Are you shopping for a new mobile phone carrier?
We know sometimes it just doesn't work out between you and your cellular provider. If you're on a budget yet also want mobile service on one of the big four mobile networks (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile), an MVNO might be the solution you're looking for.
You're probably wondering: what are MVNOs? MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, are small carriers that lease - or borrow - cellular coverage and data bandwidth from any of the four major carriers. These are the mobile service providers whose names you may not recognize, like Ting, Republic Wireless, and Project Fi. The MVNO model is often based on a prepaid or no-contract system.
MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, are small carriers that lease - or borrow - cellular coverage and data bandwidth from any of the four major carriers. These are the mobile service providers whose names you may not recognize, like Ting, Republic Wireless, and Project Fi. The MVNO model is often based on a prepaid or no-contract system.
Believe it or not, going with an MVNO business can be easier on your wallet while giving you solid reliability and great customer service.
Ready to learn more? I've got everything you need to know about how these alternative mobile operators work and what they can do for you.
What are MVNOs? - In This Guide
Can MVNOs Save you Money?
I know what you're thinking: how can I save money on my cell phone bill by using a Mobile Virtual Network Operator?
According to MakeUseOf, leasing the towers allows the MVNO to save money and pass the savings to the customer in the form of substantial discounts. This is because MVNO service providers don't bear the overhead costs of repairing and maintaining the network infrastructure. In fact, according to a FierceWireless report, Sprint and T-Mobile executives explained that MVNOs have a wholesale appeal, especially for those people who aren't interested in high payments on the latest expensive smartphones.
What's the catch? You may become deprioritized and experience slower speeds when network traffic is heavy, since you will be not using the big four networks directly. There may also be restrictions on which phones you can bring to the carrier.
Despite these minor disadvantages, the MVNO market is robust and growing stronger each year. According to GSMA Intelligence, between June 2010 and June 2015, the number of MVNOs worldwide increased by a whopping 70 percent. As for the United States? There are roughly 300 carriers operating under the MVNO model here.
Read More: Not all MVNOs let you keep your old phone. We have a guide which providers offer a bring your own phone plan.
Types of MVNO
Now that we've answered the question: "What are MVNOs?", let's take a look at the different kinds of MVNO businesses:
1. Branded Reseller
The resellers are the ones that have the closest relationship with one of the major carriers. They tend to buy services from their partners, then rebrand and sell them.
Basically, they reflect the mobile network operators (MNOs - Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular, the companies which own the towers and other network infrastructure). They can, however, own and operate customer service, marketing, and sales operations.
2. Service Provider
The service provider typically relies on its own customer support, marketing, sales, and distribution operations. Furthermore, the service provider can set its own fees for products.
3. Enhanced Service Provider
This is closer to independence from MNOs, as this MVNO has more control over its own infrastructure. Branding, customer-ownership, and differentiation are emphasized through this type of company.
4. Full MVNO
Finally, we have the full MVNO, which utilizes a network implementation that features basically the same technology as a mobile network operator. Full MVNO service providers only lack their own radio networks.
MVNO Host Networks
Here is a list of the major MVNOs, complete with their host networks and links to additional information and cell phone plans, if you're interested in adopting any of these mobile operators as your provider:
- Sprint - Boost Mobile, FreedomPop, RingPlus, Virgin Mobile, Charge, Chit Chat Mobile, Tello
- Verizon - Credo Mobile, GreatCall, Total Wireless, Page Plus, Rok Mobile, Affinity Cellular
- T-Mobile - Simple Mobile, Cellular Abroad, GoSmart Mobile, MetroPCS, US Mobile
- AT&T - H2O Wireless, Cricket Wireless, Pure TalkUSA, SkyView Wireless
- Combination - Straight Talk Wireless, Net10 Wireless, TracFone, Red Pocket Mobile, Republic Wireless, Ting
I'll go into more detail on some of these individual providers in a minute.
