Best MVNO Cell Phone Plans: Straight Talk vs Cricket vs Ting & More

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Best Cell Phone PlansIs your cell phone bill breaking your budget? Is your unlimited plan not really “unlimited”? Does your connection constantly drop?

Good news, the world of mobile service providers has been changing rapidly over the last few years. Gone are the days of the big four carriers with long contracts as your only options.

Article Overview

Mobile Virtual Networks vs Traditional Carriers

No contract plans (often referred to as “prepaid cell phone plans”) operate using Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), a type of wireless provider that leases cell network space from one or more of the “big four” carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint), rather than owning its own wireless network infrastructure.

So basically, you’re getting the same coverage as you would with one of the big companies, just without the name recognition. What they save on having expensive wireless towers they can then pass along the savings to the customer. And do so while working hard to keep your business from month to month.

Due to the popularity of MVNO’s contract-free plans, the larger carriers are also dropping contracts to keep up (but they’re finding other ways to keep you locked-in as we’ll discuss below).

Is Unlimited Data Really Unlimited?

Many carriers in our best MVNO reviews advertise “unlimited data.” But it’s important to know what you’re signing up for before choosing an unlimited data plan.

Note: There’s a big difference in what “unlimited” means from company to company, so be sure to read the offers carefully. For example, a plan might advertise as unlimited 5G or 4G LTE data, but what you’re really getting is a 5G data cap (differs by plan) which throttles you down to 2G speeds once you’ve reached your monthly data cap.

Not a deal breaker, but that’s why it’s crucial for you to figure out how much high-speed data you plan on using each month. Can you survive having slightly slower speeds once you’ve reached your cap versus relying on having consistently fast speed all month? Log in to your existing plan to see what your typical usage is and how much data you average to get a better idea.

Can I Bring My Own Phone If I Switch Plans?

iPhone in boxYes. But only if it’s “unlocked,” meaning it isn’t tied to a particular phone carrier.

How Can I Tell If My Phone Is Unlocked?

The easiest way to find out if your phone is unlocked is to call your carrier and ask. It varies depending on the device year, make, model, etc. Another simple way to know is by swapping out the SIM card (a tiny microchip) with one from a different carrier. If you can make a call successfully, then it’s unlocked and you’re ready to go.

How Can I Unlock My Phone?

If your phone is locked, some carriers offer buy-back options, or you can wait until your phone payment period is over and then try selling it yourself through third party sites or services.

Why Are Some Phones Locked?

To compete with the contract-free MVNO’s, the big carriers are now offering deep discounts on the phones themselves and incentives to “trade up” if you sign up for a low monthly (or up front) payment on a device. The catch? These phones are typically “locked” to the carrier meaning you can’t switch providers should you be under contract for the lease (or loan) of the device. That’s their way of keeping you bound to their service.

Best MVNO Cell Phone Plans

There are more than 100 MVNOs in the U.S. market giving the big providers a run for their money.  The biggest differences between them being coverage and speed. Since these are such important factors for most cell phone users, here’s a quick summary of which carrier is best in each category according to the 2022 state of mobile networks report courtesy of Open Signal.

With so many plans to chose from in our MNVO reviews, we’ve organized our reviews by categories to make it easier for you to choose a provider based on your individual needs. Click on the category below to jump straight to that section or keep reading to learn about them all.

Cheapest | Best U.S. Coverage | Best Unlimited High-Speed Data

Cheapest Cell Phone Plans

Overall Winner: Republic Wireless
Runner Ups: FreedomPop | Project Fi | Tello | Ting

Winner: Republic Wireless Review

Republic Wireless logoVisit Website

Republic Wireless is a prepaid cell phone plan that uses Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks and has some of the cheapest rates around. This carrier is ideal for those who want a cheap unlimited talk and text plan.

What’s unique about Republic Wireless? They have a patented technology called Adaptive Coverage, which automatically blends your calls and texts over available free WiFi and your phone’s 3G and 4G LTE cellular data networks. If you want dedicated cellular data, you can purchase additional GB for an extra free or they have monthly plans that include a certain amount of cell data.

