Prepaid cell phone plans offer many perks that traditional, contract phones do not, like the ability to cancel service at any time and enjoy lower monthly costs. These plans are also adopting some of the most popular features of traditional plans, like family plans. This combination has led an increasing number of consumers to choose prepaid plans for their cell phone needs.
Consumers considering getting a prepaid phone should understand their options before purchasing a SIM card or unlocked phone. If they carefully consider how they use their cell phone and what services they need, consumers can save money with these plans.
Top 10 Best Rated Prepaid Phones
SafeLink is available to individuals who meet certain income requirements. The service is part of the Lifeline program and is offered by TracFone. Eligible customers receive cell phone service for free.
|Read 428 Reviews|
Cricket Wireless offers several prepaid, no-contract cell phone plans with unlimited talk, text and data to customer across the United States. The company was started in 1999 and is now owned by AT&T.
|Read 1029 Reviews|
U.S. Cellular offers prepaid basic phones and smartphones without a contract. Plans have unlimited talk and text. The company has been in business since 1983 and is one of the nation’s largest wireless providers.
|Read 530 Reviews|
Virgin Mobile USA, founded in 2002, is a part of Sprint with headquarters in Missouri. The company offers prepaid mobile phone plans with varying amounts of data. Customers can add on extra features and international calling.
|Read 987 Reviews|
Verizon Wireless, headquartered in New Jersey, offers cell phone service with contract plans and unlimited prepaid plans. Consumers can choose from multiple plans for smartphones and basic phones.
|Read 3798 Reviews|
NET10 is a part of the TracFone family, which is owed by América Móvil. NET10 focuses on offering inexpensive plans to consumers. It has pay-as-you-go and unlimited options with varying amounts of high speed data included.
|Read 571 Reviews|
TracFone, owned by América Móvil, has been in business since 2008. It provides cell phone service with prepaid plans to customers in the United States and U.S. territories. Consumers can choose from multiple plans.
|Read 1761 Reviews|
Straight Talk provides service for TracFone and is a part of América Móvil. The company has been in business since 2009 and offers a variety of no-contract services including cell phone service with unlimited plans.
|Read 1502 Reviews|
T-Mobile is the third-largest mobile carrier in the United States and has been in business since 1994. T-Mobile offers customers a variety unlimited and pay-as-you-go prepaid plans.
|Read 3988 Reviews|
AT&T has been in the telecommunication industry for over 140 years, and now offers a variety of services including prepaid cell phone service. Customers can choose an unlimited GoPhone plans for basic phones or smartphones.
|Read 3984 Reviews|
What features matter most?
Terms to know
As you look for plans, you might see a variety of terms and services you’re unfamiliar with. These are some of the words and phrases you might come across in your research.
- Pay-as-you-go: This phrase describes a type of plan or way of obtaining service. These plans are the most traditional prepaid options. You buy minutes, messages and data as you use it. The services you buy are good until you use them all.
- Service period: Newer plans offer customers unlimited services for a certain amount of time. When you get this service, you’ll pay the same amount for your service period, typically one month, regardless of how much or little you use your phone. If you don’t add money to your phone account before your last service day, your phone will stop working.
- Unlimited data: Many plans that have a service period advertise unlimited data. While these plans do usually allow you to connect to the Internet as much as you want, only a certain amount of predetermined data will be high speed. After you use that data, your connection will be significantly slower. The amount of high-speed data you can use often determines how much you’ll pay.
- SIM card: Subscriber identity module or SIM cards allow phones to connect to mobile networks. You’ll need a SIM card from the prepaid company you choose. If you buy a phone from that company, they will automatically include a SIM card. If you use a phone you already have, you can purchase a SIM card for a low price, usually under $10 and sometimes as little as 99 cents.
- MVNOs: This acronym stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. Many prepaid carriers are MVNOs, meaning they do not own the infrastructure used to send information over the airwaves. These companies purchase services from carriers who do own the infrastructure at wholesale/bulk rates and then pass the savings on to their customers.
- BYOP: Many prepaid carriers allow you to bring your own phone (BYOP). You can save a significant amount of money by using your existing cell phone. When you bring your own phone, you’ll only need to purchase a new SIM card.
If you want a certain phone or want to keep your existing phone, consider looking for carriers that have the phone options you want first. Then select the one that has the best plans and prices.
- New phone: If you want a new phone or don’t already have a phone, look at the phones available from the carrier. Not all carriers have all phones.
- Third-party purchases: Carriers may not offer the lowest prices on new phones. If you need a phone, consider shopping for an unlocked phone elsewhere and then order a SIM card from your new carrier. Not all networks support all phones, so confirm that the phone you’re considering will work before making a purchase. You can usually find information about supported phones on carriers’ websites.
- Existing: If you already have a phone you like, you may be able to use it on a prepaid carrier’s network. You will merely need to order a SIM card from the carrier. Not all networks support all phones, so confirm that your phone will work before ordering a SIM card or signing up for service. You can usually find information about supported phones on carriers’ websites.
Consider the way you can add minutes, data or service days to your phone. Choose a company with the option that will be most convenient for you.
