Editor's Note: Updated on Jan. 22 to reflect upcoming pricing changes.
Buying things you'll always need in bulk is generally a good idea. For one, you never have to worry about wasting what you have, and usually the more of something you buy, the more you save. We do it with everything from toilet paper to bars of soap, so why not with our wireless service, too?
This is the question posed by Mint Mobile, a prepaid carrier that operates on T-Mobile's towers. Like other networks, Mint offers several different data buckets, depending on customers' needs. The difference is, subscribers bring their own devices and buy packages of three, six or 12 months up front. That allows Mint to discount its monthly rates pretty sharply, compared to the competition.
Here's what you need to know if you're considering Mint Mobile.
What network does Mint Mobile use?
Mint, like most prepaid carriers, is what's considered an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. MVNOs operate on the infrastructure of existing networks: in Mint's case, that network is T-Mobile.
In our carrier testing, T-Mobile's network claimed the fastest average upload speeds and tied for second overall. That's a good thing for Mint customers, considering some other prepaid providers throttle speeds, regardless of network conditions. For example, AT&T-owned Cricket Wireless institutes a cap of 8 Mbps at all times.
Credit: MintStill, it all comes down to coverage and Mint's availability in your area. To that end, Mint provides a map on its website that will help you determine if the service will work for you. And a starter kit available at Amazon for $5 lets you test out the service with 100MB of LTE data, 100 text messages and 60 minutes of talk time to see how coverage is; you get the $5 as a bill credit if you sign up for the service.
What phones can you use with Mint Mobile?
As Mint operates on T-Mobile's GSM network, you'll need a GSM phone to use it. Mint doesn't offer its own devices, so you'll be tasked with bringing your own unlocked phone to the network.
Unlocked phones are typically geared for either GSM networks, like AT&T and T-Mobile, or CDMA networks, like Verizon and Sprint. Some phones can run on both, but you should be aware that CDMA-only devices will not operate on Mint's network (or on that of any other GSM carrier, for that matter).
Credit: Tom's GuideFortunately, finding a good, inexpensive unlocked phone is easier than ever — especially if you need a GSM model — and our guide to unlocked phones will help you settle on the handset that's right for you. If you already have a device you suspect might be compatible, you can plug its IMEI code into Mint's checker for confirmation.
Still, even after you've decided on the right phone, there are some steps you'll have to take to get everything up and running — from calls and texts to data. Follow the steps listed on Mint's FAQ page to ensure your Android device or iPhone is fully functional after you pop in the SIM card.
If you're on the fence about trying Mint, you may want to check out Mint's Starter Kit. This $5 pack comes with two SIM cards (one is a backup in case you decide to port your existing number) and a week of 100MB data service, so you can see for yourself how the network performs. The kit runs $5, but if you follow up by buying a plan, the company will refund you the purchase.
What are the best Mint Mobile plans?
The option of long-term commitments makes Mint's plans unique, compared to the competition. The carrier recently upped data allotments with price hikes for 3-month and 6-month subscribers, though its value still remains among the best in the industry.
Previously, Mint was structured in tiers of 2GB, 5GB or 10GB of 4G LTE data, for three months, six months or 12 months. Starting Jan. 29, these will change to 3GB, 8GB and 12GB. Talk and text are always unlimited, no matter what data plan you pick or for how long. As a general rule of thumb, the more you buy up front, the more you save.
Unfortunately, Mint's pricing scheme gets somewhat complicated after your first billing cycle. The company's three-month introductory offer guarantees the same monthly rate that 12-month subscribers ordinarily pay. That's $15 per month for 3GB, $20 for 8GB and $25 for 12GB. There's currently no discounted single or six-month option for new subscribers.
MORE: A Guide to No Contract and Prepaid Phone Plans
When it comes time to renew, however, that promotional three-month option disappears. If you want to sign up for another three months, your bill is going to jump considerably. Here's what you can expect to pay after your first plan ends:
$25 per month ($75 up front)
$35 per month ($105 up front)
$45 per month ($135 up front)
$20 per month ($120 up front)
$25 per month ($150 up front)
$35 per month ($175 up front)
$15 per month ($180 up front)
$20 per month ($240 up front)
$25 per month ($300 up front)
Returning customers who opt for a three-month plan will pay an additional $30, $45 or $60 up front, compared to their first bill. Even if you buy six months at a time, you'll still see a monthly rate increase of between $5 and $10. The only way to continue paying the same rates you enjoyed as a new subscriber is to sign up for a 12-month commitment. It's also worth noting that once you pass your monthly data allotment, you're throttled to 2G speeds.
The upshot of all this? The best offer for new customers is the three month package. After that, Mint's prices are still quite inexpensive compared to competing prepaid carriers, but you'll have to be wary of price increases and choose your commitment wisely. Additionally, it's worth noting that those who subscribe before prices change on Jan. 29 will be grandfathered into their original rates, while still getting the same extra data per month new customers receive.
What special features does Mint Mobile offer?
If you're looking to try out Mint for yourself, now's the time. Last year the carrier introduced a seven-day money-back guarantee, where you can get a full refund (minus shipping and handling) within a week if the service doesn't work for you.
In terms of other benefits, Mint is a mostly bare-bones service — though you're still able to add to your LTE data allotment whenever you're approaching the cap. An extra 1GB runs for $10 and another 3GB is $20. Additionally, if you're traveling overseas, the carrier offers international roaming data at those same prices.
Otherwise, Mint doesn't offer visual voicemail, nor will it assist in unlocking your existing device if it is currently tied to another carrier — something US Mobile can do for its customers. Mint subscribers interested in visual voicemail can use Google Voice as a replacement.
According to Mint's FAQ, Wi-Fi calls and texts are permitted if your device allows it. Most new Android devices support this feature, though it may have to be activated via the Settings menu. However, Mint says iPhones won't be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi calling.
What do customers say about Mint Mobile?
Mint has gotten favorable feedback for its inexpensive rates and simple user experience. However, if you have to call up customer service, the experience may be less than ideal. Subscribers on the Mint Mobile subreddit have cited poor support, especially compared to Google's Project Fi prepaid network, which prides itself on speedy replies and availability through multiple social channels. To make matters worse, the lack of a brick-and-mortar presence means Mint customers have fewer resources at their disposal, should something go wrong.
As far as network performance is concerned, users have cited slower speeds, on average, for Mint Mobile when compared to T-Mobile. This likely has to do with Mint's customers being deprioritized in favor of T-Mobile's own base. That's not a unique phenomenon for prepaid users, who almost always end up playing second fiddle to postpaid subscribers. However, some Mint customers say they've reached peak speeds from time to time, possibly when network conditions were less congested.
Like most prepaid wireless networks, Mint does sacrifice some comforts — like readily available customer support and the best possible data speeds — for a lower monthly cost.
Still, Mint's bulk sales model helps it achieve some of the lowest prices in the industry. And if you can put up with occasionally slowed-down data and having to go to community forums and third-party services like Google Voice to solve some problems, Mint shouldn't let you down.
Conversely, less savvy users, or those in search of more perks, would be better-advised to take a look at MetroPCS, Republic Wireless or Boost Mobile — prepaid carriers that charge more for the same data, but provide more consistent performance as well as premium features.
Image Credit: Mint Mobile