Best Prepaid Phone Plans
For folks who only need a basic wireless plan or don't like the idea of signing a two- or three-year contract, finding the best prepaid cell phone plans might suit your needs. They offer plans that are not only flexible but allow you to pay for the service on a month-to-month basis.
I've examined the top prepaid phone plans in the industry to make your search a bit easier and evaluated them on their phone selections, types of plans, and these other characteristics. But first, let's look at the basics of cellular service.
Best Prepaid Phone Plans: What to Consider
Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
These days having a cell phone is just another one of life's basic necessities. Knowing all-too-well about our reliance on these devices, cell phone providers are able to charge high prices for monthly plans, data packages, and all the other extras.
When it comes to comparing the top prepaid phones, it's important to keep the following components in mind:
If you've opted for a prepaid cell phone it's most likely because you want to skim the excess off of your monthly bill. You're not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in five Americans see their smartphone as a financial burden. Before even browsing the plans available, determine the amount you can afford to spend based on your overall budget.
On average, what does your cell phone usage consist of? Do you spend the majority of your time texting friends and family? Or do you use your phone mostly to surf the web and check emails? Determine exactly what portion of your time you spend talking, texting, and using data. If you find that you lean heavily in one area over the other, a pay-as-you-go offer might be your best bet.
As with any cell phone provider, coverage is crucial. First and foremost, make sure the provider's service is available in your area. You can find a map detailing the coverage areas on the company's website. You want the best prepaid cell phone coverage, and fortunately market growth in the industry has led to extremely competitive coverage levels.
4. Phone Selection
Traditional (non-prepaid) cell phone carriers generally run promotions which entitle you to the newest cell phones at a discounted or nominal rate. By charging higher monthly fees and enrolling you in a set-term contract they're able to recoup the price of the phone. Since many prepaid cell providers operate without contract terms and do offer a lower monthly rate, you'll likely pay more up front for a smartphone.
Is the Best Prepaid Phone Plan Better Than a Contract?
Growth of the prepaid cell phone industry indicates that more and more consumers view this option as better than the traditional contract plan. According to The Prepaid Press, sponsor of a large prepaid industry expo, prepaid users are expected to number almost 94 million by 2019. This is up from 77 million in 2015.
With prepaid cell phones, there are no credit checks or deposits you must pay to use service.
My analysis of the options showed that when you compare prepaid phone plans with their contracted counterparts, the prepaid version comes out on top in some key areas.
1. No Termination Fees
With a contract cell phone, you can either buy a phone at a discounted rate with a two-year service commitment or finance the full price of the mobile device. In either instance, if you switch service providers before fulfilling your terms you owe a balance to the company you left, which can result in hundreds of dollars. This is why a prepaid cell phone is a great alternative because you have the freedom to switch providers any time you choose and you don't have to worry about paying costly fees to achieve this. While it's true you will need to make a higher initial investment to obtain a phone with a prepaid plan, a smart money rule is to only buy what you can afford now, which is what this forces you to do.
2. Flexible Plans
Another great benefit with prepaid cell phones is you have flexibility in plans. This means you pay for what you will use. Many providers offer a flat monthly fee that gives you access to texting, talk time and data. In addition, you can also sign up for services where you only pay for the days you use the phone. This flexibility gives you more control over which services you pay for whereas with a contract cell phone plan, you pay a specific amount per month for a blanket of services especially if you decide to get a smart phone. This means you are paying for services you might not use.
Prepaid phones plans are also available without a credit check for customers with low or no credit scores who are unable to qualify for long-term plans.
3. Easy Sign-Up Process
With prepaid cell phones, there are no credit checks or deposits you must pay to use service. You simply buy the phone you want and the corresponding monthly service amount that best fits your needs. Conversely, with contract plans, the provider will check your credit to see if you have any outstanding balances with other cellular companies. If you have poor credit, they might allow you to obtain service but you must pay a deposit first. This makes prepaid cell plans a better alternative if you have limited credit or have had financial problems in the past.
