Prepaid mobile plans are a great way to save money on voice and SMS and that’s true for data too.
Here are my favorite operators and MVNOs (listed in alphabetical order) for affordable prepaid voice, messaging AND mobile data on U.S. national carriers. Scroll down the post for recommendations by network and level of usage.
This post is constantly being updated as data plans and pricing change frequently.
Air Voice Wireless (888-944-2355) is AT&T MVNO that offers a variety of unlimited voice and text plans with varying amounts of data priced at $40 to $60/month.
An annoying feature of all Airvoice monthly plans, is that data is shut off after only half the advertised amount of data has been used. The user has to call, text or email Airvoice and get the second half of their data “released”.
Air Voice is notable for having well regarded US based support and for the most affordable AT&T based pay as you go plan, with prices of 4¢/voice minute, 2¢/text and 6.6¢/MB of data.
AT&T GoPhone 800-901-9878): The largest US GSM operator’s data offerings have gotten a lot more competitive lately, particularly on monthly plans where the options are:
$30/month: unlimited domestic voice minutes, unlimited domestic and international messaging. Data is $5 for a 100 MB. The data add-on expires after 30 days, but if you add another one before expiration, the unused data rolls over.
$45/month: unlimited voice and messaging and data with the first 1.5 GB of data per month at high speeds.. Additional data is available for $10 per 500 MB.
$60/Month: unlimited voice and messaging and data with the first 4 GB of data per month at high speeds. Additional high speed data is available for $10 per 1 GB.
AT&T’s GoPhone Daily plan costs $2/day for domestic voice minutes, unlimited domestic and international messaging. Data can be added as needed for $1 for 100 MB good for one calendar day (day ends at midnight CT). The $2 fee is charged only on days a call is made or answered or a text is sent. Incoming texts do not trigger the daily fee.
To add a data package to one of these plans you can either call 611 from the handset and wade through the voice response menus or use the AT&T’s Pay As You Go Online site. It’s also possible to set up automatic refills using the web site.
You can use any phone that supports ATT’s 850/1900 bands and isn’t locked to another operator. LTE 4G data is available with a compatible phone.
Boost Mobile (866-402-7366): Owned by Sprint, Boost offers CDMA service using Sprint’s native 2.5G, 3G EVDO and 4G LTE network as well as 4G WiMAX on the Sprint/Clearwire network.
Boost has monthly and daily unlimited plans only. The monthly plans include unlimited voice and messaging and varying amounts of high speed data; $35 for 1 GB of high-speed data, $45 for 5 GB of high speed data and $55 for 10 GB of high speed data. Throttled speed after the high speed data allowance is consumed is 128 Kbps on all plans.
Boost’s daily plan costs $2/day for feature phones and $3/day for smartphones. It’s a lousy deal because the daily fee is charged every day whether the phone is used or not and there’s no way to suspend the plan when you aren’t using it. It’s essentially a tax on the poor, targeted at users who are too broke to pay for a whole month of service.
Cricket Wireless (800-274-2538) AT&T acquired Cricket in March of 2014. Current Cricket phones use AT&T’s GSM and LTE network. The legacy Cricket CDMA network is scheduled to be shut down sometime in the second half of 2015.
AT&T is positioning Cricket as its value priced prepaid brand. Cricket offers more data for less money than GoPhone. However Cricket data speeds are lower. High-Speed data is throttled to a maximum of 8 Mbps for LTE data and 4 Mbps for HSPA+, either of which is still fast enough for most uses including video streaming.
Cricket offers a $5/month auto-pay discount and a group save discount of $5 to $20 per line for multiple line accounts.
Cricket SIMs and phones are sold online and through a network Cricket stores and authorized dealers. Cricket products are not available at AT&T stores.
EcoMobile (855-825-8855) is a Sprint MVNO. EcoMobile can activate most Sprint phones except BlackBerrys, WebOS phones and phone models launched by Sprint in the last 12 months. LTE is available only on EcoMobile’s $60/month plan.EcoMobile has a wide range of plans including a pay as you go plan with good rates, 5¢ voice minutes, 2¢ texts and 10¢/MB data. A $50 monthly plan includes unlimited voice, messaging and 2.5GB of full speed 3G data. EcoMobile’s $60/month plan is the same but includes 5 GB of high speed 4G LTE.
GoSmart Mobile (877-582-7788) is owned by T-Mobile USA. GoSmart phones and SIMs are sold online and by independent mobile dealers but are not available at T-Mobile company operated shops.
GoSmart offers monthly plans only, including three plans with unlimited data. GoSmart’s $45/month Unlimited Talk, Text & High-Speed Web plan delivers 10 GB of hi-speed HSPA+ data. LTE is not available. After 10 GB data speed is throttled to 118 Kbps. The same plan is also available with 2.5 GB of high speed data for $35/month or with 5 GB of high speed data for $40/month.
