Plans That Pay
While most Americans are signed up with one of the major carrier brands—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, or Verizon Wireless—there are many more choices available to US cell phone customers looking for a bargain. Known as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), these low-cost carriers piggyback on the four major networks and can deliver lower prices, especially for individual users who aren't looking to be part of a family plan.
All the major carriers have low-cost spinoffs, and their deals are worth checking first. AT&T runs Cricket Wireless. Sprint has Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile owns GoSmart and MetroPCS. And Verizon, well, Verizon just has prepaid plans. If you're looking for a wide range of stores and solid customer service, these brands have excellent prices and should be your first shopping stops.
Depending on your needs, even one of the big four networks could have a plan that works for you. For the best carrier service where you live, check out our results for the Fastest Mobile Networks.
How Much Do You Want to Spend?
We've been doing this guide for a long time, so we thought we'd shake things up this year. This time, we're ordering our picks by how much you want to spend per month, to give you the best value at every price level.
We also get a lot of comments from people who wonder why their phone service isn't listed, so at the bottom we put the plans we didn't choose, and why they didn't make the cut. You may disagree! If you do, make sure to explain why in the comments.
- I Want to Spend $10 or Less Per Month
- I Want to Spend $10-$20 Per Month
- I Want to Spend $20-$30 Per Month
- I Want to Spend $30-$40 Per Month
- I Want Unlimited Data
- I Have Political or Social Stances
- Which Carriers Didn't Make the Cut?
Which Phones Work With These Networks?
Many of these smaller carriers don't sell their own phones, or if they do, they sell an oddball selection. Your best bet, almost always, is to buy a new unlocked phone, or to buy a used phone that's compatible with the right network. They may also work with your old device from your previous carrier.
Most unlocked phones are compatible with the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, and with any carrier that uses those networks. If you're looking for an unlocked phone that works on all four major US systems, look at the iPhone 6s/7/SE, the Samsung Galaxy S7/S8/Note 8, the Google Pixel, or the Moto E4, G4, or G5. Or take a look at our list of The Best Unlocked Phones.
I Want to Spend $10 or Less Per Month
Yes, it's possible to get quality cell phone service in the US for $10 or less.
There have been a few companies that advertise "free" wireless service. RingPlus is gone now, and we don't recommend FreedomPop because of our experience with its aggressively nickel-and-diming sales tactics. The absolute cheapest plan we haven't gotten a lot of complaints about comes from Scratch Wireless, which sells a year's worth of service for $69, or $5.75/month.
There's a catch with Scratch, of course. It only works on an $89 low-end Android phone, the Coolpad Arise, and that $69 pays only for Wi-Fi calling and cellular texting. If you want cellular calls or data on Sprint's network, 100 minutes costs $7.99 extra, while unlimited calls costs $14.99. At that point, you're better off with MintSIM.
TracFone has a lot of different deals, but I've never liked its gimmicky, gamified system of always-changing double- and triple-minutes cards. With Tracfone, I think the best deal is the simplest: a $99.99, 800-minute airtime card that lasts a year, coming to $8.22 per month.
For more than talk, look at the Red Pocket $10 Essentials Plan, which has 500 minutes, 500 texts, and 100MB of LTE data per month on any of the four major US networks. Yes, that includes Verizon.
I Want to Spend $10-$20 Per Month
Consumer Cellular gets great reviews from our readers for being an easy-to-use, senior-focused system with excellent customer service. It runs on the AT&T network. Its lowest-cost, sweet-spot plan has 250 minutes, 300 texts, and 30MB of data for $17.50 per month, although it can scale up from there.
MintSIM has a wonderful gimmick: It sells you 3 to 12 months of service on T-Mobile's network at a time, in exchange for deep discounts. It often has some amazing limited-time promotions, but even the standard rates are great. A 12-month pack with unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data runs $180, or $15 per month. The company also has 5GB and 10GB plans.
Republic Wireless is beloved for its customer service. Its best deal is probably its $20 plan, which has unlimited talk, text, and 1GB of data on the Sprint or T-Mobile networks.
Several carriers offer "custom" plans where you can fit together different amounts of talk, text, and data to taste. The best deals on those custom plans right now come from US Mobile for talkers, or Twigby for texters and data users. US Mobile gives you 500 minutes, 500 texts, and 300MB of data per month for $17 on T-Mobile's network. Twigby gives you 200 minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of data for $19 on Sprint's network. (Ting and Tello, which have similar business plans, also have their fans, but we didn't find them to be the best service plans at this price level.)
