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Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

Sept. 7, 2018
Cell Phones, Utilities
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

Lower costs. More flexibility. No credit check. No contract. There are many reasons to consider a prepaid phone plan and there are many options to consider.

We evaluated the prepaid plans offered by more than a dozen wireless carriers to find the best ones, based on price and features, among other important factors.

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Best prepaid phone plans with data

These plans hit the sweet spot for most smartphone owners, who use an average of 2GB to 5GB of data each month.

  • Plan name: Virgin Mobile 5GB plan
  • Price (monthly): $35
  • Plan at a glance: 5GB of data, plus unlimited minutes and text messages
  • Why we like it: A solid amount of data at a price that can’t be beat. Plus, Virgin Mobile customers can score discounts on flowers, suits, car-sharing services and more.
  • Plan name: Straight Talk 10GB plan
  • Price (monthly): $45
  • Plan at a glance: 10GB of data, plus unlimited talk and text
  • Why we like it: A great value compared with other prepaid plans, which offer roughly half the data for the same price.

 

THINGS TO KNOW

Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint and uses Sprint’s network. The 5GB plan does not include mobile hot spot access, but you can add it for an additional fee. There is no contract or credit check required, but you will pay full retail price for a new phone.
Straight Talk’s 10GB plan typically expires after 30 days, unless you opt to automatically refill your account. But you can also purchase in three-month, six-month and yearlong increments at a discounted rate. Straight Talk contracts with each of the big four nationwide carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The network you use will depend on where you live and the phone you activate.

 

Best no-data prepaid plans

You don’t want data, but you don’t want to be limited to a 30-minute phone call each month, either. These plans are for you.

  • Plan name: Republic Wireless No Data
  • Price (monthly): $15
  • At a glance: Unlimited minutes and text messages
  • Why we like it: Just minutes and messages for a very low cost, plus data access via Wi-Fi
  • Plan name Ting: Small (no data)
  • Price (monthly): $12 per month
  • At a glance: 100 minutes, 100 text messages
  • Why we like it: A basic plan tailored to your usage

 

THINGS TO KNOW:

Republic’s phones use a combination of Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks and Wi-Fi for calls, texts and data. Due to the technology required, Republic supports only a handful of smartphones.
Usage is billed in tiers, so you pay for only what you use in a given month. Use more than 100 minutes or 100 texts and you’ll pay more than $12. Use nothing and you’ll pay just the $6 monthly base charge, plus taxes and fees. You can set usage alerts and caps via your Ting dashboard. And chances are good that you can keep your old phone. Ting says that 80% of phones work on its network.

 

Best pay-as-you-go plans

These two pay-as-you-go plans are simple and have price points to match.

  • Plan name: T-Mobile Prepaid Pay As You Go Plan
  • Price (monthly): $3
  • At a glance: Includes any combination of 30 minutes or texts; 10 cents per minute or message over the limit
  • Why we like it: Bare-bones plan with a price to match
  • Plan name: AT&T GoPhone Daily Plan
  • Price: $2 per day of use
  • At a glance: Unlimited minutes and text messages. You pay nothing if you don’t use your phone that day.
  • Why we like it: You pay nothing on days you don’t use your phone

 

things to know:

T-Mobile’s pay-as-you-go plan gives you 30 minutes and texts per month in any combination; so if you send 20 texts, you’ll have 10 minutes left in that month before you go over. Minutes and texts used beyond the 30 included in the plan cost 10 cents each.
You pay the $2 fee only if you place or receive a call or send a text message. So if you don’t use the phone for three months, you pay nothing. Keep in mind that checking your voicemail counts as using your phone for that day.

 

Best prepaid family plans

Want a family plan without the taxes, fees and multiyear commitment? These prepaid plans offer just that.

  • Plan name: Boost Mobile Unlimited
  • Price (monthly, four lines): $120
  • Plan at a glance: Unlimited talk, text and data, plus 30GB of mobile hot spot
  • Why we like it: An unbelievable prepaid deal that’s too good to last. This limited time offer from Boost is available for new and existing customers.
  • Plan name: Cricket Wireless Basic (with Group Save discount)
  • Price (monthly, four lines): $110
  • At a glance: Unlimited talk and text, 5GB of data per line
  • Why we like it: Cricket’s Group Save discount makes for four inexpensive lines with just the right amount of data.

 

Things to know:

Boost Mobile’s promotional plan also includes HD video streaming. Boost is owned by Sprint and uses Sprint’s network. Customers may be able to bring their own phone, or they can buy a new one at retail price.
Cricket operates on AT&T’s network, but it caps its LTE data speed at 8Mbps. You’ll likely notice the difference only when trying to stream HD videos or do other things that need a lot of bandwidth.

 

» MORE: Best family cell phone plans

Best prepaid cell phone plans: summary

CarrierDetailsGet Started
Plan: Virgin Mobile - 5GB

Best overall

Monthly cost: $35
Plan: Straight Talk - 10GB

Best overall

Monthly cost: $45
Plan: Straight Talk - 10GB

Best for: People who don't want data

Monthly cost: $15
Plan: Ting Small

Best for: People who don't want data

Monthly cost: $12
Plan: T-Mobile Prepaid Pay As You Go

Best for: People who want a pay-as-you-go option

Monthly cost: $3
Plan: AT&T GoPhone Daily Plan

Best for: People who want a pay-as-you-go option

Cost: $2 per day of use; data costs 1 cent per 5KB
Plan: Boost Unlimited

Best for: families

Monthly cost: $50
Plan: Cricket Wireless Basic (5GB of data per line)

Best for: families

Monthly cost: $110 (4 lines)

What to know about prepaid plans

Prepaid phone plans are starting to mimic the traditional plans offered by major carriers such as Sprint, Verizon and AT&T, minus the contract, credit check and expensive plan. Many prepaid providers are owned by those big-name carriers, which also offer their own prepaid plans.

There are some trade-offs with prepaid service, though. You pay full price for a new phone, rather than spreading the payments out over 24 months. And some prepaid carriers don’t carry the newest, most popular smartphones. But they almost all have the inexpensive phones — as low as $1 in some cases. Some prepaid providers will let you bring your own phone to their plans.

Before choosing a prepaid plan — or any cell phone plan, really — take stock of how you use your phone. If you regularly check email and Instagram, a pay-as-you-go plan is not for you. If you go days or weeks without using your phone, though, pay-as-you-go is a great option.

NerdWallet makes managing your finances easy. Keep track of your spending, credit score, and even find fresh ways to save.

 


METHODOLOGY

We evaluated prepaid cell phone plans offered by the following carriers: AT&T, Boost Mobile, Consumer Cellular, Cricket, Google’s Project Fi, GreatCall, MetroPCS, Net10, Republic Wireless, Sprint, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, TracFone, Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile.

To determine the best plans, we looked at the monthly plan price before taxes and fees; high-speed data allotment; when applicable, the price per gigabyte; and features such as unlimited music streaming. We considered only national carriers, which ruled out regional providers like U.S. Cellular.

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