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.

MORE: Best All-Around Phone Carrier

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).


MORE: Best 4G Data Service: Which Carrier Is Tops?

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.

MORE: Cellphone Support Showdown: Who Wins, Who Loses?

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.

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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.

MORE: Best Cheap Unlocked Smartphones

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.

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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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17 comments
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  • Rocketwoman
    Verizon's XL plan is a scam...a true bait and switch. Just switched to their XL plan in mid-November 2015. Promised 12GB data for $80 per month with a $20 per line access fee for a total of $160 per month for 4 phones. Just called them as the bill has been incorrect since signing up showing a $40 per line access fee per month not the $20 fee per line. After 85 minutes on the phone with Verizon customer service with much of the time on hold, was told by the supervisor that the $20 line access fee was a mistake on their part and we should look at page 17 of our bill that explains they are correcting their error and charging $40 instead. Looking to file an FCC complaint on this. If there's another route we should take we would love advice. This is just so infuriating to have such a large company advertise their new and improved plans since August 2015 to have this rip-off happen.
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  • gllecarp
    MetroPCS now includes the mobile hotspot with the rest of the service at no additional charge.
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  • Julie_20
    I had the WORST experience with Cricket. Placed my order online, they billed me, and the phone never came. They debited my account, credited it, then debited it again. When I called, because I hadn't written down the order number(because on the order confirmation page it says "don't have a pen, don't worry, we'll send you an email with your order number....which never came) they couldn't look up anything. I got bumped from department to department and person to person, all the while they talked to me off those scripts they use. They literally made it my, the customer, responsibility to supply a way for them to look up my order that was based on their system. Not something I could tell them about myself.They said without the order number, their was absolutely nothing they could do, though they could charge me $160. Finally they told me to dispute it with my bank. It was the most frustrating customer service experience I've ever had and I will never subject myself to risking that kind of absurdity again.
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  • John Marcotte
    I think best cell phone that is popularly known to a smartphone these days plan should consider the budget of your phone first. If you are not getting back your product after placing it online then you have right to lodge a complaint against it.
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  • Andy_51
    The info on Straight talks network in this article is inaccurate. Straight Talk works on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and TMobile towers depending on which sim you use from the activation kit. With that added info it makes it a no contest and over all best value in wireless 10 GB of high speed data on nations best network unlimited national calling and texts for $55 per month is the best over all value / deal in wireless right now.
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  • tsteele93
    Andy_51, what are you talking about. I see nothing about anything called straight talk in the article. Are you spamming or has something been redacted from the article?
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  • Jim_50
    This is NONSENSE! T-Mobile & Sprint have HORRIBLE coverage...totally horrible, especially in the rural south!

    Cricket has nationwide coverage and for $65 a month, including all fees and taxes, you can get truly unlimited with NO CAP and no throttling no matter how much you use.

    How much are these other companies paying "Tom's Guide" for his twisted and untrue ratings?
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  • khtechster
    To be fair to Tom's Guide, they probably test the networks in highly populated areas with good coverage. Assuming all of them have great coverage while testing, they will most likely perform better than Cricket because Cricket throttles download and upload speeds to 8mbps and 4mbps respectively. So, all they have to do to "perform better" is beat those speeds.
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  • mjvidify
    How low can you go? First rule: Get a land line. Use it 90% when your at home. Second Rule: T-Mobile prepaid with the cheapest phone you can find. Put $100 (1,000 min) on it and be frugal how you use the minutes. When you roll over towards the end of your year they will give you an additional 18 % in time. You are now a Gold Standing Customer. Go figure! T-Mobile now has a $30 a month plan: Unlimited text and data and 100 minutes of talk. Now use all your extra savings and time and go live life. Or give all your money to your service provider for which they in return will give you cancer, you die, they get rich. Your choice.

    Seems like common sense to me but then common sense isn't common.
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  • Dee_4_
    I visited my local Cricket Wireless store on May 12th 2016. I told the store clerk that I'm flying out to jamaica and would like to make calls from Jamaica to Louisiana. He said we can do that and the international plan is $15. I was unable to make any calls. I contacted Cricket while in Jamaica was told to go into a Cricket store in Jamaica after being transferred several times. That call to the U.S. cost $3 per minute which lasted 10 minutes. I contacted Cricket and went into the store after I arrived back home from vacation. I was told the international plan is only good for calling to Jamaica and they refused to credit my account.
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  • thlhome99
    I didn't know that comparing the price of a T-Mobile plan with 40gb of LTE data was an apples to apples comparison with Verizon's 16gb plan. Am I wrong?
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  • Lynne_B
    Straight talk with AT&T does not have visual voicemail and to make it even worse, they block using a 3rd party visual voice mail app.

    Cricket only pushes OS updates to a very small number of phones, my son has a Galaxy 5 active that is still stuck on 4.4.2 because Cricket doesn't update that phone and Samsung does not have a downloadable update for it, so he has to sign up for AT&T prepaid to get the OS updated, for the few dollars he saves with Cricket I think he will probably just stay with AT&T prepaid.

    Boost is great, it's super cheap and they are quite helpful, the downside is that it is Sprint UGH.
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  • Gerry Allen
    Leaving out Consumer Cellular is simply silly. Great plans, bring your own unlocked (no charge SIM) and the best customer service in the business. Consumer Cellular uses the AT&T network for excellent coverage nation-wide.
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  • DR____L
    Any prepaid service using T-Mo is worthless outside of any city. Get out to the middle of nowhere and then write an article about the best prepaid plans.
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  • Mike_255
    Your article says about T-Mobile, "For families, the carrier charges $70 for the first line, $50 for the second and $30 for each subsequent line up to eight lines. That would mean a family of four would pay $160."

    But, $70 + $50 + $30 + $30 equals $180; NOT $160.
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  • Forrest_3
    Metro is 60 with more features. Metro beats T-Mobile even though it's really the same company. If this author knew what he was talking about, he would have listed that instead.
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