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 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.
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 often 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.
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 also the second highest rated prepaid provider at TopTenReviews.com. Though Dan Tennant's comments apply to both the unlimited and pay as you go offerings, he notes that "H2O Wireless' affordability is a huge boon, but its true strength is the ubiquity of AT&T's network and included international calling." PrepaidPhoneNews.com lists H20 Pay As You Go among the least expensive choices for light users that want service on the AT&T network.
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.
H20 Wireless's phone line up has taken a bit of a nose dive since we looked at it last year, but it still includes a selection of basic phones and entry-level and mid-range Android smartphones. While you won't find any current Android flagship phones, some older top models, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, are available. However, at the time we checked, no iPhone models were available at all. If that line up won't do, H20 will also let you bring your own AT&T phone (assuming it is off contract) or compatible GSM phone.
TracFone (Est. $10 per month 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 LTE data capabilities and even one flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy S7. TracFone also welcomes unlocked compatible phones, including those formerly used on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
However, as Sascha Segan at PCMag.com notes, smartphone users can find better deals elsewhere. Instead, the company's pay-as-you go plans can be a pretty good value for light voice and text users -- especially if you take advantage of the company's often perplexing array of double and triple minute offerings and bonus minute deals. As Segan notes, "TracFone has an extremely complex system of discounts, bonuses, online specials, and in-store promos that feel almost like a table game in Vegas." Still, if you play your cards right, light usage phone users can find deals that are compelling enough that PCMag.com included TracFone in its latest list of The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of.
For light users with basic or feature phones, TracFone's pay-as-you-go plans start at just under $10 for 30 minutes of service good for 30 days and top out at 450 minutes for just under $80, good for 90 days. As noted, those allotments can be doubled or tripled for the life of the phone if you purchase a TracFone device that has the double or triple minute feature included. "For instance, some of TracFone's devices offer "triple minutes" that can be combined with a 400-minute, voice-only, one-year prepaid card to give you 1,200 minutes over the year for $99.99, or $8.33 per month," Segan says.
If used with a feature phone, the airtime card includes texts and data at the same rate as the minute allotment -- 1 text per minute and 1 MB of data per minute, or 450 texts and 450 MB of data for the $90 card, and those are doubled or tripled as well if you buy a qualifying device. One bonus for those with friends or relatives abroad is that calls to around 100 countries are the same price as domestic calls.
Smartphone buyers and those that bring their own phone have a different set of plans to choose from, starting at $15 for 200 minutes, 500 texts and 200 MB of data, good for 30 days, to $125 for 1,500 minutes, 1,500 texts and 1.5 GB of data, good for one year. These plans are not subject to triple allotment offers and aren't really a terrific deal, especially for data.
Confused yet? Well, you're not alone. TracFone doesn't fair particularly well in the most recent round of user surveys. It finishes in a three way tie for 10th in the latest PCMag.com Readers' Choice awards, though just a few points below the industry average. It's the seventh highest rated service at ConsumerReports.org. At J.D. Power and Associates, it finishes in sixth place in customer care, and in seventh place in the purchase experience -- both below the industry average -- among non-contract carriers.
Major national carriers rarely offer a pay-as-you-go plan that's price competitive with what's offered by MVNOs like H20 or TracFone, 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 minute or text), 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 is a better option than most pay as you go plans for those that 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 user survey ratings is generally rated toward the top end of the major carriers, but the one survey that considers its performance as a prepaid service puts it mid pack, and below even TracFone, though still better than the grades earned by the prepaid options of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. TopTenReviews.com also considers its value as a prepaid carrier and names it the best choice. "T-Mobile may be a major carrier, but that doesn't mean it's not affordable for budget-conscious consumers who rely on prepaid cell phones," Tennant says.