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 prepaid service, we recommend MetroPCS’s plans for individuals, whether you opt for a tiered data plan or need unlimited data each month. The T-Mobile-owned discount carrier offers the best performing network and a range of plans that appeal to users with different data needs.
Prepaid plans for families are less clear cut. If you value data above all, Boost offers an unlimited data plan (though there are some limitations on streaming). If you want the best network performance, MetroPCS is hard to beat. But escalating discounts as you add lines makes Cricket the best choice for families of four or more.
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: MetroPCS
Best Plan: 3GB, $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Prepaid customers who want the best network performance
MetroPCS’s 3GB plan for $40 a month is the best prepaid option, thanks in large part to the fact that MetroPCS uses T-Mobile’s network. That helped MetroPCS score the best network performance among the prepaid carriers we tested. Cricket offers a less expensive plan, provided you enroll in auto-pay, but MetroPCS’s better performance makes up for the few dollars of difference.
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 1GB plans, and Boost lets you tack on data at reasonable prices ($5 for 1GB and $10 for 2GB).
Low-Cost Alternative: Cricket
Best Plan: 2.5GB, $35 a month
Who Should Get It: Bargain hunters who want more than 2GB and will use autopay
Cricket splits the difference between MetroPCS and Boost with a 2.5GB data plan that costs $40 a month. Enroll in autopay, and that brings the cost down to $35. It saves some money from MetroPCS’s plan and gives you more data than Boost’s, but it also means you’ll have to use Cricket’s network, which fared the worst in our testing. (Cricket is an AT&T subsidiary.)
Cricket’s higher data plans offer 5GB and 10GB for monthly rates of $45 and $55, respectively. You can save $5 off your monthly bill by using automatic payments.
Best Unlimited Prepaid Plan: MetroPCS
Best Plan: Unlimited Data, $60 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 and MetroPCS all offering unlimited data plans to prepaid customers. Of this trio, MetroPCS’s $60 unlimited plan is the best choice. It’s cheaper than Cricket’s $70 plan, and we’ve found MetroPCS’s performance to be better than what Boost and Cricket offer on their networks.
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 1GB of LTE data for $30 a month, though you can pay $5 to add an extra gigabyte.
Other Heavy Data Options: Virgin
Best Plan: 4GB, $40
Who Should Get It: Heavy data users
Virgin’s best plan seems appealing to users who demand a lot of data, but don’t want to pay up for unlimited data. You can get 4GB for $40 a month — exactly what MetroPCS charges for 3GB. But Virgin, like Boost, uses Sprint’s network, so you won’t get the performance that you do with MetroPCS.
Other Virgin offerings aren’t as appealing. The carrier’s $30 monthly plan offers only 500MB of high-speed data, while a $50 plan provides 6GB. Other carriers — notably Boost and MetroPCS — have unlimited options for just $10 more each month.
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. 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.
Best Prepaid Family Plan: Cricket
Best Plan: Cricket's 2.5GB plan for four lines of data, $100
Who Should Get It: Families with more than three lines to take advantage of Cricket’s discounts.
Cricket appeals to large families by offering escalating discounts for each line of data you add. It knocks$10 off a second line, $20 off a third, $30 off a fourth, and $40 off a fifth. So a family of four that signs up for a 2.5GB plan will just $100 a month. (A family of five would pay that same amount, since they’d essentially get that fifth line for free.) As noted elsewhere, Cricket’s network didn’t perform as well in our tests as other prepaid carriers, but a $40 monthly savings is hard to ignore.
That’s because a family of four pays $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 a family 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.
T-Mobile is the only major carrier to offer prepaid family plans. The first line of a T-Mobile plan with 2GB of data costs $50, while the second line costs $30, and each additional line costs $10. That means a family of four would pay $100 each month in exchange for 2GB each of data.
Prepaid Service from Major Carriers
The major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — all have prepaid offerings. But you’ll pay more for data each month with the Big Four than you would with most of the discount carriers mentioned above. You’ll get better network performance, but you won’t enjoy the pricing advantages associated with prepaid service.
Among the major carriers, T-Mobile has the best offerings, with prices identical to its MetroPCS subsidiary, starting at $40 a month for 3GB of high-speed data. Sprint’s $35-a-month prepaid plan for 1GB of data may appeal to users who don’t need much in the way of data. AT&T’s prepaid plans are fairly pricey — 3GB of data will cost you $45 a month, though you can save $5 by enrolling in autopay — but you can rollover unused data. Instead of saving money by enrolling in autopay with Verizon, you get more data: Verizon's $45 prepaid plan gives you the same 3GB of data as AT&T if you make automatic payments but only 2GB if you don't. If you place a lot of calls to Mexico or Canada, consider Verizon's $60 prepaid plan, with offers 6GB of data with autopay (5GB without) along with unlimited texting and calling to those two countries. (The $45 plan only offers unlimited texting to Canada and Mexico.)
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