What Are the Best Prepaid/Value Plans?
If you’re looking to save money on your monthly cellphone bill, opting for prepaid wireless service may be the way to go, especially as carriers offer a wider selections of phones to their prepaid customers. Should you opt for a no-contract plan, AT&T's revamped prepaid offerings push it ahead of MetroPCS for tiered data, though MetroPCS still offers the best unlimited prepaid plan.
AT&T is also the top choice if you need multiple lines by following the lead of its Cricket subsidiary and offering escalating discounts every time you add a line. Boost is a good alternative if your family demands unlimited data (though there are some limitations on streaming).
How We Picked the Best Prepaid Plans: Data allotments vary widely among prepaid carriers. To make the best comparison, we looked at the plans closest to 3GB of data each month. We also looked at the range of plans available, including unlimited data plans as well as plans for low-data users. Now that Virgin has dropped its Data Sharing Done Right plans, only four carriers — Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS and T-Mobile — offer prepaid family plans, so we focused on discounts available as you add lines to a prepaid plan. As with other categories, network performance, including our own 4G speed testing, figured into our choices.
Best Prepaid Plan for Individuals: AT&T
Best Plan: 6GB, $40 a month with autopay
Who Should Get It: Prepaid customers who want the most data for their dollars
AT&T recently revamped its prepaid offerings, boosting the amount of monthly data you get while keeping the same pricing as before. That makes AT&T's no-contract plans much more competitive with those from dedicated prepaid providers like MetroPCS.
AT&T gives you 6GB of data for $45 a month. But set up automatic payments and AT&T will knock $5 off your bill. That means you'll pay $40 — the same amount MetroPCS charges each month for 3GB of data. AT&T sweetens the deal with rollover data and unlimited messaging to Canada, Mexico and more than 100 countries.
Best Alternative: MetroPCS
Best Plan: 3GB, $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Prepaid customers who want the best network performance
MetroPCS remains a strong choice among dedicated prepaid carriers. It uses T-Mobile's network and performed well in our most recent round of network tests. MetroPCS also includes nice bonuses like the ability to stream music from more than 40 services without it counting against your monthly data allotment.
If your data needs aren’t quite as extensive, MetroPCS’s $30 1GB plan offers a decent amount of data for a nice low price. Cricket and Boost also offer $30 plans: Cricket's plan gives you 1GB of data, while Boost doubles that with 2GB.
Best High-Data Alternative: Virgin
Best Plan: 5GB, $35 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry users who don’t mind relying on Sprint’s network
Virgin’s revamped plans make it a much more compelling prepaid option, thanks to the high amount of LTE data you can get — 5GB. That’s 2GB more than what Cricket provides for the same amount of money. Virgin also lets you stream music from five services without it counting against your data cap. And if you need even more data, another $10 a month brings your allotment to 10GB at Virgin.
We still think AT&T and MetroPCS are better options for individuals, because they performed better on our recent network tests than Virgin did. Virgin uses Sprint's network, which is improving, but still lags behind the other major carriers.
Other Options: Cricket
Best Plan: 3GB, $35 a month
Who Should Get It: People who don’t need a lot of data and will use autopay
Cricket’s 3GB plan costs $40 a month, though enrolling in autopay saves you $5. It was once a compelling alternative for bargain hunters, until Virgin offered much more data for the same price. Both MetroPCS and Virgin fared better in our network testing than Cricket did, so the main reason to opt for this plan is that you don’t want to use Sprint’s CDMA network which Virgin relies on.
Cricket’s higher data plans offers 8GB for $45, though that includes a $5 autopay enrollment discount.
Best Unlimited Prepaid Plan: MetroPCS
Best Plan: Unlimited Data, $50 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry cell phone users who want the fastest network
Prepaid carriers have expanded their options for heavy-data users, with Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS and Virgin all offering unlimited data plans to prepaid customers. Sprint also offers an unlimited plan to its prepaid customers for $60. Of this group, MetroPCS’s $50 unlimited plan is the best choice, as it's comparably priced to Boost's $50 unlimited plan, though like Boost, MetroPCS caps video streaming at 480p resolution. If you want HD streaming, you can pay an extra $10 a month to MetroPCS, which will also throw in 8GB of hotspot data under that $60-a-month unlimited data plan.
