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No Contract and Prepaid Phone Plan Guide

Every month, the jaws of American cellphone users drop when they receive their bills with skyrocketing prices. Wireless users can spend hundreds of dollars per month on their cellphone bills, and for families with more than one or two lines, those prices can get out of hand quickly.

But there is another option: more and more shoppers are considering no-contract or prepaid plans. Analyst firm NPD estimates that more than a third of U.S. smartphone sales are of the prepaid variety, and with the savings it's easy to see why. Providers like Virgin Mobile, Metro PCS, Cricket Wireless and others offer plans with unlimited talk, text and data for as low as $35 per month. Compare that to major carriers like AT&T and Verizon, where you'll pay $80 to $100 monthly for a 3GB plan.

However, not all prepaid carriers are created equal, and going with a smaller provider isn't necessarily the best route for everyone. Here's everything you need to know about prepaid carriers and a quick breakdown of the top providers.

Prepaid vs. No-Contract

Contrary to popular belief, prepaid plans and no-contract plans are not the same. Prepaid cell service typically comes in the form of top-up cards that give you a certain number of minutes that can be used past one month from purchase. The biggest perk of prepaid service is that you won't have a bill to pay at the end of the month. With a no-contract plan, however, you will have a monthly bill to pay, but these plans tend to offer more for your money with unlimited talk and text.

Many carriers will offer both prepaid options and no-contract plans. For example, TracFone has monthly value plans that give you a certain number of minutes for talk, text and data that you can use for a 30-day period. But TracFone also has pay-as-you-go top-up cards that are worth a certain number of minutes, and these minutes tend to expire anywhere from 90 to 365 days.

Boost Mobile

Using Sprint's nationwide network, Boost Mobile works with selected Sprint phones and phones made for its own network. Currently, you can purchase a variety of feature phones and smartphones through Boost, including the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Moto G.

Boost Mobile has the cheapest monthly plan on our list, charging $35 for unlimited talk, text and data, with up to 1GB of data at 3G/4G speeds. You can upgrade to 5GB per month at high speeds for $45, or go even further and get 10GB for $55 per month.

There are a few extra features you can get for your Boost Mobile phone, but they’ll cost you extra. The company offers international service for Canada and Mexico for an additional $5 per month, or you can go global for an extra $10 per month. For Wi-Fi lovers, you can turn your phone into a hotspot for $5 per day, so you’ll never be without a  connection.

  • Price: $35/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 1GB at 3G/4G speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

Cricket Wireless

Running on AT&T's 4G LTE network, Cricket gives you unlimited talk, text and data with up to 2.5GB at 4G/LTE speeds for $40 per month. You can upgrade to unlimited international texting and either 5GB or 10GB of high-speed data for $50 or $60, respectively. Note: Cricket doesn't release the number of subscribers.

Cricket also has an auto-pay feature that, if you enroll, takes $5 off your monthly bill. This is a nice incentive for signing up.

The provider is also running a special that will give T-Mobile, Metro PCS, Sprint, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Cincinnati Bell customers a $100 bill credit for every line they switch over to Cricket Wireless. There’s no limit to how many lines you can switch over -- every line earns you another $100 in bill credit.

Cricket Wireless has a number of smartphones you can choose from, including the iPhone 5S and 5C, Samsung Galaxy S5 and S4 and the Moto G.

  • Price: $40/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 2.5GB at 4G/LTE speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

Metro PCS

Chances are you've seen Metro PCS's deep purple banner in its advertisements or in its stores across the country. Last year, T-Mobile acquired Metro PCS and added its then-9 million subscribers to its network.

Metro PCS's cheapest plan costs $40 and gives you unlimited talk, text and data, with 2GB of data at 4G LTE speeds. You can also turn your phone into a mobile hotspot for an extra $5 per month, and get wireless service to Mexico for $5 or $10 per month, depending on how much access you need.

Back in 2013, LTE subscribers reportedly made up 39 percent of Metro PCS's subscriber base, possibly because all three of its wireless phone plans offer some amount of data at LTE speeds. The two higher-tier plans offer 4GB or unlimited data at 4G/LTE speeds for $50 and $60 per month, respectively.

You can bring your own phone to Metro PCS or purchase one directly from them. Metro PCS offers various Android devices, including the Galaxy S5 and several models from Alcatel, Kyocera, LG and ZTE. Unfortunately, the iPhone is not part of the mix.