Pros

Cons

  • Very competitive price for unlimited text, talk and WiFi data
  • Good national coverage with T-Mobile and Sprint networks
  • Can use your phone as a WiFi hotspot
  • 14-day money back guarantee
  • No unlimited 4G LTE data plan available and higher data plans get expensive
  • Not all phones are compatible if you want to bring your own, and they only sell a dozen phones (no iPhones)
  • Doesn’t offer international calling
  • No group or family discounts
  • Music streaming counts toward your data allotment (unless you’re using free WiFi)

Pricing

All plans include unlimited text and talk and free WiFi where available. They offer a 14-day money back guarantee.

Republic Wireless Pricing Best Value
Price Per Month $15 $20 $25 $30 $35 $40
4G LTE Data N/A 1GB 2GB 3GB 4GB 5GB

Read Our In-Depth Republic Wireless Review

FreedomPop Review

FreedomPop logoVisit Website

FreedomPop, which runs on the spottier Sprint network, offers a free cell phone plan. Yes, free! What’s the catch? As you probably guessed, you don’t get much — 200 minutes of talk, 500 text messages and 200MB of data per month.

If you’re a low volume user, it’s a great deal. And FreedomPop’s 1GB and 2GB high-speed data plans are among the cheapest you’ll find (on par with Republic Wireless). But we think Republic Wireless edges out FreedomPop as or winner based on better national coverage.

Pros

Cons

  • Among the cheapest low data plans (and a free plan)
  • $1.99 activation kit to bring your own Sprint phone
  • Good selection of phones for purchase
  • 30-day money back guarantee
  • Spotty coverage and slower download speeds with Sprint’s network
  • No unlimited 4G LTE plan
  • No international calling
  • Must purchase mobile hotspot device separately
  • No data-free music streaming feature

Pricing

FreedomPop Pricing
Price Per Month Free $12.99 $19.99 $24.99 $36.99 $43.99
Talk 200 Min. Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Text 500 Texts Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
4G LTE Data 200MB 500MB 1GB 2GB 3GB 4GB

Project Fi Review

Project Fi logoVisit Website

Project Fi is Google’s answer to affordable cell phone service. How does it compare? Project Fi has some great features, including a low monthly base price for unlimited talk and text and an affordable pay-for-what-you-use 4G LTE data plan.

They have good coverage with Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular networks and international roaming in 135+ countries. Other pluses include unlimited international texting and the ability to use your phone as a hotspot at no extra charge.

The downside? Project Fi only works with three phones — Google’s Pixel, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. If you have one of these phones, they provide a free SIM card to activate their service.

Pros

Cons

  • Competitive pricing for low 4G data usage
  • Widespread national coverage with Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular networks
  • Unlimited international texting
  • Free use your phone as mobile hotspot
  • $5 discount for each additional line (up to 5)
  • Roaming in 135 countries
  • Only compatible with 3 phones (Google Pixel, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X)
  • Gets expensive with higher 4G data usage
  • Doesn’t offer data-free music download feature

Pricing

  • $20 per month for unlimited talk and text
  • $10 per month for 1GB of 4G LTE data (additional data is $1 per 100MB on a pay-for-what-you-use basis)
  • Additional lines are $15 per month

Tello Review

Tello logoVisit Website

Tello is a lesser-known MVNO that uses the Sprint network. One of Tello’s best selling points is their Build Your Own Plan feature, which lets you choose your own monthly voice, text and data minutes.

They also offer predefined plans, which get expensive once you get to higher 4G data allowances. Tello has some of the best pay-as-you-go phone rates around. Tello could be an excellent choice for those who frequently call Mexico or Canada — all voice minutes work in all North American countries.

When compared with similar other cheap cell phone plans and higher data plans, Tello falls short on all fronts. They charge more for less than all comparable carriers.

Pros

Cons

  • Build Your Own Plan gives you freedom to choose how you use your minutes
  • Bring your own phone with many phone types (if Sprint compatible or unlocked from other carriers)
  • Competitive pay-as-you-go fees 
  • No activation fee
  • 24/7 customer service
  • Minutes to Canada, Mexico and China are included in all plans at the same rate as domestic (other international calls are pay as you go)
  • Use phone as mobile hotspot
  • Only uses Sprint network, so spottier service coverage and slower download speeds
  • Doesn’t offer data-free music streaming

Pricing

You have a lot of options with build your own plan. Below are some examples of plans and pricing that are comparable to other carriers we review in this article. Tello’s Pay-As-You-Go rates are 1¢/min; 1¢/text and 2¢/MB.

