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No-Contract and Prepaid Phone Plan Guide: What You Need to Know

When it comes to your monthly cellphone plan, your options don't begin and end with the Big Four wireless carriers. In recent years, a number of discount carriers offering prepaid plans have sprung up, looking to win you over with an array of appealing wireless plans.

The proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint is likely to further shake up the wireless landscape, should that deal win the necessary regulatory approvals. But the merger may not happen until 2019. Until then, you can reap the benefits of prepaid plans that offer low monthly costs, lots of high-speed data or some combination of the two.

First, though, it's helpful to understand a little bit about prepaid plans and the multitude of companies offering to provide you with monthly cellular service. Here's a quick overview of no-contract phone service, along with a rundown of your options.

What are prepaid phone plans?

With prepaid plans, you pay in advance each month for your talk, text and data. Standard cellular plans at the Big Four carriers — known as postpaid plans — tally up your costs at the end of each billing cycle and charge you then. This distinction was more noteworthy back when the major carriers largely offered tiered-data plans and charged overage fees if you used up more than your allotted amount; with unlimited-data plans all the rage in today's postpaid world, though, the biggest difference is when you pay for your service.

MORE: Best Prepaid Plans: Our Picks

Because prepaid service is paid up front, you're also free to take your business elsewhere at any time, assuming you don't re-up for another month of service. That means there's no contract associated with a prepaid plan. While mandatory contracts are no longer standard practice with the Big Four carriers, they still exist in some form. (Try buying a phone from one of the big carriers in monthly installments, and you'll lock yourself in to a two-year contract.)

What are the advantages of prepaid plans?

At the risk of repeating ourselves, with a prepaid plan, you're buying your talk, text and data up front, and you're able to switch to another service provider whenever you want. Those are two pretty appealing advantages.

With the Big Four carriers now focused on unlimited-data plans, prepaid carriers offer greater flexibility. If you don't use a lot of data each month — and more importantly, don't want to pay for it — you can opt for a tiered-data plan with a prepaid service, which will lower your monthly bill. Some prepaid services let you skip data altogether or even opt for allotted texts and and talk time for a monthly bill that truly reflects how you use your phone.

MORE: Best Plans Under $40 a Month

A postpaid plan also requires you to have good credit, because you're paying for service after you've used it. Prepaid users don't need a credit check, because they're paying at the start of service, so this is the best option if you're credit history isn't stellar.

What are the disadvantages of prepaid plans?

You can expect a lot more perks from a Big Four carrier's postpaid plan. Customers of AT&T's unlimited-data plan get free access to the 30-channel WatchTV streaming service, for example, and T-Mobile pays for your Netflix when you have two or more lines of unlimited data. Prepaid carriers offer some sweeteners, but nothing that generous.

Credit: Lisyl/ShutterstockCredit: Lisyl/ShutterstockIn some instances, prepaid service can be subject to slowdowns if a cellular network is particularly congested. That said, when we've tested LTE speeds, we've noticed no difference between the speeds at prepaid provider MetroPCS and its parent company, T-Mobile, or between Boost and its parent company, Sprint. Cricket, which is owned by AT&T and uses its parent company's network, does cap its data speeds at 8 Mbps — something the carrier clearly notes on the page detailing its assorted prepaid plans.

What are my options for prepaid plans?

You can turn to a few different places if you want prepaid cellular service — including the Big Four carriers. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all have prepaid offerings that require no credit check or contract. You'll also find a wider variety of tiered-data options (though prepaid customers can get unlimited data, too).

The downside to getting your prepaid service from a major carrier is that, in most cases, you're unlikely to see big cost savings like you would for a discount carrier. If your primary concern is lowering your monthly cellphone bill, you're better off getting your phone service from a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).

MVNOs don't use their own wireless networks; rather, they rent space on one or more of the Big Four's networks. A few also turn to Wi-Fi, when such networks are available, to handle calls and texts to further lower costs. You won't get many frills with your cellphone plan, and customer service can be hit or miss based on the carrier, but you may find a plan that best fits your needs and your budget.