  • Price: $45/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 2GB at 4G LTE speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

Republic Wireless

Republic Wireless launched in 2011 as a project to combine Wi-Fi and cellular calling, and it has since been perfecting its Hybrid Calling system. All calls made from a Republic Wireless phone are automatically routed over Wi-Fi first, and if no Wi-Fi network is available, it will default to cellular service. The concept is that using less cellular service and data should result in lower bills for the consumer and lower costs for the provider, and Republic Wireless' plans are certainly cheap.

For $40 each month on Republic Wireless, you can get unlimited talk, text and data with up to 5G of data at 4G speeds. It's slightly cheaper than most other plans on our list, and the Sprint-powered service also lets you change your plan twice each billing cycle for no extra cost. If you find yourself using more or less than you expected, you can go to your account online, or through the Republic Wireless app on your phone, and adjust your plan for the month as you see fit.

The drawback with Republic Wireless is its limited phone selection. Currently, you can use only three phones on the service: the first-generation Moto X, the first-generation Moto G and the Moto E. While all are perfectly good Android smartphones, you don't have the luxury of choosing another phone, or bringing a phone you already own to the service.

  • Price: $40/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 5GB at 4G speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes



Straight Talk Wireless

Straight Talk is part of TracFone Wireless, which has more than 22.4 million subscribers. The provider taps into AT&T, Sprint and Verizon networks, depending on the area.

For $45 a month, you get unlimited talk, text and data with 3GB of data at 4G/LTE speeds from Straight Talk. The carrier also offers an international unlimited plan, and you can increase your national coverage in terms of days.

The provider offers 30-, 90-, 180- and 365-day plans, and you can save by investing in a longer plan. Straight Talk's $130 90-day plan is identical to its 1 Month plan, but you'll save $5 bundling the three months of service rather than paying $45 each month.

Straight Talk also lets you bring your own phone if you're switching from another wireless provider. All you have to do is buy a new SIM card from Straight Talk and use it in your own phone with one of Straight Talk's plans. Most CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobiles) compatible phones work on Straight Talk's network, and newer smartphones like the iPhone 6, Moto X and Nexus 5 are compatible.

  • Price: $45/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 3GB at 4G LTE speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

TracFone

TracFone is the nation's leading no-contract wireless service provider. It uses a top-up cardlike system that lets you purchase a set amount of airtime for minutes or data. For those who don't want a bill to pay at the end of the month, TracFone is a simple, no-hassle option.

Depending on where you live, TracFone will tap into Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile's network, allowing you to use your minutes for talk and text. Minute cards range from 30 to 1,500 minutes and last anywhere from 30 days to 2 years before they expire. A 450-minute card will cost you $80, and those minutes can be used for talk or text. You can also get a card worth 2GB of data at 3G speeds for $50.

TracFone also has "value plans" that bundle talk, text and Web and email into minutes of activity. These plans start as low as $10 per month, giving you 50 minutes of talk, text and Web.

A big difference between TracFone and other no-contract providers is that it mainly features phones on its service. The company has a number of feature phones, including some with touch screens, available for purchase, but you won't find any of the hot new smartphones on its website. However, TracFone has a bring-your-own-device program that lets you bring your compatible CDMA phone to use with the company's service; those devices include the iPhone 4 and 4S.

  • Price: varies
  • Data: varies
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: varies

Ting Mobile

Arriving on the no-contract scene in 2012, Ting rides on Sprint's network and only charges you for the talk, text and data you use. You can either bring your Sprint phone over to Ting, or buy a phone from Ting. Ting has different rates for different usage amounts, and at the end of every month, the provider charges you only for what you use.

So if you don't use any minutes to call someone, you won't be changed anything for minutes. The only additional charge you'll pay is $6 per line on your Ting service, and, according to the company, that's a surcharge to keep your phone number active on Sprint's network. Ting also provides tethering and hotspotting features for free.

Ting provides useful account management features that let you monitor your usage in real time. Log on to your account at any time to see how much talk, text and data you've used so far, and you can set usage caps that alert you if you're approaching high numbers. If you want to use only 500 minutes per month, you can set an alert on your Ting account so you'll receive a text message when you're approaching that limit. For parents looking to monitor their kids' cellphone use, or even students on a budget, Ting provides cheap rates and features that keep you on budget.

You can bring over your Sprint device if you decide to switch to Ting, including used Sprint devices bought from retailers like eBay and Amazon. Ting also has a store where you can buy compatible smartphones including the iPhone 5S, Nexus 5 and the HTC One M8.

  • Price: varies
  • Data: varies
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: varies

US Cellular

US Cellular's no-contract plans, called Simple Connect Plans, offer unlimited talk and text, with varying amounts of data at high speeds. Its $45 per month plan offers unlimited data with 1GB at 3G/4G speeds, but you can upgrade to $55 per month and get 2GB at high speeds.

US Cellular has a variety of phones available, including the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G3, and while you can't bring your own device to the network, you can trade in an old device and get money back for it to use on a new phone purchased through US Cellular.

Unlike other no-contract providers, US Cellular runs its own network. Its voice coverage is pretty comprehensive nationwide, as is its 3G data coverage, but its 4G/LTE coverage could use some work. Customers in Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and other parts of the Midwest will see 4G/LTE coverage from the Chicago-based company, and there are pockets of high-speed data in North Carolina, Maine and Washington. US Cellular partners with King Street Wireless to provide 4G data coverage.

  • Price: $45/month
  • Data: 1GB at 3G/4G speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile rides on Sprint's 4G LTE network, and its coverage is fairly comprehensive across the nation, though not the fastest. The provider also has a fairly wide selection of phones for purchase, including the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S5, which is important because Virgin Mobile doesn't let you bring your own device.

In early October 2014, Virgin Mobile debuted new unlimited plans, enticing customers with five monthly no-contract plan options that run the gamut of Wi-Fi-only service up to unlimited talk, text and data with international service.

The "Unlimited Everything +International" plan from Virgin Mobile will cost you $45 per month, and gives you unlimited talk, text and data, with the first 1GB of data at 3G/4G speeds. This plan also includes unlimited international texting, and 100 international minutes at no extra cost. For anyone with friends and family overseas, this is a useful perk to have.

MORE: Best and Worst Smartphone Brands

If you're looking for an even cheaper plan, Virgin Mobile has some options. It has two versions of its "Unlimited. Your Way" plan, both costing $35: one with unlimited talk, text and data, with 250MB of data at 3G/4G speeds, and one with unlimited text and data with 300 voice minutes. With the minutes' sacrifice, Virgin Mobile gives you 2.5GB of data at 3G/4G speeds, something those who are big on data usage but low on talk time will love.

If you're looking for more control over exactly how much you'll spend each month, Virgin Mobile Custom (available only at Walmart) lets you build your own plan based on the number of people and the bucket of talk, text and data you need. Monthly plans start as low as $6.98. Parents will appreciate that they can set wireless curfews for their kids' usage right from their phones.

  • Price: $45/month
  • Data: Unlimited, with first 1GB at 3G/4G speeds
  • Unlimited Talk/Text: Yes

No-Contract vs. Contract

As with any wireless provider, you need to know about certain factors like data speeds, cellphone options and coverage areas. According to Weston Henderek, director of NPD Connected Intelligence, consumers should pay close attention to LTE data speeds the provider is capable of. "Most prepaid providers are already offering unlimited voice and messaging on their monthly rate plans," Henderek says, "but the prepaid provider might say that a particular plan has unlimited data access, but in reality data speeds can be throttled greatly after a customer reaches a specific limit."

On MetroPCS, for example, only the first 1GB of data for its $40 monthly plan is "up to 4G LTE speeds." On Virgin Mobile, you can get a fairly robust 2.5GB of high-speed data for $35, but it's listed as "3G/4G."  And for that price only 300 voice minutes are included, which might not be a big deal if you text more than you talk.

If you're switching from a monthly plan to a no-contract provider, it's important to know how much data you're actually using each month. Check your latest bill or go online to your account to see how much data you use regularly before you switch over, so you can avoid paying more for data than necessary.

Another major difference between big carrier plans and no-contract or prepaid plans is your phone's price. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T sell handsets at a discounted price because they will eventually make up the difference by locking in users with 2-year contracts and early termination fees. On no-contract plans, typically you'll be paying the phone's full price. That's why a Samsung Galaxy S5 will cost $199 with a 2-year contract from Verizon, but the same smartphone will cost $649 from Metro PCS.

Also keep in mind that prepaid providers don't always stock the latest and greatest phones. For instance, Virgin Mobile doesn't yet offer the iPhone 6, stocking the iPhone 5s instead. Boost Mobile has the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus but not the Galaxy Note 4. Nevertheless, several prepaid carriers let you bring your own phone, including Straight Talk Wireless and TracFone.