Tello Pricing
Price Per Month $12 $18 $26 $29 $43 $63
Talk 200 Min. Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Text Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
4G LTE Data 200MB None 500MB 1GB 3GB 5GB

Ting Review

Ting logoVisit Website

Ting, which uses Sprint and T-Mobile networks, sets itself apart from the pack by their pay-only-for-what-you-use plan. While the rates may seem hard to navigate, Ting’s website gives you some tools to help you figure out your potential savings. And, unlike other MVNO carriers, they offer you a credit to cancel your current contract (up to $75).

Based on our comparisons, Ting doesn’t quite match what some of their cheap cell phone plan competitors offer. The lowest price point is $12 per month, which includes 100 talk minutes and 100 texts. Other carriers have better overall plans at nearly every price point.

Our Money-Saving Experience With Ting

We switched from AT&T cell service to Ting three years ago. With AT&T, our monthly bill was $145/month for two users, but with Ting, we average only $70/month, cutting our monthly cell phone bill in half! By paying close attention to how we use our cellular vs WiFi data, we reduce our monthly cost. Making this switch has taken a mindset adjustment. But, since there is free WiFi nearly everywhere you go and so many are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, this might be a money-saving options for others to make as well. – Michelle S., Safe Smart Living

Pros

Cons

  • Most versatile pricing for an MVNO – you only get charged for what you use each month
  • Good coverage and download speeds with Sprint and T-Mobile networks
  • International calling rates as low as 1¢ per minute for Canada and Mexico
  • Early Termination Fees relief up to $75
  • Outstanding customer support
  • Low usage rates for talk, text and data are more expensive than many competitors
  • Expensive data rates if you’re a heavy data user
  • Must pay full price for a new phone if you’re not switching over
  • No data-free music streaming feature

Pricing

Ting wireless plans are unlike any other mobile carrier’s pricing. They’re based on tiered rates for what you use each month. Their tiered rates are below. Their prices start at $12 per month for 100 minutes talk and 100 text messages with no high-speed data.

XS S M L XL XL+
Lines
($6 Per Line)
1
$6
2
$12
3
$18
4
$24
5
$30
6+
$36+
Minutes (Nationwide) No Usage
$0
100
$3
500
$9
1,000
$18
2,100
$35
More?
1.9 Cents/Min.
Text Messages (Global) No Usage
$0
100
$3
1,000
$5
2,000
$8
4,800
$11
More?
1/4 Cent/Text
Data (Nationwide) No Usage
$0
100MB
$3
500MB
$10
1GB
$16
2GB
$20
More?
$10/GB

Read Our In-Depth Ting Review

Best U.S. Coverage Plans

Winner: Total Wireless
Runner Ups: Net10 Wireless | Straight Talk | TracFone Wireless

Winner: Total Wireless Review

Total Wireless logoVisit Website

Total Wireless is a subsidiary of TracFone Wireless and has an MVNO agreement with Verizon, one of the top performing networks. Total Wireless stands out for its extremely competitive plan starting at $25 per month  for unlimited and its Family Plans — for $95 per month you can get up to 4 lines with unlimited talk, text and 30GB of shared high-speed data.

If you need more data, you can purchase a 3GB data card for $10 with no expiration. This is a pretty good deal compared to other companies. They also offer $10 global calling cards with rates as low as 1 cent per minute. Total Wireless is available online or at select Walmart stores.

Pros

Cons

  • Among the best price for unlimited talk, text, 5GB plan
  • Competitive pricing for family plans
  • Good national coverage with Verizon network
  • Free hotspot device with plan purchase (but it’s only 3G)
  • Excellent variety of phones for purchase, starting at $9.99
  • No activation fee
  • Talk and text only plan more expensive than others
  • Must have a Verizon compatible phone to carry over
  • No data-free music streaming feature
  • Users report poor customer service

Pricing

Total Wireless offers a 5% discount if you use autopay each month. All of the following plans include unlimited talk and text.

Total Wireless Pricing Best Value
Price Per Month $25 $35 $50
4G LTE Data 1 GB (then 2G) 10 GB Unlimited

Read Our In-Depth Total Wireless Review

Net10 Wireless Review

Net10 logoVisit Website

Net10 Wireless, a subsidiary of TracFone, is an MVNO that uses all of the big four cell networks. So, you’re getting fantastic coverage and download speeds, as well as excellent bring your own phone options.

What are the downsides to NET10 Wireless? It’s more expensive than many other carriers, and their customer service gets pretty bad reviews. But if coverage is of the utmost importance to you, Net10 Wireless is a solid choice.