GoSmart has native T-Mobile network coverage with no roaming. Any T-Mobile or unlocked phone will work with GoSmart.
Lycamobile (866-277-3221) launched in 2005 in the UK and is Europe’s largest MVNO,with over 6 million users. In the US Lycamobile has operated as a T-Mobile MVNO in March, 2013. Lycamobile has monthly and pay as you go plans. The monthly plans have generous data allotments and low international calling rates. Data is not available on the pay as you plan.
MetroPCS (888-8metro8), which was acquired by T-Mobile in May 2013, offers unlimited talk, text and (throttled after 2 GB) data for as low as $40/month. T-Mobile is migrating service from MetroPCS legacy CDMA network to T-Mobile’s GSM technology. MetroPCS CDMA devices will work until 2015.
PagePlus (800-550-2436): Is an América Móvil owned MVNO that uses the Verizon network. PagePlus can activate all clean-ESN postpaid Verizon postpaid phones. Phones sold for or last active on Verizon’s prepaid service and non-Verizon phones are not allowed. LTE capable phones can only be activated on plans priced at $29.95 and higher.
NET10 (877-836-2368): Another América Móvil brand with a range of unlimited monthly plans.
NET10 also sells its own line of phones which, depending on phone model, run either the Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile network. NET10 allows you to use your own unlocked GSM or locked T-Mobile or Sprint or postpaid Verizon phone on the $45 plan.
4G LTE data is available on all four networks. NET10’s terms of service prohibit tethering and “continuous” video streaming.
NET10 phones, SIMs and airtime are sold by independent dealers and national chains like RadioShack, BestBuy and Walgreens.
PTel Mobile (866-CALL-ME-1): Is a T-Mobile MVNO with relatively lackluster monthly plans but some of the best pay as you go rates for voice, SMS and data. Voice is 5 cents/minute, texts are two cents each and data is 10 cents/MB. The minimum spend is $10 every two months.
There is one quirk to watch out for on PTel pay as you go. Unused balances rollover if you top up before they expire. However, any residual balance from a $10, $20, $30 or $50 refill that was added over a year ago disappears. Funds added with a $100 refill rollover indefinitely as long as you top up before they expire.
You can use any T-Mobile USA or unlocked GSM device with PTEL provided it supports for the 1900 Mhz band and ideally (for maximum 3G coverage) the 1700 Mhz AWS band. LTE data is available on all PTel plans.
PureTalkUSA (877-820-7873) is another AT&T MVNO with good data pricing on their monthly plans. The $40.95/month Unlimited Plus+ Plan which includes unlimited voice and SMS and MMS messaging and 1 GB of data. LTE is not available.
PureTalkUSA SIMs are free and work with unlocked GSM phones or any AT&T phone.
Red Pocket Mobile (888-993-3888) which was founded in 2006 as an AT&T MVNO. RedPocket recently began offering plans on all four national operators.
Users have reported a number of issues with the new Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon services including activation and payment problems. Currently the only way for users to check their balances, data used or plan expiration on the non-AT&T plans is by calling customer support. Until these issues are resolved I recommend sticking with RedPocket’s AT&T based plans.
Red Pocket’s best value plan is its $59.99 monthly plan on AT&T which comes with unlimited voice and messaging, $2 worth of international calling, 40 outgoing international texts, 3 GB of high speed data and unlimited throttled data.
Republic Wireless (no support phone number) which launched in late 2011, is notable for offering unlimited voice, SMS and data, including off-network voice and data roaming, starting at $25/month plus about $7.50/month in taxes and fees. The low price is made possible in part by custom phone firmware which shifts voice, SMS and data traffic to WiFi, if it’s available.
Republic offers two unlimited talk, text and data plans. The $40 plan includes LTE, the $25 plan is limited to 3G EVDO. Add about 10-30% to plan prices for taxes and fees. Data is unlimited but speeds are throttled after 5GB/month.
RingPlus (310-919-0915) launched in August, 2013 as a BYOSD-only operator with a unique free ad-supported plan. Early adopters got 300 minutes and 50 texts per month free “for life” in return for listing to ads instead of the usual ringing tones during the time between when a call is placed and the called party or voicemail answers. The free plans are no longer available to new users.
RingPlus’ regular plans, which start at 99¢/month (plus taxes averaging 20%) are a good value. RingPlus supports LTE but not WiMAX.
RingPlus routes calls through their own servers so they can offer value added services like call recording and on the fly language translation. The RingPlus servers seem to have stability issues and have been blamed for a number voice calling outages. Data and texting have been reliable.
Selectel Wireless (877-218-5744) launched in May, 2013. Selectel’s monthly plans are very similar to comparably priced plans from PagePlus. But Selectel, unlike PagePlus, includes no extra charge voice and SMS off-network roaming with all plans
Selectel offers a $10 Flex card that can be used to pay for overage on any Selectel plan. The Flex Card has attractive rares (5¢/voice minute, 5¢/SMS, 5¢/MB of data) and is unusual in that the funds on it never expire.
