You can't get premium reliability in cellphones without paying premium prices, right? Wrong!
You can stay with one of the big four networks (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and, Sprint) and still massively save on your cell phone bills.
This minor miracle has been made possible thanks to the arrival of Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs for short. The four major carriers own the towers that carry their service, the smaller MVNOs - such as US Mobile, Tello, TPO Mobile, and Mint Mobile - buy space from them in bulk and re-sell to us at wholesale prices.
As you will see, you can stay on the same network, keep your phone, keep your number and have greater flexibility, at much lower prices.
In This Guide
How Do MVNOs Keep Prices So Low?
It's all about costs, really. MVNOs don't have the huge advertising budgets that the major carriers have, and their overheads are much lower with few or no stores to operate.
Another way that the major carriers manage to charge you more is through the supply of handsets, which MVNOS don't usually provide. To be more specific, these mobile networks offer monthly financing for their phones, which they will tack onto your monthly bill. Your monthly plan will then will have an extra $10 to $30 charge (sometimes more); you'll be paying between $120 and $360 per year! Do not be tempted by their limited time promotions either; you'll still have an extra charge you don't need.
If you own your own phone outright from one of the big four, you can choose one of the MVNOs that operate on your network and set up your own customized plan – at much lower prices.
Why Switch to a MVNO?
Compared to the big four, these smaller carriers offer several advantages:
- Save Money: With lower costs to handle, MVNOs can offer you much lower rates. In other words, expect good deals from these MVNOs that you wouldn't find anywhere else. For instance, because Republic Wireless has only one physical retail store, it is able to charge a minimum of $15 for its plans.
- Customized plans: The big guys' main offerings are based on unlimited data. Sounds ideal, but the average smartphone user goes through less than 3GB per month. This means you're probably paying for a whole lot of data you do not use. MVNOs let you decide how much mobile data you need - and pay for. In fact, some MVNOs allow you to build your own plan, letting you save not only on mobile data but also on minutes and texts.
- No contracts or credit checks: All low-cost carriers offer prepaid plans. If you're unhappy you can leave anytime you want. You won't have to go through a credit check or get roped into a two-year commitment.
- Keep your freedom: You can keep your phone, too. MVNOs welcome - and often require - bringing your own device. Those payment plans for the newest smartphone are tempting but they add $10 - $30 to your monthly bill.
- Plenty of incentives: Many MVNOs offer fantastic incentives attached to their phone services. Some of these carrier offers include free international calls and text messages, plans with taxes and fees incorporated, data maximizers, data roaming, HD video, free Wifi hotspots or mobile hotspots, rollover data, unlimited calling for long distances, and more. For instance, MetroPCS offers free phones when you switch, and FreedomPop offers free data!
How Much Money Can You Save With a MVNO?
It's common to save up to 50% or more on your cell service. Say you're paying $60 a month for the T-Mobile ONE plan. Grab a Mint Mobile 5GB plan for $30 a month and put $360 per year back in your pocket (where it belongs!).
Want to save more? Purchase a used, refurbished phone before you adopt your desired smartphone plan. That way, you'll be able to save more money that would otherwise be funneled into a new smartphone (which isn't much different compared to the last couple of smartphone iterations). If you want to save both time and money, you should refer to our used smartphone comparison tool. With it, you'll be able to find a great deal that will complement perfectly with your service plan.
Where Do You Start?
If you are currently with one of the big four carriers and want to switch your carrier to an MVNO (which you'll need a SIM card for), it's much simpler if the MVNO you choose is on the same Major Carrier network.
For example, if you have a T-Mobile phone purchased from T-Mobile, and you are ready to leave T-Mobile for an MVNO, the new MVNO must be one that operates on the T-Mobile network.
If you prefer an MVNO from, say, Verizon Wireless, that MVNO will require you to get a Verizon compatible phone (so you'd have to buy a new phone).
The same goes for any other major carrier. If you are a Verizon customer and want to switch, you should choose an MVNO that features Verizon network.
So, the easiest solution – and the one that brings biggest savings – comes from staying with your existing carrier's network and choosing an MVNO which uses that network. You'll still have plenty of choices, as you'll see from the listings below. For example, staying on the T-Mobile network gives you a choice of THIRTEEN different MVNOs!
However, before you make the switch (or when buying a phone), it is important to determine whether or not the phone is unlocked. Fortunately, we have a guide on unlocked phones on the Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T cellular networks.
Customize Your Plan to Suit Your Needs
If you're with one of the big four, chances are you are on an "unlimited" plan, with unlimited talk, text, and data. Think seriously about how you actually use your phone. If you aren't a heavy user for talking or texting, then you should opt for MVNOs, as you can choose a 4G LTE data plan with less data usage and save money.
However, keep in mind that quite a few MVNOs, such as ROK Mobile and US Mobile, offer heavy or unlimited data plans at affordable prices, so you don't need to stick with a major carrier if you don't want to for your unlimited plans.
You may well be paying for unlimited data too. And yet the average smartphone user gets through less than 3GB per month. It's like paying for 100 TV channels and only watching 20 of them.