I Want to Spend $20-$30 Per Month
If you need data on the AT&T network, H2O Wireless has the best deal right now. It gives you 3GB of AT&T data for $27 (with autopay), with unlimited calling and texting to 50 international destinations. I suspect that 3GB will drop to 1.5GB after a promotional period, but it's still a good deal for the AT&T network. If AT&T doesn't float your boat, Red Pocket has $30/3GB plans on all four major networks.
Ultra Mobile is an alternative for international callers who prefer T-Mobile's network. Its $29 plan includes 2GB of LTE data, 2GB of HSPA+ data, and unlimited calls to 60 different countries.
I Want to Spend $30-$40 Per Month
Verizon charges premium rates for its network. If you're looking for moderate-to-heavy use, Walmart's Total Wireless offers the best deal. The company has a $35, 5GB plan that can't be beat for Verizon value, as well as a $45, 8GB plan and a $60 family plan.
Frequent international callers who want more data than Ultra Mobile's plan provides can step up to Lyca Mobile's $35, 5GB plan, which has similar terms to the Ultra Mobile plan above, but 5GB of 4G LTE data.
I Want Unlimited Data
If you're going to pay more than $40 per month, per line, you should be getting unlimited (or nearly unlimited) data. If you're a Comcast Cable subscriber, Xfinity Mobile gives you unlimited data for $45/month on Verizon's network, with speeds reduced after 20GB. For non-Comcast subscribers, there's ROK Mobile, which does unlimited data on Sprint, also throttled after 20GB, also for $45.
Both MetroPCS (owned by T-Mobile) and Boost Mobile (owned by Sprint) currently have $50 monthly unlimited data deals. (MetroPCS will de-prioritize you, but not throttle you, after 30GB/month; Boost does it after 23GB.) That's the least you'll pay for unlimited LTE data. Both also have (somewhat) discounted family plans. AT&T's subsidiary Cricket is a little more expensive.
I Want to Align My Beliefs With My Mobile Plan
Do you want to put your money behind your social or political beliefs? There are wireless carriers that let you do just that. We don't consider any of these to be a good deal, though. They charge higher rates than many of the other carriers we're listing, and donate a relatively small percentage of your bill.
The People's Operator (TPO) donates 10 percent of your bill amount to charity. In general, these are relatively politically neutral charities—things like the ASPCA, the Special Olympics, and the Cure Alzheimer's Fund. Of its several plans on the Sprint network, I'd spotlight its $25 per month (with autopay), 2GB unlimited talk and text as the best deal.
Credo Mobile donates a small, but unstated percentage of your bill to left wing causes; it may be as little as 1 percent. The carrier runs on Verizon's network and charges $40 for a 3GB plan, which is undercut by Total Wireless.
On the right wing of the spectrum, we prefer Charity Mobile over Patriot Mobile. Charity Mobile donates 5 percent of your bill to pro-life charities and groups associated with the Catholic church. It also runs on Verizon's network, but prices are quite high: $59.95 for 2GB. Patriot Mobile contributes to right wing groups such as the Tea Party Patriots and the NRA. It's the most expensive of this set, at $65/month for 3GB on Verizon's network.
Patriot also misrepresents how it spends its money. Celebrity endorsements on its site imply that none of your bill goes to the mainstream cell phone carriers, while Patriot does pay Verizon to supply service. Charity's pitch is more honest. But with all of the options above, you'd be better off signing up for Total Wireless and throwing a 10-spot at your favorite charity.
Who Didn't Make the Cut?
These carriers aren't necessarily bad, but their plans weren't the best this time around, though that might change, since we update this story several times each year. Here's how each one compares with similar carriers.
- AirVoice (AT&T) – Undercut by H2O and PureTalk
- Google Project Fi (Multiple) – Great service, just not very cheap
- GreatCall/Jitterbug (Verizon) – Our readers prefer Consumer Cellular
- Net10 (Multiple) – Undercut by various services
- Page Plus (Verizon) – Undercut by Total Wireless
- PureTalk (AT&T) – Undercut by H2O
- Selectel (Verizon) – Undercut by Total Wireless
- Simple Mobile (T-Mobile) – Undercut by MetroPCS and MintSIM
- Straight Talk (Multiple) – Undercut by MintSIM and Total Wireless
- TextNow (Sprint) – Too many quality complaints to recommend
- Walmart Family Mobile (T-Mobile) – Undercut by MetroPCS and MintSIM