No-contract cell phone plans, once known as prepaid, are growing fast. Now that T-Mobile has taken the mantle of “Uncarrier” and gone 100 percent no-contract, more people are realizing that they don’t have to commit to two-year contracts to get the phones and service they want.
All of the major carriers have low-cost arms. AT&T runs Cricket Wireless. Sprint has Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile has MetroPCS and GoSmart, and Verizon, well, it just has prepaid plans. If you’re looking for a wide range of stores and solid customer service, these brands should be your first shopping stops.
But there are more carriers you may not have heard of, known as MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators. These carriers buy and remix minutes and megabytes from the major service providers into plans of their own. They might have more flexible plans than the majors, offer lower prices, or even give your money to charity.
We’ve excluded some operators from this list, and I want to explain why. Google’s Project Fi requires a $649 smartphone and is invitation-only. 35OrLess and Solavei are both multi-level marketing schemes, and we find that kind of marketing very easily and frequently becomes aggressively abusive. (We had to deal with a plague of Solavei-related comment spammers for a while.) So we’re not recommending those three, for now.
Here are more than a dozen options you should check out, along with device recommendations. For plans that allow you to bring your own, check out our list of The Best Unlocked Phones.
Consumer Cellular is focused on the senior market, with broad rural coverage through AT&T and a range of easy-to-use phones. Our readers love this carrier, awarding it Readers’ Choice with a spectacularly high customer service rating.
The company’s lowest-cost monthly plan is strictly for the user who wants the comfort and accessibility a cell phone provides, but doesn’t necessarily plan to make many calls. The low $10 monthly fee doesn’t include any minutes at all, and each minute used will cost 25 cents.
Consumer Cellular’s other monthly plans come with minutes at more reasonable rates. Its next least expensive package is $15 per month and includes 250 minutes of calling time, which works out to 6 cents per minute. The packages go all the way up to $50 per month for unlimited minutes.
Text messaging is available separately, starting at $2.50 per month for 300 messages, up to $20 per month for unlimited messages. Each of these plans includes Web browsing too: 30MB with the $2.50 plan, up to 4GB with a $40 plan.
Consumer Cellular carries a decent range of phones. We recommend the Doro PhoneEasy 618 simple flip phone for $50, the Motorola Moto G for $100, and the Huawei Ascend Mate2 for $225.
The nation’s only truly free cellular phone service, FreedomPop’s “Freedom Phone” offers 200 voice minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of free data on Sprint’s 3G and LTE networks.
If you want more, you can jump up to unlimited voice and text with 500MB data for $6.67 per month, or unlimited voice and text with 1GB data for $19.99 per month. Additional minutes and texts cost 1 cent each, and additional data costs 2.5 cents per MB, or $9.99 per GB.
There are a few catches, though. You can’t send video messages to non-FreedomPop users (use email instead, the company says), and all voice calling goes through FreedomPop’s Voice over IP system (VoIP) rather than the standard Sprint voice network.
FreedomPop sells a bunch of older Sprint phones, of which the best is probably the $329 Samsung Galaxy S4, and the best value is the $99.99 LG Optimus F3. It will also work with a limited (and unexplained) set of used Sprint phones.
There are two companies that donate part of your cell phone bill to charitable causes: Giv and Credo. Of the two, Giv gives more away, and more flexibly: It contributes eight percent of your monthly bill to your choice of a wide range of charities.
Giv runs on the T-Mobile network, and has six different plans. The best balanced one is probably the $30/month plan, with 1GB of LTE data and unlimited talk and text.
You can use any T-Mobile compatible phone (including the iPhone), and Giv has some interesting lower-cost options. We’d go with the rock-solid Moto E, at $129.
H2O Wireless is a subsidiary of giant Japanese carrier KDDI and runs on AT&T’s national GSM network. It offers plans by the month or by the minute. It’s very similar to its close competitor Black Wireless, but H2O’s plans tend to be a little bit better, and KDDI is a solid firm.
Minute plans are available in $10, $20, $25, $30, and $100 packages, which include 5-cent voice minutes and text messages, as well as 10 cents per MB for data.
Monthly plans start at $30 for unlimited talk and text, plus 50MB of data. You also get $10 free for international calling anywhere in the world. A $40 plan comes with 1GB of data, $50 gets you 2GB plus unlimited international talk and text, and $60 is for 2.5GB. H2O has a slightly cheaper sister brand called Envie with no LTE access.
The $199 iPhone 4S and the $269 2013 Moto X are very good values here.
Sprint-based Kajeet bills itself as “the smart phone for kids.” Every service plan comes with Kajeet’s suite of online parental controls. This allows parents to monitor who children can talk and text with, the times when the phone may be used, how much money may be spent, and what features may be accessed.
Kajeet is also the only carrier we know of that filters the Internet, letting you whitelist or blacklist specific Web sites on your kid’s phone.
Plans tend to be a bit pricey, but they start as low as $4.99 per month. That includes 10 minutes of call time, as well as text messages for 10 cents and picture messages for 25 cents. A $19.99 monthly plan includes unlimited text and picture messaging, as well as 150 voice minutes. $24.99 per month gets the same plan but with 500 voice minutes, 500MB of data, and a GPS phone locator, while $49.99 per month includes unlimited texts, picture messages, voice minutes, 2GB of data, and a GPS phone locator.