Best Alternative Unlimited Prepaid Plan: Boost
Best Plan: Unlimited Data, $50 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry users who don’t mind streaming video at lower-resolution
Boost’s Unlimited Unhook’d plan can save you $10 a month from MetroPCS’s plan, but there’s a catch. You’re restricted to streaming video at 480p resolution. Similarly, music will stream at 500 Kbps, and online gaming is limited to 2 Mbps. For most users, that’s probably good enough, especially if it means never having to worry about hitting a data limit. For others, the lack of streaming limits and MetroPCS’s better network may prove worth the extra $10 a month.
Boost’s only other plan offers 2GB of LTE data. You'll have to pay $35 for the first month of service, but you can enroll in autopay to save $5 each month after that.
Other Unlimited Options
Like fellow Sprint-owned subsidiary Boost, Virgin now offers an unlimited data plan with restrictions on video, music and game streaming. It costs $60 a month, though. Cricket's unlimited plan is slightly cheaper at $55 a month (assuming you enroll in autopay), though its network performance is nothing to write home about. AT&T's revamped prepaid plans includes a $65-a-month unlimited offering, though a $5 autopay discount brings your monthly bill down to $60. However, AT&T limits data speed on its unlimited plan to 3 Mbps, and you can only stream video at 480p resolution.
Limited Options: Straight Talk
Best Plan: 5GB, $60
Who Should Get It: Heavy data users who make international calls
Straight Talk doesn’t have much to offer people who consume around 3GB of data each month. The provider’s lowest-priced prepaid plan — excluding $30 plan with a paltry 100MB of data — offers 5GB of high-speed data for $45 a month. Straight Talk will knock $1 off your monthly fee if you use auto-pay. For $15 more, you can add unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to Mexico, Canada, China and India. Straight Talk also added $55 monthly plan with 10GB of data, which doesn’t compare favorably to unlimited data plans from MetroPCS and Boost that cost just $5 more and rely on better networks.
Prepaid Service from Major Carriers
AT&T isn't the only Big Four wireless carrier to provide prepaid options: Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have prepaid plans, too, though they're not as attractively priced as the options outlined above. You may enjoy better network performance, however, particularly with T-Mobile and Verizon.
T-Mobile's prepaid pricing starts at $45 for a 4GB option. T-Mobile also offers pay-as-you-go pricing where you can add talk, text and data as you need it. Sprint has rejiggered its prepaid plans: in addition to the unlimited data plan, it also offers 3GB for $40 a month and 5GB for $50, though those prices assume enrollment in autopay.
Verizon offers three prepaid plans with rollover data, starting with a 2GB-for-$40-a-month option. Other prepaid choices include 5GB for $50 and 10GB for $70.
Best Prepaid Family Plan: AT&T
Best Plan: AT&T's 6GB plan for four lines of data, $145
Who Should Get It: Families with more than three lines to take advantage of AT&T's discounts.
AT&T has made itself the go-to prepaid choice for families by following the lead of its Cricket subsidiary and offering escalating discounts as you add more lines. AT&T's discounts aren't as steep as what Cricket offers: Cricket knocks $10 off the second line, $20 off the third and $30 off the fourth, while AT&T's discounts are $5, $10 and $15, respectively. But you can expect better network performance with AT&T, which vaults it ahead of Cricket.
You can save another $5 each month by using autopay with AT&T, meaning a family of four can get 6GB of data per line for $145. That same family of four would pay $225 for four lines of unlimited data with AT&T, though the speed of that data gets capped at 3 Mbps. Note that you can also mix and match AT&T prepaid plans, meaning some lines can have unlimited data while others get 6GB.
If saving money is more important to you, and you don't mind the network performance trade-off, you save more money with Cricket. A family of four would pay $100 for the 3GB per line data plan. (A family of five would pay that same amount, since Cricket takes $40 off the fifth line, effectively giving it to you for free.)
That same family of four would pay $140 a month at either Boost or MetroPCS, though they’ll get different amounts of data. At Boost, you get unlimited data, though with restrictions on streaming video, music and gaming. The first line costs $50 with Boost offering subsequent lines for $30 each.
MetroPCS offers a $5 discount for each line on most family plans — the discount increases to $10 per line on its unlimited plan. That means the carrier’s 3GB plan would cost $35 a line instead of $40, so a family of four would pay $140 a month. That’s less data than Boost’s unlimited offering and more expensive than Cricket’s heavily discounted family plans. An unlimited plan for a family of four would start at $160 at MetroPCS, if you opt for the carrier's plan that puts limits on video streaming.
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