Types of Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
Monthly Prepaid Plans
These plans closely resemble postpaid monthly plans like the ones covered in our report on cell phone plans. You are charged a set amount each month and receive an allotment of minutes, talk and data. Plans with unlimited talk and text are commonplace, as are data plans to meet the needs of all types of users, including some unlimited plans, albeit with caps that limit the amount of high-speed (LTE) data you can use per billing cycle.
Pay-as-you-go plans charge you by the minute of talk, per text, and per megabyte of data for what you actually use. There are catches, however, including in many (but not all) cases the requirement to buy set allotments of minutes, texts and/or data, with no refund on what's not used when those expire (usually 30 or 90 days, depending on the amount of money you add to your account). Experts say that these are generally a poor deal for those who use their phone a lot, but can make better sense for light users.
Is a prepaid cell phone plan right for
Without a doubt, the landscape for all types of cell phone
plans -- prepaid and postpaid -- has shifted dramatically in recent years. Most
traditional cell phone plans no longer require a contract and, for the most
part, don't offer the subsidized (and sometimes free) cell phone that goes with
those. Instead, in exchange for financing your phone, or buying it outright,
subscribers enjoy lower service costs.
But prepaid cell phone plans are often cheaper still for the
same level of talk, text and data allotments, and use the very same networks
that are used (and owned by) the four major nationwide carriers -- Verizon,
AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Prepaid plans also don't require a credit check
to get service -- a necessary plus for some and a convenience for all. If you
are a light user and want a pay as you go rather than a monthly plan, a prepaid
plan is your only cost-effective alternative.
That would seem to make a prepaid cell phone plan a
no-brainer for many, but postpaid plans continue to offer some advantages that
make them a better choice for lots of users. While prepaid plans use the same
networks as postpaid plans, carriers reserve some features and benefits for
their postpaid customers. For example, LTE speeds may be throttled (capped at
lower limits or receive lower priority) for prepaid users compared to the same
network's postpaid customers. Some features, such as the ability to use your
device as a mobile hot spot, may not be available, or cost extra, under a
prepaid plan. Customer service might be a step below what postpaid carriers
offer their subscribers -- for example, while 24/7 access to support is the
norm with a postpaid plan, contact hours might be shorter with a prepaid one.
The phone selection is often limited with prepaid carriers.
While most prepaid carriers will also welcome almost any compatible phone that
you supply yourself, some might not let you activate certain devices. As with
most things, it pays to read the fine print before signing up. If a plan's
limitations aren't an issue for how you use your phone, a prepaid plan can make
a ton of sense. And if you decide a plan or carrier isn't working out for you,
the lack of a contract means that you aren't stuck in that relationship.
Prepaid service is available from a variety of sources. All
four of the nationwide carriers offer prepaid service under their own brands.
Three of the carriers (Verizon is the exception) own separate brands, with
their own customer service departments and retail operations. For example,
Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are owned by Sprint and use Sprint's network,
while Cricket is owned by AT&T, and MetroPCS is owned by T-Mobile. Service
is also available through MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) that cobble
together service by buying access at wholesale from the major nationwide
providers and reselling it. For example, Straight Talk buys access from AT&T,
Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint; the carrier you use will depend on the phone you
select to use with the service.
Finding The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
"U.S. Wireless Customer Care Study Vol. 2 (2017)"
"Wireless Purchase Experience Satisfaction Study Vol.1 (2017)"
"U.S. Cell Phone Carriers"
To find the best prepaid cell phone
providers, we looked at large customer-satisfaction surveys, such as those conducted by Consume Reports, J.D. Power and Associates and PCMag.
We also looked at reviews and comparison articles at sites such as Tom's Guide,
Prepaid Phone News and others.
We evaluate carriers on their plans, but also on factors
such as network performance -- including, in the case of MVNOs, whether or not
performance lags behind that of the networks they use. The quality of their customer
service is another key factor, as is the selection of phones offered, and how
welcoming they are to phones purchased elsewhere. The result of that research
is our recommendations for best prepaid cell phone plans, along with a few
alternate choices that could be worth considering.
