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Net10 has the cheapest rates, but TracFone shines for international calls

If you don't want a monthly plan, many carriers offer pay-as-you go plans that let you buy a couple of hundred minutes, or a couple of thousand minutes, in advance. Such plans are expensive on a minute basis, however, compared to monthly plans. Under pay-as-you-go plans, purchased minutes are good for as few as 30 days or as many as 365 days, depending on the number of minutes bought and the carrier. Unused minutes can typically be rolled over if you top off your plan (buy additional minutes) before the expiration date; otherwise those minutes are usually gone forever. Those drawbacks make pay-as-you-go plans a bad deal for frequent cell phone users. However, for some, especially those who only want a cell phone for occasional or emergency use, pay-as-you-go could make good sense.

Like Straight Talk (see our discussion of the Best Unlimited Prepaid Plans elsewhere in this report) Net10 is owned by TracFone and provides service by reselling access bought in bulk from the four major cell phone providers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile). Net10 offers a full range of monthly plans (Est. $40 per month and up), including family plans for two or more people. But it's the carrier's pay-as-you-go plans that earn Net10 its best feedback. A $20 Net10 card has 200 minutes good for 30 days, a $60 card provides 900 minutes that last for 90 days, while a $100 card gives you 1,500 minutes and is good for 180 days. If you top off your account (re-purchase minutes before the ones you have expire), any remaining minutes are rolled over and are good until the next expiration date. There's no data allotment, however, and texts deduct from your minute total (at a rate of around 30 seconds each, the 200-minute Net10 card allows for a maximum of 400 texts). Net10 only sells or allows basic-feature phones for use with its pay-as-you-go plan, but that's typical. If you are okay with a plan that renews monthly, opting for a 30-day plan brings the per-minute cost down further, to $15 for 200 minutes.

Because your service and coverage can wind up being from one of the four nationwide carriers, and not necessarily the one that provides the best coverage in your area, network quality and reliability can vary greatly. Overall, parent company TracFone earns average marks for call quality and coverage in large surveys. However, Net10's customer service leaves a lot to be desired, according to some frustrated users at user review sites.

If you want to purchase airtime minutes and not have to worry about topping them off to keep them active, then take a look at T-Mobile's longest-term pay-as-you-go plan. At $100 for 1,000 minutes, it's not as cheap as Net10's card, which provides 1,500 minutes for $100, but it is valid for one full year compared to just 180 days for Net10's version. All T-Mobile's pay-as-you-go plans' minutes are good for a minimum of 90 days -- even its cheapest $10 card, which provides 30 minutes of talk time. T-Mobile boasts a broad coverage map, though its network performance is rated as average in large customer surveys.

While Net10 and StraightTalk offer advanced smartphones and access to high speed (4G/LTE) data, parent TracFone remains truer to its roots as a no-frills prepaid cell phone provider. Android phones are offered, but they are strictly lower-end devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Centura (Est. $130). Web access (limited to 3G or slower) starts at $10 for 300 MB and tops out at $50 for 2 GB.

Instead, TracFone's offerings center on basic-feature phones and pay-as-you-go plans that start at $10 for 30 minutes, with a 30-day expiration if the minutes are not topped off. Plans with one-year expirations are pricey -- $100 will get you 400 minutes. You can opt for a double-minutes program (Est. $20) that will double all future purchases, but even then, at $100 for 1,000 minutes, T-Mobile's offering is a better deal. A Service Protection option (Est. $6) is available and, if enrolled, you get a 30-day grace period if you reach the expiration date of your plan without topping off.

TracFone also offers pay-as-you-go value plans. Plans again start at $10, good for 30 days of service and 50 minutes of talk time. There is no contract or activation or cancellation fee, but plans auto-renew each 30 days unless cancelled. For multi-phone households, the Family Value plan starts at $10 per month for the first phone and 50 minutes of air time. Additional phones are $6 each and get a 40-minute allotment. Plans are good for 30 days and auto-renew every 30 days.

Those who make international calls will find TracFone to be an especially appealing choice. While most prepaid carriers allow international calls, destinations are limited and surcharges -- sometimes hefty -- can be imposed. However, TracFone applies no surcharges; in other words, a call to Belgium (one of more than 80 countries on TracFone's Destinations list) costs the same as a call to the next block. The one disclaimer is that calls to cell phones are not included except in specific countries (around 15 at last look, including the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, India, Russia and Hong Kong).

TracFone scores well in at least one top customer-satisfaction survey, edging out its Net10 and Straight Talk brands, as well as the prepaid offerings of most major nationwide carriers. As with Net10 and Straight Talk, TracFone buys access from all four of the large national carriers, then resells it. These deals and where you live will determine your call quality and coverage. In the best of cases, reports say, call quality can rival Verizon's and outclass AT&T's and T-Mobile's -- at a fraction of the price. In other locales, however, performance might not be as stellar.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans: What's the best prepaid cell phone plan? Editors analyze expert and user reviews and select the best unlimited and pay-as-you-go plans.

Best Unlimited Prepaid Phone Plan: Who offers the best unlimited prepaid plans? We compare talk, text and data offerings from the top prepaid cell phone carriers.

Buying Guide: Need help choosing a prepaid cell phone plan? We outline what you need to consider in this buying guide, which also names the top choices.

Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top prepaid cell phone plans, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.

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