What Are the Best Prepaid/Value Plans?
If you’re looking to save money on your monthly cellphone bill, opting for prepaid wireless service may be the way to go, especially as carriers offer a wider selection of phones to their prepaid customers. And you've got a lot of top plans to choose from, depending on your specific needs.
Based on our testing and analysis, MetroPCS is the best overall prepaid choice with its $40-a-month 6GB plan, thanks to its superior network performance. MetroPCS also has the best unlimited plan, especially if you don't mind streaming video at lower-resolution. AT&T is the best choice for families, thanks to escalating discounts as you add more lines to your plan, though you can save even more money each month at Cricket.
Now that Virgin has dropped its generous tiered data to only offer a single unlimited data plan to iPhone users, customers who want the most data for the least amount of dollars should consider AT&T's 6GB plan, which costs $40 a month with an autopay discount. If saving money is more important that maximizing data, though, you could turn to a host of discount carriers for an even lower monthly bill. Republic Wireless offers the best balance of cost and data, with a $20-a-month 1GB plan.
How We Picked the Best Prepaid Plans: You've got a vast number of choices when it comes to prepaid and discount carriers. To help simplify things, we divided plans into different categories. First, we looked at the best overall plans, using 3GB as the ideal amount of data an average user would need each month. Because a growing number of discount carriers now offer unlimited data, we also picked the best plan for people who want the fewest limitations on their monthly cellphone plan.
In addition, we determined which carrier offers the most attractive pricing for families who need multiple lines of data. In all of these categories, we took network performance, including our own 4G testing, into account.
Because some wireless customers want an even lower monthly bill, we broadened our search to include additional discount carriers, which allow you to mix and match the amount of talk minutes, text and data you have in your monthly bill. We picked the best plan for less than $30 that had the most attractive combination of service and price.
Best Prepaid Plans for Individuals
Best Overall Prepaid Plan: MetroPCS, 6GB for $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Prepaid customers who want the best network performance
MetroPCS stands out because of the superior network of parent company T-Mobile. MetroPCS's $40 plan doesn't put any limits on download speeds, as Cricket does, and MetroPCS recently doubled the size of the plan's data allotment to 6GB. While that's a limited time promotion, if you sign up for the 6GB plan now, you'll keep that data allotment so long as your MetroPCS account remains in good standing. MetroPCS also includes nice bonuses like the ability to stream music from more than 40 services without it counting against your monthly data allotment.
Runner-Up: AT&T, 6GB for $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry users who like AT&T's network
Virgin dropped its 5GB for $35 plan, leaving AT&T as the alternative choice for users with big data needs. AT&T offers a 6GB plan for $45, but you can knock $5 off your monthly bill by enrolling in autopay. Any data you don't use with AT&T rolls over to the next month. A current AT&T promotion gives you two free months of data, but the credit only appears for the third and 12th month of service, meaning you've got to stick with AT&T for a year to reap the rewards of that offer.
Other prepaid options include:
• Cricket, 4GB for $40 a month: Enroll in autopay and you can bring your monthly bill down to $35, which is cheaper than what MetroPCS and AT&T charge. Cricket also uses AT&T's network, which performs well. Unfortunately, Cricket caps data speeds at 8 Mbps so you take a performance hit.
• Boost, 3GB for $35 a month: Boost's tiered data plan isn't a bad choice so long as you enroll in autopay to bring the cost down to $30 a month. Boost uses Sprint's slower network.
• Straight Talk, 8GB for $60 a month: You can get the 8GB plan for $45 from Straight Talk, which recently rejiggered its plans to expand your options and increase the amount of data you get. This more expensive 8GB plan adds unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to Mexico, Canada, China and India. Be aware that Straight Talk finished at the bottom of our annual carrier rankings.
If you want to save even more money on your monthly bill, other discount carriers let you mix and match talk, text and data allotments. By turning to one of these options, you can cut your bill down to size if you don't really use a lot of data each month or you prefer texting to talking.
