Prepaid cell phone plans may not be for everyone, but they have their virtues for those who need more control over their phone usage and bills. With prepaid plans, you get charged a specific amount at the beginning of each month for an agreed-upon volume of talk, text, and data. In contrast, postpaid plans bill at the end of the billing cycle and reflect your unconstrained service usage. A prepaid plan lets you wipe out unexpected costs so you can easily budget your mobile bill for the long term. And because mobile carriers are increasingly gravitating to no-contract plans, prepaid plans are becoming an increasingly popular option.
Another big advantage of prepaid plans is that there’s no need to run a credit check because you pay in advance. If you don’t pay, you don’t play. That method also means you can switch plans at will if you find a better deal or you are unhappy with the service. Prepaid plans are great for both individuals and families as a number of plans support multiple lines on a single account. As major carriers focus on unlimited data plans, prepaid carriers can be more flexible. For example, low data users can get a tiered data plan, dispense with data altogether, or choose an allotment of talk and text that will save them money.
How to choose a plan
To choose the right prepaid plan, you need to first decide how much you can spend, determine how much data you need, and estimate how many calls you make and texts you send per month. After that, you can comparison shop. There’s a big difference between the Big Four major carriers — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile — and some of their smaller counterparts. Smaller carriers all operate in conjunction with the Big Four and all offer prepaid options, often at a better value than the major carriers’ own prepaid plans. Pay attention to details, as cheap deals may not be worth it if they limit speed and access too much. All carriers offer monthly discounts for autopay.
There are two major kinds of prepaid plans: Monthly and pay-as-you-go. Monthly plans run for 30 days, after which you can top up (pay) for the next month in advance. As long as you pay the bill, you have service. A pay-as-you-go plan can run yearly with a fixed expiration date. And of course, wherever you buy your phone — whether from a carrier or independently — you’ll have to pay for that handset up front as well. That’s one reason why prepaid phones are sometimes considered budget items, though that has changed over time. While there’s no special kind of prepaid phone, you still have to make sure that your phone will work with the prepaid plan you choose.
Coverage is critical. Since all carriers piggyback on one of the Big Four, once you know which network a company uses, you can determine whether its coverage will serve you. For those who seek lower bills, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which rents space on the Big Four’s networks, may give you the prices you seek even though customer service may be fairly no-frills. There are bound to be big changes if the FCC approves the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint — and Sprint has already shut down its prepaid services in favor of Boost Mobile — but beyond that, it’s impossible to anticipate the merger’s effect on future plans.
Prepaid plans have a few downsides. For one thing, they don’t offer as many perks as postpaid plans, like access to Netflix that may come with some unlimited data plans, and prepaid plans can be throttled when network traffic gets heavy, or the plan caps data speeds just as a matter of policy.
Below are some of the plans available if you’re interested in exploring a prepaid option. There’s no one best plan for everyone at all times, and the carriers switch up their deals quite often.
T-Mobile offers two monthly prepaid plans: Simply Prepaid and T-Mobile One Prepaid. With both, you get unlimited talk and text, no overages, Wi-Fi calling, and unlimited music streaming. Simply Prepaid starts at $40 per month for a single line and offers up to 10GB of domestic 4G LTE data. The T-Mobile One prepaid plan starts at $50 for one line and features unlimited 4G LTE. Both prepaid plans can accommodate five lines and include hot spots. T-Mobile add-ons include international calling and texting. For $5 a month, you get unlimited data, calling, and texting in Canada and Mexico. And for $15 a month, you get unlimited international texting, unlimited calling to landlines in more than 70 countries and to mobile numbers in more than 30 countries. A pay-as-you-go plan costs $3 per month and includes up to 30 minutes and 30 messages plus 10 cents per unit after the 30. A data pass gets you 4G LTE and a mobile hot spot.
AT&T offers four basic prepaid plans for $35, $50, $65, and $85 per month, and if you choose auto pay you can save between $5 and $15 off that monthly tab. The two cheaper plans offer 1GB and 8GB data respectively that rolls over and include a mobile hot spot, 1080p HD streaming video, unlimited text to 100 countries, and a multi-line discount. The $50 plan throws in talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico. The two more expensive plans include unlimited data and talk, text, and data to Canada and Mexico. The $65 plan has no hot spot while the $85 plan has a 10GB hot spot for U.S. only. AT&T will throttle data speeds if the network is congested and if you use up your high-speed data allotment, it will also slow down data speed to 128Kbps.
Verizon offers three prepaid plans at $35, $45, and $65 per month (with the $5 auto pay discount) for 6GB, 16GB, and unlimited high-speed data, respectively, on the company’s 4G LTE network. All phone plans include unlimited talk and text and unlimited text to over 200 countries outside the U.S. The $65 per month plan includes unlimited calling to Canada and Mexico. During high network volume, data may be slow and once your high-speed data is used (including the hot spot), you will get 2G speeds for the rest of the month, which will affect streaming video or audio. Family plans are also available up to 10 lines.
Sprint’s prepaid plans are now available only via Boost Mobile. The company’s Sprint Forward is no longer available to new customers and the company plans to shut down the service in January 2020. Boost Mobile offers plans with unlimited talk and text ranging from $35 per month for 3GB of data to $50, $60, and $80 per month with unlimited talk, text, and data. The $50 per month plan offers a 12GB hot spot while the $60 and $80 per month plan offers a 30GB and 60GB hot spot respectively. You can add a line to the $35 plan for a total of $60 per month. The $80 plan includes HD video streaming up to 1080p, music up to 1.5Mbps, and gaming up to 8Mbps. Family plans cost up to $120 for up to four lines with unlimited talk, text, and data and streaming for gaming, music, and video.