Here's a closer look at the various prepaid wireless plan options available to you.

AT&T

AT&T Prepaid has four plans, two of which offer unlimited data. (The cheaper of the two unlimited offerings slows your data speed if AT&T's network is congested; it also limits video streams to 480p resolution.) Autopay enrollment takes $5 to $10 off your monthly plan, depending on the size of your data allotment. AT&T offers multiline discounts — $10 off the second and third lines, $20 off the fourth and fifth — making the carrier's prepaid service a good choice for families.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 8GB of LTE data for $40 a month (with $10 autopay discount)

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 1GB of LTE data for $30 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $75 a month (with $10 autopay discount)

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: AT&T

Boost Mobile

Sprint-owned Boost Mobile typically offers two plans, one with 3GB of LTE data and an unlimited plan. However, through July 19, 2018, Boost offers a third option, with unlimited data plus HD video streaming. (Boost's normal unlimited plan limits video streams to 480p resolution with additional limits on music and game streaming.) The more expensive unlimited plan also features 20GB of hotspot data; Boost's standard unlimited plan caps hotspot data at 8GB. Boost includes taxes and fees in its monthly plan pricing.

For families, Boost knocks $5 off the cost of lines for its 3GB plan. Additional lines of unlimited data cost $30 each on the standard plan and $40 on the more expensive plan.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $50 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 3GB of LTE data for $35 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk text and LTE plus HD video for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: Sprint

Consumer Cellular

While this carrier is aimed at seniors — AARP members get a 5 percent discount on monthly service — anyone can sign up for one of Consumer Cellular's wireless plans. You pick how much talk time you need — 250 minutes or unlimited — and how much LTE data you want (tiers range from 250MB to 10GB). All plans include unlimited texting. If your talk and data needs are light, you can really save on your monthly bill compared to service from bigger-name providers.

Families can add a second line for $15 a month, with both lines pulling from the same allotment of talk time and data.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 3GB of LTE data for $40 a month

Least Expensive Plan: 250 minutes of talk, unlimited text, 250MB of data for $20 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: AT&T and T-Mobile

Cricket Wireless

You'll find five plans at Cricket, an AT&T subsidiary that uses its parent company's cellular network. Cricket slows data speeds to 8 Mbps on all but one of its data plans; the exception is the basic unlimited plan, which caps speeds at 3 Mbps. Plans 5GB and higher are eligible for a $5 monthly autopay discount. Cricket takes $10 off a second line of data and $20 off the third, fourth and fifth lines. Pricing at Cricket includes taxes.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $35 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk and text, with no data, for $25 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and data (at 8 Mbps) for $55 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: AT&T

FreedomPop

This MVNO offers a free tier of service with strict monthly limits on talk, text and data. (Limits vary, depending on what cellular network you use, but for GSM-based phones, for example, the free tier limits you to 200MB of data, 200 talk minutes and 500 texts.) You can also opt for three different data tiers — 2GB, 5GB and 10GB — with discounts if you pay for three, six or 12 months of service. FreedomPop also offers family plans in which users share from the same pool of data, though pricing is opaque at best.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $35 a month

Least Expensive Plan: 200 talk minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB (CDMA) or 200MB (GSM) of LTE data for free

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: AT&T, Sprint

MetroPCS

MetroPCS is owned by T-Mobile and benefits from that carrier's LTE network. It has four plans, including two different unlimited-data offerings. (The first caps video streaming at 480p, while the second lets you stream HD video and also includes 10GB of hotspot data.) Additional lines cost $30 each, regardless of which plan you subscribe to. Taxes and fees are built in to MetroPCS' monthly rates.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $40 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 3GB of LTE data for $30 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and data plus HD video for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: T-Mobile