Prepaid monthly plans that deliver
performance and value
There's an abundance of offerings among monthly prepaid
plans, but one carrier rockets to the top of the heap in customer satisfaction
surveys. (Est. $20 per month and up) is the second highest rated prepaid carrier
in Consumer Reports surveys, just edged out by Consumer Cellular (Est. $10 per month and up), a
postpaid (traditional) MVNO provider that's covered in more depth in our report
on traditional cell phone plans. It's also the highest scoring carrier
of any type in this year's PCMag Reader's Choice awards, earning it Reader's
Our elevation of Project Fi to Best Reviewed status does
come with a couple of caveats, however. One is that the phone selection is
exceptionally limited -- only Google's high-end Pixel and Pixel 2 phones, along
with the mid-range Motorola Moto X4, are supported. As we'll see in a moment,
there's a good reason for that, but be that as it may, if you are dedicated to
your iPhone, or want a budget phone or (any other phone for that matter),
Project Fi might not be for you.
The second is that, like many lower cost prepaid providers,
service won't be over the AT&T or Verizon networks. Instead it's over the networks
owned by T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular (a regional carrier with a strong
presence in some states, but none at all in others; see our report on cell
phone plans for more information). But note that we say "and" instead
of "or," and that brings us to one of Project Fi's major advantages:
Instead of relying on a single provider network, Project Fi uses
all three, simultaneously, seamlessly switching from to another depending on
signal strength and network conditions. While several MVNOs provide service
over multiple networks, at present, Google Fi is the only provider with that
type of instantaneous switching functionality, and the phones named above are
the only ones that can support it. By cobbling together a network using all
three services, the odds of maintaining a connection increase dramatically,
especially in urban and suburban areas, many smaller towns, and along major
But Project Fi's biggest advantage, and the major source of
its high satisfaction scores, is its unique pricing structure. Service is $20
per month for unlimited talk and text. Data is purchased in "buckets"
priced at $10 per GB, but unlike most prepaid plans where unused data just
disappears, with Project Fi it's refunded back in the form of a billing credit.
Exceed your pre-purchased data allotment and you are just charged for what you
use without extra fees or surcharges, and data is not cut off or throttled --
everything stays at LTE speeds, where available. To keep costs -- and network
traffic -- to a minimum, Project Fi also hunts down and connects automatically
to trusted, secure Wi-Fi access points, when available, for both calls and data.
There's also a group plan that lets you add friends and family -- up to five
additional lines per account -- for $15 each, with data charged at the same
rate for every user.
Project Fi is also a strong choice for those that travel
abroad. There are more than 135 partner countries, where calls (non-Wi-Fi) are
just 20 per minute, texts are free, and data is billed at the same $10 per GB
rate as in the U.S.
"If you're happy in an all-Google world—and
there's a lot to be said for such a unified approach—then Project Fi is
the carrier for you" reports PCMag. Ben Z. Gottesman adds that "Users
are extremely happy with the speed, cost, and reliability of the service."
While Project Fi's network of networks goes a long way
toward overcoming the coverage issues sometimes encountered by T-Mobile, Sprint
and U.S. Cellular users, Something that lead's Tom's Guide to say that it
offers the best coverage of any cheap (sub-$40) cell phone plan. Still, the
fact remains that it doesn't have the coverage of carriers such as AT&T.
While AT&T sometimes gets knocked in national surveys, it generally gets
good grades in independent tests of network performance conducted by
RootMetrics and others, and is an especially good choice for those looking for
a provider that does a good job in rural areas -- something where some other
networks fall short, as discussed below. The pros and cons of the AT&T
network are discussed in more depth in our report on traditional cell phone
You can purchase prepaid service from AT&T, but if you
can put up with some limitations in terms of overall speed and phone selection,
better deals can be had from (Est. $25 per month and up), an AT&T-owned MVNO that uses
the same network.
Some of the bloom has come off the rose in the last couple
of years, but Cricket still scores respectably in most major surveys. It
finishes fifth in Consumer Reports latest survey of prepaid cell phone providers.
It also finishes fourth in PC Mag's latest Readers' Choice survey and, above
the industry average.
Cricket offers four smartphone rate plans. Two are capped
plans, with data allotments of 2 GB for $30 per month or 5 GB for $40 per month.
Once those caps are exceeded, you can pay $10 for 1 GB of extra LTE data or see
your data speeds drop to 2G levels for the remainder of the billing cycle.