Cricket Wireless, owned by AT&T, offers five plans ranging from $25 per month to $60 per month, layering on various features for the rising price. The lowest price plan is all talk and text, but no data. Unlimited talk and text with 2GB and 5GB of data costs $30 and $40 per month, respectively. Unlimited data plans are $55 and $60 per month with the cheaper option limited to 3Mbps and the most expensive option at 4G LTE. The most expensive options also include data and unlimited calls, texts, and picture messages to and from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. and unlimited texts to 37 countries. The carrier’s $40-per-month plans can leverage the company’s Group Save option, which offers discounts for two or more lines. Cricket offers two international packages: Cricket International costs $5 a month with calls to 37 countries, while Cricket International Extra costs $15 with unlimited messaging in 37 countries and 1,000 minutes of calls to 31 other countries. Four lines cost $100 per month with data speeds of 3Mbps and video streaming at 1.5Mbps.
Google Fi, whose network combines U.S. Cellular, T-Mobile, and Sprint, offers a single plan with flexible pricing starting at $20 per month. Fi compatible phones switch between the three carriers based on network congestion and signal strength. The plan covers unlimited talk and text and free international text. Data costs $10 per 1GB of 4G LTE — you pay only for what you use and are refunded if you don’t use your contracted amount. With its bill protection feature, you don’t get charged for additional data when you hit the maximum 6GB, though data used over 15GB will be throttled. Google Fi offers group plans for an additional $15 per user per month. Other perks include no-fee tethering and free texting and access to high-speed data at $10 per gigabyte in some 200 countries.
Straight Talk, a partnership between Walmart and TracFone, features coverage across all four major networks in the U.S. — Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon and it’s compatible with most unlocked phones. The carrier’s monthly prepaid plans range from basic for $30 a month, which includes unlimited texts, 1,500 minutes of talk, and 100MB of 4G LTE data. Other plans for $35, $45, and $55 per month offer 3GB, 25GB, and unlimited data, with speeds dropping to 2G when you hit the limit. Straight Talk doesn’t offer group plans, but you can add a second line for a total of $90 per month, and it has some favorable international data options. For $60 a month, you get unlimited calls, texts, and 25GB of high-speed data, as well as unlimited text and calls to Mexico, China, Canada, and India.
Republic Wireless offers a basic plan at a low price. There are no group or family plans and no international calling, and while you can bring your own phone to Republic Wireless, not every model is supported. Republic Wireless, which connects via Sprint and T-Mobile networks for its data plans, offers calls over Wi-Fi. Like Google Fi, Republic can switch between Wi-Fi and cell networks without dropping your call. The My Choice plan costs $15 per month for unlimited talk and text. You can add data to your plan for $5 per gigabyte per month up to a maximum of 15GB per month. And if you pay for a full year up front, you get two months of free service.
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile, formerly known as MetroPCS, has three plans that cater to any budget, backed by a robust LTE network that claims to cover 99% of the population. For $40, $50, and $60 per month you can get either 10GB or unlimited 4G LTE. The cheapest plan includes music streaming and a 2GB hot spot. Google One is included for customers on the $50 plan (for Android phones only), and customers on the $60 monthly plan now get Google One and an Amazon Prime membership. You can add up to five lines per account.
Mint Mobile is a prepaid carrier linked to T-Mobile and offers three plans for which subscribers bring their own devices and buy packages of three, six, or 12 months up front. Mint features unlimited talk, text, and data and has an introductory three-month offer of 3GB of 4G LTE for $15 per month, 8GB for $20 per month, and 12GB for $25 per month. The three-month intro offers are actually the regular price for a yearly subscription. Plus Mint offers a seven-day money back guarantee for new customers. The service includes free international calls to Mexico and Canada, a mobile hot spot, and Wi-Fi talk and text. Data speeds drop if you exceed your monthly allowance, but data is unlimited. And it has a cute little fox logo.
Ting is a basic plan that’s customized to how you use your mobile phone and tends to favor less frequent users. Instead of locking you into a prepaid plan, Ting bills you monthly for the least expensive plan based on your use. You factor in the number of lines, call minutes, texts, and data you anticipate you’ll need and Ting comes up with a price. You can set alerts to make sure you don’t go over your allotment. There’s no extra cost for international calls to 60 countries. The least expensive plan will run you $9, but that includes 100 minutes of calls with no texts or data. Adding texts to the mix will add a minimum of $3 to your monthly bill and adding 2GB of data will total an additional $20 per month to your plan, with each additional gigabyte costing $10.
Tello piggybacks off of Sprint’s network for its wireless service and lets you build a custom plan tailored with the right amount of talk time and data you need — from zero to unlimited minutes and up to 12GB of data. You can also choose one of the carrier’s four preassembled plans called Economy, Value, Smart, and Data. All plans offer unlimited text and minutes, and range from $10, $14, $19, and $39 for added data of 1GB, 2GB, 8GB, and 12GB. You can use your smartphone as a hot spot with free tethering and share your data plan balance with your other devices or even with your friends. Calls to Canada, Mexico, and China are counted the same as domestic minutes. You can use the Pay As You Go option for calls, texts, and data, as well as for international calls and texts.
- Shopping for plans on Sprint? We break down the carrier’s options
- The best cell phone plans of 2019
- Switching to the ‘Un-carrier?’ Here’s a breakdown of T-Mobile’s plans
- Which Verizon plan is best for you? We check out family, individual, and prepaid
- Switching to AT&T? We break down the carrier’s new unlimited and prepaid plans