- Online: Nearly all prepaid plans give you the ability to pay for service or add minutes online.
- By phone: Most plans allow you to call a customer service agent to add service. Some companies have automated systems so you can pay by phone without speaking to anyone.
- In person: Companies that have retail locations may give you the choice to go into a store to pay for service.
- With refill card: Many companies sell refill cards at major national retailers. You can purchase one of these cards in person and then use it to add minutes online.
- Automatic payments: Plans that have a service period usually give you the chance to set up recurring payments. You will be billed for the plan you’ve selected on the last day of your current service period. You can cancel these recurring payments at any time; they are not the same as a contract.
When you choose a plan, think about the services you use most and select one that offers you those. If you currently have a traditional plan, you can likely see your average usage on your provider’s website. Use that information to help you select the plan that most closely meets your needs so you don’t spend money on services you won’t use.
- Talk: If you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, you will either want a plan with unlimited minutes for calls or a pay-as-you-go plan that has a large number of minutes.
- Text: If you love to send text messages, look for a service-period plan that allows you to send an unlimited number of text messages or a pay-as-you-go plan with a low price per message.
- Data: If you browse the Internet on your phone, stream music or videos or rely on your smartphone for work emails, make sure you select a plan with enough high-speed data. Unlimited plans will prevent you from dealing with unexpected overage charges. If you don’t select an unlimited plan, make sure you know how to check your data usage so you don’t get overage charges, which are usually quite high.
If you regularly communicate with people outside of the United States, you’ll want a company that offers options for international calling and messaging.
- Free mobile to mobile: Some plans offer free calls between cell phones, so if you only call cell phones outside the United States, one of these could be a good option.
- Free international: Some plans are specifically designed for international communication. These plans may be more expensive than domestic plans, but calls and texts to those in other countries will be included in the service price.
- Incoming call benefits: Some companies provide you with numbers that are local to other countries. This feature means you can give friends and family in those countries a number to call so they can avoid being billed for an International call. This option helps the people who call you save money.
- Additional fees: If you only occasionally call other countries, consider choosing a company that gives you the option to add international service on an a la carte basis. Plans with a set number of international minutes or text messages can be found for as little as $5.
- Included countries: Some plans and add-on services are labeled as international plans but do not allow you to call any other country. Make sure to read the fine print when purchasing international minutes or text messages.
Prepaid plans are often designed to give you what you need without charging you for extra features you may or may not use. Make sure the carrier you select offers the features you need most. Check to see if they’re available on the phone you’ve selected, and ask if the service price includes them or if you must pay an additional fee.
- Included features: Carriers offer most basic features, like voicemail and call waiting, for free. However, these features aren’t necessarily supported by all phones. Additionally, using these features may use your minutes or data.
- Additional fees: Carriers who want to woo customers away from traditional cell phone providers are most likely to offer a wide variety of features that consumers have become accustomed to. These features, like voice-to-text or mobile hotspots, must usually be purchased separately.
What types of plans are available for prepaid phones?
These plans let you purchase services (talk/minutes, text messages and data) as you use them. They are the most basic plans and are an excellent choice for consumers who want a phone for emergencies only or other very limited use.
Unlimited plans allow users to make an unlimited number of calls and send an unlimited number of text messages during a set service period for one preset price. These plans are great choices for people who want service like that offered by traditional carriers.
International plans allow customers to place calls or send text messages to numbers in other countries. These plans may also let U.S. customers use their phones when they’re traveling abroad. Several types of plans, with varying types of included services, fall into this category. Consumers should think about how often they communicate with individuals outside the United States and what countries those people are in before signing up for an international plan.
Who's it for?
Consumers who want to get the most for their money should look at the prepaid options available. Those looking to pay as little as possible should consider pay-as-you-go plans, while those who want to save money but have service similar to that offered by traditional carriers should look at unlimited plans.
Parents and guardians
Those who want their child(ren) to have a cell phone for safety but want to limit their use of the phone should look at the prepaid options. Pay-as-you-go options will prevent children from spending more time on their phone than their parent or guardian allots. Unlimited plans might be best for teens who will want to use their phone more often.
Business owners who provide cell phones to their employees can use prepaid plans to prevent employees from using the phones for unintended purposes. No-contract plans are especially good for this group if the business owner isn’t sure whether they want to provide phones.
Individuals who only need coverage for a short period, perhaps while traveling abroad or if they’ve damaged their phone and don’t want to purchase an expensive one from their current carrier, can purchase and use an inexpensive prepaid phone.
Non-cell phone users
Individuals who do not use a cell phone often but who want one for safety and emergencies should look into prepaid options. Pay-as-you-go plans will give these individuals security without adding to their monthly bills.
Cricket Wireless was founded in 1999 and became a subsidiary of AT&T in 2014. It offers only prepaid unlimited plans and has over 5 million customers.
- Best for Cricket Wireless is best for budget-conscious consumers, business owners and parents.
TracFone offers prepaid unlimited and pay-as-you-go plans to customers in the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. It was established in 2008. América Móvil, a Mexican telecommunications company, owns the company. The TracFone family of brands also includes Net10, Straight Talk and SafeLink.