The carrier also offers two unlimited plans. For $60, you
get unlimited data, though Cricket says that speeds may be slowed temporarily
for those that exceed 22 GB in a billing period. One major caveat -- and a
sticking point with some reviewers -- is that high-speed data on all the above
plans is limited to 8 Mbps. That's still fast enough for just about any online
activity, including watching streaming videos without excessive buffering, but
far below what the AT&T network delivers in its best service areas. For
those that can put with even slower speeds, Cricket's Unlimited 2 plan costs a
little less, $55, but slows speeds to 3 GB, and reduces video streaming
resolution to 480p (standard definition).
Cricket also offers a plan for basic phone users. Cricket's
Talk and Text plan provides unlimited talk and text in the U.S and costs $25
There are a number of extra features that are either an
extra charge or are included free in pricier plans. For example, the two
unlimited plans include unlimited talk and text to Mexico and Canada, roaming
while in those countries, and unlimited international texting to 38 countries. International
services can be added to capped plans for $5 to $15 per month. You can use your
phone as a mobile hotspot on the unlimited plans as well, but that's a $10 per
month surcharge. -- and hot spot service is not available at all on the capped
plans. For all but the talk and text plan and the cheapest smartphone plan, you
can cut $5 per month from your cost by signing up for auto pay, which will
automatically pay your bill each month using a designated credit card.
Families may be interested in Cricket's Group Save program.
Each line, up to five in total, is eligible for an increasing discount,
starting at $10 for the second line, and $20 off per month for each additional
As with all prepaid providers, there are no contracts or
subsidized phones. Cricket has an okay but not overwhelming roster of phones it
will sell you, including some current iPhone and Galaxy models. Cricket also welcomes
compatible unlocked phones that you have purchased elsewhere.
There's a bevy of other monthly plans
MetroPCS (Est. $30 per month and up)
is owned by T-Mobile and uses that carrier's network. Testing by firms such as
RootMetrics reveals that T-Mobile service can often be excellent, especially in
metropolitan areas and along major highways, but can thin out or disappear
completely in more rural locations. T-Mobile does prioritize its own
subscribers over that of MetroPCS, which can result in slower speeds during
times of peak demand, though Philip Michaels at Tom's Guide says that the site
saw no evidence of any throttling in their own speed tests.
If you primarily use your phone in
areas where the T-Mobile network is strong, MetroPCS is well liked and a good
value -- especially for those who consume buckets full of data. Tom's Guide names
it the best discount carrier, adding "You can find other plans that will
cost you less money each month at other carriers, but MetroPCS's superior performance
and customer-friendly extras push it over the top." User surveys aren't
all quite as rosy, however, and it finishes mid-pack at sites like Consumer
Reports and PCMag.
Pricing is competitive with other
carriers, but the best value sits in its $50 unlimited plan. The one
restriction is that hotspot usage is not included. If that's a must, it's
available in a step-up plan that costs $10 more.
At the other end of the spectrum,
for $30 light users get unlimited talk, text and data, with up to 2 GB of data
at LTE speeds. The plan includes features that other budget plans typically
omit, such as mobile hot spot. It and all plans also include Music Unlimited
that lets you stream tunes without it counting against your data allotment. One
negative for some is that all video streaming on MetroPCS is at 480p. If 2 GB
is too little for your needs, a step up capped plan gives you 5 GB for an extra
You can add additional lines to your
account, though the price varies by plan and the number of lines. The best deal
looks to be on the $50 unlimited plan, which provides discounts of $10 per line
for a two line account, to $25 per line for a four-line account, giving you
four lines of unlimited service for $100.
Adding coverage to Canada or Mexico
is an extra $5 per month per country, and a world calling plan that allows unlimited
calls to more than 140 countries, plus limited access while traveling abroad,
costs $10 per month.
Phone selection direct from MetroPCS
is middling, and includes the latest Apple and Samsung models, and the company
welcomes unlocked compatible phones, so getting your favorite device onto the
carrier is a simple affair. Free phone promotions and some other extras, such
as a year of Amazon Prime, are sometimes offered.
Virgin Mobile (Est. $50 per month),
like MetroPCS, is wholly owned by a nationwide carrier, in this case Sprint. The
Sprint network that Virgin Mobile uses has seen marked improvement in recent
years, but still trails the other three in terms of performance and coverage, particularly
for data.. As is the case with T-Mobile, performance will be best in urban and
suburban areas, some small towns, and along major roadways.
