Best prepaid phone plans 2019 - carrier reviews and comparison
The best prepaid cell phone plan is the one designed to suit your needs. There are a lot of reasons to purchase a prepaid cell phone over a post-pay plan. Prepaid cell phones are a good way of managing budgets, as it stops you from over using the phone.This means they are ideal for teens or people that are poor at managing their money and stop unexpected bills from ambushing you at the end of the month. Prepaid cell phones also cost less, are more flexible and don’t lock you into a two year contract, unlike post-pay plans, giving you a lot more freedom.
With a wide range of options, and plans available it can often be difficult to choose a plan and know if it is the right plan for your phone usage. Our guide will let you find out if a prepaid plan is the best cell phone plan for you, and if it is, how to get the best prepaid phone deal for you.
We’ve evaluated prepaid cell phone plans and providers for more than a decade. Most recently, we put over 30 hours of research into the best prepaid cell phone options for individuals and families, evaluating unlimited data and budget-friendly plans.
Overall, Metro by T-Mobile is the best prepaid cell phone plan provider. It has four plan levels and steep multi-line discounts, making it superbly affordable for families of moderate-to-heavy data users. If you just want talk and text, Cricket offers a cheap, data-less service. And US Mobile offers completely customizable plans for anything in between.
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile has four well-constructed plans and great multi-line discounts, making it a excellent option for both moderate and heavy data-users.
In addition to data plans, Cricket Wireless offers a simple unlimited talk and text plan for non-smartphone users.
US Mobile lets you customize your own plan, from minutes, texts and data to which network to use, so you only pay for what you need.
Any of Metro’s plans are a great value, but the T-Mobile-owned prepaid carrier truly shines in its multi-line discounts.
On any of its four plans, lines two through five are $30 each, whether you sign up for 2GB of data per month or unlimited data with hotspot tethering. That means there’s only a $30 difference per month on the most and least expensive plans, no matter how many lines you add. Though the absolute lowest end of the scale is an average deal compared with others, Metro’s rates for moderate to heavy data users are much more competitive. In fact, four lines of unlimited data with a hotspot on Metro is less per month than four lines on the cheapest prepaid plan through its parent company, T-Mobile. Metro does not offer an autopay discount, but it often runs promotional deals.
Because Metro is owned by T-Mobile and shares its network, expect fast speeds and good coverage in most of the U.S. In certain rounds of speed tests performed by our sister site, Tom’s Guide, Metro actually outperformed T-Mobile. The network performs better in urban areas, so check coverage maps before switching, especially if you’re in a rural area.
Metro itself does not have the best phone selection, but you can bring your own phone. Any device compatible with the T-Mobile network works with Metro by T-Mobile.
Best value for talk and text
Cricket Wireless is a prepaid wireless carrier owned by AT&T, and it uses its large network for great coverage and reliability.
In most instances, however, Cricket’s plans don’t give you the same value for your money as others we researched. The notable exception is if you’re looking for a simple talk and text plan without data. Most prepaid carriers we evaluated offered limited data plans and either unlimited-data or data-less plans, but not both. Since we focused on unlimited plans, this is one of the few basic plans we evaluated. Even though Cricket only has five plans, it covers a wide range of usage needs, making it a great carrier if you want to combine multiple types of plans on the same account. Even among companies that offer a variety of plans, you can’t always mix and match on the same account.
On average, Cricket doesn’t offer many features beyond standard talk, text and data. Even with the autopay and additional line discounts offered on some plans, its prices are comparable to, or higher than, other similar carriers. Hotspot tethering, something often included in the price of top-tier unlimited plans, is extra with Cricket. Cricket also puts speed caps on all data usage. The top-end cap is eight Mbps, which applies to most of its plans. There’s one unlimited data plan that maxes out at three Mbps, too. Compared to its parent company’s top data speeds, which can reach upwards of 25 Mbps download speed, according to tests performed by Tom’s Guide, those three or even eight Mbps is very slow. Even so, if you aren’t a heavy data user, Cricket’s range of simple talk and text plans are a good option.