- Best for TracFone is best for temporary users, non-cell phone users and budget-conscious consumers.
U.S. Cellular is one of the largest wireless carriers in the United States. It was founded in 1983 and is headquartered in Chicago. The company offers traditional plans and no-contract, unlimited prepaid plans, called Simple Connect Plans, for basic phones and smartphones.
- Best for U.S. Cellular Simple Connect is best for parents, business owners and budget-conscious consumers.
Straight Talk is a provider for TracFone, a subsidiary of América Móvil. The company has offered no-contract wireless phones since 2009. They currently have several unlimited plan options.
- Best for Straight Talk is best for parents, business owners and budget-conscious consumers.
Verizon Wireless is a subsidiary of Verizon Communications, which formed in 2000 when Bell Atlantic and GTE merged. Verizon Communications is a publically-traded company with headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J. It offers cellular phone service through contract plans and unlimited prepaid plans for smartphones and basic phones.
- Best for Verizon is best for temporary users, business owners and budget-conscious customers.
Virgin Mobile USA is a subsidiary of Sprint and offers prepaid plans for smartphones and basic phones. The company operates in countries outside the United States under different ownership. It has been in business since 2002, and the U.S. headquarters are in Kansas City, Mo. They primarily offer unlimited plans, but custom pay-as-you-go plans may be available from select retail locations.
- Best for Virgin Mobile is best for parents and budget-conscious customers.
AT&T is a publically traded company with headquarters in Dallas. The company has a 140-year history in the communications industry. Today, it offers home phone, cellular, Internet and television services. AT&T’s unlimited prepaid service, called GoPhone, are available for smartphones and basic phones.
- Best for AT&T GoPhone is best for parents, budget-conscious consumers and business owners.
Pure TalkUSA was established in 2004 and offers both pay-as-you-go and unlimited prepaid plans. The company is headquartered in Covington, Ga.
- Referral program: When a new customer activates a Pure TalkUSA line and lists the phone number of an existing customer who referred them, the existing customer will receive either a $10 or $20 bill credit, depending on their plan.
- Family plans: Those who want multiple lines can set up a family plan with up to four lines. The account owner can give each phone an allowance of minutes so users who need more minutes can have them. Minutes on the family plans roll over from month to month.
- Payment options: Customers can pay for Pure TalkUSA online or by purchasing a refill card at Kmart or Sears. They can also enroll in autopay.
- Social media: Interested consumers can learn more about Pure TalkUSA by following the company on Twitter or Facebook. The website also features blog articles.
- Customer service: Customers with problems or questions can reach a customer service agent or technical support specialist during extended business hours seven days a week. All customer service is based in the United States.
- Best for Pure TalkUSA is best for temporary users, budget-conscious customers, parents and business owners.
Boost Mobile is a subsidiary of Sprint and is headquartered in Irvine, Calif. The company was founded in 2000 in Australia and New Zealand and became available in the United States the following year. It offers unlimited prepaid cell phone service for smartphones.
- Best for Boost Mobile is best for parents and budget-conscious consumers.
airtel is one of the largest global wireless providers in number of subscribers. The company operates in Asia and Africa and is headquartered in New Delhi, India. They offer both prepaid and contract plans.
- Best for airtel is best for budget-conscious consumers in Asia and Africa.
T-Mobile is a publically-traded telecommunications company headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. The company has roots going back to 1994 but officially became T-Mobile in 2002. It offers traditional cell phone service with both unlimited and pay-as-you-go prepaid plans.
- Best for T-Mobile is best for parents, budget-conscious customers, business owners and temporary users.
NET10 Wireless is a provider for TracFone, a subsidiary of América Móvil. NET10 offers nationwide cell phone service through pay-as-you-go and unlimited prepaid plans.
- Best for NET10 is best for budget-conscious consumers, non-cell phone users and temporary users.
US Mobile offers only pay-as-you-go plans to help customers choose and pay for only what they need. The company is headquartered in Connecticut and launched in 2014.
- Plans: All customers build their own plan at US Mobile. They select the number of minutes and text messages they want as well as the amount of data. These are selected separately, so the plans are highly customizable.
- Alarm system SIM cards: US Mobile sells 2G, 3G and 4G SIM cards that can be used in some home security systems. Customers can choose which types of service (talk, text or data) their alarm system needs and then only pay for that service.
- Student discount: US Mobile will send a free SIM card to any U.S. college student. Some universities have partnerships with the company, so students can pick a SIM card up on campus. Visit the website to see a list of partner schools.
- Blog: Interested consumers who want to learn more about US Mobile or prepaid plans can visit the company’s website to read its blog. They can also follow US Mobile on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
- Customer service: US Mobile customer service representatives are available 24/7. They can be reached by phone or e-mail, and the company reports most e-mails are answered within 10 minutes.
- Best for US Mobile is best for budget-conscious consumers, temporary users and non-cell phone users.
Information in this guide is general in nature and is intended for informational purposes only; it is not legal, health, investment or tax advice. ConsumerAffairs.com makes no representation as to the accuracy of the information provided and assumes no liability for any damages or loss arising from its use.