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Prepaid Cell Phone Plan Reviews

By: Carl Laron on January 12, 2017

Editor's Note:
After 18 months as a subscriber, I wasn't surprised to see Google's Project Fi leading the pack in surveys that measure customer satisfaction with prepaid cell phone plans. We name it a Best Reviewed choice, but with the caveat that a couple of issues might not make it the best choice for all. For everyone else, we found a bevy of terrific plans to fit any budget and any need.

Google Project Fi Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM and CDMA (via T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular) Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- $20 per month for unlimited talk and text

Best monthly prepaid cell phone plan

Google's Project Fi has revolutionized what subscribers can expect from a prepaid cell phone plan -- or any cell phone plan for that matter. Instead of using one wireless network, it uses three plus Wi-Fi. In addition, while the data rates aren't particularly inexpensive, Project Fi only bills you for what you actually use. All of that and more has helped the service rocket to the top of the charts in large user satisfaction surveys. See our full review »

Cricket Wireless Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM (via AT&T) Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- $25 per month for unlimited talk and text

Best monthly prepaid cell phone plan for rural users

While nearly all prepaid carriers deliver good-to-great service in most cities, suburbs and major roadways, when you get further from the beaten path, signals can be hard to find. That's where Cricket starts to shine. Owned by AT&T and using its extensive nationwide network, Cricket has robust coverage in many rural areas -- and everywhere else, too. Individual plans that are attractively priced compared to what you can get direct from the carrier are another plus. See our full review »

MetroPCS Review
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM (via T-Mobile) Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- $30 per month for unlimited talk and text, plus 1 GB of LTE data

Unlimited prepaid cell phone plan

If you are a data guzzler rather than a data sipper, MetroPCS offers a truly unlimited $60 per month plan that's cheaper than any other prepaid plan we spotted. It's different from data plans that bill themselves as "unlimited," but include a capped allotment of LTE data; go over that and speeds are slowed to a crawl -- good for checking email on occasion, but little else. With the MetroPCS unlimited plan, LTE speed are maintained for the entire billing cycle, no matter how much you use.

T-Mobile Review
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- $30 per month for 100 minutes of talk, unlimited text, plus 5 GB of LTE data

Cheap data plan

If you aren't much for talk, but text and use data extensively, T-Mobile's $30 per month plan could be ideal for you. You only get a paltry 100 minutes of talk time (but can add to that at a rate of 10 cents per minute), however, there's unlimited texting and data, with the first 5GB at LTE speeds. User feedback indicates high satisfaction with this prepaid plan, but keep in mind that T-Mobile service works best in metropolitan areas and along major roads.

H2O Wireless Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM (via AT&T) Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- 5 cents per minute for talk and text, 10 cents per MMS message, 10 cents per 1 MB o

Best pay as you go plan

For emergency phones or other cell phones that are only used occasionally, H2O offers a simple, cost-effective plan. Minutes and texts are relatively cheap, 5 cents each, and can be bought in blocks for as little as $10, good for 90 days, and they roll over as long as the account is refilled before time is up. Service is over the AT&T network, so coverage is reliable even in rural areas, and calls to more than 50 countries cost the same as domestic calls. See our full review »

T-Mobile Pay-as-you-go plan with data
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Network type -- GSM Coverage -- Nationwide Cheapest plan -- $3 per month for any combination of 30 talk minutes or 30 texts

Pay-as-you-go plan with data

Pay-as-you-go plans are usually a bad deal for data users, but T-Mobile's pay-as-you-go plan provides cheap calls, cheap texts, and on-demand data at a not-too-terrible price. Calls and texts are billed at 10 cents each, with a $3 per month minimum charge. Data, at LTE speeds, costs $5 per 500 MB for a day, or $10 for 1 GB, good for a week -- ideal for those who don't use data often, but occasionally need decent good for short periods of time.

Types Of Prepaid Plans

Monthly Prepaid Plans

These plans closely resemble postpaid monthly plans like the ones covered in our report on cell phone plans. You are charged a set amount each month and receive an allotment of minutes, talk and data. Plans with unlimited talk and text are commonplace, as are data plans to meet the needs of all types of users, including some unlimited plans, albeit with caps that limit the amount of high-speed (LTE) data you can use per billing cycle.

Pay-As-You-Go Plans

Pay-as-you-go plans charge you by the minute of talk, per text, and per megabyte of data for what you actually use. Many have either a minimum charge per month or deduct a maintenance fee from your account, have a minimum top up amount, and any unused minutes or data expire after a set period (usually 30 or 90 days, depending on the amount of money you add to your account). Experts say that these are generally a poor deal for those who use their phone a lot, but can make terrific sense for light users.

Is a prepaid cell phone plan right for you?

Without a doubt, the landscape for all types of cell phone plans -- prepaid and postpaid -- has shifted dramatically in recent years. Traditional cell phone plans no longer require a contract and, for the most part, don't offer the subsidized (and sometimes free) cell phone that goes with those. Instead, in exchange for financing your phone, or buying it outright, subscribers enjoy lower service costs.

But prepaid cell phone plans are often cheaper still for the same level of talk, text and data allotments, and use the very same networks that are used (and owned by) the four major nationwide carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Prepaid plans also don't require a credit check to get service -- a necessary plus for some and a convenience for all. If you are a light user and want a pay as you go rather than a monthly plan, a prepaid plan is your only cost-effective alternative.

That would seem to make a prepaid cell phone plan a no-brainer for many, but postpaid plans continue to offer some advantages that make them a better choice for lots of users. While prepaid plans use the same networks as postpaid plans, carriers reserve some features and benefits for their postpaid customers. For example, LTE speeds may be throttled (capped at lower limits or receive lower priority) for prepaid users compared to the same network's postpaid customers. Some features, such as the ability to use your device as a mobile hot spot, may not be available, or cost extra, under a prepaid plan. Customer service might be a step below what postpaid carriers offer their subscribers -- for example, while 24/7 access to support is the norm with a postpaid plan, contact hours might be shorter with a prepaid one.

The phone selection is often limited with prepaid carriers. While most prepaid carriers will also welcome almost any compatible phone that you supply yourself, some might not let you activate certain devices. As with most things, it pays to read the fine print before signing up. If a plan's limitations aren't an issue for how you use your phone, a prepaid plan can make a ton of sense. And if you decide a plan or carrier isn't working out for you, the lack of a contract means that you aren't stuck in that relationship.

Prepaid service is available from a variety of sources. All four of the nationwide carriers offer prepaid service under their own brands. Three of the carriers (Verizon is the exception) own separate brands, with their own customer service departments and retail operations. For example, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are owned by Sprint and use Sprint's network, while Cricket is owned by AT&T, and MetroPCS is owned by T-Mobile. Service is also available through MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) that cobble together service by buying access at wholesale from the major nationwide providers and reselling it. For example, Straight Talk buys access from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint; the carrier you use will depend on the phone you select to use with the service.  

Finding The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

To find the best prepaid cell phone providers, we looked at large customer-satisfaction surveys, such as those conducted by ConsumerReports.org, J.D. Power and Associates and PCMag.com. We also looked at reviews and comparison articles at sites such as Tom's Guide, TopTenReviews.com, PrepaidPhoneNews.com and others. We evaluate carriers on their plans, but also on factors such as network performance and the quality of their customer service to find the best prepaid cell phone plans, along with a few alternate choices that could be worth considering.

Elsewhere In This Report
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Prepaid Cell Phone Plans buying guide

What every best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans has:

  • Good selection of phones.
  • Wide coverage.
  • Responsive customer service.

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