There's an abundance of offerings among monthly prepaid plans, but one carrier rockets to the top of the heap in customer satisfaction surveys. Google Project Fi (Est. $20 per month and up) is the top rated prepaid carrier in ConsumerReports.org' surveys, and the highest scoring carrier of any type. It's also the co-winner of this year's PCMag.com's Reader's Choice awards, sharing that award with Consumer Cellular, a postpaid (traditional) MVNO provider that's covered in more depth in our report on traditional cell phone plans.
Our elevation of Project Fi to Best Reviewed status does come with a couple of caveats, however. One is that the phone selection is exceptionally limited -- only Google's Nexus and Pixel phones are supported. As we'll see in a moment, there's a good reason for that, but be that as it may, if you are dedicated to your iPhone, or any other phone for that matter, Project Fi might not be for you, and Google's phones can be pricey.
The second is that, like many lower cost prepaid providers, service won't be over the AT&T or Verizon networks. Instead it's over the networks owned by T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular (a regional carrier with a strong presence in some states, but none at all in others; see our report on cell phone plans for more information). But note that we say "and" instead of "or," and that brings us to one of Project Fi's major advantages:
Instead of relying on a single provider network, Project Fi uses all three, simultaneously, seamlessly switching from to another depending on signal strength and network conditions. At present, Google Fi is the only provider with that type of functionality, and Google's phones are the only ones that can support it. By cobbling together a network using all three services, the odds of maintaining a connection increase dramatically, especially in urban and suburban areas, many smaller towns, and along major roadways.
But Project Fi's biggest advantage, and the major source of its high satisfaction scores, is its unique pricing structure. Service is $20 per month for unlimited talk and text. Data is purchased in "buckets" priced at $10 per GB, but unlike most prepaid plans where unused data just disappears, with Project Fi it's refunded back in the form of a billing credit. Exceed your pre-purchased data allotment and you are just charged for what you use without extra fees or surcharges, and data is not cut off or throttled -- everything stays at LTE speeds, where available. To keep costs -- and network traffic -- to a minimum, Project Fi also hunts down and connects automatically to trusted, secure Wi-Fi access points, when available, for both calls and data. New this year is a friends and family program that lets users add up to five additional lines to their account for $15 each, with data charged at the same rate for every user.
Project Fi is also a strong choice for those that travel abroad. There are more than 135 partner countries, where calls (non-Wi-Fi) are just 20 per minute, texts are free, and data is billed at the same $10 per GB rate as in the U.S.
"So far, Project Fi's users are thrilled," reports PCMag.com. Ben Z. Gottesman adds that satisfaction with fees is high (9.6 points out of 10). The service also earns high scores for satisfaction overall and likelihood to recommend, along with network speed, reliability, and coverage within the user's home area. However, it earns one of the lowest scores in the survey for its selection of phones.
While Project Fi's network of networks goes a long way toward overcoming the coverage issues sometimes encountered by T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular users, the fact remains that it still doesn't have the coverage of carriers such as AT&T. While AT&T sometimes gets knocked in national surveys, it generally gets good grades in independent tests of network performance conducted by RootMetrics and others, and is an especially good choice for those looking for a provider that does a good job in rural areas -- something where some other networks fall short, as discussed below. The pros and cons of the AT&T network are discussed in more depth in our report on traditional cell phone plans.
You can purchase prepaid service from AT&T, but if you can put up with some limitations in terms of overall speed and phone selection, better deals can be had from Cricket (Est. $25 per month and up), an AT&T-owned MVNO that uses the same network.
Some of the bloom has come off the rose since last year, when Cricket was a clear choice as the Best Reviewed prepaid cell phone provider, but it still scores well. It finishes fourth in ConsumerReports.org's latest survey of prepaid cell phone providers. At J.D. Powers and Associates, it is the highest rated prepaid provider in terms of satisfaction with the purchase experience and overall customer care (behind Consumer Cellular, a postpaid, non-contract provider), and above the industry average in both metrics. It also finishes fourth in PCMag.com's latest Readers' Choice survey and, once again, above the industry average. It wins a Bronze award at TopTenReviews.com. Dan Tennant takes a shot at some of the carrier's fees, including a $10 fee if you want to use your phone as a hot spot for other devices, but adds that "there's a lot here to love, especially when you consider it all comes with AT&T's coverage."
Cricket offers five smartphone rate plans. Four feature LTE data allotments ranging from 1 GB to 10 GB. Once those are exceeded, you can pay $10 for 1 GB of extra LTE data or see your data speeds drop to 2G levels for the remainder of the billing cycle. The fifth plan features unlimited data. One major caveat -- and a sticking point with some reviewers -- is that high-speed data is limited to 8 Mbps. That's still fast enough for just about any online activity, including watching streaming videos without excessive buffering, but far below what the AT&T network delivers in its best service areas.