US Mobile has a vast array of options, ranging from a tiny $5.50 text-only plan to a $79 unlimited everything plan.
Almost every part of a US Mobile plan is customizable. To start, you choose between either of the prepaid carrier’s two network partners, Verizon or T-Mobile, depending which coverage is best in your area. Custom plan options and prices on either network are nearly identical, but unlimited is only available using Verizon, which US Mobile calls its Super LTE network.
The custom plan is a great option for saving money by only paying for what you need. If you never text, you don’t have to add texting to your plan. If you only need minutes for an emergency phone, you can do that too. And if you find that you’ve underestimated your usage and run low in the middle of the month, you can add more minutes, texts or gigs. It’s extremely flexible. The unlimited plans are less of a deal. US Mobile’s unlimited talk, text and data plan costs almost as much as Verizon’s own prepaid unlimited plan. Costs add up quickly for multiple lines of unlimited, as there isn’t a multi-line discount for families.
Alongside its tailored plans, US Mobile offers great extras. New customers have a 14-day window (or 300 minutes, texts or MB of data, whichever comes first) to cancel your plan for any reason and get a full refund. You can bring your own phone if its compatible with the network you choose, or purchase one of the mid-tier or budget smartphones available through US Mobile’s website. US Mobile also offers a student discount, which gives university students free SIM cards.
Most hotspot data
Visible is a new prepaid wireless service owned by Verizon Wireless. It uses its parent company’s massive network and offers one solid unlimited plan with unlimited hotspot tethering.
Currently in its open early-access period, Visible by Verizon does not offer many choices, but its streamlined service caters well to younger people and the way they interact with their phones. It offers one $40 unlimited talk, text and data plan with unlimited hotspot tethering, but its data speeds are capped at 5 Mbps across the board. This works for common uses like streaming at DVD-quality 480p and checking social media, but is far from the top speeds available on the Verizon network.
Everything about the service has been simplified, from the lack of necessary choices to the way you sign up. This, and most service management tasks like paying bills or contacting customer service, are handled in Visible’s Android and iOS app. Only a handful of phones are compatible with Visible, though the service expects to include more as it develops further. Right now, most iPhones, Samsung Galaxy S9-series phones and the Visible R2 work with the service and are available through the Visible store. Though it does not offer many choices, Visible is an inexpensive prepaid service worth considering, especially since it operates on Verizon’s network.
Most affordable plans
Walmart Family Mobile has some of the least expensive plans available if you only need basic service with a little bit of data.
Walmart Family Mobile is a prepaid MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network. This service offers four plans ranging in price from $24.88 for unlimited talk, text and 1GB of high speed data to $49.88 for unlimited talk, text and data. Across most plans, Walmart Family Mobile has the lowest prices in our comparison, making it a good deal for the budget-conscious. It does, however, come with a few trade offs, including a lack of HD streaming options, no carryover data and lackluster customer service. Even so, its low prices make Walmart Family Mobile worth considering, especially if you need service for multiple lines, as adding a line to any plan tier is only $24.88.
Why trust us on prepaid cell phone plans
Our team of tech experts often reach the high-speed data cap on our unlimited plans. We put 30 hours of research into our evaluations and considered more than 60 prepaid wireless providers in the U.S. We took all the information about network performance from reliable, impartial sources such as RootMetrics, OpenSignal, Ookla, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Tom’s Guide, our sister site. All other information came from the services’ websites and customer service representatives.
On top of our own knowledge base and extensive research, we spoke with a few industry experts, including Michael Melmed, CFO of US Mobile and Ximena Cuevas, senior director of marketing for MetroPCS.
How we tested prepaid cell phone plans
We researched over 60 companies before narrowing our list down to the providers with the best plans, prices and network service. We focused on providers offering both limited and unlimited data plans, national networks and services with a wide selection of compatible devices. Unfortunately, this last qualifier knocked Google’s Project Fi out of the running, though it is a strong competitor if you have or want to buy one of the very few Google, Motorola or LG phones compatible with the service.
