Product Use case Rating
MetroPCS Best Discount Carrier N/A
Republic Wireless Best Bargain Plan N/A
TextNow Best Unlimited Plan Under $40 N/A
Project Fi Best Coverage N/A

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.

Saving money on your cell phone bill doesn't mean having to sacrifice on data. TextNow's revised smartphone plans now includes an option with unlimited talk, text and data that sneaks in just under our $40 threshold.

For bargain hunters who don't need that much data, Republic Wireless offers the most flexibility, charging just $5 per month for each gigabyte on top of a $15 base rate for unlimited talk and text. 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.

Latest News and Updates (Updated June 21)

Unreal Mobile, a FreedomPop spinoff that annnounced plans to debut shortly after T-Mobile and Sprint unveiled plans to merge, has gone live with its own low-cost wireless service. Using Sprint's network, Unreal promises unlimited data, though at 2G speeds (a fairly common practice among prepaid services). Where Unreal stands out is its newly tweaked pricing: you can get 1GB of LTE data for $10 a month, with 2GB costing $15 and 5GB available for $30. Other features include a built-in VPN security service. You'll have to check at Unreal's website to see if you live within its coverage area, though.

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.

MORE: Best Unlocked Smartphones

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 last round of LTE speed testing, 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)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 $119 at MetroPCS.

As a T-Mobile subsidiary, MetroPCS reaps the benefits of its parent company’s network.

If there’s a drawback to MetroPCS, besides its low ratings for customer service, 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.

MORE: Best MetroPCS Phones - Top Smartphones, From Best to Worst

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 Bargain Plan

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

TextNow: Best Unlimited Plan Under $40

Discount carriers are squeezing more data into their plans, with offerings of 5GB available for less than $40. But TextNow outdoes all its low-cost rivals, giving you unlimited talk, text and data for $39.99.

TextNow's able to squeeze in more data by relying on Wi-Fi to provide connectivity whenever possible. Otherwise, you're either using the cellular network of Sprint or T-Mobile, depending on what phone you're using. The plan also includes unlimited calling and texting between the U.S. and Canada, with low-rates on other international calling.

Don't need unlimited data? You can still get a big 5GB pool of LTE data at TextNow for $10 less.

Full Report: TextNow

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.

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 last year; more recently, it added support for the Moto G6. Both of these phones costs hundreds of dollars less than the Pixel, giving you a less expensive way to access Project Fi. Google says the LG G7 ThinQ and V35 ThinQ are coming to its network as well.

Full Report: Project Fi

Other Cheap Carrier Options

MORE: What Is Tello, and Is It Worth It?

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/$35Network performance comparable to parent company SprintOnly one plan under $40 a month; relies solely on Sprint for cellular serviceSee All Plans
Consumer Cellular
3GB/$40Attractive discounts for AARP members; Network coverage provided by AT&T and T-Mobile; Mix-and-match plansCosts can add up if you’ve got big data needsSee All Plans
Cricket
5GB/$35 (with autopay enrollment)Recently increased data allotments for plans; Finished highest among discount carriers in our customer support testingData speeds are capped at 8Mbps; Very few perks compared to MetroPCS and BoostSee All Plans
FreedomPop
5GB/$35
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 monthsLimitations on which devices you can use; Confusing, hard-to-find array of plansSee All Plans
MetroPCS
5GB/$40
Relies on T-Mobile’s network; Wide selection of phones; Data Maximizer featureSpotty customer service; Limited plan options under $40See 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 unless you commit to a year of service
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 appealingSee All Plans
Project Fi
1GB/$30
You pay only for the data you use; Now supports Moto X4 in addition to more expensive Google devicesOther carriers offer more data for the same priceSee All Plans
Republic Wireless2GB/$25
Appealing range of plans; Use of Wi-Fi keeps plan costs downLimited to Android devicesSee 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
10GB/$39
Flexible plans let you assemble talk, text and data limits that fit your usageRelies solely on Sprint, with coverage unavailable in areas that require roamingSee All Plans
TextNow
Unlimited/$40
Aggressively priced plans; Discounts when you add additional linesRelies on Sprint for coverage; Phone selection focuses primarily on aging modelsSee All Plans
The People's Operator
2GB/$25 (with autopay enrollment)
Discounts available through autopay; Portion of bill goes to charityYou must bring your own deviceSee 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 usePricing can vary from month to month based on usageSee All Plans
Unreal Mobile
2GB/$15
Low-cost plans; Features include VPN security service
Coverage not available in all areas; limited to CDMA based phones at this time
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
Visible
Unlimited/$40
Works on Verizon's network; no limits on talk, text and data
You need to bring your own device; service is currently invitie-only
See All Plans

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  • equsnarnd
    One wonders how you do your testing. It seems little more than an expansion of a sales brochure with no real knowledge of the carriers that you rate.

