The Best Prepaid Phone Plans
- March 12, 2018 - The prepaid phone industry has changed a lot since our last review. We’ve updated our methodology and reassessed our top picks based on new plans, competitive pricing, and common customer use cases: MetroPCS claimed our top spot for both data lovers and families, while T-Mobile and PureTalk USA share the crown for basic talk and text plans.
The Best Prepaid Phone Plan
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.
Our favorite plans for heavy data users come from metroPCS, a T-Mobile company that offers multiple unlimited data plans starting at $50 per month, all on T-Mobile’s nationwide 4G LTE network. Plus, metroPCS’ top-tier plan ($60 per month) includes 10GB of mobile hotspot data to use your phone as a wireless router for all your other devices, giving you even more ways to stay connected.
For customers who don’t need the extra frills of a high-speed data plan, we recommend T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go plan and PureTalk USA’s unlimited talk and text plan. Both offer low rates for the basics — talking and texting — to ensure you’re only paying for what you use, and come with coverage on T-Mobile and, in PureTalk USA’s case, AT&T’s vast nationwide networks. PureTalk USA also includes a bonus 500 MB of data so you have the ability to connect if you need it, all while charging less for service than basic talk and text plans from the competition.
MetroPCS also claimed our top spot for customers shopping for the whole family. With four plan options and the ability to add additional lines for $30 apiece, families have the flexibility to choose a plan that best fits their size and phone habits. Plus, every user on a metroPCS family plan gets their own data allotment, so you won’t be stuck at slower speeds just because somebody won’t stop streaming HD videos.
How We Found the Best Prepaid Phone Plans
We started with 23 of the top nationwide prepaid phone companies based on market share, reliability, and general popularity. This naturally included each of the Big Four carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. These four operate the major cellular networks used by just about every service provider in the industry, including mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) like Ting and Straight Talk Wireless. We excluded providers dedicated to specific audiences or causes, like GreatCall, which designs cell phones and plans for seniors, and The People’s Operator, which donates a portion of your phone bill to a number of charitable organizations.
Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are smaller providers (often subsidiaries of the Big Four) that piggyback off the major networks by exchanging speed for price: MVNOs can offer lower rates on plans because they throttle speeds after you exceed your data limit, or allow the major companies to prioritize their own customers during periods of network congestion.
That means if there’s a high volume of data traffic at a particular time, MVNO customers will experience slower speeds than customers on plans from one of the Big Four. Still, this enables MVNOs to offer low rates on plans with greater flexibility for their customers, and guarantees that network coverage will be as extensive for prepaid customers as it is for those on traditional contract plans.
We evaluated each company based on the number, sizes, and prices of plans, prioritizing those providers that offer a variety of choices for their customers: basic talk and text in addition to data plans of varying sizes, with the ability to add lines if necessary. Our research showed that most prepaid phone users are looking for one of these features — high data capabilities, simple talk and text plans, or family packages — so we divided up our research process according to the user. In practice, this meant that eliminating contenders from one use case didn’t exclude it from the others, so that we could be certain each of our top picks was truly the best provider for each category.
For data fiends — customers who use their phones all day streaming videos, playing games, uploading photos, and listening to music — unlimited data and high cutoffs before slower speeds will be the most important qualities to look for. We eliminated contenders like Consumer Cellular, which charges $5 per GB in overage fees, and Ultra Mobile, because while it offers a cutoff that’s comparable to other providers it slows data to half the speed of our other top picks afterwards.
No matter which provider you choose, your unlimited plan does actually have limits. What makes them “unlimited” is that your data will never be cut off, just slowed. High speed coverage is only guaranteed up to a certain usage level, after which point speeds may be reduced to prevent network congestion for customers using the network operators.
Deprioritization can be frustrating, but it’s also the main reason that these network operators are able to offer lower prices for prepaid phone plans, since they can still offer a ‘premium’ service to their direct customers. The key is finding a plan that offers high data limits before service is deprioritized.
Customers looking for just the basics — talk and text — probably won’t care much about data speeds. For these users, we looked for companies that allow you to choose from a range of plan sizes and prices, prioritizing companies with low rates per minute and the ability to pay for only what you use. That meant cutting well-known prepaid operators like Cricket Wireless, which only offers one plan for talk and text, in favor of providers like T-Mobile, which opts for a pay-per-use structure with low rates for minutes and messages.
If you’re shopping for coverage for the whole family, you’ll want to make sure your plan offers discounts for additional lines, plus separate data allotments per user: companies like Ting and Total Wireless provide shared data plans instead, meaning your ability to access high speed datas depends on the habits of everyone else on your plan. Fortunately, most carriers are now moving to individual data allotments, guaranteeing that your data is actually yours (and avoiding those family feuds).
For all categories, we looked at the types of plans from each company. Increasingly, providers are not restricting prepaid services to pay as you go plans, but are also offering monthly plans that enable you to pay for a month’s worth of service upfront and eliminate the hassle of adding minutes whenever you’re running low. And since many customers are drawn to prepaid plans for the comparatively low prices, we favored companies that provide the best value: service options as extensive as those offered by the major operators, at lower prices than the competition.
