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Is 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.
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).
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 4G LTE data, but what you’re really getting is a 4G LTE 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.
What About 5G?
Some services we review that use Sprint or T-Mobile’s networks might offer 5G speed in their plans. However, they are on the more expensive side and you wouldn’t save much money versus a traditional carrier. Plus, at the time of publishing, the 5G networks are only available in selective markets (and limited coverage in those areas).
Yes. 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.
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 State of Mobile Networks report.
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.
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.
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|
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.
|Price Per Month||Free||$12.99||$19.99||$24.99||$36.99||$43.99|
|4G LTE Data||200MB||500MB||1GB||2GB||3GB||4GB|
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.
- $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 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.
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.
|Price Per Month||$12||$18||$26||$29||$43||$63|
|4G LTE Data||200MB||None||500MB||1GB||3GB||5GB|
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.
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.
($6 Per Line)
|Minutes (Nationwide)||No Usage|
|Text Messages (Global)||No Usage|
|Data (Nationwide)||No Usage|
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.
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|
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.
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 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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
|Price Per Month||$40||$50||$60|
|4G LTE Data||10GB||Unlimited + 5GB hotspot data||Unlimited + 15 GB hotspot data and Amazon Prime|
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.
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 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.
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.
|Price Per Month||$30||$40||$50||$60||$70|
|4G LTE Data||1GB||3GB||8GB||12GB||Unlimited|
Virgin Mobile’s stand out feature is a monthly price tag of $35 for 5 GB of data — nearly twice the data for the same price point compared to Boost and Cricket. It also has added unlimited music streaming, making it an attractive choice for teens and young adults.
Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint network, so download speeds are a bit slower, and nationwide coverage isn’t as prevalent as other networks. Their plans aren’t packed with features like mobile hotspot and international calling, but most features you’d want are available for additional fees per month.
You can add additional data to each plan for $5 per GB.
- $35 per month for 5 GB of 4G LTE
- $45 per month for 10 GB of 4G LTE
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.
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.
What’s your favorite phone plan and why?
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