The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

There are any number of reasons why you might want to avoid a traditional phone plan, whether you have a low credit score, hate the idea of locking yourself into a two-year contract, or simply desire more flexibility from your provider. Prepaid phone plans give you the freedom to pay only for what you use and generally offer lower prices for coverage. But that doesn’t mean your service has to suffer.

The 3 Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

metroPCS

Best for
Heavy Data Users and Families

MetroPCS

metroPCS
Unlimited data plans at 4G LTE speeds, mobile hotspot capabilities, and plan sizes to fit your family.
Pros
High cutoffs for deprioritization
Varying data packages
Great for music lovers
Flexible plans and multiple lines
Unlimited family plans
Cons
No online ordering

Why we chose it

High cutoffs for deprioritization

MetroPCS boasts high cutoffs for deprioritization. Speeds only slow after exceeding 35 GB per month in data usage; compared to other prepaid phone operators like Boost Mobile and Sprint, which reduce speeds after 23 GB. To put that in perspective, to actually use 35 GB of data in a month, you’d need to download 30 apps, send or receive 150 emails, stream one movie, play online games for an hour, post 50 photos, browse 100 web pages, and take 10 trips using turn-by-turn navigation. Every day. For the whole month.

Varying data packages

As a T-Mobile subsidiary, metroPCS coverage operates on T-Mobile’s nationwide 4G LTE network and comes in data packages of varying sizes, starting at 2 GB. For data-heavy users (we’re talking Bachelor bingers and frequent FaceTimers), metroPCS offers two unlimited plans: $50 per month for all the streaming you can watch on your mobile device, or unlimited data plus 15 GB of mobile hotspot access for $60 per month. This enables you to connect other devices, like your tablet or computer, using your phone as a wireless router, all for less than the price of an unlimited plan on AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon.

Great for music lovers

Included exclusively on metroPCS’s $40 high-speed plan is Music Unlimited. This program allows you to use over 40 music streaming services without drawing from your monthly data allotment. If you’re an avid music fan, you’ll be able to keep the tunes flowing while saving your data for other streaming needs.

Flexible plans and multiple lines

MetroPCS offers four plans and the ability to add up to five lines on each. Adding lines costs $30 per user regardless of the plan you choose — the difference lies in the base price for the first line and the data amounts: 2 GB starts at $30 per month while 10 GB costs $40 per month. No matter which plan you choose, you’ll also benefit from unlimited talk and text at no extra charge. And while other providers advertise low rates only to hit you with exorbitant fees upon signing, metroPCS includes the cost of taxes and regulatory fees in the price on paper. In an industry known for hidden costs that drive up the true price, a little transparency goes a long way.

Unlimited family plans

If you don’t want to worry about how much data you’re using each month, metroPCS also offers two unlimited family plans. The first includes unlimited talk, text, and data for $50 per month — if you have four members in your family, you’ll benefit from a discounted rate of four lines for $100 per month, saving 40% on coverage. The second plan costs $60 for the same service plus 15 GB of mobile hotspot data, which enables you to use other internet-connected devices, like your laptop or tablet, with your phone as the router. Best of all, each data allotment is individualized, which means the habits of other people on the plan won’t impact your service. And because it’s metroPCS, every line benefits from the higher deprioritization cutoff of 35 GB, so if anyone exceeds their limit, internet access won’t be cut off, just slowed (and just theirs).

Points to consider

No online ordering

MetroPCS is not without flaws, but they’re mostly matters of convenience. The company encourages customers to go into its stores for all of their cellular needs — service can’t be purchased online, just phones and accessories. With over 11,000 locations, there’s a decent chance that one will be available nearby, but even the closest store can’t replace the convenience of ordering online.

T-Mobile

Best for
Light Talk and Text

T-Mobile

T-Mobile
Flexible talk and text plans to ensure you only pay for what you use (plus a little bit of data just in case).
Pros
Affordable basic plan
Expanding coverage
Cons
Limited talk and text

Why we chose it

Affordable basic plan

Starting at $3, the Pay As You Go plan includes 30 minutes of talk and 30 text messages per month, with additional minutes or messages available for $0.10 apiece. These rates are significantly lower than those offered by other major carriers (AT&T charges $0.25 per minute on its pay-as-you-go plan), and while this plan will be best for those who know they won’t go over the provided talk and text limits, doing so won’t rack up outrageous charges — using twice as many minutes and messages, for example, still comes out to less than $10 per month.

Expanding coverage

T-Mobile’s network coverage continues to expand, and the once-underdog carrier now offers high-speed connections around the country. This might not seem important if you’re not using a data plan, but keep in mind that developments in T-Mobile’s network will lead to better signal strength and fewer dropped calls. For customers on the Pay As You Go plan, that means the coverage perks of an annual contract at a fraction of the price.

Points to consider

Limited talk and text

If you rarely use your phone, T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go plan provides the flexibility to make sure you’re never paying for more than what you use. (And if you do go over occasionally, it won’t necessarily break the bank). However, if you use your phone more frequently you might benefit from a more flexible plan, like PureTalk USA’s.