All of our top picks come with fast speeds, wide coverage, reliable networks, and a range of plans for different customers, so you can feel confident knowing that all of them will be able to serve your needs. But after researching our 23 contenders — scouring user reviews and coverage maps, calling customer support lines, and comparing price offerings — we found that there’s no single best prepaid phone plan for everyone.
“The most important part for customers is to make sure the carrier has solid service in the places they go.”
Coverage has the biggest impact in your daily prepaid phone experience. All carriers operate on one of the nation’s major networks — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon — so once you know which network is used by a given provider (available on the company’s website), you can easily find out how strong coverage is by checking RootMetrics’ CoverageMap.
After checking coverage, the plan for you will depend on your habits: how often you use your phone, what you do with it most — talk and text or stream and upload— and whether high speed data is a must-have. Finding the right combination of features and coverage will ensure that your prepaid phone plan fits your needs, without making you pay for service you’ll never actually use.
Our Picks for the Best Prepaid Phone Plan
Best for Data Lovers
If you can’t stand to miss the latest episode of Atlanta, metroPCS will keep you connected. Excelling in pure bang-for-your-buck, metroPCS offers low-priced unlimited plans and high deprioritization limits that will keep you streaming at faster speeds for longer.
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 2GB. 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 10GB 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.
Like its parent company, metroPCS boasts high cutoffs for deprioritization. Speeds only slow after exceeding 35GB per month in data usage; compared to other prepaid phone operators like Boost Mobile and Sprint, which reduce speeds after 23GB, this generous cutoff gives you significantly more time with 4G LTE capabilities. Plus, to actually use 35GB of data in a month, you’d need to download 30 apps, send and receive 150 emails, stream an hour and a half of video, play online games for an hour, post 50 photos and videos, browse 100 pages on the internet, and take 10 trips using turn-by-turn navigation. Every day. For the whole month.
We particularly love the small perks that come with metroPCS. Included in all but its lowest-tiered plan is Music Unlimited, a program that 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 stay tuned in while saving your data for other streaming needs. 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. It’s admittedly a minor detail, but in an industry known for hidden costs that drive up the true price, a little transparency goes a long way.
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 even 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. And when we called the metroPCS support line with specific questions about data deprioritization, we were greeted promptly but with answers that didn’t actually address our questions, even after further inquiry. Whether our representative didn’t know or just didn’t want to answer, we hoped for a bit more from a provider that generally does a good job placing customers’ concerns first.
The good news? Our problems with metroPCS don’t impact the phone service itself, which comes with T-Mobile’s nationwide 4G LTE network and high data limits at a lower price than the competition. If you’re the type of phone user who needs all the data, metroPCS has prepaid plans to make sure you never have to worry about spoiler alerts again.
Best for Talk and Text
Carriers love to emphasize unlimited data packages and high speed networks, but it’s easy to forget that some customers simply want a phone for, well, talking on the phone. If you mainly use your device just for talk and text, all of the data discussion won’t mean much. Thankfully, most providers also offer plans for the basics, so you’re not left footing the bill for a data plan you don’t need. How you use those basics will determine which prepaid phone plan is best for you.
As the self-proclaimed “un-carrier,” T-Mobile has positioned itself as the vanguard of the cellular industry, typically by lifting limits and slashing prices. That translates into savings for customers, particularly if your habits already fit into one of the network’s prepaid plans. If you rarely use your phone (or use it briefly when you do), T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go plan provides the flexibility to make sure you’re never paying for more than what you use.
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 customers who don’t go over those 30 minutes and messages, doing so won’t cause you to rack up outrageous charges — using twice as many minutes and messages, for example, still comes out to less than $10 per month.
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.
Despite the convenience of only paying for what you use, pay as you go and daily plans can be a pain. Determining just how much you talk on the phone or send texts can quickly become more work than it’s worth, and if you’re using your phone frequently, extra payments on these plans can easily add up. Monthly prepaid plans can offer cost savings for the essential services, saving you the trouble of renewing your plan and taking the calculation out of your phone usage.
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 include data allotments of any size.
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.
Best for Families
Like most products, buying your prepaid service in bulk can save you money. Most phone providers offer discounts for adding lines to a family plan, but only some offer these rates with a range of plans to accommodate your family’s particular needs. Having multiple service options for family plans means providing more freedom for you so that you only pay for what you need. And when it comes to flexibility, MetroPCS impressed us once again with a range of prepaid family plans that allow you to pick and choose how much data you need — with separate data allotments to avoid those monthly tiffs over who hogged the data.
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: 2GB starts at $30 while 5GB costs $40 (for the same price, customers get just 3GB of data from Verizon). No matter which plan you choose, you’ll also benefit from unlimited talk and text at no extra charge.
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 10GB 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 35GB, so if anyone exceeds their limit, internet access won’t be cut off, just slowed (and just theirs).
The Particulars of Prepaid Phone Plans
How much data do you 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.
But 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).
|Wi-Fi First or Infrequent Data User||Typical Data User||Heavy Data User|
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.
Not every phone works on every 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.
New players are entering the prepaid game
With the Big Four networks and their subsidiaries dominating the market, prepaid phones are long overdue for a shakeup. 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. And 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 choose a plan that meets your usage needs, all on the fastest service available.
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.