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Best Pay-As-You-Go Cell Phone Plans

By: Carl Laron on December 12, 2017

For light users, pay-as-you-go plans save money

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 H2O 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. Prepaid Phone News lists H2O 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 H2O 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.

H2O Wireless's own phone line up is unimpressive, offering just a handful of entry-level Android smartphones. If that line up won't do, H2O has a partnership with SmartPay that will let you buy (either outright or on an installment plan) a nice selection of more advanced devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and iPhone 8, but not the iPhone X. H2O 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 older flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy S7. TracFone also welcomes unlocked compatible phones, including those formerly used on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.

Though TracFone is included in PCMag's article on "The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of," it's sort of a backhanded inclusion. "TracFone has a lot of different deals, but I've never liked its gimmicky, gamified system of always-changing double- and triple-minutes cards," Sacha Segan says. We agree, as it created a moving target for users trying to make sure they are getting the best value from the carrier. The good news, however, is that TracFone has been phasing out those promotions; it's still valid for existing airtime cards and devices that were purchased with that feature, but is not offered on new purchases.

For light users with basic or feature phones, TracFone's pay-as-you-go plans start at just $15 for 30 minutes of service good for 30 days and top out at 1,500 minutes for just under $200, good for 365 days. In between sit a myriad of plans with differing minute allotments and service days, meaning you'll need to have a good grasp of your usage needs to make sure you get the right plan and value. For example, $79.99 will get you 450 minutes good for 90 days, while $99.99 will get you fewer minutes (400) but more service days (365). 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.

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 500 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, though that last deal is truly terrible for anyone that uses any amount of data. As with feature phone plans, there are a ton of different options with different amounts of service days, minutes and data allotments to choose from. Some plans TracFone offers (but not all) let you save 5 percent to 10 percent, depending on the plan.

TracFone's biggest attraction might be for those who call internationally, and especially to Mexico. You can call "hundreds" of countries at the same price as for a local call. In addition, if you get frequent calls from those in Mexico, you can request up to three local Mexican numbers for them to use to reach your TracFone phone without incurring long distance charges.

In terms of customer satisfaction, however, the feedback couldn't be more mixed. TracFone has improved its standing a couple of ticks in PCMag's Reader's Choice survey rankings from last year, and now scores right at the industry average. It's also roughly mid-pack in Consumer Reports' user survey. But at J.D. Power and Associates, the carrier's standing remains pretty dreadful. It's dead last in customer care among non-contract wireless carriers, and second to last in the purchase experience satisfaction survey.

Major national carriers rarely offer a pay-as-you-go plan that's price competitive with what's offered by MVNOs like H2O 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 H2O, 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).

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 H2O Wireless would run $100. Ouch.

Pay-as-you-go 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 all current surveys consider the carrier as a whole, with no distinction between satisfaction of its prepaid vs. full service plans.

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