Comparison of the Best MVNOs
So just which is the best MVNO for your dollar? There are a variety of factors to consider when selecting the best MVNO, such as:
- The pricing - What is the pricing of each plan? How much cheaper are the plans compared to the major four carriers? You'll find that most of the time, you'll see significant savings by going with an MVNO compared to a major cellular provider.
- The features - What features are highlighted in the plans? Are there incentives that would cause you to jump at the MVNO? For instance, Boost Mobile sports unlimited music streaming, meaning that streaming music will not eat your data when you use any of the partnered apps. The best part: your phone will be connected to the Sprint network.
- Network reliability - Unfortunately, the flagship networks are going to prioritize their own customers, so when there's high traffic you may feel the pressure in the form of reduced speeds.
Related: Who is the Best Cell Phone Carrier?
Here are just some of the best Sprint MVNOs that you should consider:
- Boost Mobile - Boost Mobile is an MVNO that does not skimp on the features while retaining incredibly affordable pricing. Plans range between 2GB and unlimited, which are completely affordable. There are optional add-ons and incentives to consider, such as international calling, boostTV, and unlimited music streaming.
- Virgin Mobile - Virgin Mobile features fantastic rates, though it is considered to be a little bit more expensive compared to Boost Mobile, but only if you opt for the unlimited plan. The Data Love and Data Love+ packages are actually cheaper compared to Boost Mobile's plans. This MVNO also features data-free music streaming, but only with the associated partnered apps.
- FreedomPop - Out of the Sprint MVNO networks, FreedomPop is the cheapest. With FreedomPop, you'll have access to a free plan, complete with internet services. Better yet, there is no contract attached. The 100 percent Free Basic Plan provides you with 500 texts, 200 minutes, and 500MB of data each month. It also utilizes Wi-Fi calling and texting from anywhere.
Even better is that there is free unlimited calling and texting between FreedomPop phones and free international calling from over 60 countries. You can also earn unlimited free data by completing partner offers. Pretty cool, isn't it?
- GreatCall - Okay, so GreatCall caters to a particular demographic - particularly, senior citizens, but GreatCall is amazing because the company not only takes cell phone service into consideration but also your health. If you're in trouble or need medical assistance in any way, GreatCall is there for you with its Jitterbug Smart, Jitterbug Flip, Lively Mobile, and Lively Wearable products. Not only that, but cell phone plans begin at a small fee per month.
- Credo Mobile - Credo Mobile is great for those who love supporting progressive causes, such as the Americans for Tax Fairness, Detention Watch Network, or Rainforest Action Network. The service offers shared data plans, and though they may be a little expensive compared to other MVNOs (partially due to being on Verizon's network), there is a free 25MB data option, which is for basic phones only.
- Page Plus Cellular - Page Plus Cellular, which is operated by TracFone Wireless, features no contract data monthly plans that are again, a little more on the expensive side due to being on Verizon's network, but the Pay-As-You-Go Plans shine, ranging between 100 minutes and 2000 minutes for as little as $0.04 per minute.
You may also want to check out one of the most innovative Verizon MVNOs, ROK Mobile.
Read More: For more info on cell phone plans for seniors, check out our guide.
- Simple Mobile - Simple Mobile sports 30-day unlimited plans, completely with unlimited international calling to mobile phones in Mexico, Canada, India, China, and 16 other countries, unlimited landline international calling in 65 countries, and unlimited international text. The truly unlimited plan's price isn't bad either, being just a little cheaper than T-Mobile's ONE plan. However, for unlimited talk and text, you can pay far less.
- US Mobile - With US Mobile, only text is unlimited, but that doesn't mean that its other options are expensive. In fact, data runs fairly cheap for 6GB and you can get unlimited texting for just a few dollars. US Mobile also features a Student Discount service, which can earn you - if you're a student - a free SIM card.