The Best Verizon MVNOs
With some justification, big carrier Verizon claims that it offers the best nationwide 4G LTE network, but while it offers an unlimited plan – though in all honesty, you'll simply receive lots of data with "soft data caps," meaning that after you reach a certain amount of data, your speeds may be throttled to 2G data levels – you'll be paying an arm and a leg for that plan.
Your best bet is to select a MVNO that uses the Verizon network, so you won't be paying Verizon prices for such a high-quality network.
The best Verizon MVNOs – otherwise known as the carriers that offer you the greatest value for your dollar – have been limited to the following, thanks to our analysis:
- Twigby is a wireless carrier that supports both Verizon and Sprint phones, is perfect for light users and medium users. Talk and text plans start with no data – otherwise known as Wifi only – and 200 minutes, though you can select unlimited calls and texts as well as 4GB of data. All prepaid service plans include unlimited texting for smartphones and basic phones, an introductory rate for two months, 30 days satisfaction guarantee, and free overage protection.
- US Mobile offers some of the cheapest unlimited data plans. Not only are the initial plans customizable – as in you can build your own plan, making US Mobile the carrier for some of the best MVNO family plans (as well as the best MVNO for data) – but you can also select from a variety of unlimited data plans if you have a phone compatible with its Super LTE plans rather than its GSM network plans. Unlimited 4G LTE data plans are sorted by download speeds, beginning at over half of what you'd pay for Verizon unlimited.
- ROK Mobile is a wireless carrier that includes insurance plan options alongside its own plans. Not only does it feature an unlimited high speed data plan, but some cost effective plans include life insurance, theft insurance, and more.
This wireless carrier offers lines with unlimited text and calls, but all plans include free unlimited international calls to over 70 select countries, retainment of your existing number, your choice of an English or Spanish customer service agent.
The Best AT&T MVNOs
AT&T's network falls in second place if we're going by Rootmetric's data for the second half of 2017. However, it is just a few points shy of Verizon's network (92.8 versus 95) so you'll still be receiving quality with an AT&T MVNO.
Here are our picks for the best AT&T MVNOs:
- ROK Mobile offers very cheap plans that are not only perfect for data users of all types but also unique in the sense that they may be integrated with insurance plans that cover accidental death, theft, and more.
- Red Pocket offers plenty of data plans that are suitable for light, medium and data users, with plans ranging between 500 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of data to unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and potentially over 10GB of data.
The Best Sprint MVNOs
In terms of ranking using Rootmetric's data, once more, Sprint falls in third place. However, like AT&T when compared to Verizon, the differences between the networks are rather minuscule, so you won't notice a difference when staying on Sprint's network when switching to a Sprint MVNO.
You'll find some of the best Sprint MVNOs:
- Twigby is a great option for senior citizens, who may not require as much data as a young adult. Plans range from just a few minutes and no data to unlimited minutes and up to 4GB of data.
- Tello offers some great deals, where you can build your own plan or select from one of the available ready-made plans. You can select up to 10GB of data with Tello.
- TPO Mobile is not your ordinary wireless carrier; in fact, part of your phone bill is distributed to a charity of your choice! Not only that, but the carrier itself donates part of its proceeds to select charities.
- Ting lets you customize your data, but it is best for those that are light or heavy data users. You'll be only paying for what you need with Ting; in fact, the average phone bill only $23!
The Best T-Mobile MVNOs
T-Mobile may fall in last place in terms of overall network performance, but that doesn't mean it is far behind in the pack. T-Mobile is just a few points behind Verizon (95 versus 86.5), so you should still enjoy great performance.
Several T-Mobile MVNOs have made it onto our list, including:
- Mint Mobile is, hands down, one of the best MVNOs in the wireless industry. Why? Because you can pay in bulk and save a lot more money. Available plans can be purchased at 90 days, 180 days, or 12 months. To pay the same amount for 10GB of data for about the same as what you'd normally pay for for just a couple GB of data is downright amazing.
- US Mobile is not only best for build your own plans but also for families, who will be able to select the amount of minutes, texts, and data they need. They can also opt for, depending on the network, unlimited 4G LTE data plans.
- TPO Mobile is perfect if you are a light or medium data user who wants to support a charity. A portion of proceeds and your phone bill will be distributed to a charity in need.
- Ting allows for light and medium data users to build their own phone plan based on their usage. The average Ting bill, as a result, is only $23!
Unfortunately, with the rising costs of cell phone plans among the big four carriers, as well as the lack of variety, it's difficult to justify paying over $80 for a cell phone bill. In fact, even $70 is too much.
There are so many MVNOs emerging from the shadows of the wireless industry offering cheap cell phone plans, eager to help you save hundreds of dollars each year, without causing you to sacrifice any of the cellular networks you've grown to love.
And each MVNO is tailored toward specific needs – some feature unlimited data, build your own plans, or even insurance policies, so you will have no trouble finding that perfect MVNO for you. It's far better than having one main unlimited data offering – one that you may not even be able to take full advantage of.