Prepaid Cell Phones Review
Why Choose Prepaid Cell Phone Service?
The top performers in our review are T-Mobile, the Gold Award winner; H2O Wireless, the Silver Award winner; and Cricket Wireless, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a prepaid cell phone provider to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the 10 best choices on the market.
When phone companies first started offering prepaid plans, they were built for people on a budget. Instead of paying at the end of every month for what you used – and incurring overage charges if you went over your limits – you paid at the start of service for a set allocation of minutes, texts and data. You never had to worry about overages because your connection would simply be turned off if you used too much. Pay-as-you-go options were similar: You bought a set number of minutes or texts or megabytes, and once you ran out, you could either buy more or go without.
Today’s landscape has changed. The best prepaid phone plans now offer unlimited talk and text, just like post-paid options. There are big data allocations, unlimited music streaming and unlimited low-speed data if you go over your allocation. In fact, prepaid plans share a lot in common with post-paid plans, to the point that the only meaningful distinction anymore is one of budgeting – prepaid options are cheaper but slightly more restrictive, while post-paid options are more expensive but offer more features and flexibility.
In truth, when people look for today’s best prepaid cell phone plans, they’re really looking for the cheapest plans they can find. As such, we’ve focused not on providers that necessarily let you pay for service in advance but ones that offer great bang for your buck and let you save as much money as possible. There are still plenty of prepaid options, including our number one pick T-Mobile, but we’ve also included companies like Ting, which only offers post-paid service but can still save you a lot of money if you’re willing to watch your usage.
If you’re looking for more mainstream coverage and care about quality of service, we strongly recommend you check out our reviews of cellular carriers, in which we prioritize strength of coverage over price. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to save your family as much as possible from month to month, you’re in the right place.
Value Is King: How We Evaluated Prepaid Providers
There are very real differences from one cellular network to the next, but not everyone needs the fastest speeds, the broadest network coverage or the most stable connections. For many of us, simply having cheap, generally reliable service is all we ask for – emphasis on cheap.
We approached our reviews of budget and prepaid providers with a value-first attitude. At every pricing tier for every company, what do you get for your money? How many minutes, texts and megabytes of data are offered and are there unlimited options? The value grade you see at the very top of our comparison chart may look simple, but behind it are calculations that factor in all these questions and more. The better the grade, the more you can expect for your dollar.
Once you know which providers fit your budget, you can afford to consider quality of service. Here at Top Ten Reviews, we rely on RootMetrics to guide our analysis of network quality. An independent firm that scientifically tests network quality all year, every year, RootMetrics is the gold standard for unbiased analysis of carrier performance, speed and reliability. By combining their findings with our own experience and crowdsourced reporting from sites like OpenSignal, we can get a comprehensive understanding of cellular quality across the country.
The Affordability of Unlimited
“Unlimited” is the cellular industry’s favorite buzzword. Most companies try to prop it in front of any feature they can: unlimited talk, unlimited text, unlimited data – the latest fad is unlimited music streaming, which lets you listen to approved apps without counting toward your data cap. For prepaid providers, all this is a huge step forward from the days when we were sold service in numbered buckets and charged data by the minute instead of the megabyte.
Eight of our top 10 picks offer plans with unlimited talk and text, and six of them boast it in every plan. It’s a great move for cellular in general because it means we users don’t have to track how long we’re on our phones. No matter how little or often you talk or text, you never have to worry about whether the next call will push you over a limit or whether that next text from the family will drain the penny jar.
Some prepaid providers even offer truly unlimited 4G LTE data – you can use as much as you want, streaming HD video and downloading as many apps as you please without ever being slowed or cut off. This is a rarity, though, and when you see claims of unlimited data, in most situations it’s unlimited 2G data. You get 4G LTE speeds until you run through your data cap, after which your connection is reduced to 128 kbps. That’s enough to send WhatsApp messages or read Twitter, but you’ll struggle to listen to music, and watching video can quickly frustrate.
Two of the providers on our lineup don’t offer unlimited service at any tier, and both deserve mention. US Mobile is a classic prepaid provider, letting you pick buckets for minutes, texts and data at the start of the month. Once you use them up, you’re done, and while you can pay for more, the process isn’t automatic. Ting uses the same bucket-based system but is post-paid, charging at the end of the month for whatever you used. If you’re not a heavy phone user, both can be fantastically cheap options, but going with them means giving up the peace of mind of unlimited service.
Prepaid Cell Phone Providers: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Every company is different, and every person who needs cell phone service is unique. The necessities of your budget, where you live or what you need cellular service for all factor into your choice of provider. After all our research, evaluation and calculation, we’ve identified the core benefits and drawbacks of each. Here are highlights from what we found:
The Best Provider for Most People: T-Mobile
Chances are, you’ll be happy with T-Mobile’s service. Its prepaid plans start at $40, which is a bit higher than much of the competition’s starter plans, but it’s incredibly usable: unlimited talk and text, 3GB of high-speed data, and unlimited data at 2G speeds if you burn through the allocation. You can bring your own device or pick from T-Mobile’s wide selection of prepaid smartphones; get discounts on group plans; and avoid roaming, activation and mobile hotspot fees.
T-Mobile’s network isn’t quite as comprehensive as Verizon’s or AT&T’s, but it’s very serviceable and has the highest-clocked speeds we’ve seen in urban areas. If you live in a rural region it might not be for you, but for anyone who hangs in and around cities, we couldn’t recommend a better-rounded, full-featured take on cellular.
The Value Pick: Boost Mobile
No one offers more bang for your buck than Boost Mobile. Its $35 starter plan comes with unlimited talk and text and 2GB of data, but it doesn’t stop there: For every three months of on-time payments you make to Boost, the company ups your data allocation by 500MB, up to an extra 3GB of data. If you stay with the company for 18 months and make those cheap, $35 payments on time, you could get 5GB of data every month for your efforts. No offer anywhere else comes close.
Granted, there’s a downside to Boost Mobile: It runs on the Sprint network. Sprint is easily the weakest of the big four carriers, and its network is slower, spottier and more prone to dropped calls than anyone else’s. It’s worth talking to your neighbors, though; if they get good coverage where you live, you can safely take advantage of the best value bet in the business.
Cheap Minimalism: US Mobile
With a modern take on classic prepaid, US Mobile offers minimalist users absolutely rock-bottom prices for mobile service. The company doles out its minutes, texts and data in separate buckets, which you prepay for each month and can easily monitor using the company’s web app. Line access only costs $2, on top of which you add buckets for different services. Never talk, but need a few texts and a lot of data? There are options for that.
Once you get up to average usage numbers – 500 minutes, 1,000 texts and at least 1.5GB of data – there’s no real reason to stick with US Mobile, as other alternatives offer more flexibility for your money. If you’re a light user, though, and are willing to watch yourself, you could save tons from month to month.
If, after comparing providers with our chart above or reading through reviews of recommended companies, you still can’t pick one to go with, consider reading some of the articles on prepaid cell phone providers we’ve put together. You’re sure to find an option that fits your budget, your location and your expectations for great service.