To evaluate the narrowed-down list of providers, we first graded the coverage, reliability and speed of the operating network. Though there are dozens of companies selling cellular service, there are only four nationwide networks in the U.S. These belong to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The Big Four allow other companies, known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) to piggyback off their mobile infrastructure. Though the Verizon network had distinct advantages over all other carriers in the past, recent expansion efforts made all four networks reliable on a national scale. Each network has stronger and weaker areas, however, so you should check coverage maps and ask around to see what networks perform best in your area. We gathered our information for these network evaluations from sources including RootMetrics, OpenSignal, Ookla and JD Powers.
Next, we directly compared each service’s most expensive unlimited data plan with hotspot tethering and the cheapest basic plan that had at least 1,000 texts, 1,000 minutes and one GB of data. Of course, most carriers offer many other types of plans, but for our test we stuck with two. We weighed prices for different individual and family plans, the value of each and optional extras like additional data or international calling.
In the end, the best prepaid provider is the one that offers your custom preferences and has the best service where you live. But our recommendations can guide you in the right direction, no matter which network performs well in your area, how much data you need or what your budget is.
Choosing a prepaid cell phone network
There are four national cellular networks in the U.S.: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Generally, the strongest is Verizon, though other carriers’ continued expansion efforts are closing the gap. The Big Four mainly offer postpaid service, though they also offer a few prepaid plans. The dozens of other companies, MVNOs, partner with one or more of the networks to provide discounted service.
Though the four national mobile networks all have their strengths, each carrier performs differently in rural and urban areas. Because availability of service is the most important factor when choosing a provider, make sure to check coverage maps to see if the places you live, work and travel to are adequately covered. Beyond the carrier’s own coverage maps, look at independent sites like RootMetrics and OpenSignal to see how the network performs.
How much do prepaid phone plans cost?
In general, prepaid plans cost less than traditional plans from Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T. Postpaid plans from the Big Four cost $65 to $90 for one-line on a top-tier unlimited plan, but a prepaid unlimited plan through an MVNO can cost as little as $55 a month. Prepaid carriers present more of a value across the board, however, with their limited-data plans, which can cost as little as $25 per month. Price depends on the features and services on your chosen plan, and a good way to judge value is to compare prices across plans operating on the same network in your area. For example, if you are currently on Verizon’s $60, 5 GB plan, you could save more than $8 per month by switching to a similar plan with US Mobile, which also uses Verizon’s network.
The difference between prepay and post-pay
We spoke with Michael Melmed, CFO of US Mobile, about the differences between prepaid and postpaid plans. One major advantage of prepaid is that “prepaid plans give you 100 percent control over your bill. You decide upfront how much talk, text and data you want, or can afford. Then you pay for just that. There is no risk of overage or unexpected charges at the month’s end.”
Of course, in addition to the upfront nature of prepaid billing, there’s also the distinct possibility of paying less than you would for a postpaid plan. Most of the unlimited data plans we evaluated cost less than an equivalent postpaid plan on the same network.
On top of the generally lower prices, you can save even more by being a conscientious user. With the Big Four pushing their unlimited everything plans, it’s easy to pay for more than you need. “We tend to see that customers who use a lot of either talk, text or data don’t use much of the other two units,” Melmed explained. Prepaid carriers often have more plan options than the Big Four, so you can find the best plan to fit your use.
The main disadvantage between a Big Four postpaid plan and any MVNO prepaid plan is quality of service. Since the Big Four own their own networks, they can choose to prioritize their direct customers’ data over anyone else’s. This usually isn’t a problem, but if you use a lot of data each month, it’s worth checking out each carrier’s high-speed data threshold for unlimited plans. Usually, Big Four carriers allot their postpaid unlimited users more data per cycle, but you can still get over 30 GBs out of carriers like MetroPCS.