For basic phone users, Cricket's Talk and Text plan provides unlimited talk and text in the U.S and costs $25 per month. The cheapest plan with data costs $30 per month and includes 1 GB of high speed access and unlimited talk, text and messaging in the U.S. Step up smartphone plans cost $40 per month for 2.5 GB of data, $50 per month for 8GB, or $60 per month for 10 GB. Plans priced at $50 or higher also include unlimited talk and text to Mexico and Canada, roaming while in those countries, and unlimited international texting. You can use your phone as a mobile hotspot on the step up plans as well, but, as noted earlier, that's a $10 per month surcharge. For all but the talk and text plan and the cheapest smartphone plan, you can cut $5 per month from your cost by signing up for auto pay, which will automatically pay your bill each month using a designated credit card.
Families may be interested in Cricket's Group Save program. Each line, up to five in total, is eligible for an increasing discount, starting at $10 for the second line, up to $40 off per month for the fifth line.
As with all prepaid providers, there are no contracts or subsidized phones. Cricket has an okay but not overwhelming roster of phones it will sell you, including the latest iPhone and Galaxy models. Cricket also welcomes compatible unlocked phones that you have purchased elsewhere.
MetroPCS (Est. $30 per month and up) is owned by T-Mobile and uses that carrier's network. Testing by firms such as RootMetrics reveals that T-Mobile service can often be excellent, especially in metropolitan areas and along major highways, but can thin out or disappear completely in more rural locations. T-Mobile does prioritize its own subscribers over that of MetroPCS, which can result in slower speeds during times of peak demand, but adds that users can expect typical download speeds of 6 to 20 Mbps -- fast enough for most online tasks including satisfactory streaming.
If you primarily use your phone in areas where the T-Mobile network is strong, MetroPCS is well liked and a good value -- especially for those who consume buckets full of data. Tom's Guide names it as a top alternative for all users, but says that for "Data-hungry cell phone users who want the fastest network," its unlimited plan is the best choice. It scores around the industry average in most surveys that measure user perceptions of customer service and performance, including a fifth place finish (right behind Cricket) in ConsumerReports.org's current survey.
Pricing is competitive with other carriers, but the best value sits in its unlimited plan which, for $60 per month includes no caps on LTE data, unlimited talk and text, 8 GB of hot spot data. At the other end of the spectrum, for $30 light users get unlimited talk, text and data, with up to 1 GB of data at LTE speeds. The plan includes features that other budget plans typically omit, such as mobile hot spot and visual voice mail. Step up to pricier plans, such as $40 for 3 GB, $50 for 5 GB or the unlimited data plan and Music Unlimited is included, which lets you stream from more than 40 music providers, such as Pandora and Spotify, without it counting against your data allotment. There's no family plan, but additional lines added to an account qualify for a $5 discount. Adding coverage to Canada or Mexico is an extra $5 per month, and a world calling plan that allows unlimited calls to more than 75 countries, plus limited access while traveling abroad, costs $10 per month.
Phone selection direct from MetroPCS is pretty paltry. There's a handful of Android devices, but not the latest Samsung Galaxy models. However, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are offered, and the company welcomes unlocked compatible phones, so getting your favorite device onto the carrier is a simple affair.
Virgin Mobile (Est. $20 per month and up), like MetroPCS, is wholly owned by a nationwide carrier, in this case Sprint. The Sprint network that Virgin Mobile uses has seen marked improvement in recent years, but still trails the other three in terms of performance and coverage, particularly for data, as demonstrated in testing by RootMetrics and others. As is the case with T-Mobile, performance will be best in urban and suburban areas, some small towns, and along major roadways.
Virgin Mobile data plans are unlimited, but with the fastest LTE service capped at 5 GB or 10 GB of data. Still, if you live in an area where Sprint has good service, they can be a decent value. For smartphone users, two Data Love plans are currently offered: 5 GB of LTE data per month for $35, or 10 GB for $45 per month. Once the caps are reached, speeds are reduced to 2G levels. If you hit your limit, you can buy extra data at a rate of $5 per GB. Both plans copy MetroPCS by offering unlimited music streaming that won't count against your high-speed data limit, but, like Cricket, hot spot use is an extra charge.
Unlimited calls to Mexico and most of Canada, plus unlimited texts worldwide cost an extra $5. A plan that allows calling to landlines and mobile phones in select other countries is an additional $10. However these plans do not include cell phone usage while travelling abroad.
For those that only want basic phone service, Virgin Mobile's payLo plans start at $20 per month for 400 minutes, but no texts or data. A $30 plan gets you 1,500 minutes, 1,500 texts and 30 MB of web access (via a feature phone), and $40 will get you unlimited texts and calling minutes.
The phone selection is, again, fairly limited, the iPhone 7 is offered, but you won't find the latest generation flagship Android devices, though a decent assortment of value phones is available. Only one feature phone is offered for payLo customers, however, and Virgin Mobile does not currently allow users to activate their own phone on its service.
Most prepaid plans use one of the major national networks for service. Straight Talk (Est. $30 per month and up), owned by the same company that owns TracFone and several other prepaid carrier brands, instead offers service on any one of the four national networks (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint) depending on your device. While Straight Talk has a limited roster of phones it will sell you (though it includes the Samsung Galaxy S7), most users are best served bringing their own phone … most unlocked and compatible phones for all four major networks can be activated on Straight Talk. You can also lease or finance phones through a third party, SmartPay, for use on Straight Talk.
