Cheap cell phone plans should be inexpensive, flexible, and simple to understand. Purchasing a cell phone plan can be expensive and the last thing you want are hidden costs and low data caps. It may be tough to find a plan that gives you all the bells and whistles you desire and saves you money, but it's not impossible.
In my research, I put costs, customer service, and contracts at the top of my list. Because everyone has different cell phone data usage habits, I have reviewed the cheapest cell phone plans to help you find one that suits your needs.
Key Considerations When Comparing Cheap Phone Plans
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 23% of smartphone owners in the U.S. said they had canceled their cell phone plan in the past because they couldn't afford it. With large overage fees and high prices on low data caps, it's obvious why many are struggling and searching for the cheapest smartphone plans.
There are various questions to contemplate when looking for the cheapest cell phone plans available. Obviously, it's important to pay attention to prices. But it's also necessary to pay attention to some other things including:
1. How much data and how many minutes do you need?
The amount you'll be using your phone will determine how much data and minutes you'll need in a month. If you can estimate the amount of data and minutes you're going to need, you can compare the cheapest cell phone plans based on that amount. This is the best way to decide on a plan, whether it's prepaid, postpaid or pay-as-you-go.
If you are sure you won't be using your phone very often, a pay as you go plan could be perfect for you. Otherwise, a prepaid cell phone plan or postpaid plan is probably the way to go. Whichever option you choose, fortunately, long distance calling won't be a concern. These days, cell phone providers don't charge extra for long distance.
2. Can you bring your own cell phone?
Many carriers these days have bring your own cell phone plans. This feature allows you to activate cellular service on a used, unlocked phone at a reasonable price. This may be an option for you for anything from a basic flip phone to an iPhone or Android smartphone.
Instead of buying a brand new phone from your carrier, you can go online and buy a cheap used cell phone. If you're not sure about buying used cell phones online, check out our review of the best place to buy used cell phones. Or, you could bring a device you already have. Say, for example, your Samsung Galaxy S7 is still in great condition. You won't have to shell out big bucks for a Samsung Galaxy S8 if you've already got a working phone.
The bring your own cell phone option could save you a lot of money, especially now that most carriers have done away with free cell phones. Not every carrier offers it, though, so check with your chosen wireless carrier to ensure they allow it.
3. Will you have to sign a contract?
Whether or not you'll have to sign a cellular service contract will depend on what type of cheap phone plan you choose. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into when you purchase a plan. Prepaid or pay as you go plans may be the way to go if you're looking for no contract. Postpaid plans almost always require a contract.
On a side note, pay attention to the locked or unlocked status of your phone if you buy from a carrier or a used cell phone site. It may be locked in an attempt to keep you from using another carrier for a certain amount of time. You can unlock cell phones in some cases - check out our guide to learn how to unlock cell phones to use on another network.
4. Are there any extra or hidden fees?
Like contracts, hidden fees and overages come along with many contract cell phone plans. Pay as you go or prepay plans, on the other hand, do not have either.
With a prepaid plan, you pay for data and minutes before you use them each month. At the end of the month, you can renew your plan for the same amount of data and minutes or switch it up, depending on your carrier's options. This way, you never have to worry about extra fees. Your monthly plan simply ends when you run out of talk time, text messages and/or data.
In 2015, 23% of smartphone owners in the U.S. said they had canceled their cell phone plan in the past because they couldn't afford it.
How Reliable Are Low-Cost Cell Phone Carriers?
When you choose a low-cost cell phone plan, reliability is one of the most important features to consider. Large carriers usually offer the most reliability. For instance, J.D. Power reports that Verizon Wireless is a major provider who ranks the best in calling, messaging and data quality across the U.S. Unfortunately, large providers (sometimes referred to as Big Telecom) like Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile aren't typically the cheapest.
There are cheaper wireless carriers out there offering great reliability; you just have to know what you need. To figure it out, you should ask yourself questions like:
- Am I going to use my phone often or for emergencies only?
- Does often mean a couple times a day or all day long, every day?
- What will I be using my cell phone for?
- Will my plan be reliable in an emergency if I need it?
- Do I need a smartphone plan?
- Do I need a monthly unlimited calling plan or minimal talk time and text messaging?
- Do I need a family plan or just one line?
If you're going to use your cheap cell phone service often, such as for unlimited calling and text messaging, you need to make sure your carrier offers reliable coverage in your area. I have heard horror stories of carriers locking their customers into a plan, only to find out that they can't get a signal for five hours of every day.
Don't let this happen to you. Instead, pay attention to the research I'll provide on the reliability of each cheap cell phone service. Also, check carrier websites or give the carriers a call to find out if your area is covered. It's important to know what you're getting yourself into so you don't lock yourself into a trap.
Related: Here are some of the cheapest cell phone plans from low-cost carriers.
Types of Cheap Plans
Carriers offer all different kinds of cheap cell phone plans. The three basic types are prepaid plans, postpaid plans, and pay as you go plans.
Cheap Prepaid Plans
Cheap prepaid cell phone plans work somewhat like contract or postpaid plans. Instead of agreeing to a monthly contract and bills, though, you pay up front for the amount of data and minutes you need for the month ahead. No contracts or credit checks are included. You simply renew your plan each month if you want to keep it.
When your data and minutes run out, your plan is out. Once you pay for more talk time, text messages, and/or data, your plan starts again. This way, you don't have to worry about overage fees or termination fees. With a prepay plan, you can switch to a new plan or carrier whenever you want without being charged a hefty price.
Who should use a prepaid plan?
