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 (including family plans) but allow you to pay for the service on a month-to-month basis.
If you're concerned you might not be able to get the latest model phones on a prepay plan, don't worry - you won't be limited to the cheapest cell phones available. There are plenty of current devices to choose from, including the Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy series, as well as the latest Apple iPhone.
I've examined the top pre-paid 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.
Key Considerations When Choosing a Prepaid Phone Plan
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, mobile 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 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. Investigate all options - some might surprise you. For example, Verizon Wireless offers an unlimited no-contract cell phone plan for $70 per month - $10 cheaper than their postpaid unlimited option. Prepaid plans are just one way to lower your monthly cell phone bill. Head here for more tips and strategies.
On average, how much data do you use? Do you spend the majority of your time texting friends and family? Or do you use your mobile phone mostly to surf the web and check emails? Do you need a family plan? Determine exactly what portion of time you and your family spend talking, text messaging and using data. If you find that you lean heavily in one area over the other, a prepay cell phone plan 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 take a look at our cell phone coverage maps to see which provider has the best coverage. You want great 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 your device, whether that's an Apple iPhone, or an Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy. It is, however becoming increasingly common for providers like Straight Talk to offer cell phone financing (you must qualify, though).
You may also want to take into account user reviews on things like customer service and contact options like phone support and live chat.
Prepaid or PostPaid?
The 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 postpaid plans, 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 in debt. 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.
Read More: Want to switch cell phone carriers? We'll walk you through everything you need before you take the first step.
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 of prepaid cell phone plans is that you have flexibility. This means you pay for what you will use. Many providers offer a flat monthly fee that gives you access to text messaging, 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. 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. Most carriers also offer family plan options.
3. Easy Sign-Up Process
With a prepay cell phone plan, 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 a postpaid plan on a contract, 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. You could even change carriers after just a month, as long as your phone is compatible with your new carrier's SIM card.
Learn More: SIM Card? What's that? We explain everything you need to know about SIM Cards.
Prepaid Phone Plans are Great for Budgeting
If budgeting is a constant challenge, a pay as you go cell phone may be just the solution. Because you don't accrue usage fees and don't typically have to worry about unexpected or unauthorized fees and overage charges, you know exactly what you're going to pay. In addition, prepay phone carriers often provide the cheapest cell phone options.
The Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans: Our Top Picks
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.
Disadvantages of Prepaid Service
While 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 two-year financing or even leasing, on the latest devices, 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 prepay 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.
Bring Your Own Phone with a Prepaid Plan
BYOP stands for Bring Your Own Phone. 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. Not ready to give up the Samsung Galaxy you got from your last carrier? You may very well be able to keep it. Or, 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. You may also want to head over to FrequencyCheck.com to verify that your current device will work on the LTE bands that your new provider uses. LTE bands are the frequencies on which the carrier's network runs, so your phone needs to be compatible. You can learn more about LTE and phone compatibility here.
Prepaid Plans vs No-Contract Plans
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 you must add to your phone before the expiration date listed on the card. 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 finance your phone).
With a no-contract plan, you will have a monthly bill to pay, but you may get a better rate on an unlimited everything plan. Signing up for a no-contract plan under the top four cell phone providers provides access to their nationwide coverage as well. Many carriers offer both prepaid options and no-contract plans.
Alternative Prepaid Wireless Carriers
While not every carrier made our picks for the best value in prepay plans, there are certainly other valid options. These include:
Straight Talk, available at Walmart, claims coverage across more than 99% of the U.S. They don't have the cheapest cell phone plan, with the lowest tier falling in at $45. Their offerings are as follows:
- Unlimited Nationwide ($45/month): This Straight Talk unlimited plan gives you unlimited calls and texts, 5GB of data at high speed, and unlimited data at 2G thereafter.
- Unlimited Nationwide ($55/month): With this version of the Straight Talk unlimited plan you get unlimited voice and text, and 10GB of high-speed data.
- Unlimited International ($60/month): The Unlimited International plan gets you unlimited calls and texts within the U.S., plus unlimited talk time and text messages to selected international destinations. You get 5GB of data at high speed and unlimited data at 2G. You also get unlimited calls (mobile-to-mobile) to numbers in China, India, Mexico and Canada.
While the Straight Talk domestic plans aren't the most you can get for your money, the international plan is quite useful. This is especially the case when it comes to the unlimited voice to other Straight Talk customers in China, India, Mexico and Canada, as international calls can add up quickly.
T-Mobile Simple Choice
If you're looking for a T-Mobile unlimited plan, you have options other than the traditional offerings. T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan used to be available on their postpaid service, however, it's now only offered as a prepaid option. The Simple Choice plan gives you:
- Three high-speed data options - 2GB ($50/month), 6GB ($65/month), or 10GB ($80/month), all of which come with unlimited data at 2G speeds once you reach your high-speed cap
- Unlimited talk and text
- A stateside international option for an additional $15, giving you unlimited international calls to landlines in 70+ countries and mobile phones in 30+ countries
This T-Mobile plan isn't the cheapest cell phone plan out there. If however, speed is a deciding factor for you, you'll be interested to know that the self-proclaimed "uncarrier" tied with Verizon Wireless for download speed in the latest metrics released by OpenSignal. It's notable that this T-Mobile unlimited plan doesn't include as much high-speed data as their postpaid offering. However, the average smartphone user only uses 1.4GB per month according to the Ericsson Mobility Report, so this isn't an issue for most people.
ROK mobile is a truly innovative prepaid carrier co-founded by John Paul Dejoria (of Paul Mitchell hair care). Their plans include features unheard of in the mobile sector:
- Basic Life ($5/month) - ROK Talk Wi-Fi calling app, roadside assistance
- Standard Life ($10/month) - both of the above plus $100,000 accidental death insurance and $20,000 in cremation/burial benefits
- Premium Life ($15/month) - all of the above, plus family legal services, pharmacy savings, telemedicine, and ID theft insurance.
- Premium Life + Mobile ($50/month) - all of the above, plus unlimited talk and text, and 5GB of 4G LTE data
At barely three years old, it remains to be seen how well ROK Mobile will catch on, however, I feel its innovation factor makes it worthy of a mention.
More Prepaid Alternatives
Almost every MVNO in America offers prepaid plans that, while unable to provide the same level of features or perks, are considerably cheaper. Some of the most budget-friendly prepaid MVNOs include:
Prepaid MVNOs Perfect for Calling and Texting Plans
The Best Prepaid Phone Plans: Network Availability
I'd be remiss in my analysis of prepaid and no-contract cell phone plans if I didn't discuss network availability. Unless you're going with a prepaid plan from one of the big four - Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint - you'll be with an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). These companies lease the usage of the big four's cell towers.
Network availability in terms of mobile phone use has to do with the amount of traffic on the network at any given time. It's important to understand that when you have MVNO service, your data speeds may be deprioritized if the main network's users are slowing it down (for example, those on a T-Mobile plan will experience higher speeds than those on MetroPCS, which is on the T-Mobile network, during busy times). In practice, this issue will have very little impact on most MVNO customers, so don't let it deter you from taking advantage of a great deal.
As cell phones continue to shape the way many of us communicate, shop and access information, finding budget-friendly alternatives without the risk of overage charges is a great way for you to save money. Prepaid cell phones are an attractive option because they can help you control costs while providing all the choices you get with postpaid service, including unlimited plans.
If budgeting is a constant challenge, a prepaid 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 smartphone comparison tool to look at every prepaid plan side-by-side. To check out our top picks, see our buyer's guide to prepaid cell phones.