What Are the Best Prepaid/Value Plans?
If you're hunting for the best/cheapest cell service and you don't travel outside North America, prepaid cellular service has a certain appeal, particularly for your budget.
Plans from five of the most popular prepaid companies — Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile — as well as the prepaid options from the four national carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) all fall within the same basic pricing/service parameters. Usually, you choose from several tiers ranging from $25 to $60 a month, with each level supplying unlimited talk and text (with one notable exception) and an ever-increasing amount of LTE data. With the prepaid carriers, you can also add talk-and-text access to Canada and Mexico for an extra $5 or $10 a month. The four major carriers also offer a variety of international add-ons.
All four national postpaid carriers charge slightly more for their prepaid service compared to the dedicated prepaid companies. As a result, if you're looking to drastically reduce your cellular bill, you're better off choosing from one of the five prepaid carriers. And after looking closely at the options, we think MetroPCS offers the best option for individuals.
Best Individual Prepaid Plan
Using 2GB of data as our starting point for what a typical mobile user needs each month, plans from Boost, MetroPCS and Cricket emerge as the most compelling options. (Virgin has improved its overall options, though its plans are pricier than what rivals charge, while Straight Talk doesn't offer 2GB, just 5GB for a pricey $45. And you won't be able to get a 3GB prepaid plan from the big four carriers for less than $45.)
Cricket's basic plan offers a healthy 2.5GB of data for $40 a month, but if you enroll in the carrier's autopay program you can knock off $5 from that cost. That gives you more data than most carriers at that price, along with unlimited talk and text. But Cricket has a network performance problem, at least according to our tests. Cricket turned in the worst national download speed and second-worst upload speed in our tests of six cities.
Boost revamped its plans recently in a way that lives up to its name. Boost's assortment of plans is attractively priced, if not eye-catching -- you can get 2GB of data for $35 a month. As with Cricket, enrolling in autopay saves you $5 each month.
What sets Boost apart is your ability to increase your data limit while keeping your rate the same. Make three months of on-time payments and Boost adds 500MB to your data plan. That means after a year-and-a-half, you can turn that 2GB plan into a 5GB plan while still paying $30 a month, assuming you enrolled in autopay. Best of all, missing a payment doesn't reset the clock; any on-time payment counts toward increasing your allotment.
It's an appealing offer, if you can live with less-than-stellar network speeds. Boost uses Sprint's network, and as a result, suffers the same speed and coverage issues as its parent network. That's why we still think MetroPCS's $40 plan is the best prepaid option, especially now that MetroPCS has increased the amount of LTE data to 3GB from 2GB. It's more expensive than what Cricket and Boost charge, but MetroPCS's network performed the best among prepaid carriers in our testing.
If your data needs aren't quite as extensive, MetroPCS' $30 1GB plan remains a good deal, as it also offers the most data for the lowest price. Virgin revamped its plans to provide a more compelling option for low-data users, charging $35 for its 1GB data plan. Again, MetroPCS is the better-performing network in our testing as well as the lower-cost option.
Among the other carriers, only Straight Talk offers data with its entry-level plan — 100MB for the same $30. For non-smartphone users who don't need data, both Cricket and Virgin charge the least — just $25 per month with no data included. Cricket lets you pay $2 a day for unlimited data; mobile data isn't available with Virgin's $25-a-month talk and text plan, and you're limited to 500 minutes of talk time.
As for heavy data use, Boost offers 5GB of data for $45 each month. That plan, too, is eligible for increased data if you make your payments on time, so you can bulk up your plan to 8GB of data after 18 months. (In comparison, parent company Sprint charges $55 a month to prepaid customers for 6GB of data.) Fellow Sprint subsidiary Virgin has added an 8GB plan for $55 a month. Straight Talk offers 5GB for $45 a month with unlimited mobile-to-mobile chatting and messaging to Mexico, Canada, India and China available for an additional $15 a month. And while AT&T’s 4GB plan is pretty price at $60 a month, it does feature rollover data, and you can knock $5 off your monthly bill by enrolling in autopay.
For serious data drainers, though, both Boost and MetroPCS offer unlimited data plans at the same $60-a-month price. Again, MetroPCS was the better performing carrier in our network testing.
If you opt for any of the capped-LTE plans but need more LTE data, only Boost, Cricket, Sprint and Virgin Mobile sell add-on data. Cricket charges $10 a month for an extra 1GB, while Sprint charges $2, $5 or $10 for 100MB, 500MB and 1GB, respectively. Mobile Data Packs from Boost and Virgin start at $5 for 1GB, with 2GB available for $10.
Bottom Line: The major carriers' prepaid plans are pretty pricey. Only Sprint's $35-for-1GB plan is in the ballpark of what you'd pay with a specialty prepaid provider. While Cricket and Straight Talk each have attractive offers — Cricket's monthly discount for enrolling in autopay, and Straight Talk's overseas features in its $60 monthly plan — the best-value prepaid plans can be found at MetroPCS. Boost's new program for increasing your data allotment through on-time payments is also appealing, if you don't mind the carrier's slower network.
Best Prepaid Family Plan
Boost and Straight Talk do not offer any kind of prepaid group or family discounts, nor do three of the four major carriers. Virgin's family discount is only available through Walmart. That leaves Cricket, MetroPCS and T-Mobile, which do not offer data buckets, but rather individual data limits for each family member.
Cricket offers the most spectacular group/family deals, by far: $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 pay $40 for the first line, $30 for the second, $20 for the third and $10 for the fourth. That's a total monthly bill of just $100 a month for four users. Since there's a $40 discount on the fifth line, a family of five's bill would be the same $100 a month. (Unfortunately, Cricket's autopay discount doesn't cover group plans.)