The perfect low-cost plan depends upon your needs, but to find the carrier that offers the best mix of options, we set a budget of $30. Then we tried to build a plan that offered the best mix of talk, text and data without exceeding our monthly limit. We gave extra marks to plans that came in well under budget while still giving us a good allotment.
|Carrier||Talk Time||Texts||LTE Data||Monthly Cost||Network||Notes|
|Consumer Cellular||250 minutes||Unlimited||500MB||$25||AT&T, T-Mobile||5 percent discount for AARP members|
|FreedomPop||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$25||AT&T, Sprint||Also offers family plans|
|PagePlus||1,500 minutes||Unlimited||1GB||$30||Verizon||Includes unlimited international texts|
|Project Fi||Unlimited||Unlimited||1GB||$30||Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular||Get refunds for unused data; Only works with Google devices|
|Republic Wireless||Unlimited||Unlimited||1GB||$20||Sprint, T-Mobile||Uses Wi-Fi for calls and text when possible|
|Tello||Unlimited||Unlimited||1GB||$29||Sprint||Plans cover calls to Canada and Mexico|
|TextNow||Unlimited||Unlimited||1.5GB||$27||Sprint||Plan is discounted to $13.50 for the first month|
|The People's Operator||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$25||Sprint, T-Mobile||Includes $5 discount for autopay enrollment|
|Ting||500 minutes||100 texts||500MB||$28||Sprint, T-Mobile||Plan reflects "pay what you use" pricing|
|US Mobile||500 minutes||1,000 texts||1GB||$27||T-Mobile||Plan reflects "pay what you use" pricing|
Our favorite plan comes from Republic Wireless, which offers 1GB of data along with unlimited talk and text for $20 a month. Republic keeps monthly prices low by using Wi-Fi networks to handle much of your calling, texting and data needs; when Wi-Fi's not available, it turns to the mobile networks of Sprint and T-Mobile.
If you need more data and don't mind paying a little bit more each month, The People's Operator and FreedomPop both offer 2GB plans with unlimited talk and text for $25 a month. The People's Operator uses the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile, while FreedomPop operates on AT&T and Sprint. FreedomPop is particularly appealing if you want to add multiple lines, as a family of four can share 1GB of data for $20 a month.
You can also lower your bill by turning to carriers like US Mobile and Ting, which offer pay as you go plans. It's difficult to say exactly how much your monthly bill will be with these services — again, it depends on exactly how much you use each month. But a Ting plan where you have 500 minutes of talk time, 100 texts and 500MB of data should run you about $28 each month. You'd pay $27 at US Mobile by limiting yourself to 500 minutes of talk time, 1,000 texts and 1GB of data.
Unlimited Prepaid Plans
Best Unlimited Prepaid Plan: MetroPCS, $50 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry cell phone users who want the fastest network
MetroPCS and Boost have the best price on unlimited data at $50 a month, though both carriers restrict video streaming to 480p. Boost goes a step further by also imposing speed limits on game and music streaming for unlimited customers. That, plus MetroPCS's better performing network, make the choice easier. And if you want to get rid of the video streaming limitation, you can opt for MetroPCS's $60-a-month plan. (You can get those restrictions removed at Boost, too, but it costs $20 extra a month, pushing your bill to $70.)
Other unlimited plans include:
• Boost, $50 a month: As noted above, under Boost's unlimited plan, music will stream at 500 Kbps, and streaming games will be limited to 2 Mbps on top of the 480p streaming video restriction.
• Virgin, $50 a month: Virgin has reinvented itself as an iPhone-only carrier, stripping down its data plan options to just a single unlimited offering. The good news is that Virgin charges as much as MetroPCS and Boost do for their plans. The bad news: Virgin puts the same restrictions on video, games and music that Boost does. Virgin has an intriguing offer as of this writing: sign up for its service and buy an iPhone from the carrier, and you can pay just $1 for data over the next year. You'll need to act before July 31, though.
• Cricket, $55 a month: That pricing includes a $5 discount for enrolling in autopay.
