile hot spots. wi-fi calling and texting, and a free 3-in-1 SIM card. Newcomers get a choice of four plans for which subscribers bring their own devices and buy packages of three, six, or 12 months upfront. Plans range from 4GB, 10GB, 15GB, or unlimited data per month for $15, $20, $25, and $30 per months for three months. Mint offers a seven-day money-back guarantee for new customers. Data speeds drop if you exceed your monthly allowance, but data is unlimited. And it has a cute little fox logo.
Ting, owned by Dish Wireless, relies on both T-Mobile and Verizon networks. Its pay-as-you-go data plan bills monthly based on your actual data use. More traditional plans cost $25, $35, and $45 per month with various data and hot spot allotments. All data plans include unlimited talk and text, LTE and 5G fast data, nationwide coverage, hot spot, and no data overage charges. You can get a phone plan for just $10 per month and purchase data in 1GB increments at $5 per GB.
Tello is a no-contract carrier whose plans allow you to choose the amount of minutes and 4G LTE and 5G data you need, running on the T-Mobile network. The Economy, Value, Smart, and Data plans each include unlimited texting and minutes and cost from $10 to $39 per month for 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, and unlimited data with free tethering and free calls to over 60 countries. You can switch plans without penalty at any time, with changes taking effect immediately. Family plans are available for up to four lines.
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