MetroPCS also offers discounts for additional lines — a comparatively stingy $5 for each line, for up to five lines. So, with MetroPCS, you'd pay $140 for a family of four or $175 for a family of five, for 3GB of data per family member.
T-Mobile’s prepaid pricing matches its postpaid plans. The first line of a T-Mobile prepaid 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.
Virgin's Data Sharing Done Right program, available only through Walmart, charges $40 for the first line of 3GB of data and $25 for subsequent lines, with all the data pooled together for anyone on the plan to use. A family of four would pay $115 each month for a pool of 14GB of data. Cricket's plan is cheaper and both Cricket and MetroPCS offer specific data allotments for each line.
Bottom Line: Cost savings are a major attraction for prepaid customers. The $40 to $75 you'd save monthly with Cricket is noteworthy, provided you can put up with slower network performance.
Network Coverage and Hardware
Picking a plan from one of the five prepaid carriers requires a little more background. You should know about the carrier's network coverage and what hardware they have to offer.
Prepaid carriers piggyback on the existing networks of the big four carriers:
- Boost Mobile: Sprint
- Cricket Wireless: AT&T
- MetroPCS: T-Mobile
- Straight Talk: All four major U.S. carriers
- Virgin Mobile: Sprint
However, the prepaid carriers often get only bandwidth leftovers from their national network patrons. Prepaid customers have reported — and we have found — severely diminished network performance compared to their carrier suppliers' connectivity speeds. Your first move should be to check the prepaid carrier coverage maps to make sure your prepaid provider offers service where you're most likely to use your phone. It's also a good idea to conduct some personal testing or friend/family surveying on voice coverage in subways, tunnels, elevators and parks before committing to a provider.
As for hardware, expect to pay the full price up front for your prepaid phone; prepaid carriers don't offer equipment installment plans or subsidy plans. Among the prepaid carriers, Cricket, Boost, Virgin and Straight Talk feature the iPhone 6s, with Boost and Cricket also offering the iPhone 6s Plus. The Samsung Galaxy S6 is available at Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS and Straight Talk.
Then again, it's likely you already have a smartphone on hand. According to Pew Research, 64 percent of all Americans own a smartphone — 85 percent of all 18- to 29-year-olds and 79 percent of all 30- to 49-year-olds. Moreover, 88 percent of all mobile phones bought last year in the United States were smartphones, according to comScore. Using the phone you already have, or buying a refurbished phone on the secondary market, would be far cheaper than buying a new model from a prepaid carrier.
To that end, all of the prepaid carriers but Virgin, and all of the postpaid carriers except Sprint, allow you to bring your own phone to their service under varying conditions and fees. Boost lists mostly two-year-old models that you can bring. There's no charge for the new SIM card, but you'll have to pay a one-time $10 reactivation fee.
Cricket lets you bring any unlocked GSM (i.e., AT&T or T-Mobile) phone, and you'll have to cough up for the SIM card — $10 plus a one-time $25 activation fee. (By law, your carrier has to unlock any phone once it's paid for.Apple supplies unlocking instructions for iPhones here.)
MetroPCS lets you bring any phone (but you're advised to check the phone's eligibility — for instance, you can't bring any recent iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S model). MetroPCS' SIM card will cost you $10, and you have to spring for at least the carrier's second-tier $40-per-month plan.
Under its BYOP (Bring Your Own Phone) program, Straight Talk also requires an unlocked GSM phone, excluding BlackBerrys, to be compatible with its online-ordered SIM card or in-store purchased Activation Kit. (Both cost $5, though Straight Talk has run promotions in which it will sell you a SIM card for 99 cents.) For CDMA phones from Sprint and Verizon, the BYOP activation kit includes a network access code and instructions to enter the code. In either event, you're also still advised to check your phone's compatibility.
AT&T's GoPhone SIM Card Kit costs $10, or $5 after you subtract the online discount. T-Mobile will sell you a SIM kit for an unlocked iPhone 5 for $15 (99 cents with the SIM99 promo code). Verizon charges $50 for a SIM Activation Kit that can be used with an unlocked Verizon phone.
All hardware issues considered, Straight Talk, Boost, Cricket and Verizon offer the most — and most current — prepaid hardware options. Just remember that Verizon's SIM card is far pricier than its competitors'.
Boost, MetroPCS, Sprint, Straight Talk and Verizon all offer prepaid mobile hotspot service, but each company offers it in a completely different way. Boost sells 500MB a day for $3 for mobile hotspot access; you can also pay $5 for 1GB or $10 for 2GB on a monthly basis. MetroPCS just adds $5 to your monthly bill, and you simply draw data from your monthly bucket for mobile hotspot usage; unlimited plans get 8GB of hotspot tethering a month. Both Sprint and Verizon include mobile hotspots on hotspot-capable devices. Straight Talk offers five monthly mobile hotspot pricing tiers: $15/1GB, $25/2GB, $40/4GB, $50/5GB and $75/7GB.
Straight Talk's mobile hotspot pricing seems a bit over-the-top, while Boost's seems to be the most flexible.
Boost Mobile, Cricket and Virgin Mobile each sell hardware insurance for $7 a month. Cricket charges $10 for phones that cost more than $500. Straight Talk offers extended-warranty Easy Exchange and extended-warranty-plus-accident insurance Easy Exchange Plus plans, for all phones, even the phones you bring yourself, except for devices activated in Florida and California. Pricing depends on the phone, but Easy Exchange and Plus plans range from 99 cents to $40 depending on the retail price of the phone and the duration of the plan.