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. 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.
AT&T had been our top choice, thanks to the big pile of data it offers to customers with its 8GB plan. But Metro by T-Mobile — a rebranded version of MetroPCS — has taken that prepaid crown back, with a 10GB plan that costs the same $40 a month. (AT&T's plan actually costs $50, but you get a $10 discount by enrolling in autopay.) Now that the new Metro plans have gone into effect, they're the best choice for customers who want a lot of data on T-Mobile's high-performing cellular network.
Metro also offers the best unlimited plan for prepaid customers. The carrier's $50 and $60 unlimited options match Boost Mobile on price, though you get a better network with Metro plus other perks like Google One storage. (Boost's unlimited plans give you more hotspot data, if that's something important to your needs.
If saving money is more important that maximizing data, 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: you pay $5 per gigabyte on top of a $15 charge for unlimited talk and text, so 2GB of data would cost you a mere $25 a month.
Note: T-Mobile and Sprint have agreed to merge, though that deal requires regulatory approval. If it goes through (and that's not expected to happen until at least 2019), the T-Mobile-Sprint merger could impact pricing not only on prepaid plans from those two carriers, but also from their respective subsidiaries such as Metro and Boost.
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: Metro by T-Mobile, 10GB for $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Users who want a lot of data on a top-performing network
The rebranded MetroPCS service may be emphasizing unlimited data plans, but its tiered data plan remains a good deal for individuals, especially with the allotted data doubling to 10GB. You'll give up some perks you'd get from other Metro by T-Mobile plans — there's no Google One or Amazon Prime tie-ins and you won't get any hotspot data — but that $40 a month charge includes taxes and fees.
Runner-Up: AT&T, 8GB for $40 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry users who like AT&T's network
AT&T offers a lot of data for $40 a month (after a $10 autopay discount) — 8GB of LTE data, in fact. You can stream video at HD resolution under AT&T's prepaid plan, and also use your data when travel to Canada or Mexico. You get unlimited calls and texts to those two countries, too.
If your data needs aren't as extensive, AT&T has a 1GB plan that costs $35 a month. Here, the autopay discount only knocks $5 off your bill, though, and you don't enjoy the Canada/Mexico benefits available to the 8GB plan.
Other prepaid options include:
• Cricket, 5GB for $40 a month: Cricket offers 5GB data with its $40 monthly plan, but you can bring your monthly bill down to $35 by signing up for autopay. Unfortunately, Cricket, which uses AT&T's network, caps LTE speeds at 8 Mbps so you take a performance hit. Cricket doubled the size of its low-cost $30 a month plan to 2GB as well.
• Boost, 3GB for $35 a month: Boost's lone tiered data plan isn't a bad choice, especially since the carrier matches Metro and Cricket by 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 has rejiggered its plans to expand your options and increase the amount of data you get. (Low-data users also 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 better options in that price range.) We prefer the more expensive of Straight Talk's 10GB plans because it adds unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to Mexico, Canada, China and India. If international calling doesn't meet your needs or you want more data, consider Straight Talk's $55 unlimited option (which we'll discuss further below). You can find additional savings through Straight Talk's Extended Plans, where you can prepay for 3 months, 6 months or a year on Straight Talk's $45-a-month plan. Paying for a year of service saves you $45 over going month-to-month, though that's an awfully long time to commit to a prepaid carrier.
• Virgin, 5GB for $35 a month: After trying to reinvent itself as an iPhone carrier with just a single unlimited data plan, Virgin has shuffled things up. (It's also selling Android devices again.) Virgin offers 5GB of LTE data for $35 a month and 10GB for $45; there's also an unlimited option.
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||2GB||$30||AT&T, T-Mobile||5 percent discount for AARP members; recently introduced new data plans|
|FreedomPop||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$25||AT&T, Sprint||Also offers family plans, bulk discounts for ordering multiple months in advance|
|Google Fi||Unlimited||Unlimited||1GB||$30||Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular||Get refunds for unused data; Bills capped at $80 even if you use more data; Now works with more phones|
|Mint Mobile||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$15||T-Mobile||Requires $45 payment for 3-month commitment; price increases after 3 months to $23 a month unless you commit to a full year|
|PagePlus||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$30||Verizon||Includes unlimited international texts, plus $10 of international calling credit|
|Republic Wireless||Unlimited||Unlimited||2GB||$20||Sprint, T-Mobile||Uses Wi-Fi for calls and text when possible; add data for $5 per gigabyte|
|Tello||Unlimited||Unlimited||4GB||$29||Sprint||Plans cover calls to Canada and Mexico|
|TextNow||Unlimited||Unlimited||5GB||$29||Sprint||Family plan discounts let you add another 5GB line for $22|
|Ting||500 minutes||100 texts||500MB||$28||Sprint, T-Mobile||Plan reflects "pay what you use" pricing|
|Unreal Mobile||Unlimited||Unlimited||5GB||$30||Sprint, AT&T||Plans start at $15 for 2GB of high-speed data|
|US Mobile||600 minutes||1,000 texts||3GB||$31||T-Mobile, Verizon||Recently revamped plans, including attractively priced unlimited data options|
|Visible||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||$40||Verizon||Now open to iPhone users with eligible devices|
Our favorite low-cost plan comes from Republic Wireless, which offers 1GB of data along with unlimited talk and text for $20 a month. You can up your data allotment by $5 for every extra gigabyte, meaning 2GB brings your cost to $25. 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.