Bringing your own device
When switching phone plans, you can save a lot of money by sticking with the device you already own instead of buying a new one, especially since smartphones can cost upward of $1,000. If you want to bring your own device to a new plan, however, there are a couple things to check. First, your phone needs to be unlocked. Most carriers put a software lock on phones they sell so devices only work on their own network for a certain amount of time, which differs from carrier to carrier. If you purchased your phone factory unlocked from a manufacturer like Verizon, have your phone fully paid off or have had your phone for more than a few months, it should already be unlocked. You may need to request an unlock code if you bought your phone through AT&T, and several prepaid carriers impose year-long lock periods on their phones, especially if purchased at a promotional price.
In addition to the lock status, check if your phone is compatible with the new network you’re switching to. Wireless companies in the U.S. use two cellular technologies: CDMA and GSM. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, which is a less universal standard than GSM, used by AT&T, T-Mobile and the rest of the world. Some manufacturers make phones that are only compatible with one technology or the other, so you can’t bring certain AT&T phones to Verizon or Sprint, or vice versa. Each of the Big Four carriers has an easy way to check online if your phone is compatible with its network, which you can also use if you know the network of an MVNO you want to subscribe to.
Quality of service
The main advantage a traditional, postpaid plan has over a prepaid or MVNO plan is quality of service. In the fine print of almost every prepaid plan we evaluated, there is a clause stating that the prepaid customer’s high-speed data may be deprioritized in times of network congestion. For unlimited plans, this may happen after using a certain amount of data for the month, or it may happen at any time during your billing cycle, as is the case for Verizon’s prepaid plans.
Depending on where you live and how many other people in your area use the same network, deprioritized data and network congestion may not affect you. But if you’re on a prepaid plan and often notice sluggish service, it’s worthwhile to see if switching to a traditional plan provides better quality of service. It may not, as heavy network congestion affects everyone on the network. In that case, a different provider that has good coverage and fewer users in your area is a good solution.
Network congestion happens when there are too many users trying to send and receive information at the same time. You may have experienced this at large events like concerts or festivals. The cellular network can only handle so much data traffic, and when there’s more than the network can handle all at once, each piece of data has to wait its turn in a queue. The more data, the longer the queue, and the slower the network works. In times of light congestion, having priority data gives you a leg up over deprioritized users, but heavy congestion can affect both prioritized and deprioritized data enough that there’s hardly a difference.
Using a prepaid phone for emergencies
Besides being cheaper than their postpaid counterparts, prepaid phone plans are excellent options for emergency phones for children or seniors. Most of the plans we evaluated offer monthly service, which isn’t ideal if you don’t plan to use your phone often. In these instances, a customizable plan, such as those available from US Mobile; a pay-as-you-go plan; or a prepaid card with a lengthy service period could work better.
Many prepaid MVNOs offer very inexpensive talk-and-text-only plans. US Mobile gives you 40 minutes and 40 texts for just $4 per month, not including taxes. The prepaid carrier also makes it easy to add minutes, texts or data month to month if necessary. Many MVNOs that we did not include in our side-by-side comparison offer similarly bare-bones monthly plans that are perfect for emergencies.
Pay-as-you-go plans charge a low monthly base fee and add a nominal charge every time you use the service beyond the base allotment. For example, T-Mobile’s pay-as-you-go option charges $3 per month, which gives you 30 minutes, 30 texts or any combination of the two. Beyond those 30 minutes or messages, you pay 10 cents each.
Finally, we recommend prepaid service cards with minutes and texts that don’t expire for a long time. TracFone has a $100 card that's preloaded with 400 minutes and lasts a year from the date of activation. However, this one costs a little more, at just over $8 per month, and it’s easy to forget to recharge your minutes every year.
Take advantage of prepaid cell phone promotions
Cell phone carriers and MVNOs constantly cycle through promotions, offering promotional service rates, discounted devices and free add-ons. The trick to getting the best deals is to watch out for sales and discounts and to be willing to switch services, as many promotional offers are available only to customers switching from a competing service. Over the course of our evaluations, we found that Metro by T-Mobile, in particular, often runs promotional rates for family plans, so if you’re thinking about switching to a Metro unlimited data plan, look for discounts. Virgin Mobile has member benefits, which provide deals and discounts at various partner companies.
