The Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk Unlimited plan (Est. $35 per month and up) isn't the cheapest prepaid plan available for unlimited talk, text and data. However, if you're more likely to text or tweet than place a voice call, the carrier offers plans with unlimited text and data and either 300 anytime talk minutes (Est. $35 per month) or 1,200 anytime talk minutes (Est. $45 per month). 4G speed is included where available, but is limited to 2.5 GB per month (after that, you are throttled back to 3G speeds).
For those uninterested in smartphones or very much Internet access, Virgin Mobile's PayLo plans (Est. $20 per month and up) are an option. For $20 per month you get 400 minutes of talk time; texts are 15 cents each and web access is $1.50 per MB. The most expensive PayLo plan (Est. $40 per month) gets you unlimited talk and text, plus 50 MB of web access.
The biggest plus for Virgin Mobile is its terrific selection of phones, including the Apple iPhone 5S (Est. $550 for 16 GB) and the Apple iPhone 5c (Est. $450 for 16 GB). On the Android side of things, the selection is not quite as impressive, but available phones include the last generation (and still excellent) Samsung Galaxy S III (Est. $400).
Virgin Mobile earns average ratings for voice quality and customer service at J.D. Power and Associates, PCMag.com and other respected customer surveys. Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint and uses that company's cellular network. However, while Sprint customers can roam off-network via Verizon, no off-network roaming of any kind is available with Virgin Mobile. Since the Sprint network is relatively small, coverage could be an issue for some.
Boost Mobile ($50 per month and up) is another Sprint-owned prepaid cell phone-plan provider. It ranks tops in purchase satisfaction among prepaid providers in a J.D. Power and Associates survey of more than 8,500 cell phone users. It also scores well in reviews by TopTenReviews.com and PrepaidReviews.com.
Like Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile offers the latest Apple iPhone 5s (Est. $550) and 5c (Est. $450), but only older or mid-grade-performing Android devices. Unlike Virgin Mobile, it also offers BlackBerry support and the BlackBerry Curve 9310 (Est. $80) smartphone.
Boost Mobile's most basic plan is available for those with basic-feature phones. Smartphone users step up to a $55-a-month plan that includes unlimited talk, text and web, with 2.5 GB of high-speed access (to 4G speeds where available). BlackBerry users can select a $60 plan that adds support for their device to Boost Mobile's $55 unlimited plan, or a $45 plan that includes unlimited support for talk, text and BlackBerry Messenger service, but no web access.
The carrier's biggest sales feature is its loyalty program. For every six months of on-time payments, Boost Mobile slices $5 off the bill, up to a maximum discount of $15 after 18 months. For example, after 18 months, Boost Mobile's $55 unlimited smartphone plan drops to $40 per month.
MetroPCS is now owned by T-Mobile. Using that carrier's network and a network of roaming partners, the company claims to offer service in areas that reach 90 percent of the U.S., though calls outside of the MetroPCS network are subject to additional charges (Est. 19 cents per minute). LTE service is now available in a number of larger metropolitan areas, though coverage is far from comprehensive.
The company offers three plans, but they're all unlimited monthly talk, text and data plans. The difference is in the amount of high-speed data you get every month: the most expensive plan (Est. $60 per month) comes with uncapped high-speed data (at up to 4G speeds where available). Plans with a high-speed data allotment of 2.5 GB (Est. $50 per month) or 500 MB (Est. $40 per month) are also available. MetroPCS also offers a friends and family option that lets you add up to five lines to your account and save $5 per line.
The phone selection isn't extensive (just 17 when we checked), but includes some advanced Android devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 (Est. $520). While MetroPCS doesn't sell the iPhone, the carrier lets you use your own unlocked phones on the service. Support is available for most Android and Apple devices, including the Apple iPhone 5 and earlier (but not the 5s or 5c). The purchase of a MetroPCS SIM card (Est. $10) is required, however.
Straight Talk, owned by TracFone and sold by Walmart, provides service by buying access from the four major nationwide carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint). The unlimited plans look to be a good value at $45 per month, and cost less if you sign up for three, six or 12 months at a time. They offer unlimited talk, text and web, though the latter come with a caveat -- only the first 2.5 GB are high-speed (3G or 4G/LTE) depending on your location; after that, data is throttled to 2G speeds. There are basic, Android and iPhones to choose from, or you can bring your own unlocked phone and purchase a SIM card (Est. $7). Straight Talk earns good reviews for its plans from experts and users alike; customer service earns poor ratings, however. Because your home network can be one of the four national carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, performance can vary. Which network you wind up on is determined both by where you live and which phone you purchase or activate.
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 Pay-as-You-Go Cell Phone Plans: Pay-as-you-go plans are pricey, but can still be a good option for some. We look at top plans for occasional cell phone users and international callers.
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.