Mint Mobile

Mint doesn't sell phones, just SIM cards that will work on GSM-based phones compatible with T-Mobile's cellular network. It offers low introductory rates on its 2GB, 5GB and 10GB plans for the first three months, before monthly pricing increases, unless you commit to a full year of service.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $20 a month ($30 after three months)

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 2GB of LTE data for $15 a month ($23 after three months)

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data for $25 a month ($38 after three months)

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: T-Mobile

Page Plus

One of the many MVNOs operated by TracFone — Straight Talk is another TracFone MVNO that's listed on this guide — Page Plus' big claim to fame is how it piggybacks on Verizon's top-ranked cellular network. Page Plus' plans range from a $10 offering (once you figure in an autopay discount) to an unlimited data plan. Just be aware that taxes aren't included.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $36 (with $4 autopay discount)

Least Expensive Plan: 500 talk minutes, 500 texts and 100MB of LTE data for $10 a month (with $2 autopay discount)

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and data for $50 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Verizon

Project Fi

Google's wireless service combines multiple cellular networks with Wi-Fi to provide coverage. In recent months, Google has expanded compatibility with Project Fi beyond the company's own Pixel phones to include select models from LG and Motorola. Project Fi's most notable feature is simplicity: Talk and text cost $20, with each GB of data you use adding $10 to your bill. (You're refunded roughly 1 cent, in the form of bill credits, for each megabyte of data you don't use.) Project Fi caps your monthly bill at $80 a month, even if you go over the 6GB of data that the $80 would buy.

Extra lines cost $15. You can add up to five more people, including kids under 13 years of age.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 2GB of LTE data for $40 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 1GB of LTE data for $30 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 6GB of LTE data for $80 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Wi-Fi

Republic Wireless

Like Project Fi, Republic Wireless uses Wi-Fi to help carry the talk and text load, describing itself as a Wi-Fi-first carrier. When wireless networks aren't available, the MVNO uses the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile to build out its coverage.

Simplicity is the name of the game here, with $15 covering your talk and text each month. Add on $5 for each gigabyte of data you use. Taxes aren't included, however.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text, and 4GB of LTE data for $35 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk and text but no LTE data for $15 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 15GB of LTE data for $90 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Sprint, T-Mobile, Wi-Fi

Sprint

Sprint's prepaid plans look a lot like its postpaid offerings, with an emphasis on unlimited data. In fact, Sprint's prepaid unlimited plan costs the same $60 a month as the company's postpaid offering. If you prefer less data, you might like the 4GB option for $40 a month.

You can add extra lines to Sprints' 4GB prepaid plan for $30 per line. Additional lines on the unlimited-data plan cost the same for prepaid accounts as they do for postpaid — including a current promotion, which waives the cost of third and fourth line for the next year.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $60 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 4GB of LTE data for $40 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: Sprint

Straight Talk

Straight Talk, which uses towers operated by all four major carriers for its cellular service, has expanded its plans in the past year. Straight Talk now offers a plan for people who need only a little bit of data (2GB) as well as an unlimited data plan. But the carrier's most compelling offering is a 10GB plan that includes unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls to Mexico, China, Canada and India. Take $1 off your Straight Talk bill if you enroll in autopay.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data plus international calling for $60 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 2GB of LTE data for $35 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data plus international calling for $60 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon

Tello

Tello, which uses Sprint's network for its wireless service, has bulked up the data amounts in its plans, making this carrier an appealing option for customers who need a lot of data. Free texting comes with every plan, and you can adjust the amount of talk time you need, from zero minutes to unlimited talk, to further fine-tune your monthly rate.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 4GB of LTE data for $29 a month

Least Expensive Plan: 100 minutes of talk time, unlimited texting and 200MB of LTE data for $8 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data for $39 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Sprint

TextNow

TextNow isn't the first MVNO to offer an unlimited-data plan, but this carrier's $40-a-month offering is one of the cheapest solutions out there if you've got big data needs. The discount carrier uses Wi-Fi to handle calls and texts when it's available; otherwise, your phone will a work on either T-Mobile's GSM or Sprint's CDMA network (depending on the device you choose).