To summarize, prepaid cell phones are a great fit if you are looking to control how much you pay for the services you use. While they do require an initial investment in buying the phone and service, over time you won't have to worry about termination fees if you want to switch providers. Best of all, obtaining a prepaid cell phone is easy since you don't have to worry about credit checks and deposits. This makes them a great option to consider if you want all the benefits of cell phone use without the high costs.
Because prepaid cell phones don't require a long-term commitment, there's no risk in simply trying the service to see if it's worth the savings. If you find that the coverage is too limiting or the service insufficient, you can always change your plan the following month.
How the Best Prepaid Phone Plan Keeps You on Budget
If budgeting is a constant challenge, a pay as you go cell phone may be just the solution. Because you don't accrue charges, and don't typically have to worry about unexpected or unauthorized fees and overages, you know exactly what you're going to pay. Find out more about how this option is great for your financial health here.
As with any cell phone provider, coverage is crucial. First and foremost, make sure the provider's service is available in your area.
The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
Boost Mobile Prepaid Plans
- Unlimited talk, text, and data options
- Unlimited 4G data available
- Nationwide Sprint Network
- Speeds slow when cap is reached
- Only two pricing brackets
Originally a joint venture with Nextel Communications, Boost Mobile was introduced to the United States in 2001. Currently, Boost Mobile boasts a number of prepaid cell phone options to accommodate nearly any budget.
Boost Mobile offers three unlimited prepaid phone plans. All of the plans come with unlimited talk and text, unlimited music streaming if you use one of their music partners, and mobile hotspot, in addition to optional add-ons like boostTV. Unlimited Starter costs $30/month for 1GB of 4G LTE data. Unlimited Family allows you to add additional lines to Starter for $30 each. Extra lines come with the same package as the original line. Unlimited Unhook'd runs $50/month and comes with unlimited everything, including 4G LTE data.
Along with the monthly service you get free caller ID, call waiting, and 411 assistance. Once you've reached your maximum 4G LTE data limit, speeds reduce to 2G. Boost Mobile boasts one of the best no contract cell phone plans, simply because it's a challenge finding truly unlimited 4G data no matter which company you're looking at. In addition, the provider claims some of the best prepaid cell phone coverage at 99%. These factors definitely put Boost in the top five in my prepaid phone plans comparison.
Virgin Mobile Prepaid Plans
- Unlimited talk, text, and data plans
- Carries newer-model phones
- Pay-as-you-go plans available
- Affordable month-to-month rates
- Nationwide 4G LTE
- Data speeds slow after reaching your 4G limitGB
- Coverage limited in some areas
According to Statista, Virgin Mobile users have nearly doubled in number since 2008. This company clearly excels in the prepaid wireless industry. Their rates are affordable, they don't charge an activation fee, and they carry the newest phone models.
Virgin Mobile offers two types of no contract cell phone plans. The first is designed for those who use a smartphone to call, text, access the web, and stream audio and video on a routine basis. The Data Love plan costs $35/month and comes with 5GB of 4G LTE data. Data Love+ is $45/month and comes with 10GB of 4G LTE data. You can add more data to either of these monthly pay as you go phone plans for $5 for 1GB or $10 for 2GB.
Your other option is a payLo plan for basic phones. For individuals who don't need the sophisticated functions of smartphones, this may be the route for you. Virgin Mobile offers three main plans for payLo devices. There's Talk - $20 for 400 minutes per month, Talk and Text - $30 for 1500 minutes and 1500 text messages, and Unlimited Talk and Text - $40 for unlimited messages and minutes, plus 50MB of web access. If you find yourself needing more of any of these functions, you can buy extras. Additional talk minutes are .10 each, text messages are .15 each, and multimedia messages .25 each. Additional data costs $1.50 per MB.
MetroPCS Prepaid Plans
- Unlimited talk, text, and data options
- Nationwide T-Mobile network
- No annual contracts required
- Range of basic and smartphones
- Additional features available for purchase
- Coverage limited in some regions
- No daily plans or pay-as-you-go
MetroPCS has a number of prepaid cell phone plans and affordable monthly rates customers can take advantage of.