Kajeet’s phones are also somewhat pricey, but you can bring any out-of-contract Sprint feature phone or Android phone, whether it’s 3G, WiMAX, or LTE.
Net10 / Simple Mobile / Straight Talk
These three prominent brands are all owned by super-MVNO TracFone. With 25 million subscribers, TracFone is the nation’s fifth-largest carrier—it just operates under a bunch of names.
All three brands are the subjects of a class-action settlement about misleading customers for several years by advertising unlimited data plans that weren’t really unlimited (and if you were a subscriber at any point in the past few years, you can get some cash back here: http://www.prepaidphonerefund.com/). They’ve cleaned up their acts by now.
These brands, which operate on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, have an insanely complex array of plans. Rather than listing them all out, I’m going to give you some highlights.
Straight Talk’s $45 plan offers unlimited talk and text with 5GB of LTE data if you bring your own GSM phone.
Simple Mobile’s $55 plan offers 10GB of data, plus unlimited talk and text.
Net10 has a $15/month, 200-minute voice plan that’s good for a backup phone.
These are all pretty good deals. The carriers each sell phones, but you get bonus data for bringing your own, so I’d say pick up an unlocked device and go for it.
Page Plus Cellular
Another TracFone brand, Page Plus Cellular offers something that many other prepaid carriers don’t: Verizon’s network. Relatively few virtual carriers run on Verizon’s award-winning voice system.
Standard plans start at $10 for 100 minutes and last for 120 days, with steps up from there. These minutes will also roll over, provided you replenish your account with a new plan every 120 days. Page Plus’s best deal, though, is a 2,000-minute, $80 card which lasts a whole year. That comes out to $6.66/month for a Verizon phone. Pretty amazing.
For equal amounts of talking and texting, there is a $12 monthly plan that includes 250 minutes and 250 text messages. You can get unlimited talk and text, along with 1GB of LTE data for $39.95, and if you need more data than that, you can get unlimited talk and text with 5GB of data for $69.95.
Phone selection here is pretty odd. The best deal might be a refurbished LG Lucid for $79, or a Motorola Droid Razr M for $130.
Republic Wireless is visionary. Republic was the leader in merging Wi-Fi calling with cellular to dramatically drop rates, and even though it uses Sprint’s network when out of the house and has very limited phone selection, its customers love it.
Republic’s secret is that the carrier desperately hopes you’ll do most of your calling, texting, and data usage over Wi-Fi, keeping its costs down. That way, it can offer a $10/month unlimited talk and text plan. $25 adds 5GB of slow 3G Sprint data. $40 gives you 5GB of Sprint LTE. All plans also include unlimited free Wi-Fi calling from anywhere in the world, which is useful for international travelers.
Republic only has two phones, but one of them is an absolute killer. The Moto X is an excellent smartphone, and $399 is a solid price for it. Just be aware that Republic uses special firmware, so its phones can’t be transferred to other carriers.
Scratch Wireless takes the Republic Wireless Wi-Fi-first idea to its ultimate extent: if you just use on Wi-Fi, the service is free. That makes for an interesting backup home phone, for instance.
Take the phone away from Wi-Fi and you have to pay for calling and texting. You can get unlimited calls or texts on the Sprint LTE network for $2/day each (so, $4 for both), pay $6.99 for 100 voice minutes, or $14.99 for unlimited calling plus $24.99 for unlimited texting for 30 days.
Scratch’s Achilles heel, though, is that it only works with one smartphone, the $99 Motorola Photon Q. We reviewed it in August 2012, and although it has its pluses, it’s nearly three years old.
TextNow uses custom VoIP software and Sprint’s network to deliver low rates. The carrier’s system prefers making voice-over-IP calls through Sprint’s data network, falling back to standard voice calling only when the data network isn’t good enough.
The rates are good, but they don’t quite measure up to Republic Wireless at the higher end. For a mere $18.99, you get unlimited calls, texts, and 500MB of data. $39.99 gets you 2GB of data, and $59.99 is good for 4GB.
TextNow strongly suggests you buy its own highly discounted phones, which integrate its software more tightly than bringing an existing Sprint-compatible phone would do. The best deal is clearly a $149.99, 2013-era Moto X.
Using both Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks, depending on which phone you choose, Ting has an unusually configurable set of plans. You can custom-mix minutes, messages, and megabytes of data in six different buckets each, generating some very unusual plans: For instance, it’s possible to do a plan that’s only texting and data if you’re not much of a talker.
Ting’s best deals actually come with plans that don’t have a lot of talking, as there’s no unlimited talk or text options. A teenager, for instance, can get 100 minutes for voice calls, 500MB of data, and 4,000 text messages for $32.
Ting has a good selection of phones, but the real winner is the Readers’ Choice OnePlus One, a cult Android device for $299. You can also bring unlocked T-Mobile-compatible devices and a limited number of Sprint devices over to Ting.
Ultra Mobile, which runs on the T-Mobile LTE network, is our favorite plan for heavy international callers. Its $29 plan offers unlimited talk, text, and 1GB of data, along with unlimited calling to 40 countries and 1,000 minutes to 45 others.
Ultra’s best-value higher-end plan, the $59 plan, gives you 2.5GB of data and $5 of international credit beyond the 85 countries.
The carrier only sells SIMs, not phones, so you’ll need to pick up an unlocked phone to use it. Check out our list of the best unlocked phones for T-Mobile-compatible devices.