- Page 1:Introduction: Which Discount Carrier Is Best
- Page 2:How We Picked the Best Low-Cost Carrier
- Page 3:Best Cheap Carrier Overall: MetroPCS
- Page 4:Republic Wireless: Best Plan Flexibility
- Page 5:Project Fi: Best Coverage
- Page 6:Consumer Cellular: Cutting Seniors a Break
- Page 7:Other Cheap Carrier Options
Introduction: Which Discount Carrier Is Best
There’s life beyond the Big Four wireless carriers, particularly if you’re looking to keep costs down on your monthly cellphone bill. About a dozen different carriers — including some names you’ll recognize and some you won’t — promise low monthly rates without too many trade-offs for service.
Based on our research and testing, MetroPCS is the best of the bunch, as it uses a far-reaching network with fast LTE speeds, while also offering attractively priced data plans that start at $30 for 2GB.
We also like the flexible low-cost plans that Republic Wireless offers subscribers, especially now that it charges a reasonable $5 per month for each gigabyte of LTE data. Google’s Project Fi wireless service provides great coverage, particularly for overseas travelers, and it’s more accessible now that Google is extending it to devices beyond its own Pixel phones. Meanwhile, seniors will enjoy the discount they get at Consumer Cellular, thanks to more attractive rates for that carrier's data plans.
Latest News and Updates (Updated Feb. 21)
If you're looking to maximize your data while still keeping your monthly bill under $40, a pair of carriers are offering promotions that might satisfy your data-hungry needs. Because these are limited time promotions, they don't displace any of our top picks, but they're worth checking out.
The Cricket 2 Unlimited plan at Cricket Wireless normally costs $55 a month. But through April 12, Cricket is offering a $10 monthly bill credit for the next year on that plan. Add in a $5 monthly discount for enrolling in autopay, and you've got unlimited data for $40 a month. That's a substantial savings, considering that comparable unlimited plans will run you $50. But Cricket restricts data speeds on its Cricket 2 Unlimited plans to 3 Mbps, which is a pretty restrictive cap.
Meanwhile, an ongoing promotion at Tello throws in another 5GB on top of the 5GB you already get from that carrier's $39-a-month 5GB plan. Getting 10GB for a little less than $40 is a pretty impressive haul, provided you don't mind using Sprint's cellular network.
How We Picked the Best Low-Cost Carrier
We evaluate the best and worst carriers overall, including some of the options featured here. But the criteria is different when considering low-cost options. For starters, we looked only at carriers that offered monthly plans costing $40 and less. After all, if you’re on the lookout for an inexpensive service provider, your monthly bill is going to be the first thing you consider.
But price isn’t the only criteria we looked at. We also considered the variety of plans each carrier offered and whether you could move to a different plan if your talk, text and data needs change. We took special features into consideration: Do the carriers offer discounts on multiple lines? Are features like hotspot data included with plans? And what other perks, if any, can subscribers expect?
When considering whether to use a discount carrier, you should absolutely check on which network they use and how that coverage is in your area.
It’s important to note that none of these discount carriers operate their own network. Rather, as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, they piggyback on the cellular networks built by one or more of the Big Four carriers. We looked atf which network each carrier used and how it performed when we tested for LTE speeds. (When considering whether to use a discount carrier, you should absolutely check on which network they use and how that coverage is in your area.)
Some carriers, such as Republic Wireless and Project Fi, also offload calls and texts to Wi-Fi when available, as part of keeping monthly costs low. We took that feature into consideration as well.
Most of these carriers let you bring your own device, selling you a SIM card to use on your own phone. Others will sell you a phone if you’re looking for a new device, so we looked at phone selection, and whether the carrier offered the last flagships alongside older models and budget phones.
Best Cheap Carrier Overall: MetroPCS
When we ranked all carriers, MetroPCS crashed the Top Four, finishing ahead of Sprint. It’s easy to see why: As a T-Mobile subsidiary, MetroPCS reaps the benefits of its parent company’s network.