TextNow offers discounts on some of its lines for families. Take $7 off for each additional line of 5GB LTE data and $10 off additional unlimited-data lines.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $30 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and Wi-Fi-only data for $10 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $40 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options:Yes

Network: Sprint, T-Mobile, Wi-Fi

Ting

Ting is not technically a prepaid service, because you pay at the end of each month for the talk time texts, and data that you used. But the MVNO provides a calculator in which you select your allotments for talk, text and data. You can also set alerts and hard usage caps so that your phone use doesn't exceed a preset limit.

You can add multiple lines to your Ting account. Each line, including the first one, carries a $6 access fee.

Best Plan: 500 minutes of talk time, 1,000 texts and 1GB of LTE data for $36 a month

Least Expensive Plan: 100 minutes of talk time, 100 texts and 100MB of LTE data for $15 a month

Most Expensive Plan: 2,100 minutes of talk time, 4,800 texts and 2GB of LTE data for $72 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: Sprint, T-Mobile

T-Mobile

With the Uncarrier offering only unlimited data plans to its postpaid customers, a prepaid account is the only way to pay for less data with T-Mobile. The carrier typically has two prepaid plans, offering 4GB and 6GB of data, but currently, a limited-time promotion is offering 10GB of data for $5 less each month than the 6GB plan costs.

That 10GB plan is also aimed at families who want a prepaid account with T-Mobile. Two lines with 10GB of data cost $80 a month.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 10GB of LTE data for $50 a month (limited-time offer)

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 4GB of LTE data for $45 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 6GB of LTE data for $55 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: T-Mobile

TPO Mobile

TPO, also known as The People's Operator, adds a philanthropic bent to your cellphone plan. When you sign up for a plan, you also pick from a variety of charities that get 10 percent of your bill in the form of donations.

The carrier has five different plans with different levels of talk, text and data. Autopay enrollments knocks $5 off the cost of each plan.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 2GB of LTE data for $25 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Least Expensive Plan: 500 talk minutes, 500 texts and 250MB of LTE data for $10 a month (with $5 autopay discount)

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 4GB of LTE data for $45 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Sprint, T-Mobile

Unreal Mobile

One of the new kids on the block, Unreal positions itself as a response to T-Mobile's proposed merger with Sprint, promising low-cost data plans. It delivers on that front, with plans starting at $10 a month, though be wary of Unreal's claim that you have unlimited data. Only 1GB of data is at LTE speed; you'll be throttled to 2G speeds after that, which is fairly common among MVNOs.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 2GB of LTE data for $15 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 1GB of LTE data for $10 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 5GB of LTE data for $30 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Sprint

US Mobile

Like Ting, US Mobile offers a pay-for-what-you-use approach. You set talk, text and data amounts each month, and if you go over those, you'll be prompted to top up. US Mobile's service is available through either T-Mobile's GSM-based network or Verizon's CDMA network, and rates vary depending on which service you use. (So do monthly service fees — it's $2 for GSM service and $4 on CDMA — and taxes aren't included.)

Opt for CDMA service, and you can pick an unlimited plan. US Mobile complicates matters further by charging different amounts for different data speeds (1 Mbps, 5 Mbps or uncapped), and pricing isn't competitive compared to prepaid unlimited plans from other carriers.

Best Plan: 1,000 talk minutes, unlimited texts and 3GB of LTE data for $37 a month (GSM)

Least Expensive Plan: 100 talk minutes, 100 texts and 100MB of LTE data for $9 a month (GSM)

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $75 a month (CDMA)

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: T-Mobile, Verizon

Verizon

Verizon offers five prepaid options, with data levels ranging from just 500MB to unlimited LTE data. On tiered-data accounts, you can roll over unused data to the next month of service.

