While most Americans are signed up with one of the major carrier brands—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, or Verizon Wireless—there are many more choices available to US cell phone customers looking for a bargain. Known as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), these low-cost carriers piggyback on the four major networks and can deliver lower prices, especially for individual users who aren’t looking to be part of a family plan.
All the major carriers have low-cost spinoffs, and their deals are worth checking first. AT&T runs Cricket Wireless. Sprint has Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile owns GoSmart and MetroPCS. And Verizon, well, Verizon just has prepaid plans. If you’re looking for a wide range of stores and solid customer service, these brands have excellent prices and should be your first shopping stops.
What Do You Need?
If you’re looking for a deal on wireless service and fit into one of the groups below, click on that link to see which carriers are right for you:
- Looking for the Lowest Prices
- Frequent International Callers
- Want the Best Network
Are These the Only Carriers I Should Consider?
There are several carriers we’re not listing here, and want to explain why. Google Fi has a lot of buzz and combines the Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular networks, but we just don’t find it to be an extraordinary price deal. Lycamobile’s plans are similar to Ultra Mobile, just a little more expensive. Ting’s and Twigby’s plans are similar to US Mobile, but again a bit more expensive. TextNow has call quality problems. And we’re putting FreedomPop and RingPlus in the doghouse because we’ve received too many complaints about their customer service.
One big change over the past year is how many of these brands are no longer focusing on selling phones. The AT&T- and T-Mobile-based brands, especially, work with unlocked phones, so take a look at our list of The Best Unlocked Phones and The Best Super-Cheap Unlocked Phones for a handset to use. They may also work with your old device from your previous carrier.
We also need to explain TracFone, which is the grandaddy of the MVNOs, and appears in many guises. All of the TracFone brands tend to change their plans frequently, sometimes even trading bonuses between them, so it’s good to know what’s TracFone and what isn’t. Family Mobile, Net10, Page Plus, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk, Telcel America, Total Wireless, and yes, TracFone, are all TracFone.
Finally, these aren’t the only carriers you should consider. Depending on your needs, even one of the big four networks could have a plan that works for you. For more plan shopping advice, check out our story on How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Plan. And for the best carrier service where you live, check out our results for the Fastest Mobile Networks.
Group 1: Lowest Prices
Sometimes you just need a little bit of talk time, or at the very least a little bit of data. These carriers have the best-priced deals.
The cheapest option other than free services like RingPlus and FreedomPop (which we don’t recommend because of customer service complaints), ChatSIM costs $15 for the SIM, plus $15 per year. Yep, that’s per year. It even works globally. The catch: it’s for messaging only, through a list of approved apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. There’s no standard calling, no SMS, and no iMessage. You can buy credits for picture messaging and VoIP calling. I have a ChatSIM loaded into the phone I give my 10-year-old when we get separated, because I don’t have to worry about maintaining it.
Red Pocket runs on several different networks and has a range of plans, but what we’re focused on here are its one-year pay-as-you-go talk cards. There’s a 1,000-minute card for $100 that runs on the AT&T network, and a 2,000-minute card for $100 that runs on the Sprint network (yes, Red Pocket has decided that AT&T’s coverage is worth twice as much as Sprint’s.) Texts “cost” one minute per text. You can use Red Pocket with an unlocked, AT&T-compatible device or with a used Sprint LTE phone.
TracFone has an extremely complex system of discounts, bonuses, online specials, and in-store promos that feel almost like a table game in Vegas. If you play it right, though, you can get a great value. For instance, some of TracFone’s devices offer “triple minutes” that can be combined with a 400-minute, voice-only, one-year prepaid card to give you 1,200 minutes over the year for $99.99, or $8.33 per month. TracFone also offers smartphone options with data, but you’ll find better offers elsewhere; the carrier’s real deals come for occasional voice users. Most TracFone devices run on the AT&T network.
US Mobile is the least expensive of several “roll your own” plan carriers, like Ting. Its minimum plan is 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 100MB for $9, which is pretty impressive, and you can scale your plan up from there. The carrier uses T-Mobile’s LTE network with any T-Mobile-compatible phone. It gives you the best balance of price and heavy 4G LTE usage.
Group 2: Best for Frequent International Callers
Several carriers offer special deals with free international calls. This is the best one.
Ultra Mobile makes unlimited international talk and text even cheaper. Its $29 plan includes only 1GB of domestic data, but gives you unlimited international calling to 60 different countries, as well as 1,000 included minutes to 15 more countries. It works with any T-Mobile-compatible phone. Ultra Mobile tends to be a bit less expensive than its main competitor Lyca Mobile.
Group 3: If You Need the Biggest Network
Most MVNOs run on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks because they offer the best rates to virtual network operators. But especially in rural areas, you may need AT&T or Verizon. These carriers put you on those bigger networks. One warning, though: Verizon limits all of their data speeds to 5Mbps.
The original Verizon MVNO, Page Plus undercuts Verizon’s prepaid rates. For instance, Verizon’s lowest prepaid smartphone plan is currently $45 for 2GB, while Page Plus has 1GB for $29.95. No, there’s no catch, other than that you should buy your phone up front; Page Plus’s monthly installment payment plans are a huge rip-off with massive interest fees.
Puretalk is a good choice for a cheap operator on the AT&T network, undercutting rivals like Airvoice and H2O. It offers a low-usage plan at $10 for 300 minutes and 50MB. Once you start to use a lot of data, though, you should move up to AT&T-owned Cricket, which offers better customer service and competitive rates for data plans of 1GB and above on the AT&T network.
Selectel’s advantage is in low-usage, long-term plans on Verizon’s network. Its $100/year plan includes 2,000 talk minutes, 2,000 texts, and no data, making it useful for safety or emergency phones. There are also more typical plans, such as a $40 2GB plan and a $55 5GB plan. Make sure you get a 4G LTE plan, though, as that is where Verizon is investing in its network at the moment.
- Total Wireless
Another TracFone brand, Total Wireless has the best deal for data on Verizon’s network right now: $35 for unlimited talk and text plus 5GB of data. The company sells a strange array of mostly low-end phones, but it also works with any Verizon-compatible phone. If you’re buying a phone from Total, make sure it supports 4G LTE, as some devices don’t.
Group 4: Elderly/Young/Charitable
There are carriers that appeal to various groups for reasons other than price. At the moment, we do not have any kids-and-family-oriented virtual operators we recommend. Your best bet for kids is to go with a low-cost, build-your-own-plan operator like US Mobile, Ting, or Twigby (they’re all similar, US Mobile is just the cheapest).
Consumer Cellular is focused on the senior market, with broad rural coverage through AT&T and a range of easy-to-use phones. Our readers love this carrier, awarding it Readers’ Choice with a spectacularly high customer service rating. The company’s plans make the most sense if you’re primarily a voice user, rather than text or data. They start at $15 per month and include 250 minutes of calling time, which works out to 6 cents per minute. Consumer Cellular carries a decent range of easy-to-use phones. We recommend the Doro PhoneEasy 626 simple flip phone, the Motorola Moto E, and the Motorola Moto G. GreatCall also serves seniors using the Verizon network, but our readers prefer Consumer Cellular.
The People’s Operator (TPO)
Founded in part by Jimmy Wales, the guy who started Wikipedia, TPO offers a less-expensive charitable alternative to its competitor Credo Mobile. TPO outdoes Credo in several ways. It lets you choose between Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s network. It gives 10 percent of your bill to your choice out of a politically broader range of charities, from the National Council of La Raza to the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s also cheaper than Credo at every service level, starting at $16/month for 1,000 minutes and 500MB.