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.
With prepaid plans, you pay ahead of time instead of at the end of each billing cycle. Prepaid plans let you get wireless service without a credit check, and you're not tied to any contract.
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. For families, we think Boost Mobile currently has the best deal, thanks to generous discounts on adding additional lines of unlimited data.
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, 5GB 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 also doesn't put any limits on download speeds, as Cricket does.
MetroPCS has tinkered with the data allotment in its $40 monthly plan lately, boosting it from 3GB to 6GB over the summer, before knocking it down to 5GB at present. That's still a generous hunk of data, with only AT&T offering more at this price point. MetroPCS also includes nice bonuses like the ability to stream music from more than 40 services without it counting against your monthly data allotment.
Metro's $30 a month plan remains at 2GB, after the carrier doubled the size of the data bucket over the summer. If you don't consume much data, MetroPCS's cheaper plan is an option, though you may be better off with Boost's tiered data plan. Boost offers 1GB more of data for just $5 extra each month.
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.
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 LTE 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, especially now that the carrier has joined MetroPCS and Cricket in folding taxes and fees into its monthly rates. Boost uses Sprint's slower network.
• Straight Talk, 10GB for $60 a month: You can get the 10GB plan for $45 from Straight Talk, which recently rejiggered its plans to expand your options and increase the amount of data you get. (Low-data users finally have an option at Straight Talk, now that the carrier also has a 2GB plan for an attractive $35 a month, though both MetroPCS and Boost have cheaper options still.) The more expensive of Straight Talk's 10GB plans 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||Unlimited||Unlimited||1GB||$30||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||3GB||$28||Sprint||Plan is discounted to $14 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. If you want the largest pool of data for less than $30, TextNow offers a 3GB package for $28 a month, and you get half-off for the first month of service.
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.
Consumer Cellular recently updated its pricing, streamlining its talk plan options to just 250 minutes ($15 a month) or unlimited minutes ($20 a month). Data plans, which include unlimited texting, are more generous now too, as you can get 1GB of data for $10. Combine that with an unlimited talk plan, and you'll pay $30 monthly at Consumer Cellular, with AARP members eligible for a 5 percent discount.
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.
A second MetroPCS unlimited option costs $60 a month and gives you 10GB of LTE hotspot data. That plan used to let you stream video at HD resolution, but that's no longer included; instead, that's a $10 monthly add-on. (Boost also lets you remove its streaming video restriction for $10 a month.)
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. You can pay $10 extra each month to stream video at 1080p, music at 1.5 Mbps and games at 8 Mbps.
• 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. If you already own an iPhone, you can bring it over to Virgin and get six months of unlimited data for $1 a month.
• Cricket, $55 a month: Unlimited data costs more at Cricket than with MetroPCS and Boost, but an autopay discount knocks $5 off the usual $60 rate. As with other Cricket plans, the unlimited option caps data speeds at 8 Mbps for LTE. You can stream video at full resolution once you turn off Cricket's Stream More feature that restricts video streams to 480p resolution. You also get 8GB of hotspot data.
• 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.
• Sprint, $60 a month: Sprint has a new unlimited option for prepaid customers that normally costs $60. But Sprint is following the lead of its postpaid unlimited plan and cutting the monthly fee to $50 through Oct. 31, 2018. You can stream video at 1080p resolution on this plan though there are caps on streaming music (1.5 Mbps) and games (8 Mbps).
• 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, six carriers are worth considering — AT&T, Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint and Verizon. 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: Boost's unlimited plan for four lines of data, $125
Who Should Get It: Families with big data needs who want to save money
The best prepaid family plan usually comes down to who's offering the better discounts on additional lines. At the moment, that's Boost, which lets you add extra lines to either of its plans for $25 each. That's particularly attractive for the unlimited data plan at Boost, since you can add a second line for half the cost. Even better, a current promotion running through the end of 2017 gives you four lines of unlimited data at $100 a month when you switch to Boost from Cricket or MetroPCS.
Other options for families include:
• MetroPCS: After summer promotions featuring aggressive discounts for adding extra lines, things have calmed down for MetroPCS's family options. Adding an extra line to any MetroPCS plan costs an additional $30 a month. That means bigger discounts for MetroPCS's higher priced plans. A family of four that opts for MetroPCS's $50 unlimited plan would pay $140 — $50 for the first line, and $30 for each line after that.
• AT&T: 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.
• 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. For unlimited plans, Sprint is mimicking its postpaid offer of $90 for two lines of data; it's also waving the costs on the third, fourth and fifth lines. After Oct. 31, 2018, though, you'll pay $160 for those same four lines ($60 for the first line, $40 for the second and $30 for each line after that).
• Verizon: Verizon is following fellow Big Four carriers AT&T and Sprint by offering discounts as you add prepaid lines, with the size of the discount depending on what plan you have. The carrier will knock $10 off a second line of its $40 3GB plan and $15 off the $50 7GB plan. Extra lines get a $20 discount on Verizon's 10GB ($60) and unlimited ($80) prepaid plans. You can add up to five lines at Verizon.
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/Unlimited||$40/$60||Includes $5 autopay discount, with unlimited international texting and hotspot data; Unlimited plan is currently discounted to $50 per month for a year|
|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 prepaid options include 4GB for $40 plus a new unlimited option. 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.