Cell phones have practically become an extension of our bodies — they’re our phones, computers, cameras, watches, alarm clocks, game systems and more. But getting one can be difficult if you don’t have credit.
Carriers want to avoid customers racking up huge bills and then not paying them. To this end, many major cell phone companies will check your credit to evaluate your financial responsibility and ability to pay each month.
If you have bad credit or no credit history, you may have to jump through some extra hoops, but you can get a cell phone with no credit check.
» MORE: Compare cell phone plans
1. Go with a prepaid carrier
Prepaid cell phone plans don’t require a credit check. That’s because you pay in advance for your service, usually on a monthly basis, so there’s no risk for the cell phone provider. The four major carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — offer prepaid plans, often for less than their traditional plans.
|AT&T||$55 for 2GB||$45 for 2GB|
|Sprint||$40 for 1GB||$35 for 1GB|
|T-Mobile||$50 for 2GB||$40 for 3GB|
|Verizon||$55 for 2GB||$45 for 2GB|
There are also carriers that offer only prepaid service, including Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile, Straight Talk Wireless and Virgin Mobile, among others. These carriers offer cheap plans with no contract and no credit check. Many are owned by a larger carrier like AT&T and often operate on the same networks as the major carriers, yet manage to offer plans for a lower price.
Consider the plans listed below, which are monthly plans with unlimited minutes and text messages, unless otherwise noted. Any data included with the package is listed in parentheses. The table compares monthly plans only; it does not include pay-as-you-go plans, such as Tracfone airtime cards, which let you add more minutes or data as you need them.
|1GB or less||2-4GB||5-6GB||8-10GB||Unlimited|
|**T-Mobile offers three types of monthly prepaid plans: Simply Prepaid, Simple Choice prepaid and Basic Monthly. Simple Choice prepaid plans include additional features, such as unlimited music streaming, unlimited international texting while in the U.S., and rollover data and unlimited video streaming on plans with 6GB or more.|
|AT&T GoPhone||$30 (talk and text only)||$45 (3GB)||$60 (6GB)|
|Boost Mobile||$30 (1GB)||$35 (2GB)|
|$50 (video streaming in standard definition only)|
|Cricket Wireless||$25 (talk and text only)|
|$40 (3GB)||$50 (8GB)||$60|
|MetroPCS||$25 (talk and text only)|
|$40 (3GB)||$50 (5GB)||$60|
|Sprint prepaid||$35 (1GB)||$45 (3GB)||$55 (6GB)|
|Straight Talk Wireless||$30 (1,500 minutes, unlimited texts and 100MB data)||$45 (5GB)||$55 (10GB)|
|T-Mobile prepaid**||$25 (talk and text only)|
$30 (100 minutes, unlimited text; 5GB data at up to 4G speeds, drops to 2G speeds after)
|$40 (3GB - Simply Prepaid)|
$50 (2GB - Simple Choice prepaid)
|$50 (5GB - Simply prepaid) |
$65 (6GB - Simple Choice prepaid)
|$60 (10GB - Simply Prepaid)|
$65 (6GB - Simple Choice prepaid)
|Verizon prepaid||$30 (basic and feature phones only; unlimited mobile Web)||$45 (2GB)||$60 (5GB)|
|Virgin Mobile||$35 (5GB)||$45 (10GB)|
One downside: Because there is no commitment with a prepaid plan, you can’t pay for your phone in installments like you would with a traditional plan. The price can range from less than $1 to more than $500, depending on the phone you choose. But you may be able to avoid the upfront cost of a new phone by using your existing one.
2. Join a family plan
Most carriers offer family cell phone plans, and some let you have as many as 10 lines on one plan. Although the main account holder must pass a credit check to establish service, those using the additional lines do not. The main account holder is also the one ultimately responsible if you don’t pay your bill, so take care not to miss any payments.
If you do join a family plan, you won’t just bypass a credit check, you may also save some money. Traditional individual plans start at $40 to $50, depending on the carrier, but a family plan split four ways can run as low as $25 per person, before taxes, fees and add-ons like insurance.
3. Pay a security deposit
You can often get a cell phone plan with no credit history if you first pay a deposit. Deposit amounts will vary based on the carrier and your credit score, but they could run up to several hundreds of dollars. And deposits are generally per line, so if you want multiple phones on your account you will pay multiple deposits. Most carriers will refund your deposit after a year if you consistently pay your bill on time.
4. Find a co-signer
Similar to getting a personal loan with bad credit, you can often get a cell phone plan with bad or no credit if you have a co-signer with good credit. Unlike a personal loan, however, the account would be in the co-signer’s name, meaning that person is on the hook if you don’t pay your bill.
The co-signer can eventually move the account into your name. Most carriers will run your credit when you do so, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have to pay a deposit. With T-Mobile, for example, you can usually move the account into your name after 60 days. Although the carrier will check your credit, it won’t require a deposit because the account is already open. Just keep in mind that each carrier handles this differently.
You have options
A prepaid plan is often your best bet if you want a cell phone plan but have no credit or bad credit. If the upfront expense of a phone is too much, though, try joining a family plan. That way you can share the plan cost while you work to build your credit enough so you can venture out on your own plan.
NerdWallet has partnered with BillShark, a company that can help save you money by negotiating your bills for you. If BillShark determines that you’re already getting the best rates, there’s no cost to you.
This post has been updated. It was originally published Dec. 22, 2014.