    For example, Straight Talk gives you 10GB of data, unlimited text and calls, all for $45 a month. Yet after being with Straight Talk for a few years I couldn't leave the plan fast enough. They lie, deceive, do things that are borderline corrupt and otherwise are an entirely rotten experience not worth any price. However, on paper they look great.

    If all you're doing is regurgitating their sales info or citing customer stats then you are offering no service at all and it would be better to stop doing these comparisons.

    What do I mean? Let me illustrate.

    1. Straight Talk doesn't tell you when you sign with them that whether you're choosing Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile as your network that you will be a 2nd class citizen, that you will have not only slower service but the quality of the signal is poorer. In areas where a plan has coverage it may not have high capacity so you won't have any coverage at all. When ST shows, eg, a coverage map from Verizon, that doesn't mean you have that coverage. Verizon customers do but you don't! That's lying.
    2. Buy a phone from ST and you will NEVER get updated to the next version of the OS like Verizon or AT&T and T-Mobile customers do. This is never mentioned anywhere. That's deception.
    3. If ST sends you the wrong phone because they screwed up, they will expect you to mail the phone back to them at your cost. That's corrupt.
    4. If 8 months into your plan, you want to upgrade your phone they are more than happy to oblige. But when you ask them to unlock your old phone so you can sell it they will tell you "NO." Why? They have a RULE. Their rule is they won't unlock any phone that has not had a year of service on it. Pretty unreasonable. And they'll do this with a phone they've sent you by mistake that you paid for. Ask them to unlock it so you can sell it rather than pay to return it and the answer is NO. See the rule.
    5. If you terminate service on your auto pay date so that you don't lose service time you've paid for, watch out. I told them three weeks ahead of time that I wanted to terminate service on my next auto pay date. They said fine and in the last week they sent me a text a day reminding me that my service would terminate and did I want to buy more minutes. What they never bothered to tell me is that if I didn't request to have my phone # ported to my new carrier before the termination took effect that they would not port it. RULE No phone number will be ported that is not an active #. The service ended at noon and I was asking to have it ported by 4 the same afternoon.

    These are the sorts of things that Straight Talk does that can turn a business relationship into pure hell. Now, how many of these companies that you have reported on have you queried about these things, queried their customers about? How much do you actually know about what it is like to deal with MetroPCS? My guess is, not much at all.

    And just so you don't think I'm biased against Straight Talk, let me tell you something Verizon does that, as corporate policy, is idiotic, anti-customer, anti-marketing, violates any business or common sense: I have an LG V10 with an FM radio chip in it that can pick up FM broadcasts. Verizon turns off that function [AT&T has it turned on] so that if you want to use the FM radio you are forced to stream it as part of your paid for data stream. They charge $50 a month for 7GB of data and $10 for each 1GB over that. How petty of them and what a great way to create enmity among their customers. One wonders where their upper management went to business school. Seems more like the Mafia than Whartons.

    A review of carriers as businesses, their ethics, their practices as regards their customers [rather than as hyped up features] would be welcomed and valuable.
  • rernst75
    MERGED QUESTION
    Question from rernst75 : "One word: Consumer Cellular- Fantastic!"

    What about Consumer Cellular for low-cost excellent wireless phone carriers? I have used their service for 3 years and never once, did i have a problem! I pay only $28.50 per month for unlimited data, talk,and text. I love their service which is in the United States!!
  • mddbkzr
    My "Best pricing options" suggestions:

    Mint Mobile: $15/mo for unlimited talk and text, and 2GB data. Uses T-mobile towers. Great for GSM phones. They have some you can buy or they allow BYOP. Also allows you to use the phone as a hotspot.

    Secondary option for people with CDMA phones: PagePlus $26/mo (with autopay) for unlimited talk/text, and 2GB data (beyond 2GB it is throttled down to "2G" speed but still chugs along), AND it uses Verizon towers for the best US coverage.

    I suggest removing any NVMO that uses Sprint, they have the worst coverage, and even their own coverage maps lie. Can be in an area 5 miles from city limits along a major interstate that shows full 4G on their map and you're sitting there with no service, not even analog 1X. I ran into this way too often a few years ago during my travels through the southeastern US. 98% of the time on the road even in remote rural areas, my wife had Verizon 3G/4G signal, versus 65% of the traveling I had ZERO signal with Sprint (well a compatible company, FreedomPop, but I had same problem with Sprint directly previous to FP). Oh and while we're talking about FreedomPop, with their scam extra fees (their free plan actually charges you $2.95-$4.95 per month), and their HORRIBLE customer service, the only positive with that company is they do not charge you to leave them (but I'm sure they will find a way to charge a "deactivation fee" soon enough).