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. For customers with premium Google devices such as the Pixel or Nexus 6P, Google’s Project Fi wireless service is tough to beat. And we’re intrigued by The People’s Operator, which blends low-cost plans with a charitable bent.

How We Picked the Best Low-Cost Carrier

We’ve already evaluated the best and worst carriers overall, including some of the ones 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.

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But price isn’t the only criteria we looked at. We also evaluated 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 also 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 took a note of 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. 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 Zmax Pro is one of the phones available through MetroPCS at a reasonable price. (Credit: Tom's Guide)The ZTE Zmax Pro is one of the phones available through MetroPCS at a reasonable price. (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 Zmax Pro 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 6GB, $40 monthly option. Normally, that latter plan offers 3GB of data, but MetroPCS doubled the size of the plan as part of a summer promotion — if you're leaning toward MetroPCS, jump on that 6GB plan now, as you'll be able to keep that inflated data allotment for as long as your account is in good standing with the carrier.

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.

If you bring other family members into your plan, MetroPCS will discount each line. Normally, the carrier takes $5 off when you add extra lines. But that same summer promotion that expanded the $40 plan's data allotment to 6GB also provides a greater discount for extra lines. You can add an additional line to the 6GB plan for $25 — a $15 discount. MetroPCS says this pricing is only available for a limited time.

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: Runner-Up

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 $30 a month. 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 for Google’s Phones

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. But Project Fi credits you for each gigabyte of data that goes unused on your plan, so judicious web surfing rewards you with a lower monthly bill.

The Nexus 6P may be nearly two years old, but it's one of four phones supported by Project Fi. (Credit: Tom's Guide)The Nexus 6P may be nearly two years old, but it's one of four phones supported by Project Fi. (Credit: Tom's Guide)The downside is that Project Fi supports a limited number of devices — the two current Pixel phones, the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X. Adding extra lines costs you $15 per person, and you’ll end up sharing from the same pool of data.

The People’s Operator: A Carrier That Gives Back

The People’s Operator provides an attractive range of plans — you have four options that will cost you $40 or less each month, with significant discounts for your first month of service. The carrier’s 2GB and 3GB plans will extend those discounts for three months.

What really sets The People’s Operator apart from other discount carriers is its social bent: 10 percent of your monthly bill is steered toward charitable causes, and you get to choose which. TPO’s focus on SIM cards means you get to keep your own eligible phone when you sign up for service.

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/$35Network performance comparable to parent company SprintOnly one plan under $40 a month; relies solely on Sprint for cellular serviceSee All Plans
Consumer Cellular
1.5GB/$35Attractive 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
4GB/$35 (with autopay enrollment)Generous discounts as you add multiple lines; 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
2GB/$25
Free plans available if you keep talk, text and data to a bare minimum; Reasonably priced family plansLimitations on which devices you can use; Confusing array of plansSee All Plans
MetroPCS
6GB/$40
Relies on T-Mobile’s network; Wide selection of phones; Data Maximizer featureSpotty customer service; Limited plan options under $40See All Plans
Page Plus
1GB/$30
Uses Verizon’s network; Wide selection of phones on top of BYOD optionOnly 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; Network coverage switches between T-Mobile, Sprint and US CellularService only available to four Google devicesSee All Plans
Republic Wireless2GB/$30
Appealing range of plans; Use of Wi-Fi keeps plan costs downLimited to Android devicesSee All Plans
Tello
2GB/$31 (estimated)
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
3GB/$28
Aggressively priced plans; Significant discounts for first month of coverage on 3GB and 4GB optionsRelies on Sprint for coverage; Phone selection focuses primarily on aging modelsSee All Plans
The People's Operator
2GB/$30
Discounts on initial months of service; 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
US Mobile
4GB/$35
Works on T-Mobile’s network, with Verizon compatibility coming later this year; Flexible plans let you customize talk, text and data based on usagePhone selection is fairly limitedSee All Plans

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  • monseemian
    With all respect, I am not sure how can a 'Carrier' like Metro PCS be considered to be the top cheap plan provider when their customer service etc. is rated bottom poor by 'every other reviewer' with a 'One Star' review here: https://www.consumeraffairs.com/cell_phones/metro_pcs.html

    It is not as if one or two reviews are bad, there is consistantly a one star review for every single fair/decent/good review on the above site. And it is not as if Metro PCS gets good reviews every where else or that these reviews are not very recent either? If the argument is that we rated them for 'Service' only as in phone data/LTE data etc. than I beg to differ; service also must include customer service, being loyal to customers, not scamming their base, standing by their promises etc.
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  • QkTreasures
    You should of reviewed mint sim & comcast Xfinity mobile cell phone service.
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  • PhilipMichaels
    Anonymous said:
    With all respect, I am not sure how can a 'Carrier' like Metro PCS be considered to be the top cheap plan provider when their customer service etc. is rated bottom poor by 'every other reviewer' with a 'One Star' review here: https://www.consumeraffairs.com/cell_phones/metro_pcs.html

    It is not as if one or two reviews are bad, there is consistantly a one star review for every single fair/decent/good review on the above site. And it is not as if Metro PCS gets good reviews every where else or that these reviews are not very recent either? If the argument is that we rated them for 'Service' only as in phone data/LTE data etc. than I beg to differ; service also must include customer service, being loyal to customers, not scamming their base, standing by their promises etc.


    We do note that MetroPCS hasn't performed well in our customer service tests, and if that's high on your list of criteria, you should certainly consider other options. (Cricket and Boost are both better in that regard.) That said, based on the criteria we used here, MetroPCS's combo of performance and price is tough to beat.
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  • PhilipMichaels
    Anonymous said:
    You should of reviewed mint sim & comcast Xfinity mobile cell phone service.


    We didn't end up including Xfinity Mobile in this guide since it's only open to Xfinity subscribers. However, we have written about Xfinity Mobile in the past.

    I'm sure we'll look at Mint in a future update.
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  • bradwww
    speedtalk is the only cell provider i've ever heard of that does not allocate your minutes/sms/data by month - - buy a year for $100 and use it at your own rate, rollover forever - best plan for people using wifi for most data and calling needs and benefits the thrifty.
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