Best Prepaid Phone Plans of 2018

Rebecca Armstrong ·
Phones & Networking Writer
Updated
We maintain strict editorial integrity when we evaluate products and services; however, Top Ten Reviews may earn money when you click on links.

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 options for individuals and families, evaluating unlimited data and budget-friendly plans. Overall, Metro by T-Mobile is the best prepaid cell phone 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.     

Best Overall
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.
View on MetroPCS
See Plans and Pricing @MetroPCS
Best Overall
Metro by T-Mobile
Best Value for Talk & Text
Cricket Wireless
In addition to data plans, Cricket Wireless offers a simple unlimited talk and text plan for non-smartphone users.
View on Cricket Wireless
Most Customizable
US Mobile
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.
View on WhistleOut
Product
Price
Overall Rating
Network Performance
Unlimited Plans
Budget Plans
Carrier Features
Network Provider
Coverage
Reliability
Speed
Individual Plan
Family Plan (4 Lines)
Data Cap
Hotspot Allowance (GB)
Base Individual Plan
Data Allowance
Base Family Plan (4 Lines)
Data Per Line
Extra Data
Carryover
Initial Fees
Autopay Discount
International Calling
Lines Per Plan
Device Selection
Check Price
8.8 9.5 9.3 7.8 8.3
T-Mobile
B+
A
A
60
150
35
10
30
2
120
2
-
-
-
-
10
5
B-
Check Price
8.6 8 10 8.3 7.3
Sprint
B
B+
B
60
180
23
20
35
3
120
3
5
-
10
-
10
5
B+
Check Price
8.6 9.5 6 9.8 10
AT&T
A
A
A
85
300
22
10
35
1
100
1
10
$1
5 to 10
Discounted
5
B-
Check Price
8.5 9.5 7 10 5.8
Verizon and T-Mobile
A+
A+
A+
79
316
16
16
28
1
112
1
5
4
-
-
1
B-
Check Price
8.4 9 8.3 8.3 8
AT&T
A-
A-
D
70
200
22
10
30
2
120
2
10
-
25
5
15
5
A-
Check Price
8.4 8.8 8 8.5 8.3
T-Mobile
B+
A
A
49.88
124.52
32
None
24.88
1
99.52
1
9.88
-
$1
-
10
5
B-
Check Price
8.2 10 5.8 9 8
Verizon
A+
A+
A+
75
240
Deprioritized
None
40
3
130
3
15
-
-
5/day
5
B+
Check Price
8.1 8.5 8.5 6.8 10
Sprint
B
B+
B
65
165
23
10
45
4
135
4
-
-
-
5
Discounted
5
C+
Check Price
7.8 7.8 7.5 7.8 9
Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile
A+
B-
B-
55
220
60
0
35
2
140
2
5
-
$1
$1
$10
1
A+
Check Price
7.1 9.5 6.5 6 5.5
T-Mobile
B+
A
A
75
300
50
3G
45
4
180
4
-
-
10
-
15
1
B-
Best Overall
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.
Pros
  • Great multi-line discounts
  • Performance on par with parent company’s
  • Higher than average data cap
Cons
  • No autopay discount
  • Network not ideal for rural areas
  • Only four plan options
See Plans and Pricing MetroPCS
Read the full review
Best Value for Talk & 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.
Pros
  • Inexpensive talk & text plan
  • Can mix and match plans on same account
  • Owned and operated by AT&T
Cons
  • Data speeds capped at 8 Mbps
  • Hotspot not included with data plans
  • Unused talk, text and data do not carry over
See Plans and Pricing Cricket Wireless
Read the full review
Most Customizable
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.
Pros
  • Choose from Verizon or T-Mobile networks
  • Completely customizable plans
  • 14-day risk free period for new customers
Cons
  • No multi-line or autopay discounts
  • Unlimited options are expensive
  • No international calling
See Plans and PricingWhistleOut
Read the full review
Most Hotspot Data
Boost Mobile offers two tiers of unlimited data plans. The $60 Unlimited Plus plan gives you HD streaming and 20 GB of 4G LTE hotspot data – more than any other plan we reviewed.
Boost is a great option if you live in an area with solid Sprint service. It has limited plan options, but they all include unlimited talk, text and data, as you still have access to slower 2G data speeds once you reach your limit for the month. We like that you don’t simply get cut off from wireless access once you reach your cap, though 2G speeds are severely limited. Boost’s most notable plan feature, is the ridiculous high-speed hotspot data allowance. The provider offers 20 GB on its Unlimited Plus plan, and there’s a limited-time offer in place at the time of this review that offers a whopping 40 GB of hotspot data. It’s called the Ultimate Unlimited plan, and it costs $80 a month. But if you frequently use your phone as a mobile hotspot and find other plans’ hotspot allowances limiting, Boost is the plan for you.
Pros
  • Access to unlimited 2G data after limit
Cons
  • Limited plan options
See Plans and PricingWhistleOut
Read the full review
Best Big Four Prepaid Plan
AT&T Prepaid plans are a good value compared to postpaid AT&T plans, as they offer similar plan features such as carryover data and autopay discounts.
AT&T Prepaid charges more for plans than most MVNOs, but it comes with the security of subscribing to a service that owns and operates one of the biggest networks in the U.S. Of the Big Four, AT&T has the best prepaid branch. Its unlimited plan option isn’t great compared to similarly-priced options, but AT&T Prepaid offers a stellar limited plan. With autopay and paperless billing discounts, it costs $40 and comes with unlimited talk and text and 8 GB of data. Unused data carries over to the next billing cycle, and you can add more for $10 per 1 GB.
Pros
  • Great $40 plan
Cons
  • Lackluster unlimited option
See Plans and PricingAT&T
Read the full review

Why Trust Us

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

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.

