Editors' Note: As of Nov. 28, 2018, TPO Mobile shut down its US operations. Existing customers were transferred over to Ting — you can read more about that MVNO here. For more on low-cost wireless service, read our picks for best cheap cell phone plan.
TPO Mobile, also known as The People's Operator, wants to be the mobile carrier with a heart. Not only do you get a cheaper rate on a smartphone plan compared to the monthly bill one of the Big Four wireless providers would charge you, but the carrier also pledges to donate 10 percent of your monthly bill to a charity of your choice.
While such social concern is admirable, you also want to be sure that your mobile provider offers reliable service, easy-to-understand plans and a solid assortment of phones. Does TPO Mobile deliver? Here's what you need to know about the carrier, its mobile plans and its network capabilities.
What network does TPO Mobile use?
A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that relies on other carriers' networks for its service, TPO Mobile turns to T-Mobile and Sprint. T-Mobile finished just behind Verizon in our LTE network testing, which means you should get relatively solid performance if you use a GSM phone. CDMA-based Sprint has also been making strides to improve its network, so your experience, particularly in urban areas, should be quite good. For those who are in rural or remote areas, it may be worth glancing at a coverage map to see where things stand.
MORE: What You Need to Know Before Switching Carriers
To find out the viability of service in your area, you can explore the TPO Mobile coverage checker. Enter your ZIP code and then you'll get a message about whether that region offers GSM coverage (T-Mobile) and CDMA coverage (Sprint). You won't see a coverage map, just an indication that service in that area is available.
Once you get that go-ahead, you can browse TPO Mobile's assortment of available plans. They're fairly straightforward, though there are a few quirks to be aware of.
What are the best TPO Mobile plans?
TPO Mobile offers a variety of plans, with costs ranging from from $10 to $45 per month depending on which tier of service you select. Enrolling in autopay saves you $5 each month, and TPO Mobile offers discounted pricing that can last one to three months depending on your plan.
The Thoughtful Plan gives you the largest bank of data, at 4GB per month. It's also expensive compared to other options out there, as AT&T and MetroPCS both offer 6GB of LTE data for $40 a month. (In AT&T's case, that's with an autopay discount, while MetroPCS's 6GB allocation is for a limited time.)
TPO Mobile's lower-data plans are more appealing, as you can get 1GB of LTE data for $21 once you enroll in autopay. That same plan would cost you $30 at Google's Project Fi, though Google credits you for unused data.
If you exceed the data limit on your plan, you'll need to recharge your account by purchasing extra data.
You can also knock some money off the first month of every plan from TPO Mobile, save for on the Gentle and Thoughtful options. For example, the Kind Plan costs $7.35 for its first month, with autopay reducing that cost further to $5.60. The three remaining plans offer discounts for the first three months, with TPO knocking 65 percent off the cost of the 1GB People's Plan during that time frame.
Other plans include a tablet plan with 2GB of LTE data that will start at $13 for the first three months (with autopay) before jumping to $20 per month. A North America International Plan offers 2.5GB of LTE data in North American countries for $39 a month with autopay. (It's discounted to $23.35 for the first three months.) The plan includes unlimited mobile and landline calls to both Canada and Mexico. TPO's plans don't offer coverage if you travel to other parts of the world the way Project Fi's lone plan does, though.
What phones can you use with TPO Mobile?
At TPO Mobile, the emphasis is on SIM cards rather than devices, as the carrier seems geared toward users who supply their own phones. Any unlocked GSM or CDMA device will work with TPO Mobile. That means iPhones and most Android devices should be fair game, as long as they're not tied to a current carrier. You can sign up on the TPO Mobile site to get your SIM card, and once it arrives, you pop it in your phone and activate service.
That said, TPO Mobile does offer a modest selection of phones, which you can either buy outright or lease. (You may want to avoid the latter option: A monthly lease on a Galaxy S8 costs $130, which means you'd nearly reach the $699 TPO Mobile charges for that phone after five months.)
While the Galaxy S8 is among the choices available, you'll have to settle for an iPhone 6s if your eye is on an Apple device. The selection in general is less extensive than if you went through a major carrier or one of the big-box electronics stores, and the prices are higher than what you'd pay elsewhere. TPO Mobile is selling the iPhone SE for $449, for example, when that phone is available for $399 at Apple.
What special features does TPO Mobile offer?
This MVNO calls itself The People's Operator for a reason: It wants to be a mobile carrier with a conscience. When you sign up for service, you get to choose from among a variety of charities that will receive 10 percent of your bill.
The other main differentiator is that all of the plans are prepaid; there isn't a clear-cut add-on if you need an extra GB of data for those months when you run over. You'll just have to add another batch of data to your plan. The billing is also a set 30-day cycle, which you can't change once you have a plan going.
What do customers say about TPO Mobile?
Online reviews for TPO Mobile are scant, but there are some positive indications. The best source is from TrustPilot, which offers an aggregate score of 7.8 out of 10.
MORE: Wireless Carriers Forum
The vast majority of reviews from verified sources are 4 or 5stars. Reviews laud TPO Mobile for its good customer service and low pricing. A few took issue with the coverage and some intricacies of the billing process. The overall score was dragged down by the types that have a minor complaint and then slap down a 1-star score.
TPO Mobile seeks to be different with its charitable endeavors. By using the networks of two other carriers, it also offers what should be rather solid service and the promise of working with a phone that you already own.
The plans don't offer the same type of flexibility you'll find at other MVNOs. But low-data users may appreciate the opportunity to cut monthly costs while also doing a little something extra for a worthwhile cause they support.
Credit: TPO Mobile
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Derek Walter is a freelance technology writer whose work has appeared on Fast Company, IGN, TechRadar, PCWorld, and more. At Tom's Guide, he specializes in covering Apple and Android phones. He is also the author of Learning MIT App Inventor, a guide for creating Android apps, and is the founder of Walter Media.