Prepaid plans are great for those who are looking for cheap cell service without any real commitment. They're ideal for those who can calculate what they use per month ahead of time. Prepaid is also a great solution for older people. According to The Savvy Senior, a publication which offers information and advice for mature adults, prepaid is the way to go for those who don't text message often or need an extensive call plan. The Savvy Senior also offers information on how to get a free cell phone through the government's Lifeline Assistance Program.
If you need a monthly unlimited plan, don't worry - you can get it from providers like Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile. There's also a cheap Straight Talk unlimited plan if you prefer this Walmart offering. Some prepaid carriers, including Boost Mobile, even offer family plans.
Cheap Postpaid Plans
Post-paid plans come with a contract lasting one to two years. If you purchase a post-paid plan, you'll have to agree on a monthly amount and cost of data and minutes per month for the year (or two). You'll then pay your bill at the end of each month.
With a post-paid plan, your contract will limit your ability to switch carriers or plans. Termination fees can be expensive if you want to switch before your contract ends. Carriers are also known to charge expensive overage fees when you surpass your allotted amount of data in a month.
Despite large overages and termination fees, Global Rewards Solutions reported that an estimated 75% of cell phone plan customers in North America have post-paid connections. This is because prepaid plans can end up costing you more if you use your phone often. While postpaid plans give you more discounts the more services you use, prepaid plan rates usually don't change.
Cheap Pay As You Go Plans
Pay as you go plans are similar to prepaid plans because there are no contracts or fees involved. The only difference is that you don't have to pay monthly or even weekly. You can pay daily if you want. A pay as you go plan will allow you to buy as much talk time and data as you need whenever you want. Your call plan is whatever you decide you need.
Pay as you go services provide some of the cheapest cell phone plans out there; be careful, though. If you use your iPhone or Android phone heavily or need multiple lines, it will be much cheaper to go with a prepaid or contract plan.
Advice for Finding the Cheapest Phone Plans
When you go to choose a cheap cell phone plan, there are some things you need to know first. Here are some terms and advice to note before you choose one of the cheap cell phone plans listed here.
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)
MVNOs are smaller companies, like Straight Talk, who buy and resell data and minutes from larger carriers. Essentially, smaller carriers rent network space from larger carriers in order to create their own network.
This type of operator may be worthwhile with less commitment than a larger network and cheaper prices. These networks offer mainly bring your own phone options, which is another reason they are less expensive. For example, if you choose a TracFone cell phone plan, you may be able to bring a device from any carrier as this provider uses all of Big Telecom's networks. You can choose to purchase a TracFone cell phone as well.
CDMA vs. GSM - What do they mean?
You may come across the abbreviations CDMA and GSM when shopping for the cheapest cell phone plans. I certainly had no idea what they were when I first came across them. If you feel the same, I'm here to help.
- CDMA - stands for Code Division Multiple Access. It is a cellular standard used in America and around the world for cellular connections.
- GSM - stands for Global System for Mobile communications. It is also a cellular standard used in America and around the world for cellular connections.
Essentially, both GSM and CDMA are global systems used for mobile communications. They are two different standards with the same goal: allowing providers to connect their customers via cell network.
Does it matter if my carrier uses GSM or CDMA?
Whether your cheap cell phone plan provider uses GSM or CDMA doesn't really make much of a difference. Contrastly, it does affect which models of certain cell phones you can activate with certain carriers.
For instance, Sprint and Verizon both use CDMA while AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. Phones on the GSM system are easy to unlock and transfer to other carriers, while phones using the CDMA system are not.
Additionally, if you buy a phone with a GSM system, you'll need to buy a SIM card in order to activate the service. If you buy a phone with a GSM system, you'll just need to call your carrier to have it activated.
Prepaid and pay as you go plans have their cons
Make sure you know what you're doing when you purchase a prepaid or pay as you go plan. If you need reliable service all of the time, purchasing one of these plans could end up costing you a lot more money and frustration than a contract plan.
Check out the customer service options
Always think about customer support when you're choosing any type of service. If you have problems with your connection or need more data, it's nice to know you'll have someone there to support you.
This is especially true for your cell phone. If you have a question about your bill or your phone has stopped working, you're going to want help fast.
How I Found the Cheapest Phone Plans
I analyzed vigorous amounts of data, reviews, and reports to come up with these cheap cell phone plans for you. Ultimately, I've found that many of the smallest, cheapest cell phone plans can be just as reliable as large carriers like Verizon or AT&T.
Sprint even managed to make this list as one of the big four cell phone providers up there with Verizon and AT&T. They have significantly improved their services in the past couple of years, beating out AT&T in certain areas in 2015, according to Root Metrics. They do a great job of providing reliable, cheap cell phone service to their customers, which is exactly what we're all looking for.
In relation, many small networks are now buying and reselling data and minutes from the big four companies anyway. If your area is covered by the larger carrier who sold your smaller provider minutes and data, you should be covered by them as well.
Some companies like Republic Wireless are even utilizing WiFi to ensure their services are as cheap and reliable as possible for their customers. In the future, I believe larger companies will have to follow suit and search for ways to provide more affordable reliability to their customers.
Related: Here are our recommendations for the best cell phone plans for seniors.
Overall, I hope this article has helped you determine how to find the cheapest cell phone plans with the most reliable coverage. There are so many companies out there, large and small, offering so many different options. It's best to make sure you know exactly what you need before you make any decisions.
A cheap cell phone plan is just one great step for keeping costs low. We've got a bunch more tips and strategies for lowering your monthly cell phone bill here. If you're interested in getting some extra cash off of an old device, check out our guide on how to sell used cell phones.