The cheapest plan at Straight Talk is pretty limited: $30 per month for 1,500 minutes plus 100 MB of data, though texts are unlimited. The step up $45 per month plan is more compelling. It offers unlimited talk, text and data, with the first 5 GB at LTE speeds. If your data needs are bigger, a $55 plan ups the LTE data to 10 GB. If you call internationally, the Straight Talk $60 per month plan adds unlimited calling to over 1,000 destinations. You can sign up for auto refill on the $45 and $60 plans, which knocks a dollar off the price. Auto refill is also available on the $30 plan; that doesn't save you money, but ups the data to a still meager 150 MB. You can also pay for 3, 6 or 12 months in advance on the $45 plan, and that can provide a decent discount over the regular monthly cost ($495 versus $540 paying monthly without auto refill for the one year, for example).
Straight Talk does put a few extra restrictions on users compared to some other services. Continuous streaming is banned, notes PrepaidPhoneNews.com, and tethering is not allowed.
Available on line and at Walmart stores, Straight Talk gets mixed feedback in user surveys. It's the fifth highest-rated service, and fourth highest-rated prepaid service, in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice awards, sitting right at the average for all wireless providers surveyed. At ConsumerReports.org, it's the sixth (out of 14) highest-rated prepaid provider. It rates decently in most categories, and a bit better than that when it comes to value. Customer service is another matter, however, ranking at the bottom for that metric. That's buttressed by users responding to J.D. Power and Associates' surveys that rate it second to last in customer care and dead last in the buying experience among prepaid providers.
The best mix of value for performance can be found via prepaid carriers that are either subsidiaries of the major national carriers, or by MVNOs that buy capacity on those carrier's networks and resell it, usually at a much lower cost. Plans offered directly by the major carriers are also available, and though often more costly compared to the alternatives, may be worth considering by some users. The most notable of these is a $30 per month plan from T-Mobile (Est. $30 per month) that's great for those that text and use lots of data, but don't use all that many minutes of talk.
The carrier doesn't go out of its way to advertise its $30 data-centric plan, but you can find it if you dig down on the T-Mobile web site. It's also available through Walmart. The plan is only available on new lines of service (lines previously activated on T-Mobile are not eligible) and it's only available for lines activated via T-Mobile's web site or at Walmart, not for lines activated at T-Mobile stores or other retailers.
That's a lot of hoops to jump through, but the end result is a plan that fits the needs of many users according to feedback in user forums and elsewhere. You get unlimited data, with the first 5 GB at LTE speeds; unlimited texting; and 100 minutes of talk, with additional minutes billed at 10 cents each (provided there are sufficient funds in your account). Service is on T-Mobile's network, and is just as fast as other T-Mobile plans. T-Mobile service isn't as extensive as other national carriers, but can be lightning fast in areas that are well covered -- mostly metropolitan areas and along major roads. Prepaid phone choices from T-Mobile aren't extensive -- the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 are offered, but only the iPhone SE -- but T-Mobile makes it very easy to use any compatible, unlocked phone purchased elsewhere.
For frugal users -- especially those with light usage requirements -- a "roll your own" plan can make sense. You pay a nominal line access charge, and then pay for "buckets" of talk minutes, texts and data. There are a few such plans, but of late, U.S. Mobile (Est. $2 per month and up), an MVNO that uses the T-Mobile network, has been getting the most attention for offering a good blend of performance and value.
It doesn't have enough subscribers as of yet to register in the major user satisfaction surveys, but it's come to the attention of Sascha Segan at PCMag.com, which named it to the site's list of "The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of." It also finishes mid-pack in TopTenReviews.com's ratings, but its value is impressive enough to earn a recommendation from Dan Tennant for offering "minimalist users absolutely rock-bottom prices for mobile service."
The plan is simple, and flexible. You pay a $2 access fee, then buy allotments of minutes, texts and data that first your usage pattern. Don't ever talk? Then don't buy a talk allotment. Ditto for text and data. Prices start at $3 for 100 minutes of talk, $2 for 100 texts and $2 for 100 MB, or $9 in total, including the access charge, "which is pretty impressive" Segan says. Prices go up for higher usage levels, so the value is best for lighter users, or those that want to use their device for one thing only, be it to make calls, to text, or to use the web. If you use up all your minutes, texts or data, you can top up at any time and whatever you buy is good for 30 days from purchase. You can add additional lines to your account, but there's no discount for doing so, and there's no sharing of buckets between lines.
As is the case with many MVNOs, the phone selection is pretty unimpressive -- mostly older flagship phones (the iPhone 6s, for example) and budget phones. However, U.S. Mobile encourages users to bring their own unlocked, compatible phone, and will even help users unlock paid for, out-of-contract phones from a few carriers (AT&T, MetroPCS and Verizon).