Virgin Mobile has completely upended
its business model to become an iPhone-only carrier, at least for new customers
(it still supports its existing Android users). It also only offers one plan,
called Inner Circle. It costs $50 per month for unlimited service, though with
some caveats, including that video is only streamed at 480P, music at 500 kbps,
and cloud gaming at 2 mbps. Those that use more than 23 GB are subject to
slowing during times of data congestion, and the unlimited data applies to
on-network use only; roam too much (for example 100 MB off network), and Virgin
Mobile can terminate your service. The carrier is also offering a promotion
that promises service for $1 for the first six months for anyone that buys an
iPhone from Virgin Mobile or activates their own device on the carrier.
Unlimited calls to Mexico and most
of Canada, plus unlimited texts worldwide cost an extra $5. A plan that allows
calling to landlines and mobile phones in select other countries is an
additional $10. Hot spot usage is an extra charge -- $10 per month for 10 GB.
For those that only want basic phone
service, Virgin Mobile is no longer an option. While existing customers are
grandfathered in to the carrier's PayLo basic phone plans, new customers are
not being accepted.
As long as you want an iPhone, the
phone selection is terrific. The company offers previous generation devices,
back to the iPhone 6 through the current iPhone X, as well as the
budget-oriented iPhone SE. It will also activate unlocked iPhones bought
Sprint also owns Boost Mobile,
(Est. $35 per month and up). That service
appears more flexible than Virgin Mobile's and more welcoming of devices other
than iPhones. It's also pretty well rated among users, earning a J.D. Power and
Associates award for customer care among non-contract full-service carriers,
for example. It also finishes toward the top of the pack in user surveys
conducted by PCMag and Consumer Reports.
The carrier offers two plans -- a
capped plan with 3GB of LTE data for $35, and an unlimited plan for $50. Both
plans have the same caveats as Virgin Mobile's regarding video, music and cloud
gaming data speeds, but where Virgin Mobile allows very limited off-network
data roaming, Boost Mobile does not allow any at all. On the plus side, where
Hot Spot usage is a $10 upcharge on Virgin Mobile, it's included in all of Boost
Mobile's plans. International calling plans include a $5 per month add on that
provides unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico, unlimited SMS texts, and data
roaming while in Mexico, and a $10 per month plan that adds unlimited calls to
landlines in over 70 countries, and 200 minutes to select mobile phones in over
50 countries. If SD video just won't cut it, you can up that to full HD for an
If you are looking for a family
plan, additional lines, up to five total, can be added for $30 each on either
plan. Users that don't mind viewing ads can download Boost Dealz, an app that
lets you earn up to $20 in account credit per month for doing that and
Phone selection is good, especially
for iPhone users as the lineup of Apple phones mirrors that of Virgin Mobile.
On the Android side, the selection is dominated by budget and mid-range
selections, though the Samsung Galaxy S8 is also offered. Boost Mobile will
also activate select phones you might already own on the service, but the
lineup of eligible devices is very skimpy.
Most prepaid plans use one of the
major national networks for service. (Est. $30 per month and up), owned by the same
company that owns TracFone and several other prepaid carrier brands, instead
offers service on any one of the four national networks (AT&T, Verizon,
T-Mobile or Sprint) depending on your device. While Straight Talk has a limited
roster of phones it will sell you (though it includes the Samsung Galaxy S8),
most users are best served bringing their own phone É most unlocked and
compatible phones for all four major networks can be activated on Straight
Talk. You can also purchase or finance phones through a third party, SmartPay,
for use on Straight Talk.
Plans at Straight Talk have been
updated to be more competitive with other carriers, though they still are a
little pricey compared to some. A plan with 2 GB of LTE data (reduced after
that to 2G speeds) and unlimited talk and text runs $35, a plan with 10 GB
costs $45 and the carrier's unlimited plan costs $55. As with many services,
video streaming is throttled to DVD quality (480p resolution). If you call
internationally, a $60 per month plan provides unlimited landline calls to over
60 countries and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls to Mexico, Canada, India and
China. However, the plan only allows you to call 15 unique numbers per billing
cycle. For domestic use, it includes unlimited talk and text, plus 10 GB of LTE
data. Auto-refill is available on all plans, but only saves you $1 per month.
For users of basic phones, $30 per month will buy you 1,500 minutes of talk
time, unlimited texts and 100 MB of data.
