The best prepaid cell phone plans are the way you get connected wherever you are but without being trapped into a contract. But saving money doesn't mean you have to sacrifice phone quality, data access, or even speeds if you can find the best cell phone provider for you.
The best prepaid cell phone plans let you purchase a SIM that goes in a phone you already own, giving you the freedom to control your digital expenditure. From students on a budget to parents that want to limit their children's access to data, prepay gives you lots of choice.
They're offered by the best cell phone providers, but are different to contracted plans. These won't lock you into a contract but let you pay either up front or month to month, with the freedom to cancel when you want.
From network speed and data allowance to area coverage and network cell phones, there are lots of factors to consider before you decide the network for you. Keep in mind these are usually MVNO providers which use the existing hardware of a major network, so which works best for you in terms of coverage and phone could also be an issue.
Read on to find the best prepaid cell phone provider for you.
1. Visible: Best overall prepaid cell phone provider
Visible is a superb prepaid cell phone provider that uses the best of the best in the Verizon network. This means not only nationwide coverage but consistent speeds for data which can be used across a big range of phone options. All that and the plans are well priced too.
The catch? Speeds are capped at 5Mbps. But that is consistent and for most will do the job well, even for quality video streaming.
Lots of phones are available from the iPhone 11 to the Samsung Galaxy S20. But you can also bring your old phone across to Visible with you if that works better. Keeping in mind you have to pay the phone cost up front, this might be the best option for some.
Plans are very simple and clear with a single $40 plan that gets you unlimited data, texts and calls, charged monthly. This includes limitless hotspot use – a rare treat when it comes to prepaid plans.
2. Metro by T-Mobile: Best for low priced plans across a range of devices
Metro by T-Mobile gets you access to the giant network's wide range of coverage and capacity to offer up to 5G data speeds. Sounds expensive, right? Yet this manages to do that, and across a lot of phones, without costing a lot. In fact this has a lot of deals with plenty of free phones, streaming services and more.
With 11,000 bricks and mortar stores nationwide, this is a great option for anyone that wants to go in to speak to someone about their choice. Or for anyone that likes the reassurance of having a place to go should there be an issue.
All fees and taxes are included in the prices given and charges start at $30 with 2GB of high-speed data and there are lots more options with an unlimited data plan too. The T-Mobile coverage means you get nationwide access with some of the best speeds when compared to the other network-owned prepaid carriers.
Simple plan options, lots of features, great coverage and a real-world presence make this one of the best prepaid carrier options out there right now.
3. Cricket Wireless: Best value for talk and text
Cricket Wireless is a prepaid wireless carrier owned by AT&T, that boasts great coverage and reliability while keeping prices super affordable.
When it comes to talk and text, the Cricket Wireless network offers some great deals. This makes it uniquely excellent for anyone that isn't so bothered about having a data connection paid for up front. There may be data in your plan but the saving will be made as that can be capped in speed to 8Mbps or as low as 3Mbps.
That said, for those who want data you're in luck as the 4G LTE speed of Cricket Wireless is able to reach an impressive 99 percent of Americans on this expansive network. Customer service is also a strong area for this network with lots of happy customers that have received great support when in need. Unused minutes and data don't carry over though.
Plans start at at $30 per month with 2GB of data and get you unlimited data for $40.
4. US Mobile: Best for customization
US Mobile is a mighty offering that gives you the choice of two network providers, Verizon or T-Mobile. That means you have the freedom to use whatever phone you may already own and can also decide based on which has the best coverage for where you are.
This is also affordable with plans that span from a tiny $5.50 text-only option to a $79 unlimited everything plan. But there is a lot in between as this is one of the most customizable networks out there.
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.
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. US Mobile also offers a student discount, which gives university students free SIM cards. Be aware though, there are no international calling options.
5. Walmart Family Mobile: Best for family plans
Walmart Family Mobile has some affordable plan options and uses the T-Mobile network which is 5G ready. You can also expect great customer service from this huge company which also offers physical stores you can walk into should you need.
There are a selection of affordable handsets to go with the well priced plans. These include savings that can be made by using autopay or by having more than one line – ideal for families as the name suggests.
Plans start at $24.88 for unlimited everything but data is capped at 2G speeds after 2GB, meaning in reality this only offer 2GB of data.
Jump to $29.88 and you get 5GB of data, $39.88 gets you 20GB and the top end $49.88 plan gives you truly unlimited data.
The highest priced two plans also offer you unlimited calling from the US to Mexico and Canada. The very top tier also gives you 10GB for use as a mobile hotspot.
6. Mint Mobile: Best for affordable simplicity
Mint Mobile is a fantastic prepaid option for anyone that wants to save a few bucks while still getting free calls to Mexico and Canada. But that's not all, this offers 5G data speeds and allows you to pay upfront for easy control of your costs.
Since Mint Mobile, now owned by actor Ryan Reynolds, uses the T-Mobile network it boasts nationwide coverage with consistent high speeds. Of course it's still an MVNO meaning you'll get constricted if there is congestion where T-Mobile customers will take priority.
While Mint Mobile does have phones you can buy through its website there is still an ethos that encourages you to get the SIM and bring your own phone. Savings can be made this way and it means no contract that you're locked into to pay off that new handset.
If you're looking to sign up to a plan, we've rounded up the best cell phone providers to help get you started, while you can also check out our cell phone coverage maps so you can see who has the best network in America.
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.
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.
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. 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 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.