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Saturday, April 13, 2024

It’s the Perfect Time to Switch to a Cheaper Phone Plan

Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T control the airwaves in the United States, but if you find their fees outrageous, you may have more options than you think. Smaller companies, called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), charge cheaper prices because they lease wireless capacity from bigger companies, rather than maintaining their own cell phone towers. 

They may not have the money for splashy advertising campaigns, but an MVNO can offer many core features that were once restricted to the Big Three. Nowadays, it's reasonable to expect to pay $15 a month for a line that includes 5G network access and a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. All our top picks for the best cheap phone plans also have high-speed 5G where it's available.

Don't see anything that's useful to you? We also have guides to the best unlimited plans at the major carriers, best Android phones, best iPhone, and best cheap phones for all budgets.

Updated July 2021: We added Ting back into our guide and made slight tweaks to other services' pricing and data allotments.

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The Best PlanMint Mobile ($15–$40 per line)

Mint launched in 2016 and has become the best value among smaller cellular networks. Its Unlimited plan is our favorite data service and starts at $30 a month for pretty great benefits. 

4G LTE and 5G are in every plan with no speed caps. All plans have unlimited talk and text, and you can make free calls to Canada and Mexico. The Unlimited plan lets you use as much data as you want, though after 35 GB your data speeds may slow down and video streams at only 480p definition.

There are four tiers, and the prices are lowest if you pay for a year at a time. For your initial three months, you get a discount to, respectively, $15/$20/$25/$30 per month, although the prices rebound after that. If you choose to pay every three months, here are the monthly prices: 4 GB for $25, 10 GB for $35, 15 GB for $45, or Unlimited for $40.  If you commit to a year, you can keep that discounted rate. There's also a smaller discount if you commit to six months at a time.

Mint also offers a $5 one-week trial of its service. Download the Mint Mobile app from the Google Play Store or the Apple Store and you can try out a limited version of the Mint plan for $5. If you end up liking it and buying a plan after the trial week, Mint knocks the $5 off your renewal price.

Our favorite Mint Mobile plans are $15 per month for 4 GB and $30 per month for unlimited data. Mint does not include wireless taxes and fees in its prices. Both plans will cost $10 more per month if you don't pay annually.

Phone compatibility: This network runs on T-Mobile, so any ex-T-Mobile or ex-AT&T phone should work, along with many newer high-end phones that come universally unlocked, like iPhones and Google Pixels. Check here for compatibility.

If You're in a Rural AreaVisible ($40 per line)

Visible was our favorite until Mint released its unlimited plan, but it's still a great deal if you prefer Verizon's coverage, which is better in remote or rural areas. It's owned by Verizon and uses its network exclusively (which means it's not technically an MVNO, if that matters to you). 

The unlimited plan costs $40 per month for one line, including taxes and fees, and it comes with unlimited talk, text, and data. Your first month is only $25 per line, and after you pay for your third month Visible will send you a $50 gift card.

Visible uses 5G, if Verizon supports it in your area. Sadly, 5G coverage is still scarce outside certain major cities—and it's not all that game-changing yet. Your 5G data is capped at 200 Mbps. 

In times of heavy network traffic, Visible will deprioritize its customers below Verizon customers sharing the Verizon cellular infrastructure. It sucks, but it's common among these low-cost carriers. Visible used to inform customers on its website about slowdowns, but that has been stopped. Bummer. Honesty always wins bonus points. 

You get mobile Wi-Fi hot-spot data included, which is often missing from base plans among the three major carriers, though it's limited to 5 Mbps and supports only one tethered device at a time. Video streaming is restricted to 480p resolution.

Visible has only one plan, and it costs $40 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data. Wireless taxes and fees are included. Monthly pricing drops to $35/$30/$25 if your plan has 2/3/4 lines on it.

Phone compatibility: It runs on Verizon's network, so any ex-Verizon or ex-US Cellular phone or universally unlocked phone can be brought over. Check here to see if your phone is compatible.

Best for Homebodies (and World Travelers)Google Fi ($20 per line + $10 per GB)

Whether you're a long-time work-from-home employee, or a world traveler who only occasionally makes international calls, Google Fi is an easy way to buy small amounts of data and not have to pay for too much.

You pay $20 for one line, plus $10 per gigabyte of data, whether you're in the US or traveling in one of the 200-plus supported countries. It's also prorated, so if you don't use a whole gigabyte, you won't get charged for a whole gigabyte. I recommend you turn off mobile data in your phone's menu at home to ensure that you're always using Wi-Fi.

Google Fi uses T-Mobile's and US Cellular's 4G LTE and 5G networks. It'll throttle (slow down) your data after you pass a certain monthly threshold: 15 gigabytes for the base tier, and 22 gigabytes for the unlimited plans. At least Google is clear about it. Data after 6 GB is free on a one-phone-line plan, so you won't get a surprise giganto bill if you lose track of your data use. That data threshold increases the more lines you have on your plan.

There's free travel, so you don't have to pay a daily fee overseas just to be allowed to pay again for by-the-minute phone calls. Instead, calls are a flat 20 cents per minute from outside the US, and there's free, unlimited texting. Data costs don't change outside the US either.

It works with more than just Google phones now, including certain Huawei, Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Apple models, but its iOS support is still in beta, and 5G isn't supported on the iPhone 12. If you're using an iPhone, Fi won't switch between networks for best call quality, which is a feature that's a big chunk of its appeal. The Unlimited plan exists, but is expennnnsive: $60 or $70 per month for a single phone line, not including taxes and fees, depending on whether you choose Simply Unlimited or Unlimited Plus.