PureTalk USA

Best for
Heavy Talk and Text

PureTalk USA

Flexible talk and text plans ideal for heavy use.
Pros
Monthly unlimited plans
AT&T's extensive network
Cons
Lacks extensive data plans

Why we chose it

Monthly unlimited plans

PureTalk USA offers a monthly unlimited plan with all the talk and text you can handle (plus a little bit of data just in case you need it) at one of the lowest prices in the industry. The basic plan is $20 per month and includes unlimited talk and text plus 500MB of high-speed data. A similar unlimited talk and text plan from Cricket Wireless costs $25 per month, while AT&T’s is $30. Neither includes data allotments of any size.

AT&T’s extensive network

Even if data isn’t your priority, PureTalk USA operates on AT&T’s extensive high-speed network, which gives you a pretty good chance of having great call coverage no matter where you go. And if you find out you don’t need data, after all, PureTalk USA operates on the same policy as unlimited data plans: no cut service or overage fees if you exceed your limit, just reduced speeds.

Points to consider

Lacks extensive data plans

PureTalk USA might not be the best option for a family of data users. If you’re looking for multiple lines and data allotments, you’d be better served by metroPCS. That way you’re not having to worry about your own connection speed getting bogged down by the various online activities of your family.

Guide to Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

How to find the right prepaid cell phone plan for you

Look at your daily life and habits

If you’re an avid mobile gamer or love to stream videos on the go, you’ll want to opt for a larger data plan to take advantage of fast speeds for all of your high-demand data needs. If you don’t mind slower speeds or using a Wi-Fi connection most of the time, you can always opt for a lower data plan that reduces speeds after you reach your limit. But be warned: these slower speeds will work for basic functions like checking email, but they’ll be painfully slow for other activities (forget about watching YouTube).

Usage Chart for Best Cell Phone Plans

This table is for individual users or plans with separate data allotments for each line, so your available data won't be impacted by the usage habits of other lines on the same plan. All of our top picks (and most other providers) use these individual allotments, but be sure to find out how your provider allocates data ahead of time so that you don't end up overpaying for service.

Make sure your phone will work with your preferred network

There are two basic technologies that power your cell service: GSM (Global System for Mobiles) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). These simply refer to the type of network used to provide cellular service—all devices operate using one of the two. Of the Big Four, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM while Verizon and Sprint operate with CDMA. Choosing one over the other won’t impact the quality of your service, but GSM and CDMA devices aren’t cross-compatible — that’s why smartphones purchased through T-Mobile won’t work on Verizon’s network.

GSM is far more prevalent outside of the U.S. If you regularly travel overseas and want a phone that allows you to simply trade out SIM cards when you’re abroad, opting for GSM will guarantee that you’re covered wherever you go. If not, you should be fine with either service. Some phones, like those manufactured by Nexus and Google, come equipped with capabilities for both GSM and CDMA, but most don’t — be sure to find out which technology your phone and network use before signing up for service. Will My Phone Work is an online tool that can help you determine if your phone will be compatible with certain mobile carriers.

Do your homework and consider new players entering the prepaid game

When you’re shopping around for a prepaid cell phone plan, don’t just focus on the Big Four and their subsidiaries. Recently, players like Google have entered the cellular industry with plan offerings intended to provide strong alternatives to existing service models. Google’s Project Fi runs on networks from Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular (the fifth largest cell network), and Three (an operator used in countries outside the U.S.). Project Fi automatically switches between these networks to ensure you’re always using your fastest connection, which makes it easy to get great service without tying yourself to a single network.

Unfortunately, Project Fi is currently only available on a select number of phones: any of Google’s Pixel devices or the Android One Moto X4. But as the service gains traction, don’t be surprised to see the range of compatible phones increase, as well as other providers offering similar plans to better accommodate customers’ varied needs.

More on Google’s Project Fi

Project Fi’s plan (there’s only one) uses a simple rate structure that includes a policy called Bill Protection: unlimited talk and text is $20 per month, with data available for $10 per GB until 6GB; after that, data is free for the rest of the month, with no speed reductions unless you exceed 15GB. This limits the maximum amount you’ll ever pay for service and makes it easy to get all the data you need with the fastest service available.

Prepaid Cell Phone Plans FAQ

How much data do I really need?

Research shows 77% of Americans now own smartphones, and the average smartphone user is on pace to consume around 6.9GB of data per month, according to a 2017 report from information and communications technology group Ericsson. That’s about how much it takes to watch an episode of Stranger Things and browse the web for an hour every day. If you do a lot of streaming, you may want to consider a plan that will accommodate this type of use.

Are prepaid cell phone plans worth it?

This depends on your daily life and habits regarding your phone and data use. If you don’t use your phone all that often (but would still benefit from having it around), you might save more money with a prepaid cell phone plan that foregoes all of the extra features and data services.

What prepaid cell phone service is the best?

Again, this will depend on your individual needs and a plethora of factors in your life, including how often you text, how often you make calls, if there are any other family members using your data, etc. If you have a phone you use strictly for emergencies and nothing more, you might be okay with a lighter prepaid plan from T-Mobile. However, if you have a nuclear family with people always streaming and texting, you might need something a little more robust, like metroPCS. Our top picks are a great place to start looking and you should definitely speak with a representative to see just what else is on offer and how it might benefit you in your day-to-day.

The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans: Summed Up

metroPCS
T-Mobile
PureTalk USA
Best for Heavy Data Users and Families
Best for Light Talk and Text
Best for Heavy Talk and Text
Order Online
Separate Data for Music Streaming
Online Chat Support
Individual Data Allotments

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