Available on line and at Walmart
stores, Straight Talk gets mixed feedback in user surveys. It's the fifth
highest-rated service, and fourth highest-rated prepaid service, in PCMag's
Readers' Choice awards, sitting above the average for all wireless providers
surveyed, and with the same score as Cricket and Boost Mobile. At Consumer Reports,
it sits square in the middle of the 20 carriers currently rated. It scores
decently in most categories, and a bit better than that when it comes to value.
Customer service is another matter, however, ranking at the bottom for that
metric. That's buttressed by users responding to J.D. Power and Associates'
surveys that rate it second to last in customer care and dead last in the
buying experience among prepaid providers. Tom's Guide is perhaps the harshest
critic. "The carrier had the slowest LTE speed in our network testing and
turned in the worst grade in our customer service tests," the editors say.
Red Pocket Mobile (Est. $10 per month and up) is another carrier that uses any of
the four major carriers. It's too small to have registered in any of the major
user satisfaction surveys, but Sascha Segan at PCMag includes it in his report
on top cheap phone plans that you might not have heard of. Phone selection
ranges from paltry to non-existent (depending on the network you want to use),
but it's perfect for those who have an out-of-contract phone that they'd like
to keep using on their preferred network -- including Verizon -- at less than
major-carrier prices. In our research, the fact that it is the cheapest way to
get service on Verizon's network makes it worth considering.
Plans are competitive compared to
other prepaid carriers, but light users may find the lower priced plans to be
particularly attractive. $10 gets you 500 minutes, 500 texts and 500 MB of
data, while $15 doubles that. The carrier's mid-range plan gets you unlimited
talk and text, plus 3 GB of LTE data (and unlimited 2G data after that) for
$30. International calling to 72 countries is included. However, roaming,
including voice roaming, off of your selected network is not permitted, and you
can't use your phone as a hot spot.
For some users, especially those
with light usage requirements, a "roll your own" plan can make sense.
You pay a nominal line access charge, and then pay for "buckets" of
talk minutes, texts and data. There are a few such plans, but of late, U.S. Mobile (Est. $2 per month and up) has been
getting the most attention for offering a good blend of performance and value.
This is another carrier that doesn't have enough subscribers as of yet to
register in the major user satisfaction surveys, but it is included in PCMag's
"The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of" article.
The plan is simple, and flexible.
You pay a $2 access fee, then buy allotments of minutes, texts and data that fit
your usage pattern. Don't ever talk? Then don't buy a talk allotment. Ditto for
text and data. Prices start at $3 for 100 minutes of talk, $2 for 100 texts and
$2 for 100 MB, or $9 in total, including the access charge. Prices go up for
higher usage levels, so the value is best for lighter users, or those that want
to use their device for one thing only, be it to make calls, to text, or to use
the web. If you use up all your minutes, texts or data, you can top up at any
time and whatever you buy is good for 30 days from purchase. You can add
additional lines to your account, but there's no discount for doing so, and
there's no sharing of buckets between lines.
Until recently, all service was on
the T-Mobile network, but the carrier has recently added Verizon to its stable
-- albeit at somewhat higher prices. Unlimited data plans on Verizon's network are
offered, with prices determined by speed -- 1 mbps ("Standard"), 5
mbps ("Fast") or uncapped ("Ludicrous") -- whether you want
unlimited talk and text as well (plans with 100 minutes and 100 texts are also
available), and whether or not you want hotspot use. Pricing for those plans
seem to be a little bit better than what you can get from Verizon directly,
especially for those that can live with slightly reduced speeds -- for example
$61 (including a $4 access fee) for unlimited talk, text, and data at 5 mbps,
along with hotspot use.
You can also completely customize the
Verizon network plans, adding buckets of talk, text and data as your usage
needs dictate. Prices start at $2.50 for 40 minutes of talk, $1.50 for 40
texts, and $2 for 100 MB of data -- which in the customized plans is at the uncapped
speed and includes hotspot usage,
As is the case with many MVNOs, the
phone selection is pretty unimpressive -- mostly older flagship phones (the
iPhone 6s, for example) and budget phones. However, U.S. Mobile encourages
users to bring their own unlocked, compatible phone, and will even help users
unlock paid for, out-of-contract phones from a few carriers (AT&T, MetroPCS