There's an abundance of offerings among monthly prepaid plans, but we see somewhat of a consensus forming around Cricket (Est. $25 per month and up), a prepaid carrier that is owned by AT&T and that uses that nationwide network to provide service. 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.
Cricket draws lots of kudos. It's named the best choice for typical users, both individual and family, by Money Magazine, and Tom's Guide names it the best prepaid plan for families. Cricket also makes the list of best prepaid phone plans for data users at PrepaidPhoneNews.com. Measures of satisfaction with customer care are good, though not great. It finishes third out of seven in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of customer service performance among prepaid cell phone plans -- with an overall customer care score that high enough above the industry average to earn Cricket 4 circles (out of 5). Cricket finishes in the middle of the field in PCMag.com's latest Readers' Choice Award poll, which includes both prepaid and traditional cell phone plans
Cricket offers three smartphone rate plans. All feature "unlimited data," but you have to read the fine print: Each plan offers differing allotments of high speed data. Once you exceed the allotment the speeds drop to the equivalent of 2G speeds, according to Cricket's web site. Alternatively, you can buy additional high-speed data (Est. 1 GB for $10), with the purchased data expiring at the end of the current billing cycle. One caveat 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 2.5 GB of high speed access and unlimited talk, text and messaging in the U.S. Step up smartphone plans cost $50 per month for 5 GB of data, or $60 per month for 10 GB. The step up plans 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 that's a $10 per month surcharge. You can cut $5 per month from your individual smartphone plan by signing up for auto pay, which will automatically pay your bill each month using a designated credit card.
Families will find Cricket's Group Save discount a compelling plus among prepaid cell phone plans. 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 Samsung Galaxy S6 (Est. $600 and up), but not the latest iPhone models. However, Cricket welcomes compatible unlocked phones, including the iPhone 6 (Est. $650 and up), 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. Tom's Guide names it the best prepaid plan for individuals, and it rates reasonably well in most surveys that measure user perceptions of customer service and performance, including a fourth place finish (and above industry average scores) in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice poll.
Pricing is competitive with other carriers, but light users and power users can find some especially good values. For $30, subscribers 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, but is only available at MetroPCS stores, not online. There's no family plan, but additional lines added to an account qualify for a $5 discount.
At the other end of the spectrum is one of the better deals for heavy Internet users, $60 per month for unlimited LTE data, including up to 6 GB of hot spot data. Stewart Wolpin at Tom's Guide says that the plan is a good choice for "serious data drainers." He adds, "While MetroPCS didn't have the top speeds among the prepaid carriers we tested, and its performance only sporadically matched that of parent company T-Mobile, that's still an awful lot of data."
Phone selection direct from MetroPCS is pretty paltry. There's a handful of Android devices, but no iPhones. However, the company welcomes unlocked compatible phones, so getting the iPhone 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. It draws good grades for customer service in surveys that only measure that aspect of the user experience, including a first place finish among prepaid cell phone carrier customer care in the latest J.D. Power and Associates survey, but more mixed grades when it comes to performance. That said, the Sprint network that Virgin Mobile uses has seen marked improvement recently, as demonstrated in testing by RootMetrics and others.
Virgin Mobile offers unlimited plans and PayLo limited ones. On the limited side, the cheapest PayLo offering runs $20 per month and includes 400 minutes. Texts are 15 cents each. These plans are intended for basic and feature phone with limited web access. While data is available, at $1.50 per MB (on the least expensive PayLo plan) you won't want to be using very much.
Virgin Mobile's cheapest unlimited plan gives users the unlimited talk, text and data, with the first 1 GB at high speed for $35 per month. You can add data in 1 GB increments at a cost of $5 per 30 days, and mobile hot spot usage is an extra cost add-on. There are some catches, however. For one, video streaming is limited to 3G speeds; usable, but not as seamless as if LTE speeds were allowed. The phone selection is also fairly limited, the iPhone 6 is offered, but you won't find the latest generation flagship Android devices, though a decent assortment of value phones is available. Unlike many prepaid carriers, you cannot activate your own phone on Virgin Mobile.
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, Net10 and several other prepaid carrier brands, instead offers service on any 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 iPhone 6), most users are best served bringing their own phone É 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 you call internationally, the Straight Talk $60 per month plan adds unlimited calling to over 1,000 destinations. 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 third highest-rated service, and second highest-rated prepaid service, in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice awards, and is the third (out of nine) highest-rated prepaid provider in another large national survey. Factors such as value, coverage and network performance bolster Straight Talk's overall ratings in those. Customer service is another matter, however. Despite a good overall rating in that second survey, Straight Talk earns below average to poor ratings for factors such as the quality of support and the knowledge and courtesy of its staff. 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 of 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, but the iPhone 6 is offered, and T-Mobile makes it easy to bring and compatible, unlocked phone purchased elsewhere.
Many people spend most of their waking hours in settings that are blanketed in Wi-Fi signals, including at home, school, work, stores and shopping malls, restaurants stadiums and more. Why not, then, a cell-phone service that makes use of all of this free and nearly-free connectivity instead of more costly, and often slower, cellular networks? Why not, indeed, and that's the premise of a handful of providers that, while relatively small, are making some big noise -- and news -- when it comes to providing cell phone service.
Topping the charts, literally, is Republic Wireless (Est. $5 per month and up). It's the top-rated prepaid cellular provider in one large national survey, and a Readers' Choice award winner in PCMag.com's annual poll. "Republic was the highest rated company for satisfaction with fees (9.5), which surely influenced its excellent ratings for overall satisfaction (8.8) and likelihood to recommend (9.0)," says PCMag.com's Ben Gottesman.
Republic's cheapest plan (Est. $5 per month) offers service via Wi-Fi only, but most subscribers opt for a plan that looks to Wi-Fi first, but then will switch to standard cellular service via Sprint. That plan costs $10 per month for unlimited talk and text (via Wi-Fi or Sprint), as well as unlimited data via Wi-Fi. Cellular data is on demand and costs $7.50 per 500 MB. Data expires at the end of the current billing cycle, but any that is unused is credited back to your account in the form of a refund that can be applied to your next bill.
These plans were newly introduced in July 2015, and replaced plans that offered unlimited cellular data with a soft cap (you could exceed 5 GB of data once per six month period without having your data speeds throttled) at a cost of $25 per month for 3G data, and $40 per month for LTE data. In light of that, it will be interesting to see if customer satisfaction with rates will be as high in future polls and surveys. While the rate plan changes make Republic a better deal for light to typical users, it is now a much poor proposition for heavier users. In this Re/code article, Ina Fried cites Republic testing that shows that its typical customer would save around $5 per month under the new pricing structure, but says that that the company acknowledges that those that use more than 2 GB per month could wind up paying more.
Phone selection is very limited. Just two Motorola phones are offered, including the budget-priced by still fairly capable Motorola E (2nd Generation) that's profiled in our report on smartphones.