T-Mobile finished second in our LTE speed testing this year, just behind Verizon. And that benefits MetroPCS subscribers, as there’s no noticeable performance gap between T-Mobile and MetroPCS. (T-Mobile does reserve the right to prioritize its own traffic ahead of other carriers on its network, but we haven’t experienced that throttling when using MetroPCS.) In some of the locations where we tested, MetroPCS turned in faster times than its parent company. Subscribe to MetroPCS and you can be confident that anywhere T-Mobile’s network reaches, you’ll enjoy solid service.
The ZTE Blade Z Max is one of the low-cost phones MetroPCS offers customers. (Credit: Tom's Guide)MetroPCS also offers a good selection of phones, including the latest flagships from Samsung and Apple. The carrier also offers some exclusives at attractive prices: The solid ZTE Blade Z Max phablet is available for just $99 at MetroPCS.
As a T-Mobile subsidiary, MetroPCS reaps the benefits of its parent company’s network.
If there’s a drawback to MetroPCS, it’s that the carrier has limited plan options for $40 or less. You can either opt for a 2GB, $30 monthly plan or a 5GB, $40 monthly option. Either of those MetroPCS plans include the ability to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot (drawing from your plan’s data) and an optional Data Maximizer feature where you can stream video at 480p resolution (and thus, consume less of your data when watching Netflix or YouTube). The $40 plan also lets you listen to music from select streaming services without touching your data allotment.
The $40 plan also lets you listen to music from select streaming services without touching your data allotment. You can add additional lines for $30 — no savings at all if you’re on the 2GB plan, but a $10 discount on MetroPCS’s 5GB offering.
You can find other plans that will cost you less money each month at other carriers, but MetroPCS’s superior performance and customer-friendly extras push it over the top.
Full Report: Metro PCS
Republic Wireless: Best Plan Flexibility
Republic Wireless has the most attractive assortment of plans among discount carriers, offering unlimited talk and text to all subscribers along with reasonably priced tiers of data. A plan with 2GB of data — which is enough for the average user — costs $25 a month. If you need more, Republic lets you add 1GB of LTE data for $5, undercutting the $10-per-gigabyte that Project Fi charges.
Republic keeps costs low by using Wi-Fi to handle calls, texts and data when available; otherwise, you’re using the cellular network of either Sprint or T-Mobile. Adaptive coverage blends Wi-Fi and cellular to deliver improved call quality.
Full Report: Republic Wireless
Project Fi: Best Coverage
If you’re using one of Google’s premium Android devices, it’s hard to top the prices at Google’s Project Fi service. You get unlimited talk and text for $20 a month and each gigabyte of data adds another $10 to your monthly bill. That's double what Republic charges per gigabyte, but Project Fi credits you for the data that goes unused on your plan, so judicious web surfing rewards you with a lower monthly bill. In those months where you need to use a lot of data, a newly added Bill Protection feature caps your monthly cost at $80 even if you use more than the 6GB of data that would buy. Subscribers with an eye on monthly costs likely won't want to take advantage of this feature regularly, but it's nice to know that it's there when you need it.
Project Fi also helps keep your data usage down by employing Wi-Fi when available. Otherwise, you switch seamlessly between the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.
A special edition of the Moto X4 joins the ranks of Project Fi-compatible devices. (Credit: Tom's Guide)Project Fi is particularly appealing when you travel. In more than 135 countries, you continue to draw from the same pool of data you would in the U.S. at no addition cost.
Google has taken steps to address one of Project Fi’s biggest shortcomings: only a limited number of phones work with the service. While Google’s latest Pixels and last year’s Pixel XL are available as options, Google expanded beyond its own phones to add the Moto X4 Android One. This Motorola phone costs a couple hundred dollars less than the cheapest Pixel, so you now have a lower-cost option for using Project Fi.