It’s common for major prepaid retailers to offer a free phone if you’re willing to switch services. The devices offered aren’t top-of-the-line flagship smartphones, but they function for your calling, texting and browsing needs. If you want something a little higher-end, prepaid retailers also sell a variety of discounted previous-generation devices and pre-owned tech.
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile has an in-store deal offering four lines of unlimited data for $100 a month. This is less than the usual price of $140 a month. This plan includes unlimited talk, text and high-speed data up to the cap of 35 GB per line, as well as 5 GB of mobile hotspot data. The prepaid carrier’s higher-tier unlimited plan, which includes more hotspot data, also has promotional pricing at $120 a month for four or five lines. If you switch to Metro with four lines, you are also eligible to get four free mid-tier Samsung and LG phones.
Boost Mobile’s Unlimited Gigs plan is currently running a four-line promotion. Four lines of unlimited talk, text and data is $100 per month, with taxes and fees included. The Unlimited Gigs plan comes with 12 GB of hotspot data per line and video streams DVD-quality picture at 480p resolution. Boost also has several smartphones on sale for up to $270 off, including the iPhone 6s.
Cricket’s current promotions focus around deals on devices when you switch or add a new line. The carrier offers half off the Samsung Galaxy S9 when you add a new line. Switching to Cricket gives you a free LG Fortune 2 or Samsung Galaxy Amp Prime 3.
Scam, spam and robocalls
The recent, dramatic upswing in robocalls is cause for concern for consumers, mobile providers and regulators alike. In 2018, scam calls made up 29.2 percent of all calls made in the U.S., up from 3.7 percent in 2017. That number is expected to grow to nearly 50 percent in 2019. Not only are these calls annoying, but they’re also dangerous, often encouraging people to give up personal information like account numbers, passwords or Social Security numbers.
At the moment, there aren’t many great ways of combating the spam. The national Do Not Call Registry only prevents calls from legitimate, sales-oriented telemarketers, and most call-blocking services only block known scam numbers, which does little against spammers who use a technique called neighborhood spoofing. Neighborhood spoofing hijacks phone numbers in your local area to increase the chance you answer the call. It’s an increasingly popular technique, and it makes it difficult for you to block the scammers, since the calls come from a different phone number every time. This could change soon, however, following adoption of FCC-recommended SHAKEN/STIR standards. These authentication standards cut the number of spam calls that make it to you by validating each call with the originating and recipient carriers before connecting the call. In November 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urged phone companies to adopt these standards by 2019.
In the meantime, many cellular carriers provide spam identification tools. T-Mobile recently announced that its Scam ID and Scam Block features have blocked over 1 billion calls and marked 6 billion calls as “Scam Likely.” These features are available to both T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile customers.
Prepaid phones and 911
Prepaid phone security
If a traditional cell phone plan does not offer the level of security or anonymity you desire, a prepaid phone plan may be a good fit for you. All phones connected to a wireless network are traceable, either through GPS functions or cell tower triangulation, and many apps track your location data as well. Wireless carriers keep this information, which is available to authorities with a warrant – and to pretty much anyone else, through less legal, indirect means. Cell phone carriers sell data, including location data, to third parties, which, as Motherboard reported earlier this year, can end up in the hands of bounty hunters or anyone with $300 and your phone number. The only way to prevent your phone from broadcasting your location is to turn it off.
Still, prepaid phone services offer a little more privacy than traditional plans, as prepaid companies often collect much less personally identifiable information when you begin service. In some cases, it's possible to purchase a prepaid phone service card and a prepaid device from a big-box retailer without even having your name attached to the phone number. In this case, the phone could still be traced with its phone number, but it’s more difficult to connect you to the phone and service. A few tips for securing your device and protecting your privacy include using a VPN, leveraging third-party apps for messaging, and turning off your phone’s GPS and location services. You may also want to buy both your device and the prepaid service in person, with cash.