How to Shop for a Prepaid Cell Phone Plan

Choosing a 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 & 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.

Take Advantage of 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 only available to customers switching from a competing service. At the moment, Metro by T-Mobile is including Amazon Prime and 100GB of Google One cloud storage with its $60 unlimited plan. 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 out for a sale. Virgin Mobile has member benefits, which provide deals and discounts at various partner companies, including Reebok and Papa Johns.

It’s common for major prepaid retailers to offer a free device if you’re willing to switch services. For example, Cricket Wireless is currently offering a variety of free budget smartphones when you transfer your number from a wireless carrier (excluding AT&T). And Boost Mobile is offering in-store customers a free Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve or LG Stylo 4 when they switch to the service. 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. 

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. 

Holiday Deals

The holiday season is a great time for deals on new phones and promotional service rates. If you’re looking to upgrade to a new flagship smartphone, there are plenty of deals featuring the Samsung Galaxy S9.

Metro by T-Mobile

Our best overall prepaid phone service is currently offering a great deal for unlimited family plans. You can get four lines of unlimited service for $100 per month, which includes taxes and fees. That costs $40 less than normal, which adds up to $480 of total savings in a year. Switching to Metro by T-Mobile can also earn you and your family up to four free phones.

Cricket

Cricket is offering 50 percent off a Galaxy S9 or Galaxy A6 for savings up to $350. This deal is only available online, and it's only for new customers who bring their current phone number to the service.

Boost Mobile

One of the best deals for holiday savings on a new smartphone comes from Boost, which is offering 20 percent off any new Android phone until 12/06/2018 with code HOLIDAY2018. It’s also offering in-store deals for free or BOGO phones. You can get up to four Samsung Galaxy J7 Refine smartphones when four lines switch to Boost. Existing customers can earn $30 in bill credits when they add a second line to the $50, $60 or $80 plans. 

Scam, Spam & 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.

How a Merger Between Sprint & T-Mobile May Affect MVNOs

The FCC recently put a hold on a proposed merger between Big Four carriers T-Mobile and Sprint. The U.S. Justice Department is looking into the potential effects of the merger on smaller MVNOs, many of which purchase wholesale service from the two companies in question. Seven of the prepaid providers we reviewed rely on Sprint's or T-Mobile’s network. In a meeting with FCC officials, T-Mobile and Sprint executives stated that New T-Mobile intends to keep Metro by T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile USA and Boost Mobile, the three prepaid providers currently owned by the two companies. The public report of the meeting also said, “Moreover, since New T-Mobile will be incented to fill its expansive capacity, it will offer attractive plans to MVNOs.”

Peter Adderton, founder and former CEO of Boost Mobile, thinks that allowing the merger to move forward unamended hurts competition. He dedicated a whole website to this theory. Ting Mobile, which uses both T-Mobile and Sprint networks, said in a letter to the FCC, “We believe this merger makes excellent business sense and, with the preservation of the appropriate competitive elements that the MVNO space provides, can make excellent regulatory sense.” The American Antitrust Institute also thinks the merger could hurt competition and drive prices up. T-Mobile is combating this by asking MVNOs that use its network to write letters of support to regulators, which is interesting, especially since the companies literally cannot operate without T-Mobile’s goodwill.

Google Fi

As of Nov. 28, Google’s Project Fi is now renamed Google Fi. The rebranding came with the announcement that the MVNO started supporting most Android devices and iPhones. This is a big change from earlier this year, when Fi worked with just a handful of devices including Google’s Pixel phones, two Motorolas and a few LG models. The prepaid service is now much more accessible if you want to bring your own phone to the network. However, there are a few features that differ service-wise between phones on the expanded device list and truly Fi-compatible devices. For example, non-Fi phones primarily work on the T-Mobile network as opposed to primarily operating on Wi-Fi. These devices aren’t configured to use Wi-Fi first and automatically connect to Fi-enabled networks, though you can still use Wi-Fi by manually connecting to each network. Apple iPhone compatibility is in beta, with the Google Fi iOS app available to help with the process.

Google Fi has one plan. It starts at $20 for unlimited talk and text with $10 per GB of data. There’s technically no unlimited data plan, but the service’s Bill Protection feature caps how much it charges for data at $60 per month for an individual. A two-line plan would cost a maximum of $100 for data, and a four-line plan tops off at $140 for data. The MVNO’s high-speed data limit is 15GB per month, though you can opt to pay $10 per GB for additional high-speed data. According to Google Fi’s own FAQs, less than 1 percent of Fi customers used more than 15GB of data as of January 2018.

Visible by Verizon

Visible debuted earlier this year on a by-invitation-only basis, but has since opened its doors wide to the general public. Owned by Verizon Wireless and running on its network, Visible follows in the path of network-operated prepaid services such as Metro by T-Mobile or Cricket Wireless, the latter of which is owned and operated by AT&T. But it differentiates itself in this market by catering to a decidedly youthful audience. For example, you sign up for the service through an iOS app instead of going to a brick and mortar store, and you can pay your bills online via credit card, Paypal or even Venmo.

Visible currently offers one plan - a $40 per month unlimited talk, text and data plan. For the same price, Verizon Wireless’s own prepaid service gives you just three GB of data and charges $15 for each additional GB. Prepaid unlimited through Verizon costs $75, and comes with many of the same restrictions as Visible’s plan. The plans deprioritize data when the network is congested and limits video streaming to 480p. Visible also limits data speeds to 5 MBPS, which is mediocre but serviceable. The greatest limiting factor for the service is that it’s only available for iPhone users - most models after the iPhone 6 work with Visible, but you check here before switching networks. Still, $40 for unlimited talk, text and data on Verizon’s network is a pretty good deal if you can handle the restrictions.