- MetroPCS - MetroPCS is one of the bigger MVNOs out there, sporting an unlimited data plan for far cheaper than what you'd find with a major cellular provider. Plans range from 1GB to unlimited LTE data with an 8GB hotspot allotment. It gets better: during congestion periods, you may experience reduced speeds after 28GB of data usage. How is that better? The major carriers typically reduce your speeds after around 23GB of usage. The best part is that there's a good chance you can bring your T-Mobile phone to MetroPCS since they use the T-Mobile network.
- Cricket Wireless - Cricket Wireless is a tad cheaper compared to the big four major carriers, featuring an unlimited plan for just a few dollars less compared to T-Mobile. With the unlimited and 8GB high-speed data plans, you'll have international texting to select countries, as well as talk, text, and data usage to and from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada (with a minimum of 50 percent U.S. usage required). This is another MVNO that is compatible with many T-Mobile phones, although you may have to unlock it first.
- H2O Wireless - H2O Wireless is rather cheap, granting you 3GB of 4G LTE data, unlimited international text, and unlimited talk to 50 countries for what the big four would charge for a smaller data amount. You can also purchase a Pay as You Go plan, which will eat minutes, texts, MMS, and data until you reach your selected limit.
- AirVoice Wireless - Airvoice Wireless features several plans, including unlimited talk and text, Pay as You Go, 250 minutes for $10, and international. Unlimited talk and text range between short term for just a few dollars, complete with unlimited anytime minutes, unlimited text messages, unlimited MMS, 25MB of data, and unlimited international text for five days, to unlimited everything save for data (5GB) for 30 days. Unfortunately, this plan is rather expensive compared to other MVNOs.
AirVoice Pay as You Go plans are also a little more expensive compared to typical MVNOs, ranging between 100 minutes and 1200 minutes.
- Republic Wireless - Republic Wireless is seriously one of the best MVNOs out there, which relies mostly on Wi-Fi, but if you do not have access to Wi-Fi, then you will be switched to either Sprint's or T-Mobile's services. For a small monthly fee, you can receive unlimited talk, text, and Wi-Fi data, though you can add data for just a small fee. Unfortunately, it becomes more expensive the more data you want to tack on, but if you're looking for cheap, Republic Wireless is the best way to go, especially with its Adaptive Coverage technology with Bonded Calling.
- Project Fi (Google's MVNO) - Project Fi, having launched just a couple of years ago, is a wireless service from Google. It blends a network of three leading national carriers, over a million Wi-Fi hotspots, and incredible international networks. Fi Basics is incredibly cheap, and you can add friends and family, as well as data, for just a few dollars more - except in the case of data. You'll receive unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texting, and calls and texts across devices. Furthermore, you can use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot and secure a free data-only SIM card. You'll also be credited for the data you don't use. Unfortunately, you're limited to three devices: Pixel, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X.
- Straight Talk - Straight Talk utilizes all four networks, and it's fantastic for those on a budget. It's simple and rather "skinny" however. Plans range between 100MB and 1500MB to 10GB.
- SafeLink Wireless - What is SafeLink Wireless? It's part of the government's Lifeline program which provides free communications services to low-income consumers. SafeLink uses TracFones, which operate on all five MNOs - Verizon, AT&T, and U.S. Cellular, as well as the T-Mobile network and the Sprint network.
MVNOs, depending on the plan, can save you quite a bit of money over time. Overall, there are plenty of MVNOs, each with their own features and prices, so finding the best MVNO may differ for each user. If you're looking for a basic plan with fantastic prices, then you should certainly consider either Republic Wireless or FreedomPop. However, if you're looking for a plan that comes with bells and whistles, then you should think about Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile.
If you're looking for an MVNO, it's likely because you're seeking a prepaid carrier. If that is the case, why not check out our review of the best prepaid plans? You may also want to explore multiple cell phone plans at once. You can do that using our cell phone comparison checker here.
What's the bottom line? If you're tired of paying the major carriers' high prices, the MVNO marketplace is worth checking out. You may not get quite the blazing speeds of a constant LTE connection, but your wallet will definitely thank you.