Google Fi offers a $20 per line + $10 per GB of data plan and the unlimited plan for $60. If you have five or more lines, the standard plan is reduced to $16 per line (+ $10 per GB), and if you have four or more lines, the unlimited plan reduces to $45 per line.

Phone compatibility: Only certain phones will work with Fi. The list of compatible phones is small compared to other providers.

Best If You Hardly Use Any DataTing ($10–$55 per line)

Ting revamped its data plans from the most à la carte method imaginable, in which you paid on a sliding scale for every single aspect of a phone plan, to a more typical tiered system like its competition.

All plans include 5G network access, unlimited talk and text, and a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. The $10 plan comes without any data, and you pay $5 per gigabyte of data you use. If you hardly use data, this is the best plan on the market. You have the core features of fast network access and limitless talk and text without the high price of paying for data you won't use.

The $25 plan includes 5 gigabytes of data, all of which you can use over a hot spot, but the $35 plan lets you use only 8 gigabytes of its 12-gigabyte allotment over a hot spot. Both are solid deals, but they are outclassed a bit by the competition.

However, if you exceed your monthly data allowance, Ting drops you down to 2G network speed. That's brutal. Practically all MVNOs and MVNO-like carriers drop your speed after you exceed your data, even unlimited plans, but 2G is particularly slow. You can pay $5 per extra gigabyte of data to retain 5G and 4G LTE speeds, and any leftovers of this top-off data carry over to the next month.

The Ting plan we like most costs $10 per month, although you also have to pay $5 per gigabyte of data.

Phone compatibility: Ting uses the Verizon and T-Mobile networks, so a phone that works on either of those services is likely to work on Ting. Check your device's compatibility here.

Honorable MentionsBoost Mobile ($15–$60 per line)

Owned by Sprint for many years, Boost was bought by Dish Network when T-Mobile gobbled up Sprint last year. It has five plans, from $15 to $45 a month, each with Wi-Fi hot spot data, 5G network access, and unlimited talk and text. The lowest tier has a 2-GB hot spot limit, which is pretty darn low if you connect it to a laptop to browse the web. You can use the entire data allotment of each non-unlimited plan over a hot spot, which gives it a leg up over similarly priced plans, such as Ting's $35 tier.

The unlimited plans make no financial sense at $50 and $60 per month. If that's your thing, go to Visible or one of the major carriers. The cheapest, lower-tier three plans are for new Boost customers only, and the lowest two require that you bring your own device.

Like Mint Mobile, the unlimited plans are limited to 35 GB of high-speed data, after which you get reduced speeds. Like most unlimited plans, this one makes us wonder why it's labeled “unlimited” at all.

The Boost Mobile plan we like costs $35 per month for 10 GB.

Phone compatibility: As always, universally unlocked phones will work, along with phones brought over from T-Mobile and AT&T. Make sure yours is compatible by checking here.

Cricket Wireless ($30–$60 per line)

Cricket is, eh, fine. There's nothing egregious about its offerings, but nothing about them really stands out, either. It's owned by AT&T and has been eclipsed by newer offerings that deliver more features than it manages. It still offers solid service, though, and some of the tiers make a good case for themselves.

The $35-a-month tier for 10 GB of 4G LTE data ($40 if you don't use auto-pay) makes the most sense, although it's light on features compared to the competition. But at least Cricket's prices do include taxes.

You have to step up to $55 a month to make free calls to Mexico and Canada. You get no Wi-Fi hot spot or 5G network access unless you pay $60 a month for the top tier, which includes 15 GB of hot spot data. Yet even if you're paying that much, you're limited to streaming video at 480p.

Cricket's best plan costs $35 a line for 10 GB of data.

Phone compatibility: Any universally unlocked phone, along with ex-T-Mobile and ex-AT&T phones.

Services to Avoid

Straight Talk is a collaboration between Walmart and TracPhone. It uses the broadest variety of cellular networks of all the providers in this guide—Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. It costs $35 a month for 5 GB of 4G LTE data, but after that 5 GB you're knocked down to 2G, which is so slow it's usually unusable. It's only available at Walmart. Here's is its phone compatibility checker.

Xfinity is another well-known name that we'd pass on. Two members of WIRED's Gear team have had Xfinity Mobile, and they weren't fans of it. It's also just not a good deal compared to our other options. For $15 a month you get 1 GB of data, and for $30 a month you get 3 GB of data. We advise you to get Mint for $15 to $25 instead.

Metro, which is owned by T-Mobile, offers these plans: $30 for 2 GB, $40 for 10 GB, or two unlimited tiers. Metro really pushes its unlimited tiers, which offer basically the same features at the same price as regular T-Mobile plans, except for the fact that you may be deprioritized during times of congestion. In many instances, it's smarter to skip Metro and go straight to T-Mobile.

Some Technical Nitty-Gritty

These smaller providers (called MVNOs, generally, when they're not owned by another provider that has its own network infrastructure) use other networks' cellular infrastructure—almost always one or more of the big three or US Cellular. They typically work just as well as the standard network. If the network is congested, there's a chance those big carriers will prioritize their customers first, but we already know they deprioritize their own users during congestion as well.

It used to be crucial to know which type of cell network technology your carrier used: GSM or CDMA. If you had a phone that worked for one then it probably wouldn't work on the other, and so switching cell carriers might have meant having to buy a new phone. Nowadays, it's less important to know the difference. Many new phones work with either type of network. Still, every provider has a page that lets you see whether your current phone will work on it, so make sure to check it if you plan to jump ship.

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