If you don't want a monthly cell phone plan, many carriers offer pay-as-you go plans that let you buy minutes as you need them (though typically with a minimum purchase or an account maintenance fee), or to buy a couple of hundred minutes, or a couple of thousand minutes, in advance. Such plans are expensive on a per-minute basis, however, compared to monthly plans, and data, if available, can be prohibitively pricey for anything but minimal use. 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.
If that describes you, take a long look at H20 Wireless (Est. 5 cents per call or text). That company uses the AT&T network, which is one of the top networks in terms of coverage according to independent testing. It's too small/new to have been included in any of the large user surveys we consulted, but Sascha Segan lists it among "The Best Cheap Prepaid Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of" at PCMag.com. PrepaidPhoneNews.com describes the pay-as-you-go plan as good value for very light use. User feedback at sites such as HowardForums.com is limited, but paints a mixed picture of customer service with varying complaint-resolving issues noted.
Pricing is very straightforward. Most plans bill use at 5 cents per call, 5 cents per text, and 10 cents per MMS message. Data is billed at 10 cents per MB, but at that rate you won't want to use very much (see the discussion of T-Mobile below for why). You can buy airtime in $10, $20 or $30 increments, all good for 90 days, or in a $100 block that won't expire for one year, and unused minutes roll over if the account is replenished before time expires. You can cut the cost of time by 10 percent by subscribing to auto recharge.
Though the roster of countries is limited (just over 50 at last look), international callers can find a lot to like with H20 Wireless. International calls to included countries are billed at the same rate as domestic calls, mostly to landlines, however, though cell phones are also included in a few cases. If you are a frequent international caller, a $25 plan includes a $5 international talk credit, and all calls and texts are billed at 2.5 cents. However, this plan has a 30-day expiration date.
The phone line up is fairly strong, and includes a roster of basic phones, entry-level and mid-range Android smartphones and the complete Apple iPhone line up. While you won't find any current Android flagship phones, some older top models, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, are available. H20 will also let you bring your own AT&T phone (assuming it is off contract) or compatible GSM phone.
Major national carriers rarely offer a pay-as-you-go plan that's competitive with what's offered by MVNOs like H20 or TracFone (covered below), if they offer one at all, but T-Mobile (Est. 10 cents per call or text, $5 per 500 MB of data) has one of the cheaper pay-as-you-go offerings. At 10 cents per-minute or per text, pricing is higher than with H20, but still lower than with many other carriers. You need to buy airtime in $10 increments, good for 90 days, and there's a monthly minimum charge of $3. Unused time can't be rolled over. If there is a period where you need more time/texts, additional usage is billed at the flat rate (10 cents per), or you can buy a weeklong pass with unlimited talk and text for $10.
Data isn't included, but can be added for $5 per day for 500 MB, or $10 per week for 1 GB. Given the short expiration dates, that pricing isn't competitive with data costs on the best monthly prepaid plans, but can be an okay option if you only need a burst of data on occasion. To put it in context, at 10 cents per MB, 1 GB of data at H20 Wireless would run $100. Ouch.
Phone selection at T-Mobile isn't terrific, but the company welcomes compatible phones purchased elsewhere. T-Mobile's customer service usually rates well, but that includes feedback for its performance as a full-service carrier. One national survey that rates carriers and evaluates T-Mobile prepaid separately, finds customer service measures to be mostly average. That's a step above where most other prepaid carriers finish in similar attributes, but a step below T-Mobile's ratings as a traditional (postpaid) carrier. The T-Mobile network is often excellent in areas where coverage is available, but the carrier's reach is more limited than other national network, with best results in cities, nearby suburbs and along major roads.
TracFone (Est. $10 for 30 minutes and up) is one of the longest established prepaid providers, with an emphasis on pay-as-you go plans. It provides service using the AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon networks, and you can use phones purchased from the company or your own compatible, unlocked device.
While the service previously focused on basic phones and talk-and-text centric plans, it now offers a roster of budget-friendly, entry-level devices with 3G data capabilities. If you own an LTE phone of your own, you can activate it with TracFone and enjoy LTE service over your current carrier, though likely at reduced speeds (see this Tom's Guide article for why).
While pricing is competitive, the chief reason to go with TracFone is its variety of plans and customer care that, while not world beating, rises above the norm for pay-as-you go providers. It's the second highest rated prepaid carrier, and the highest rated pay-as-you-go carrier, in one large national survey. At J.D. Power and Associates, TracFone finishes slightly above average in users opinions of the purchasing experience, but a bit below average in the area of customer care.
For light users with standard phones, pay-as-you-go plans start at just under $10 for 30 minutes of service good for 30 day and top out at 450 minutes for $80, good for $90 days. Other options include one year of service starting at around $100 with 400 minutes included, or 1,500 minutes for $200. Add-ons that double your minutes, add data, and add texts are available, as are a host of special deals and offers.
Smartphone owners can also take advantage of monthly pay-as-you-go plans that start at 60 minutes of talk, 60 texts and 60 MB of data for around $20 per month, while just under $80 will net you a plan with 450 minutes of talk, 450 texts and 450 MB of data. Android phone users enjoy a special promotion that triples those allotments. Unused minutes, text and data roll over to the next billing cycle as long as you use your service in the previous six months and top off your account before it expires.
TracFone also offers pay-as-you-go value plans for smartphone owners. Plans start at $10, good for 30 days of service and 50 minutes of talk time, 40 texts, and 50 MB of data, again tripling those allotments if your phone is an Android device. There is no contract or activation or cancellation fee, but plans auto-renew each 30 days unless cancelled.
TracFone is another good choice for those who call internationally. Calls to selected countries, (about 80) are billed at the same rate as domestic calls. As with H20 Wireless, calls to cell phones are not included except in specific countries (around 17 at last look, including the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, India, Russia and Hong Kong).
Net10 (Est. $20 and up) is owned by the same parent company as TracFone and again provides service by reselling access bought in bulk from other carriers. Net10 offers a full range of monthly plans (Est. $35 per month and up), including family plans for two or more people, and plans with data allotments that compare favorably with some of the offerings covered in the section on the best monthly prepaid plans, 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, nor texts, but international calls are included. Net10's phone assortment is relatively impressive, including some flagship Android devices (though one of those would be overkill for the carrier's data-less pay-as-you-go plans) and you can bring your own compatible, unlocked device.
Elsewhere in this report: