Many of us are spending more time at home than ever before as the coronavirus pandemic forces people to shelter in place. Couple that with household budgets getting tighter, and it’s no surprise lots of people are looking for opportunities to save whatever cash they can.
Naturally, your monthly cell phone bill is an easy target to tighten up those purse strings. What’s the point of a costly monthly mobile data plan if you’re just going to stay connected over Wi-Fi all day? At the same time, many carriers have introduced more lower-cost plans that reflect the financial hardships many of us have to endure, led by the new T-Mobile Connect plan that offers 2GB of data per month and unlimited talk and text for just $15.
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Granted, not everyone will be able to take advantage of these deals; if you’re currently paying off a device in an installment plan, you won’t be able to simply pack up and leave your existing wireless provider for greener (and cheaper) pastures. But if you are in a position to go to a prepaid network with month-to-month service — and you’re willing to give up some perks, like international roaming and the fastest data speeds in some cases — you’ll find there are many compelling options out there for low-data plans that can significantly cut down on your monthly expenses.
Here are the low-cost cell phone plans that rise to the top if you don’t need as much data these days.
T-Mobile Connect is the Uncarrier’s least-expensive plan and comes in two configurations: 2GB for $15 a month, or 5GB for $25 a month, each with unlimited talk and text. Originally, T-Mobile Connect was going to debut following the close of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, but the ongoing health crisis and its knock-on effects on the economy pushed T-Mobile to roll out Connect sooner rather than later.
There’s one notable catch to T-Mobile Connect: It’s an old-school capped data plan, meaning that once you hit your 2GB or 5GB limit, that’s it — you’re cut off. There’s no slowed or even 3G data after that point; you completely lose data service for the rest of the monthly billing cycle. You can purchase 1GB of add-on data for $10 as needed, though that’s obviously a steep fee for not a whole lot of service.
In the long term, T-Mobile claims it will add 0.5GB to each Connect plan every year for the next five years. In other words, by the start of 2022, the 2GB option will actually grant you 3GB of monthly data. Connect doesn’t come with any international service whatsoever, though you can still use your phone as a hotspot; just be mindful whatever data you consume eats away at your allotment for the month. And since T-Mobile Connect is a month-to-month plan, you can always upgrade to another one of T-Mobile’s solid Simply Prepaid offerings — like 10GB for $40 a month — or switch to another carrier once things return to normal.
Republic Wireless’ pay-what-you-use plan is similar to Google Fi’s pricing scheme, except it’s much cheaper. One line with unlimited talk and text begins at $15 a month; beyond that, you pay $5 per gigabyte of data used, which is half what Fi charges. Those who consume 1GB in a month will spend just $20 for that billing cycle.
That said, Republic’s approach works differently than Google’s. Fi keeps a meter running of your data tally as you use it, and charges you accordingly at the end of the month (in that sense, Fi really isn’t a prepaid provider, technically speaking). Conversely, you’d pay Republic $30 at the start of the month if you expect to use 3GB. If you need another gigabyte, you are free to buy more data during that billing cycle for the same $5 price, and just keep tacking that service on as needed.
This scheme allows you to just buy 1GB of data as a month begins, and see where that takes you. If you’re indoors almost all the time, that 1GB could be enough. And if it isn’t, you won’t be punished for wanting to add on more later. Republic also allows you to pay for your service annually all up front for a reduced rate, if you like.
Mint Mobile’s approach to cellular service is different from most prepaid networks: You purchase your monthly allotment up front, in bulk, multiple months at a time. For example, new subscribers right now can receive 8GB of data per month for three months for a lump sum of $60. That translates to $20 a month, which is extraordinarily low for that amount of data.
After your first 3-month term is complete, the price rises to $35 a month ($105 total) for the same period, or $25 per month ($150 total) if you go the 6-month route. The only way to get your same introductory 3-month rate is by locking into 12 months of service, though such a long-term commitment might not be the most prudent choice during these circumstances.
Because you’re signing up for months of service at a time — and because we don’t know how long the current state of the world will last — it's a bit risky to purchase one of Mint’s 6- or 12-month plans for a lower rate, simply because you’ll have to live with that selection once life returns to normal. Thankfully, Mint does offer a 7-day guarantee: If you have a change of heart or realize the service you bought isn’t going to cut it, you can get a full refund (less shipping charges) within a week, no questions asked.
If you go over your monthly data allotment, you won’t be charged extra, though your speeds will be slowed to a painful 128 Kbps. It should also be said that Mint offers a 3GB plan that starts at $15 a month for three months, then goes up to $25 from then on — at which point, it’s a poorer value than T-Mobile Connect.
Practically every carrier requires you to pay for some amount of data these days, usually alongside unlimited talk and text. But let’s say you don’t want any data, and all you need is a phone number and the ability to make calls and send messages. In that case, TextNow is worth a look.
TextNow offers everything except data, yet is completely free and supported by ads (which you’ll only encounter in the TextNow app). Should you need some data, TextNow does offer 2GB for $20 per month, which is within the ballpark of other propositions on this list. And if you need unlimited data when you’re out and about once again, TextNow offers one of those plans too, for a very compelling $40 a month.
Note that even if you go for the free option, you’ll likely have to shell out $10 for the SIM activation kit. We also stress that TextNow’s free service should really only be a consideration if you’re not leaving home at all, with the understanding that you’ll have absolutely no internet service outside the occasional public Wi-Fi network. It should also be stressed that, like Boost, TextNow operates on Sprint’s towers, and requires a CDMA phone or inactive Sprint device if you plan to bring your own handset.
Google Fi’s long-running Flexible option isn’t the cheapest data plan under ordinary circumstances. On top of a $20 per month charge for unlimited talk and text on a single line, you pay $10 per GB — or $1 per 100MB — which is quite pricey, especially if you find yourself using more than 3GB every billing cycle.
Here’s the thing though: If you’re not going outside much, and your traffic is mostly constrained to Wi-Fi, you could get by spending well under $30 a month for the time being on Google Fi. That’s not quite a bargain of a proposition, of course, but Fi has many perks.
If you’re someone who often travels — not now, of course — Fi is an excellent choice because it grants you data service at roughly the same speed and exactly the same price as what you get at home in more than 200 countries around the world. Google Fi also has an unparalleled app experience, with perks like free VPN routing for all internet traffic from your device, regardless of whether you’re at home or using LTE.
If you do use more than 6GB in one month, Fi’s Flexible scheme effectively becomes an unlimited plan, as Google caps your monthly bill at $80. You can continue to use up to 15GB of data (30GB for a limited time) before seeing your service slowed down.
Boost has also joined the 2GB-for-$15 party, though like Cricket, this is a limited time offer. After 60 days, this plan returns to its normal $30 price, which isn’t a great deal. That said, because Boost is a CDMA carrier that operates on Sprint’s infrastructure, it can support phones other networks cannot — more on that in the “What you should know” section below.
We should also point out that while other carriers on this list don’t include taxes and fees as part of their monthly rates, Boost does. So, in reality, this is more of a $12 or $13 plan, which technically makes it the cheapest option on this list if you need a paltry amount of data — though, again, it won’t stay low forever.
Also, be aware that with the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, Boost is set to be sold off to new owners, who might radically change the data plans on offer. There's no time frame for that spinoff to happen, but it does mean that changes will occur at some point.
Cricket normally charges $30 for 2GB of monthly data, which is a bit steep. However, the prepaid carrier has slashed that price in half for a limited time to match T-Mobile’s 2GB Connect plan. It’s unclear how long that promotion will last — Cricket’s website simply states that the price is “subject to change.”
There is one perk to Cricket’s 2GB proposal compared to T-Mobile’s: Should you hit your data usage cap, you won’t be shut off. Cricket allows you to continue using data, albeit at 128 Kbps — unbearably slow, though in a pinch perhaps better than nothing.
On the flip side, Cricket still slaps its standard 8 Mbps speed cap on this plan, which is tough to live with if you like to share lots of photos and videos. Cricket’s throttling is antiquated in this era of triple-digit data speeds that exceed what many users probably get from their home internet. Nevertheless, it’s one of the cheapest options on this list.
What you should know before selecting one of the best basic phone plans
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The most important factor in deciding which wireless network to join is always whether or not it supports the phone you have and provides coverage where you live and work. All of the carriers on this list at least work with GSM-based devices (with the exception of Boost and TextNow). That means if you’re an AT&T or T-Mobile user and can ensure your device is fully paid off and unlocked, you can take your handset to any one of these networks, port your number over and get up and running rather quickly.
If you use service from Verizon or Sprint, however, it’s a bit different. Those networks operate on the CDMA standard, which less budget carriers support. Google Fi and Republic Wireless offer service for both CDMA and GSM devices, but most of the other carriers on this list exclusively rely upon T-Mobile and AT&T’s GSM towers for service, so they can only support GSM devices. (Boost and TextNow are the lone outliers; because they’re built upon Sprint’s network, they only support CDMA handsets.)
As a rule of thumb, most iPhone and Samsung Galaxy models feature both GSM and CDMA connectivity. However, many Android phones — especially lower-priced models — tend to only work on GSM bands. Usually when you take your existing phone to a new wireless carrier, you’re asked to share your phone’s IMEI number to determine whether or not it will work on that network. Make sure to follow each carrier’s guidance to limit any chance you subscribe to a carrier your phone doesn’t support.
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