Pros

Cons

  • Excellent nationwide coverage with all four big networks
  • Excellent download speeds with 4G LTE data
  • Option to bring over many existing phone types
  • Great selection of smartphones for purchase with some good promotional discounts
  • Free activation
  • More expensive than similar carriers
  • No unlimited 4G LTE data plans available
  • International calling is $.15 per minute plus airtime
  • Mobile hotspot feature is expensive
  • No data-free music streaming feature
  • Users report poor customer service

Pricing

Net10 Wireless provides pay-as-you-go plans that start at $15 for 200 minutes, as well as the following monthly plans. They also offer 10% off your monthly payment with autopay.

  • $35 per month for 500MB
  • $40 per month for 3GB
  • $50 per month for 5GB

Straight Talk Review

Straight Talk logoVisit Website

Straight Talk is a subsidiary of TracFone, and both have MVNO agreements with the big four cell networks, so your coverage and download speeds are among the best. Straight Talk, sold exclusively at Walmart or online, is fairly competitive with its $45 per month plan with 5GB of high-speed data, but you can find better deals elsewhere especially with their lower and higher data plans.

They also offer a competitive unlimited international calling plan, which includes 5GB data, for $60 per month, but it’s limited to Canada, Mexico, India and China.

Pros

Cons

  • Excellent coverage with all big four cell networks
  • Compatible with more phones than many services
  • Good international calling options (for added fee)
  • Large selection of Android and iPhones with many promotional discounts when you purchase a plan
  • Activation kit is only $.99
  • Most plans aren’t competitively priced
  • Mobile hotspot is expensive
  • No data-free music streaming feature
  • Users report poor customer support

Pricing

Straight Talk offers a $1 discount if you use autopay each month.

Straight Talk Pricing Best Value
Price Per Month $30 $45 $55 $60
Talk & Text Nationwide 1,500 Min. Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
4G LTE Data 100MB 5GB 10GB 5GB
International Calling Included Unlimited to Canada, Mexico, India & China

TracFone Wireless Review

TracFone Wireless logoVisit Website

TracFone Wireless is a subsidiary of Mexico’s largest telecommunications company, America Movil. TracFone has MVNO agreements with the big four U.S. carriers, so your coverage is among the best.

Net10 Wireless and Straight Talk (also included in our reviews) are subsidiaries of TracFone, and we’d recommend you check both of those options first — you get roughly the same features with largely better prices. TracFone’s website and pricing options are confusing, to say the least!

Pros

Cons

  • Excellent nationwide coverage and fast download speeds with all four big networks
  • No activation fee if you purchase online
  • 30-day return policy if you purchase online
  • Pricing plans, data allotments, and other information is very confusing to sort through
  • Website is unclear about what phones you can bring over and the types of phones they sell
  • Users report unhelpful customer support

Pricing

TracFone Wireless has some of the most confusing pricing plans we’ve ever seen, and the information about what type of data you’re purchasing isn’t posted (or we couldn’t find it). For this reason, we don’t include pricing information for TracFone Wireless.

Best Unlimited High-Speed Data Plans

Winner: MetroPCS
Runner Ups: Boost Mobile | Cricket

Winner: MetroPCS Review

MetroPCS logo big

Visit Website

If you’re a heavy data user, MetroPCS is the way to go. MetroPCS, an MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network, currently has the best unlimited text, talk and 4G LTE data plan compared to other services. They do offer cheaper plans that give you 4G LTE speeds, but the data caps for the price aren’t the most competitive.

MetroPCS has a couple of standout features — you can stream music from services like Pandora and Spotify without it counting toward your monthly data allotment (great if you have teens on your plan!). And their Data Maximizer lets you stream DVD-quality clips and helps your high-speed data last up to three times longer.

Pros

Cons

  • Best value for unlimited plan
  • T-Mobile has fast downloading speeds and widespread coverage
  • Phone acts as a mobile hotspot for free (but is capped at 8GB)
  • Stream music free from your data allowance
  • $5 discount for each additional line (up to 5 lines)
  • Decent selection of iOS and Android phones
  • Lower data plans are more expensive than some competitors
  • Must pay extra fee per month for international calling and texting
  • Some users report slow internet speeds
  • Hotspot/tethering usage is capped at 8 GB

Pricing

All MetroPCS plans include unlimited talk, unlimited text and Data Maximizer. Prices below include taxes and fees. They also offer a $5 discount for each additional line.