• AT&T, $60 a month: AT&T clearly has the worst prepaid unlimited plan, even after you knock $5 off the $65 rate when you enroll in autopay. Not only does AT&T restrict video streaming to 480p resolution, there's also a 3 Mbps cap on data speeds, which is even more severe than the 8 Mbps cap that Cricket imposes.
• Verizon, $80 a month: Verizon has the most expensive unlimited data plan for prepaid users. It costs as much as Verizon's unlimited postpaid plan, and this version restricts video streaming to 480p resolution.
If you're shopping for multiple prepaid lines, five carriers are worth considering — AT&T, Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS and Sprint. They offer discounts when you add multiple lines. In the case of AT&T and Cricket, those discounts escalate the more lines you add.
Best Plan: AT&T's 6GB plan for four lines of data, $130
Who Should Get It: Families with more than three lines who want to save money
Cricket has more generous discounts as you add more lines, but parent company AT&T gets the nod for having a better performing network. And AT&T's discounts still escalate as you add more lines: you save $5 on the second line, $10 off the third and $15 off the fourth. A family of four that opts for four lines with 6GB of data each will pay $130, once you factor in all those discounts, plus additional savings from autopay. That same family can mix and match plans, too, adding a cheaper 1GB plan if there's a member of the family who doesn't use as much data as the rest.
Other options for families include:
• Cricket: Cricket doesn't have the best performing network, thanks to an 8 Mbps ceiling on download speeds. But it does offer big discounts as you add additional lines — $10 off the second line, $20 off the third, $30 off the fourth and $40 if you have a fifth line. Opt for the carrier's $40-a-month, 4GB plan, and a family of four pays $100 a month, with 4GB of data for every line. (A family of five also pays $100 since that fifth line is essentially free.)
• Sprint: Sprint's revamped prepaid plan adds a discounted rate when you add more lines. The first line of 4GB of LTE data costs $40 a month with autopay enrollment, but subsequent lines cost $30 each.
• Boost: You only get a substantial discount when adding lines to Boost's unlimited plan. The first line will cost you $50 per month, but each subsequent line of unlimited data costs $30. Extra lines also cost $30 a month for the 3GB plan at Boost, which is only a $5 savings off the initial line.
• MetroPCS: On tiered data plans — either 2GB or 6GB — MetroPCS normally offers a $5 per line discount, so that a family of four would pay $140 a month for 3GB of data on each line. Opt for one of MetroPCS's unlimited plans, and you can take off $10 per line, so that same family of four would pay $160 for MetroPCS's basic unlimited plan. However, as a part of a summer promotion, MetroPCS is adjusting its discounts for multiple lines. You can now add additional lines of data to MetroPCS's 6GB plan for an extra $25 per line (a $15 discount); the cheaper of MetroPCS's two unlimited plans lets you add extra lines for $30 each (a $20 discount). That's a good deal if you just need to have two lines of data.
Big Four Prepaid Plans
|Carrier||Prepaid Data Plans||Monthly Cost||Notes|
|AT&T||1GB/6GB/Unlimited||$30/$40/$60||Includes $5 autopay discount; Unlimited plan caps video streaming at 480p and data speeds at 3 Mbps|
|Sprint||4GB||$40||Includes $5 autopay discount, with unlimited international texting and hotspot data|
|T-Mobile||4GB/6GB||$45/$55||Only tiered data plans available at T-Mobile|
|Verizon||3GB/7GB/10GB/Unlimited||$40/$50/$60/$80||Tiered plans offer rollover data; Unlimited plan caps video streaming at 480p|
Besides AT&T, the other major carriers offer prepaid plans, though they're not as appealing as the options outlined above. Recent changes to prepaid pricing at Verizon give you 4GB for $40 a month or 7GB for $50 a month, respectively, while Sprint's lone prepaid also offers 4GB for $40. T-Mobile's $45, 4GB prepaid option is compelling only if you still want to subscribe to that carrier's wireless service but don't want a pricier unlimited data plan.