Another compelling choice is Google Fi, the rebranded version of Google's Project Fi wireless service. Google Fi charges $20 for unlimited talk and text, with LTE data available for $10 per gigabyte. You're only charged for the exact data you use, and Google also caps monthly bills at $80 even if you use more than 6GB of data, effectively creating an unlimited data plan. While Google used to limit its wireless service to its own phones and a few select Android devices, you can now use just about any phone with Google Fi, including iPhones.
Two carriers recently revamped their plans. Consumer Cellular now offers double the high-speed data it used to with a 2GB plan $10 a month; add unlimited minutes and you'll pay $30 a month, with AARP members eligible for a 5 percent discount. (Texting is unlimited with a Consumer Cellular data plan.) US Mobile revamped its plans, too, with much more attractive pricing on customized plans (where you mix and match talk, text and data) as well as unlimited options.
FreedomPop also offers 2GB plans with unlimited talk and text for $25 a month via the networks of AT&T and Sprint. For the most data, turn to TextNow, which now lets you get 5GB for less than $30; pay $40 a month and you can get an unlimited data plan at TextNow. Big-data users can also consider Tello, which offers 4GB for $29 a month, and 10GB if you tack on another $10.
Mint Mobile has one the lowest-priced options at $15 a month for 2GB of LTE data, but there are some catches. You have to prepay for three months and prices go up after that period unless you commit to a year of service. You'll also need your own phone as Mint only sells SIM cards. A newly launched provider named Unreal Mobile (it's a spinoff of FreedomPop) also offers 2GB of high-speed data for $15 a month without requiring you to prepay for additional months of service; because Unreal is just getting off the ground, though, you will have to check for availability in your area; Unreal just added support for GSM phones after launching on Sprint's CDMA network.
Visible is another new entry to the discount wireless service market. Backed by Verizon, it's promising an unlimited data plan for $40 a month, which is very competitively priced, even compared to the likes of MetroPCS and Boost. (Speeds are capped at 5 Mbps.) It recently ended its invite-only trial period and is now open to iPhone user with a compatible device.
One service we've featured in this section, The People's Operator, just shut down its US operations. TPO customers have had their accounts transferred over to Ting, a low-cost carrier with pay-as-you-go pricing.
Unlimited Prepaid Plans
Best Unlimited Prepaid Plan: Metro by T-Mobile, $50 a month
Who Should Get It: Data-hungry cell phone users who want a fast network
Metro by T-Mobile and Boost have the best regular 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 Metro's better performing T-Mobile network and perks like 100GB of cloud storage via Google One, make the choice easier. Boost does offer more hotspot data — 8GB versus 5GB — with its $50 plan.
A second Metro unlimited option costs $60 a month and will give you 15GB of LTE hotspot data. Video streaming is still limited to 480p, but you'll get Google One storage plus an Amazon Prime membership through Metro's more expensive unlimited plan. If HD video streaming is important to you, look at Boost's $60 Unlimited Plus plan, which offers HD video streaming plus 20GB of LTE hotspot data.
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 and you'll get 20GB of LTE hotspot data, too as part of the Unlimited Plus plan. A third unlimited plan ups LTE hotspot data to 40GB and adds access to the Tidal Premium music streaming service, along with international calling and texting perks; this $80-a-month Ultimate Unlimited plan was supposed to disappear at the end of August, though it's still on Boost's website as of this writing.
• Virgin, $60 a month: Virgin's newly priced unlimited plan costs the same as the more premium offerings at Boost and Metro, but includes more restrictions. You can only stream video at 480p, and there are caps on data speeds for music and game streaming, too.
• Cricket, $55 a month: Unlimited data costs more at Cricket than with Metro and Boost, but an autopay discount knocks $5 off the $60 rate for Cricket's Unlimited Extra plan. This plan just became more attractive, as Cricket has removed the 8 Mbps data speed cap it imposes on other plans. You're restricted to streaming video at 480p resolution, and hotspot data costs extra.
• Straight Talk, $55 a month: Straight Talk joins the ranks of prepaid carriers with an unlimited data option for a relatively affordable $55 a month, matching Cricket's pricing. As with other prepaid unlimited plans, expect videos to stream at 480p resolution. Autopay enrollment knocks a single dollar off your monthly rate.
• AT&T, $85 a month: Like its Cricket subsidiary, AT&T has two unlimited options for prepaid customers. In this case, the more expensive $85-a-month plan is the better deal. It lets you stream HD video and offers 10GB of hotspot data. An autopay discount lowers the price to $65 a month, but this appears to be a limited-time discount, ending in December. AT&T typically knocks $10 off on autopay enrollment. A $65 unlimited plan — also subject to a $20 autopay discount — limits video streams to 480p resolution and offers no hotspot data.