You can add up to five lines to a prepaid plan, with additional lines receiving discounts of $10 to $20 depending on the size of the plan. (The bigger the data allotment, the bigger the discount.)

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 7GB of LTE data for $50 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and 500MB of LTE data for $30 a month

Most Expensive Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $75 a month

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: Yes

Network: Verizon

Virgin

Now just a cellular service for Apple's iPhones, Virgin has a single prepaid data plan. You get unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $50 a month. (That rate requires you to sign up for autopay, and taxes aren't included.) When you sign up for Virgin, you can get that same plan for $1 a month for the first six months of service, whether you bring your own iPhone or buy one from Virgin.

Best Plan: Unlimited talk, text and LTE data for $50 a month

Least Expensive Plan: Same

Most Expensive Plan: Same

Multiline Discounts/Family Plan Options: No

Network: Sprint

Editors' Note: Valentina Palladina wrote an earlier version of this report.

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  • Jessica Prah
    GIV Mobile is also reasonable option for conscientious consumers and offers no-contract Unlimited plans on T-Mobile’s 4G network for as little as $20/month. Moreover, GIV Mobile donates 8% of every customer’s monthly plan amount to up to three charities of their choice including United Way Worldwide, Scholarship America and The Humane Society of the United States.
  • Commaspace
    I'm chatting with Cricket right now. They do not have the $100 line credit for switching carriers as this time..
  • jay68
    Boost Mobile unlimited you are showing is out of date or incorrect. we have that and we've tried the other ones and this one is the best one and you don't have to pay $5 to go on to a hotspot it is totally free. You don't pay any extra for data use or anything like that and you don't have to buy a phone from them it can be your own phone also. So maybe this should be updated or else people will believe what they see.especially if it's not updated it's not fair for the public to read this and trust that they can believe in what they are reading.
  • gbgrout
    Summary: $5/month, $10/month, and $25/month plans with Republic Wireless -- worth checking out as well!

    Details: You do mention that Republic Wireless' "plans are certainly cheap" but you don't list details. You are comparing plans that offer a large amount of 4G cell data, so that is understandable. However, it is very noteworthy, in my opinion, that for a plan that includes unlimited talk and text over cell (or wifi), and unlimited data over wifi only, you pay only $10/month! Also, unlimited talk, text, and data over wifi only (a good option to consider for those with wifi at home wishing to drop their landline), is only $5/month! Even unlimited everything (but 3G data speeds only) over cell is only $25/month! On the downside, they do use the Sprint network, which has less coverage than a few of the others such as Verizon and AT&T, so I have read.

    Note: I do not work for Republic Wireless or get any benefit in any way from this recommendation. I am a happy $10/month customer using a Moto G; so far, I can highly recommend RW. And: I got my phone refurbished off eBay, for a good deal less than new from RW, and love it. I simply want readers to be aware of all the RW options. Read more reviews; "your mileage may vary"; other providers might offer similar deals.
  • jswepp
    I am a big fan of Ting. Ting uses Sprint network and has roaming onto Verizon for voice. It can also now provide service on the T-Mobile network. The phone selection is good and you can bring your own device. I used to pay Verizon over $65 per month for my smartphone plan. My bill with Ting is $20-25 per month based on actual usage, saving me almost $500 per year. Customer service is good. Overall, very pleased! This referral link gets you a $25 Ting credit: https://ting.com/
  • paradox432
    For those wishing to drop their landline; How do you get wifi at home? I have been wanting to drop my landline phone for a long time now. But being completely novice (beginner) with today's mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) I have never used. I want to buy my first big screen smartphone 5.2" and up that I an make and receive phone calls on and be able to play online games as well as check email, browse, surf, etc. So how do you get wifi at home without a landline.
  • SusanAl
    tracfone has triple minutes allowing 270 minutes for only $19.99 which also includes tons of text and data included which even rolls over every 90 days. Their byop program allows bringing in iphones to the plan.