Buying Guide: Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

 

What the best prepaid cell phone plan has

  • Good selection of phones. Your choice of phone depends on two elements: how you use your phone and what the prepaid cell phone carrier offers -- and most now offer smartphones as well as basic phones. Many will also let you activate your own compatible phone on their network.
  • Wide coverage. Some prepaid carriers are owned by one of the large nationwide carriers, such as Sprint and T-Mobile. However, that doesn't guarantee identical coverage -- for example, while Sprint customers can roam on Verizon's network, on Sprint-owned Virgin Mobile roaming is not allowed. Other prepaid carriers are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) that buy minutes in bulk from major carriers and then resell them. Because of that, coverage areas and quality can vary widely, and offer some surprises -- such as lower data speeds than a network's own customers receive. As always, your best bet is to check a carrier's coverage maps -- and talk with others who are subscribers.
  • Responsive customer service. Prepaid cell phone carriers often rate poorer that traditional (postpaid) cell phone carriers when it comes to customer care. That holds true in many cases regardless of whether the plan is from an MVNO, a carrier owned by one of the big national carriers, or directly from the carriers themselves. Still some carriers perform better in that regard than others, and if easy access to support is critical to your cell phone experience, weigh our comments regarding carriers' customer support performance carefully when choosing your provider.

Know Before You Go

Pay-as-you-go prepaid plans are just what they sound like. You buy a phone, and then buy service (in set amounts of minutes or dollars) as you need it, refilling the card at grocery, convenience, drug and discount stores or using your credit or bank card to add refills over the phone or Internet.

Monthly prepaid phone plans can be more convenient. With these, you pay a set amount every month, depending on your minutes and data allotment (if any), just like a traditional postpaid cell phone plan. However, there is no credit check or contract, and you can cancel without penalty at any time. 

Estimate your minute usage. If you're a frequent cell phone user, you might save money by choosing a prepaid plan that allows unlimited calls, texts and data for a set monthly fee. Less frequent cell phone users might be better served by pay-as-you-go plans that let you buy time by the minute, and that offer long expiration dates (some are as long as one year).

Ask friends and neighbors. Prepaid providers use the same networks as the major carriers. With that in mind, those who live and work in your neighborhood can tell you how frequently they experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls on the network(s) that the prepaid provider uses. Once you gauge satisfaction, check carriers' websites for promotions, shop their retail stores and call them to see where you can get the best deal.

Check the coverage area. Sites such as OpenSignal and Sensory (see the Our Sources section for details) let you search for service and even cell towers by zip code. Maps, which are powered by data downloaded by users, are constantly updated. Information specific to prepaid carriers is relatively sparse, if supplied at all, but coverage maps for the underlying carrier can be helpful.

If you travel frequently, be sure to choose a wireless carrier that lets prepaid customers roam. Most prepaid wireless carriers let you make calls when you're outside their area, but a few charge roaming fees, which may become an issue in rural areas. Some carriers don't allow roaming at all. If you are frequently in remote areas, carriers that use AT&T or Verizon generally perform best outside of major cities and away from major roads.

Check the terms, since no two plans are alike. Some require monthly or daily usage fees, and minutes expire after a certain period of time, from 30 to 365 days. Many plans let you roll over minutes by adding funds before existing minutes expire (topping off).

Read the fine print on unlimited prepaid plans. For example, data might be unlimited, but go over a certain amount of usage and your data will be throttled back to 3G or even 2G speeds.

Extra services can add up. Most prepaid plans don't charge anything extra for nationwide long distance, roaming, voice mail or caller ID. However, many do charge extra for data access, international long distance, text, and picture and video messages (although unlimited prepaid plans often include this) as well as games, music or ringtones.