Bottom Line

Prepaid plans offer consumers peace of mind and freedom with cheaper wireless plans and no contracts looming over their heads. If you decide to go no-contract, you need to decide how much control you want over your wireless service. Providers like Virgin Mobile and Metro PCS keep the monthly billing structure but give consumers cheaper prices for unlimited talk and text, and a specific amount of data accessible at high speeds. Others like TracFone and Ting give consumers total control over the amount of talk, text and data they use, but can be more restricted in terms of data availability and phone selection.

Strictly in terms of price, Boost Mobile offers the cheapest no-contract monthly plan with comprehensive coverage: you get unlimited talk, text and data for $35 per month, with 1GB of data at 3G/4G speeds. However, for just $5 more per month, you could go with either Metro PCS or Cricket Wireless and get access to LTE speeds for your first gigabyte of data. If you're someone who travels a lot, or if you often find yourself in areas with shoddy Wi-Fi, you might be better off with either of those plans. Metro PCS gives you the option to turn your phone into a hotspot for $5 extra per month -- a steal compared to the same feature on Boost Mobile, which costs $5 per day.

Ting is the most intriguing option. Paying for only the talk, text and data you use each month -- with the tools to monitor your usage in real-time -- could be a big money-saver. It also gives consumers more of an incentive to use Wi-Fi; the more Wi-Fi you use on Ting, the less you’ll pay for data. Regardless of which prepaid provider you choose, make sure they have the coverage you need in your area.

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7 comments
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  • Jessica Prah
    GIV Mobile is also reasonable option for conscientious consumers and offers no-contract Unlimited plans on T-Mobile’s 4G network for as little as $20/month. Moreover, GIV Mobile donates 8% of every customer’s monthly plan amount to up to three charities of their choice including United Way Worldwide, Scholarship America and The Humane Society of the United States.
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  • Commaspace
    I'm chatting with Cricket right now. They do not have the $100 line credit for switching carriers as this time..
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  • jay68
    Boost Mobile unlimited you are showing is out of date or incorrect. we have that and we've tried the other ones and this one is the best one and you don't have to pay $5 to go on to a hotspot it is totally free. You don't pay any extra for data use or anything like that and you don't have to buy a phone from them it can be your own phone also. So maybe this should be updated or else people will believe what they see.especially if it's not updated it's not fair for the public to read this and trust that they can believe in what they are reading.
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  • gbgrout
    Summary: $5/month, $10/month, and $25/month plans with Republic Wireless -- worth checking out as well!

    Details: You do mention that Republic Wireless' "plans are certainly cheap" but you don't list details. You are comparing plans that offer a large amount of 4G cell data, so that is understandable. However, it is very noteworthy, in my opinion, that for a plan that includes unlimited talk and text over cell (or wifi), and unlimited data over wifi only, you pay only $10/month! Also, unlimited talk, text, and data over wifi only (a good option to consider for those with wifi at home wishing to drop their landline), is only $5/month! Even unlimited everything (but 3G data speeds only) over cell is only $25/month! On the downside, they do use the Sprint network, which has less coverage than a few of the others such as Verizon and AT&T, so I have read.

    Note: I do not work for Republic Wireless or get any benefit in any way from this recommendation. I am a happy $10/month customer using a Moto G; so far, I can highly recommend RW. And: I got my phone refurbished off eBay, for a good deal less than new from RW, and love it. I simply want readers to be aware of all the RW options. Read more reviews; "your mileage may vary"; other providers might offer similar deals.
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  • jswepp
    I am a big fan of Ting. Ting uses Sprint network and has roaming onto Verizon for voice. It can also now provide service on the T-Mobile network. The phone selection is good and you can bring your own device. I used to pay Verizon over $65 per month for my smartphone plan. My bill with Ting is $20-25 per month based on actual usage, saving me almost $500 per year. Customer service is good. Overall, very pleased! This referral link gets you a $25 Ting credit: https://ting.com/
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  • paradox432
    For those wishing to drop their landline; How do you get wifi at home? I have been wanting to drop my landline phone for a long time now. But being completely novice (beginner) with today's mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) I have never used. I want to buy my first big screen smartphone 5.2" and up that I an make and receive phone calls on and be able to play online games as well as check email, browse, surf, etc. So how do you get wifi at home without a landline.
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  • SusanAl
    tracfone has triple minutes allowing 270 minutes for only $19.99 which also includes tons of text and data included which even rolls over every 90 days. Their byop program allows bringing in iphones to the plan.
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