MetroPCS has unlimited talk, text and data plans ranging from $30 to $60 per month. The plans are pretty simple, making this one of the best prepaid cell phone carriers. $30 gets you 1GB 4G LTE data per month, $40 gets you 3GB, $50 is the 5GB level, and $60 per month is the rate for unlimited LTE data. It's important to note that the unlimited 4G data on the highest tier plan applies only to your handset. This means that if you're using your phone as a mobile hotspot, the other devices that are connected to it will not have 4G data.
The one drawback with MetroPCS is that is has limited coverage in some areas across the west coast. I have found in my research that it's important to keep in mind that MetroPCS tends to change their prepaid cell phone deals fairly often. This applies to both their sales on actual phones, but also the promotional rates they run. Your best bet is to check the website for current deals before going ahead with your decision.
Cricket Wireless Prepaid Plans
- Truly unlimited everything option
- Wide range of plan choices
- Generous group discount
- Extensive coverage area, particularly from Midwest to East
- $5 monthly discount for Auto-Pay
- $25 activation fee for some customers
- High-speed data capped at 8Mbps
Cricket offers five rate tiers, from $30 a month for 1GB high-speed data, and unlimited talk and text within the United States, to the $70 unlimited option. The truly stand-out feature of the higher tier plans is that with these, you also get unlimited international texting in 38 countries, and data access plus unlimited talk and text in Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
All plans from the Basic upward are also eligible for the Group Save Discount. Group Save gives you a $10/month discount on your second line, a $20/month discount on the third line, and so on up to a maximum $100 discount on your monthly bill.
The one caveat my analysis revealed is that AT&T caps high-speed data for the Cricket network at 8Mbps (20Mbps is the maximum of which 4G is capable). This typically only poses an issue if you frequently stream HD content while away from your Wi-Fi network. Otherwise, it shouldn't be a problem for normal data applications.
Republic Wireless Prepaid Plans
- Unlimited talk, text, and data plans
- Bring your own phone
- Unique technology concept
- No contracts required
- More affordable than most prepaid phone plans
- No unlimited cellular network data option
- Limited device selection
Republic Wireless is unique amongst its competitors with the institution of Adaptive Coverage to reduce the monthly service cost. Adaptive Coverage represents a cell phone's ability to switch seamlessly between Wi-Fi and a wireless network. This means that when Wi-Fi is available, the phone will use it - without you doing anything - only resorting to the network if no Wi-Fi is detected. This feature even works for calls and text messages, with no interruption to your service.
How much you'll save depends on your needs and the plan you choose. The lowest tier costs $15 a month and gives you unlimited talk and text on the T-Mobile network, with data only when Wi-Fi is accessible. $20/month gets you 1GB of network data, and unlimited talk, text, and Wi-Fi data. The most expensive plan includes 10GB of data for $90/month.
The upsides to Republic Wireless are the simplicity and pricing options. The downside is that there are only 12 phones that work with their Adaptive Coverage. You can buy a phone outright from the website, with prices ranging from $179 to $799, or you can opt for monthly payments. You can also bring your own as long as it's one of the models the provider carries, or one of Google's two new Pixel phones.
Disadvantages of the Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans
While the best prepaid phone plans offer a greater degree of freedom, and flexibility for those looking for something different from contract plans, there are some downsides that you should know before signing on. I have outlined them below:
- Higher Phone Costs. Most traditional cell phone providers offer a "free" or seriously discounted phone every two years in conjunction with the long-term contract, whereas prepaid cell phone providers require you to purchase new phones in full upfront. In reality though, the price of the phone is built into the monthly charges of the traditional contract, so if you can snag a deal on your prepaid phone, you might still be better off.
- Changing Phone Number. If you miss a payment or fail to renew your contract each month, you could forfeit your phone number.
- Limited Coverage. Before committing to a prepaid phone plan, check the carriers' coverage in your region. While prepaid cell phones are available nationwide, coverage maps differ, particularly in more remote areas. Do a coverage search to ensure any places you regularly frequent will have sufficient service for your needs. Some prepaid cell phone service providers share towers with wireless giants like Sprint and AT&T, so you get similar coverage at a much lower rate.