• Sprint, $60 a month: Sprint has an unlimited option for prepaid customers that costs $60. You can only stream video at 480p resolution on this plan, and there are caps on streaming music (500 Kbps) and games (2 Mbps).
• T-Mobile, $70 a month: Prepaid customers who don't want the credit check that comes with the regular T-Mobile One plan can get a prepaid version of that plan for the same price. (Taxes and fees don't appear to be included for prepaid plans though.) You'll get the same restrictions as the T-Mobile One plan — video streams at 480p and hotspot data is slowed to 3G speeds. For a cheaper option, you can turn to T-Mobile's Essentials plan for $60 a month, though again, taxes and fees aren't included for prepaid plans.
• Verizon, $70 a month: Verizon has dropped the price on its prepaid unlimited plan and added 3G hotspot data. You're still limited to streaming video at 480p resolution, though. Sign up for autopay and you can lower your monthly bill to $65.
• US Mobile, $40 to $55 a month: US Mobile adjusted the pricing on its unlimited plans, and the result is more attractive rates. You'll pay $10 for unlimited talk and text, plus another $30 for unlimited data. However, that $40 a month total caps speeds at 1 Mbps. You can either boost that cap to 5 Mbps for another $5 a month or remove the speed limit entirely for an additional $15.
If you're shopping for multiple prepaid lines, seven carriers are worth considering — AT&T, Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile 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: Metro by T-Mobile's unlimited plan for four lines of data, $140
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. With Metro's new plans now available, you can add another line to any plan for $30 per line regardless of which plan you have, so the discount is bigger on pricier plans. Both Metro and Boost offer $50 unlimited plans, with extra lines costing $30 each; that means a family of four pays the same at either carrier. We'll give the nod to Metro because it uses T-Mobile's network, which outperforms Sprint (the parent company of Boost) in our testing, and it offers Google One storage as a perk.
Other options for families include:
• AT&T: AT&T has tweaked the escalating discounts it gives to multiple lines. Add a second or third line of prepaid data, and the carrier knocks $10 off the cost of each line. (That $40 8GB plan costs $30 for the second and third lines, in other words.) Add a fourth line and AT&T ups the discount to $20. Autopay discounts also remain in effect for each line of data. A family of four that opts for four lines with 8GB of data each will pay $120, once you factor in all those discounts. 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.
• Boost: As noted above, you pay $30 for each additional line at Boost. That's not much of a discount on the carrier's 3GB plan (though Boost applies the discount to all 3GB lines, so a family of four pays $120 a month). It's decent savings on the $50 unlimited plan, though. (Additional lines on the carrier's Unlimited Plus plan cost $40 per line while the limited-time Ultimate Unlimited plan features additional lines for $60 each.)
• Cricket: Cricket used to be a much more attractive option for families when it offered steeper discounts on extra lines. While not as generous, the revamped discounts from families still let you save. On tiered data plans, you can knock $10 off the price of a second line and $20 off the price for any lines after that. Under this pricing, a family of four each gets 5GB of data for $110 a month. (Unfortunately, Cricket's group savings aren't eligible for autopay credits.)
It gets a little more complicated with adding extra lines to Cricket's two unlimited plans. Under Cricket's less expensive unlimited plan — the one that caps data speeds at 3 Mbps — you can get four lines for $100 a month, though that appears to be a special offer. Additional lines for the Unlimited Extra plan — which has no cap on data speeds — cost $30 per line.
• 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 charges $100 for two lines of data — $60 for the first line, $40 for the second — with additional lines costing $20 each.
• T-Mobile: T-Mobile now offers two lines of unlimited data for $120 for prepaid customers. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that's the same price T-Mobile One customers pay for two lines.
• Verizon: Verizon follows 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 additional lines of its $40 3GB plan and $15 off extra lines the $50 8GB plan. The unlimited plan gets $20 discounts on extra lines. Verizon did away with a promotion that added even greater discounts when you had four lines of data, but its prepaid plans now can knock off $5 on each line when you enroll in autopay.
Big Four Prepaid Plans
|Carrier||Prepaid Data Plans||Monthly Cost||Notes|
|AT&T||1GB/6GB/Unlimited||$30/$40/$45 - $65||Pricing reflects autopay discounts; Cheaper unlimited plan caps video streaming at 480p|
|Sprint||4GB/Unlimited||$40/$60||Includes $5 autopay discount, with unlimited international texting and hotspot data|
|T-Mobile||4GB/10GB||$40/$50||Pricing and data caps recently changed|
|Verizon||500MB/3GB/8GB/10GB/Unlimited||$30/$40/$50/$60/$70||Take another $5 off each plan with autopay discounts|
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 3GB for $40 a month or 8GB for $50 a month, respectively, with both plans eligible for a $5 autopay discount; the carrier also has a $30 entry-level option with just 500MB of data.
Sprint's prepaid options include 4GB for $40 plus its $60 unlimited plan. 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; a better choice is the $50/10GB plan T-Mobile now offers.