The Best Prepaid Cell Phone PlansThere 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.
How We Chose the Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
What customers want
We evaluated each company based on the number, sizes, and prices of plans. Not everyone has the same needs when it comes to a prepaid phone service: those who just want to make calls and send texts won’t need the unlimited data essential for mobile gamers and Netflix streamers. So this means the best provider for one group isn’t necessarily the best provider for another. During our research, eliminating providers from the top spot for one group didn’t automatically exclude it from the others, so that we could be certain each of our top picks was truly the best provider for its category.
Unlimited data and cutoffs
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 features of a phone plan. 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 afterward.
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.
Low rates and pay-per-use
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 that 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.
Separate data allotments
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: mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) like Ting and Total Wireless provide shared data plans instead, meaning your ability to access high-speed data 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).
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.
Top-tier service at a bargain
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. Also, many providers are no longer 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 up front and eliminate the hassle of adding minutes whenever you’re running low.
Coverage has the biggest impact on 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.
“The most important part for customers is to make sure the carrier has solid service in the places they go.”
Tammy Parker Senior Analyst at digital media company GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.
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.
The 3 Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
- High cutoffs for deprioritization Varying data packages Great for music lovers Flexible plans and multiple lines Unlimited family plans
- 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.
- Affordable basic plan Expanding coverage
- 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.
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.
- Monthly unlimited plans AT&T’s extensive network
- 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).
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.
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.