The Best No Contract Phone: BYOD
BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device. This term means just what it sounds like - you get to bring your phone to a prepaid carrier, thus allowing you to keep your own phone number. Not all pay as you go phone plans let you BYOD, but some do. You can choose a new phone through the carrier if you prefer, though there might be limited options. If you decide on BYOD, be sure to check out our guide on how to unlock your phone for your new carrier.
Best No Contract Cell Phone Plans vs Prepaid
Prepaid and no contract cell phone plans may sound similar, but they are not the same.
Prepaid cell service typically comes in the form of top-up cards that give you a certain number of minutes and data that can be used past one month from purchase. If you exceed your number of minutes or go over on data, it's easy to simply purchase more. The biggest perk of prepaid service is that you won't have a bill to pay at the end of the month (Assuming you didn't pay the full price of the phone upfront). With a no-contract plan, however, you will have a monthly bill to pay, but these plans tend to offer more for your money with unlimited talk and text.
With a no-contract plan, however, you will have a monthly bill to pay, but these plans tend to offer more for your money with unlimited talk and text. Signing up for a no-contract plan under the top four cell phone providers provides access to their nationwide coverage as well. Many carriers will offer both prepaid options and no-contract plans.
Best Prepaid Phone Plans Recap
As cell phones continue to shape the way many of us communicate, shop and access information, finding budget-friendly alternatives for these is a great way for you to save money. Prepaid cell phones are an attractive option because they can help you control costs and are a better choice than what contract phones can offer.
If budgeting is a constant challenge, a pay as you go cell phone may be just the solution.
Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, MetroPCS, Cricket Wireless, and Republic Wireless are all great providers in the prepaid wireless sector. Before browsing the plans and phones available, be sure the carrier services your region by conducting a 'coverage search'.
They all have their pros and cons but it's ultimately up to you to decide which one suits your monthly budget. Check out our review of the best cell phone providers for more help making this decision. You can also see our overview of BYOP plans to find out how to keep your own phone when changing providers.
Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans FAQs
How much is a prepaid cell phone?
Here are several low-cost prepaid cell phone service providers.
- Red Pocket charges $100 for 2000 minutes over the Sprint Network.
- TracFone costs one year prepaid for $99.99, but can be confusing.
- US Mobile offers 100 minutes, 100 texts and 100 MB for $9.
- ChatSIM charges $15 for a SIM and $15 per year, messaging only.
Who has the best cell phone service?
The top cell-phone providers ranked by customer satisfaction are the smaller companies Project Fi, Consumer Cellular, and Ting Wireless. They deliver low prices and good customer support. Among the four major carriers, T-Mobile is rated best by consumers, followed by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint in that order.
What is the cheapest cell phone company?
Consumer Cellular enjoys high customer satisfaction ratings, costing $15 per month for 250 minutes of calling time. US Mobile pricing starts at $9 per month for 100 minutes, 100 texts and 100MB. The major carriers offer low priced spinoffs such as Cricket Wireless, Boost, Virgin, GoSmart and MetroPCS.
What is the go phone?
The GoPhone is a prepaid cell phone, allowing you to buy airtime up front and use it as you go. Customers choose from monthly, daily and pay-as-you-go options. Rates vary according to type of phone, smartphone or classic feature phone. GoPhone is a brand named owned by parent company AT&T.
What is prepaid wireless service?
As the name implies, prepaid service is a wireless choice which has you pay for monthly unlimited, per-text or per-minute usage on a cell phone. There's no long-term contract with these sorts of plans or credit checks, which is beneficial to some customers. A pay-as-you-go option permits you to only pay for the minutes you use or texts you send. Be aware however, that because you don't sign a long-term contract you do forfeit your number in some cases when you don't renew your monthly plan or make a payment. Also important to keep in mind is that you'll usually pay much more for a brand-new phone than you would with a contract.
Can I use a prepaid phone anywhere in the country?
Prepaid cell phones are available in all 50 states, however the coverage may differ in remote areas compared to more urban cities. Each provider has a different coverage map but typically shares the network lines of larger carriers. As a word of advice, it is always a good idea to check the provider's coverage before signing up with their program or purchasing a plan. In some cases, the provider may use the same cellular towers as the main wireless carriers (i.e., AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) so you're receiving the same coverage at a much lower rate.