Straight Talk (877-430-2355): América Móvil’s $45/ month Straight Talk Unlimited plan includes unlimited data throttled to 2 G speeds (about 128 Kbps) after 3 GB.
Straight Talk allows you to use your own unlocked GSM or locked T-Mobile or Sprint or Verizon postpaid phone on the $45 plan. SIMs aare available online from www.straighttalkbyop.com and from Walmart.
Straight Talk also sells its own line of phones which, depending on phone model, run either the Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile network. Straight Talk’s smartphone selection includes the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 which use the Verizon network as well as a number of Android phones which run on the Sprint, Verizon or AT&T network depending on model.
4G LTE data is available on the all four networks. Straight Talk’s terms of service prohibit tethering and “continuous” video streaming.
Ting (855-846-4389) Is another Sprint MVNO. Ting can activate most Sprint phones except BlackBerrys, and PTT and WebOS phones. WiMAX and LTE are available.
Ting has an unusual pricing model that’s a hybrid of pay as you go and a monthly plan. There’s a $6 monthly fee plus separate buckets (Ting calls them tiers) of voice minutes, messages and data. There are five tiers for each type of usage. Minute tiers run from $3 for 100 minutes to $35 for 2100. Data tiers are from $3 for 100 MB to $29 for 2 GB. Prices across all tiers average around 2¢/minute, 1¢/text and 5¢/MB. Ting is a good value for moderate users. The sweet spot seems to be about 75-1000 minutes, 75-1000 messages and under 500 MB of data which costs between $12 and $41 before taxes and fees which run between $1 and $10/month.
A free BlackBerry add-on is available on request for the $50, $60 and $70 plans. It provides BIS support which is required for BlackBerry Messenger and Email on RIM Blackberry devices. Although it isn’t mentioned on the T-Mobile site, the BlackBerry add-on reportedly is also available for $10/month extra on the $30/month unlimited data, 100 minute plan.
All of T-Mobile’s prepaid plans include voice and SMS off-network roaming. LTE data is available with a compatible phone on add plans.
Ultra Mobile (888-777-0446) is a T-Mobile MVNO with monthly plans only. Ultra has some of the best sub $30 plans with data from any operator. Ultra is also notable for it’s international calling features. Ultra Mobile supports international direct dialing and all plans include unlimited calls to at least 10 countries and an international call credit.
Verizon Wireless (800-901-9878) has just one prepaid smartphone plan. It’s $45/month for unlimited voice minutes and messaging and 1 GB of data per month. Auto pay users get an extra 500 MB for a total of 1.5 MB per month.
For additional data users can add a “BRIDGE DATA” add-on:
$5 – 500 MB good for 30 days, $10 – 1 GB good for 90 days or $20 – 3 GB good for 90 days. The BRIDGE add ons have their own expiration independent from the basic plan activation. You can “stack” two add ons and the second one will be held in reserve until the first one is used up or expires. Any postpaid Verizon smartphone can be activated on this plan.
For feature phones on Verizon’s basic 25¢/minute pay as you go and $2/day unlimited plans, unlimited data is available for $1/day, which is only charged on days when you actually use data. Verizon doesn’t allow any smartphones, BlackBerries or even feature phones that require what Verizon calls an “Nationwide” plan on the basic prepaid plans that include dollar a day data.
Virgin Mobile (888-322-1122): Sprint owned Virgin has four Beyond Talkpackages that include unlimited data and messaging. The packages vary only by the number of included voice minutes and the amount of high speed data included.
If you need unlimited voice and messaging combined with a sizable amount of high-speed data, good choices are:
Cricket $40 2.5 GB, $50 5GB, $60 20 GB (LTE speeds limited to 8Mbps, HSPA+ to 4 Mbps)
AT&T $45 for 1.5 GB, $60 4 GB (LTE)
Red Pocket $59.99 for 3 GB (including LTE)
PTel $20 250 MB (no LTE),
Ultra Mobile $30 1 GB (LTE, price includes $1 “cost recovery fee”)
Lycamobile $35 2 GB (LTE),
GoSmart $35 2.5 GB, $40 5 GB, $45 10 GB (no LTE)
Selectel $55 2 GB
PagePlus $69.95 5 GB (LTE)
RingPlus 9.99 400 minutes, 400 texts; 300 MB, $26.99 300 minutes, unlimited texts plus 20% taxes and fees (LTE)
Virgin Mobile $35 unlimited data, first 2.5 GB unthrottled, unlimited texts, 300 voice minutes (LTE)
For light users of voice, messaging and data, the best bets are:AT&T network:
AT&T’s $2 Day plan with $1/day 100 MB add-on
Here are tables summarizing all the plans mentioned above.