Prepaid vs. monthly cell phone plans
Experts recommend choosing a cell phone plan first, and then picking out a compatible phone, citing network functionality and customer service as the biggest issues. If you have good credit and don't have a preference, you can choose between a monthly cell phone plan and a pay-as-you-go plan, based on your calling habits. See our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cell phone plans for more information and the best-reviewed carriers.
Here are some tips to making your decision-making process easier:
- Estimate the number of minutes you think you'll need. Keep in mind that you will be using your minutes both on outgoing and incoming calls with most plans. If you make less than about 200 minutes of calls per month (that's about one six-minute call per day), a prepaid plan will generally be the best choice. If you'll make more than 400 minutes of calls per month (about 13 minutes per day), a monthly plan is probably the better option.
- Weigh non-voice features. Fees for features such as text messaging, mobile web, picture messaging, music, games, etc. are usually not free, and fees can add up fast as people use these features more often. Most carriers offer both ala carte pricing: 10 cents per text message for instance as well as unlimited plans for $5 to $10 per month.
- Check carrier reliability Once you determine the minute usage and type of service you will use, experts advise going to the next step and doing some fact checking on your own before settling on a plan. This includes consulting expert reviews as well as your friends, neighbors and co-workers who can tell you how frequently they experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls.
- Decide whether you want local, regional or national coverage. Although most carriers are now including long distance and roaming charges in their highest-profile plans, you can save some money with a local or regional plan if you will primarily be making and receiving calls within your area. Be sure to confirm whether roaming or long-distance charges apply to your plan.
- Check the coverage area. Carriers have coverage maps on their websites. Some carriers are better distributed than others in more rural or remote states such as Wyoming or West Virginia. That may further limit your choice of carrier. Several reviewers note that T-Mobile is accurate with its coverage maps. DeadCellZones.com is an independent site that links to many carriers and their coverage maps. The FCC has published a helpful primer on Understanding Wireless Telephone Coverage Areas.
- If you travel frequently, be sure to choose a carrier that lets customers "roam" (make calls that aren't on their own networks) without additional charge. Otherwise you may not be able to use your cell phone as you would with monthly plans, and it may end up costing you much more in roaming fees. If you'll mostly be in metropolitan areas, roaming won't be a problem, because most carriers' networks cover these areas pretty well. Roaming can be a larger issue in rural areas. While most wireless carriers let you make calls when you're outside their area, you could pay hefty roaming charges.
- Before you choose a prepaid plan, check the terms, because no two plans are alike. Some require minimum monthly or daily usage fees, and minutes expire after a certain period of time (generally 30, 60 or 90 days, though some are good for a year). Minutes may have different prices at different times of the day, and some plans include free night, weekend and mobile-to-mobile minutes. Many plans let you roll over minutes by adding funds before existing minutes expire.
See our reports on cell phone plans and prepaid cell phone plans for more information and the best-reviewed carriers.