Full Report: Project Fi
Consumer Cellular: Cutting Seniors a Break
There’s a reason Consumer Cellular has built up a strong following among its customers. It offers flexible plans that are especially appealing if you don’t need a lot of talk time or data (or both). And because of its partnership with AARP, members of that organization can knock 5 percent off their monthly bill.
Consumer Cellular has adjusted its Connect Plans, which include unlimited texting and a set amount of monthly data, to offer more data for your dollars. Cobmine that with one of the carrier’s two Talk plans (250 minutes costs you $15 a month and unlimited talk is available for $20), and you can get up to 3GB of data without going over our $40 threshhold.
Full Report: Consumer Cellular
Other Cheap Carrier Options
While the four options above represent our top picks for low-cost carriers, we looked at more than half a dozen other service providers. Here are the pros and cons for each cheap carrier, including our top picks.
|Carrier||Best Plan (Data/Monthly Cost)||Pros||Cons||More Info|
|Boost Mobile||3GB/$35||Network performance comparable to parent company Sprint||Only one plan under $40 a month; relies solely on Sprint for cellular service||See All Plans|
|Consumer Cellular||3GB/$40||Attractive discounts for AARP members; Network coverage provided by AT&T and T-Mobile; Mix-and-match plans||Costs can add up if you’ve got big data needs||See All Plans|
|Cricket||5GB/$35 (with autopay enrollment)||Recently increased data allotments for plans; Finished highest among discount carriers in our customer support testing||Data speeds are capped at 8Mbps; Very few perks compared to MetroPCS and Boost||See All Plans|
|FreedomPop||3GB/$30||Free plans available if you keep talk, text and data to a bare minimum; Reasonably priced family plans; |
Discounts available if you pay ahead for several months
|Limitations on which devices you can use; Confusing array of plans||See All Plans|
|MetroPCS||5GB/$40||Relies on T-Mobile’s network; Wide selection of phones; Data Maximizer feature||Spotty customer service; Limited plan options under $40||See All Plans|
|Mint SIM||2GB/$15||Very low monthly cost, at least initially; Uses T-Mobile's network||Low rate requires you to pay for three months of service upfront; Prices increase after initial discount||See All Plans|
|Page Plus||5GB/$40||Uses Verizon’s network; Wide selection of phones on top of BYOD option; Autopay discounts available; Increased data allotment in plans||Only two of its prepaid plans offer any value; Pay-as-you-go options are not very appealing||See All Plans|
|Project Fi||1GB/$30||You pay only for the data you use; Now supports Moto X4 in addition to more expensive Google devices||Other carriers offer more data for the same price||See All Plans|
|Republic Wireless||2GB/$25||Appealing range of plans; Use of Wi-Fi keeps plan costs down||Limited to Android devices||See All Plans|
|Straight Talk||2GB/$35||Plenty of devices supported; $1 discount for autopay enrollment||Carrier ranked poorly in our customer service and network speed tests; Limited low-cost options||See All Plans|
|Tello||3GB/$29||Flexible plans let you assemble talk, text and data limits that fit your usage||Relies solely on Sprint, with coverage unavailable in areas that require roaming||See All Plans|
|TextNow||3GB/$28||Aggressively priced plans; Discounts when you add additional lines||Relies on Sprint for coverage; Phone selection focuses primarily on aging models||See All Plans|
|The People's Operator||2GB/$30||Discounts available through autopay; Portion of bill goes to charity||You must bring your own device||See All Plans|
|Ting||2GB/$40 (estimated)||Uses T-Mobile’s network as well as Sprint’s; Supports international calling and roaming; Customers pay only for the text, talk and data they use||Pricing can vary from month to month based on usage||See All Plans|
|US Mobile||3GB/$35||Works on both T-Mobile and Verizon networks; Flexible plans let you customize talk, text and data||Pricing varies depending on which network you use||See All Plans|