There's one thing most cell phone owners know: not all phones work with all cell phone carriers.
If for example, you're on the AT&T or T-Mobile network, you can't bring your device to Sprint or Verizon, and vice versa. Why? Because the four major carrier networks use two different technologies - GSM and CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile utilize GSM, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA.
However, just because you can't bring your GSM phone to a CDMA network doesn't mean you're stuck choosing only from the big guys. There are plenty of smaller GSM phone carriers to consider.
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These lesser-known providers are called MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators). MVNOs use the same cell towers as the big four, which means you're getting solid service.
You may not get all of the same perks as you do with the major carriers (like mobile hotspot use, for example) but you may very well save a bundle on your phone bill.
How to Choose a GSM Network
Naturally, there are things you want to keep in mind when picking any cellular carrier. If you're shopping for a smaller GSM provider, you want to pay particular attention to:
- Coverage Area: Unlike the big four cell phone carriers, not all MVNOs are necessarily available in all areas. Most have fairly decent nationwide coverage, just be sure to check their service area map before moving ahead. MVNOs buy talk, text, and data from the Big Four, so you can check out our coverage maps to get an idea of what level of coverage you can expect.
- Speeds: Because MVNOs use space on the major carrier networks, you could experience deprioritization or even routinely slower speeds. For example, Cricket throttles its customers to a maximum of 8mbps (on their LTE network), even though the AT&T network is capable of roughly 25mbps.
- Perks: Some carriers are bare-bones, offering a limited choice of packages and no extras like mobile hotspot usage or international service. Others do offer some of the traditional carrier bonuses.
- Phone selection and payment options: Smaller cell companies don't typically offer the latest smartphones or device financing (or it's at a high-interest rate). That makes these carriers great providers of the best BYOP (bring your own phone) plans.
You may not get all of the same perks as you do with the major carriers (like mobile hot spot use, for example) but you may very well save a bundle on your phone bill.
One other thing to be aware of: most of these alternative cell providers, whether on the GSM or CDMA network, is that they usually use a prepaid or pay-as-you-go payment structure. In the end, this won't affect your service, and in fact could be an advantage for some people. Why?
Because it allows you to change your plan from month to month based on your needs. This way you'll never pay for talk, text, or data you don't need.
You may be asking yourself: "What's the difference between GSM and CDMA?" We've got you covered with a detailed guide to these two technologies. Once you've checked that out, you can read on below for an overview of the best GSM MVNOs.
Next, I'll give you an idea of what the best GSM networks have to offer.
Looking for a flexible, affordable GSM carrier? US Mobile can save you a significant amount on your phone bill. This MVNO runs on the T-Mobile network, which means it's easy to use your T-Mobile phone with the service.
How it works:
- Choose your minutes, texts, and data amounts - prices range between $2 and $30.
- Check to see if your device works with US Mobile service, or pick one of their phones.
- Add a SIM card to your cart for $3.99 (if BYOP).
This carrier says that most people bring their own devices, although you can purchase one from their website. Flagship models are a bit older, like the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6s, running around $600. They do have smartphones with lower price points as well.
While you won't get a mobile hotspot and you'll pay by the unit for international services, you'll definitely save a bundle if you only use your phone here in the states. Even if you choose the most expensive package - 5000 minutes, unlimited texts, and 10GB of data - your total will only be $54 per month. US Mobile claims their customers' average phone bill is just $15, making this provider a great option for light to moderate users.
This carrier is both a Sprint and T-Mobile MVNO. This gives you flexibility if bringing your own device because you can use either a CDMA phone or one designed for the GSM network. Ting has a fairly expansive nationwide LTE network.
What's even better: with Ting plans you don't have to choose your minute, text, and data buckets ahead of time. Use what you need, and Ting calculates what you owe at the end of the billing cycle. There's a set fee of $6 per line, and packages from 0 to 2100 minutes, 0 to 4800 texts, and up to 2GB of data. You can go over these amounts, at which point you'll be charged per unit.
You can buy your device from Ting, including the latest flagship phones. There is financing, however, depending upon your credit you could pay up to 30% interest with this option. If you buy your phone from Ting, you'll get your SIM card free. If you BYOP, the SIM card will run you $9.
Related: Compare SIM Cards
Cricket offers fewer plans than the above GSM phone carriers, however, their top two tiers do include talk, text, and data to and from Canada and Mexico. Prices range from $30 to $60 per month, with the most expensive plan featuring unlimited everything. You can purchase mobile hotspot usage for $10 more per month.
One of the best things about Cricket is that they have a Group Save option, which gives you a $10 discount for each additional line on your account. So if you're comparing family plans, it could pay to check out this option.
As far as devices, you can buy your phone from this carrier, or bring your own. Cricket is owned by AT&T, so you'll need a GSM device - CDMA phones won't work on the network. Use our convenient calculator to see if Cricket Wireless has a plan that's right for you.
Pro Tip: As I mentioned earlier, Cricket customers receive 8mbps speeds. In reality, this is plenty fast enough for most everyday use, including email, music streaming, and watching videos.
Other GSM Carriers
There are literally dozens of GSM MVNOs to take into consideration. Here are a few more you might want to check out:
- Mint SIM: unlimited everything with 2GB high-speed LTE data starting at $17 per month (when you pay for one year)
- Straight Talk: works with GSM or CDMA phones, includes Straight Talk Unlimited International option
- MetroPCS: features mobile hotspot use, compatible with T-Mobile phones
There are plenty of choices no matter what your needs - simply decide on your talk, text, and data priorities and choose a plan that gives you the most bang for your buck in those areas.
Here's the bottom line: a smaller carrier may not be right for the very heavy smartphone user who perhaps uses their device for work, or zips through tons of data. These providers are, however, awesome, affordable alternatives if you prefer to customize your plan and only pay for what you actually use. You'll be on the same great LTE network as the big guys, with few sacrifices.
How much data do you use? Try out our data usage calculator to determine what kind of cell phone plan is perfect for you!
A smaller carrier may not be right for the very heavy smartphone user who perhaps uses their device for work, or zips through tons of data. These providers are, however, awesome, affordable alternatives if you prefer to customize your plan and only pay for what you actually use. You'll be on the same great LTE network as the big guys, with few sacrifices.
You'll need a SIM card if you plan on bringing your own phone to a new network to activate your device. Check out our guide on GSM SIM cards to see which are compatible with your phone.