MetroPCS Pricing
Price Per Month $40 $50 $60
4G LTE Data 10GB Unlimited + 5GB hotspot data Unlimited + 15 GB hotspot data and Amazon Prime

Boost Mobile Review

Boost Mobile logoVisit Website

Boost comes in second for the best unlimited plans, just behind MetroPCS. Boost is one of the most recognizable names in the no-contract cell phone world. They offer some of the best deals on the market that almost rival MetroPCS. What are the differences? Boost uses the Sprint network vs. T-Mobile for MetroPCS. So, with Boost, you get slower download speeds and more limited phone carry over ability.

You also have to pay an extra $20 per month for high-resolution video streaming, which MetroPCS includes in its plans. Similar to MetroPCS, they offer free-from-data-usage music streaming, but the download speeds are generally slower.

Pros

Cons

  • Cheapest unlimited 4G LTE data plan
  • Lower priced data plans give you more data bang for your buck
  • Offers value family plans
  • Data-free music streaming included
  • Good selection of smartphones
  • Sprint network has among the slowest download speeds and a smaller coverage area
  • Mobile hotspot costs $49.99 extra
  • Video streaming is low resolution unless you pay $20 extra per month
  • No international calling or texting included in plans (add-ons for per month fees)

Pricing

All plans include unlimited text and talk. Boost offers a $5 discount per month for autopay.

  • $30 per month for 2GB (each additional GB is $5)
  • $50 per month for unlimited data ($30 per month additional per extra line)

Cricket Review

Cricket logoVisit Website

Cricket is a well-known no-contract service provider that’s been around for a while. One of the biggest advantages of Cricket’s service is coverage. Cricket uses AT&T’s network, so you’ll find more widespread national 4G LTE coverage than plans that use Sprint.

Cricket also has a larger-than-average number of plans to choose from, but its unlimited data plan isn’t as competitively priced as MetroPCS or Boost Mobile. But they do offer good group discounts that can save you up to $100 per month with five lines.

Pros

Cons

  • Benefit from AT&T national coverage (in more places than Sprint)
  • Bring your own phone – larger number of compatible phones than many services
  • Great group savings for families
  • Unlimited texting to 38 countries with higher priced plans
  • No activation fee if you order online
  • Good selection of basic and smartphones
  • Unlimited 4G LTE data plan is higher than competitors
  • Additional $10 per month for mobile hotspot
  • No data-free music streaming feature
  • Many users report poor customer service

Pricing

All plans include unlimited talk and text nationwide. Cricket also offers a $5 discount per month with auto-pay (prices below don’t reflect discount). Taxes and fees included in pricing.

Beginner Basic Smart Pro Unlimited
Price Per Month $30 $40 $50 $60 $70
4G LTE Data 1GB 3GB 8GB 12GB Unlimited

Video: Types Of Coverage Explained

High-speed data matters, especially if you’re using your phone to download content, videos, music and other larger data files. Check out the following video that provides an excellent explanation about 4G.

How Do The Major Carrier Plans Compare?

You don’t have to give up great cell phone service to save big on your cell phone plan. However, in some cases (such as when you have many people sharing a family plan), you may actually save by going directly with a bigger carrier. So we encourage you to reference our best cell phone carriers article for comparison purposes.

About The Author:

While attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s graduate school for journalism and public relations, Sally began a long career researching and writing about hard-to-understand topics, such as insurance and finance.

Her additional experience in marketing, fundraising, public relations and financial planning at various foundations and nonprofit organizations over the years has given her the practical tools to inform consumers about making the smartest business and personal financial decisions. Her work has appeared in many notable media outlets, including The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, People, Forbes, Huffington Post, and more.

Speaking of smart living — growing up in the (at-the-time) per-capita murder capital of the U.S. (Richmond, VA) taught her a thing or two about the need for personal and home safety. Sally stays on top of all the latest gadgets and services to protect her and her teenage daughters from potential predators and thieves. And she brings this knowledge to every article she writes.

Disclaimer: This website contains reviews, opinions and information regarding products and services manufactured or provided by third parties. We are not responsible in any way for such products and services, and nothing contained here should be construed as a guarantee of the functionality, utility, safety or reliability of any product or services reviewed or discussed. Please follow the directions provided by the manufacturer or service provider when using any product or service reviewed or discussed on this website.

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