If you're strapped for cash or just don't want to pay for more than you need, many providers offer low-cost phones and plans you can walk away from at any time. Cheapism compared 18 different prepaid cell phone plans to determine the cheapest mobile phone plan overall, as well as the lowest prices for unlimited phone calls, text messages, and data. Here’s what we found:
- US Mobile has the cheapest unlimited talk and text plan, at just $10 a month. Republic Wireless is a close second, at $15 a month.
- For unlimited data, US Mobile and Visible have the least expensive plans, packaged with unlimited talk and texts for $40. But Visible is the better deal: Its plan offers high-speed 4G LTE, while US Mobile users have to pay more for faster service. Visible’s rate also has taxes and fees built in, US Mobile’s does not.
- Pay-as-you-go service can be a money saver for “burner phones” that get very little use. There are prepaid plans available for as little as 25 cents a call, but there’s a lot of fine print, too.
Price Comparison: 17 Top Cell Phone Plans
The following chart lists monthly/30-day rates for a single-line plan. Unless otherwise indicated, data speeds will be slowed after the listed cap on 4G LTE/high-speed data is reached, but data service will not be cut off, nor will users be charged an overage fee. For carriers with no unlimited data plan, listed prices are for the unlimited talk and text plan with the highest data allotment.
|Provider||Cheapest Plan||Cheapest Unlimited Talk and Text Plan||Cheapest Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data Plan||Bring Your Own Phone|
|AT&T Prepaid||25¢/call, 20¢/text, 1¢/5KB data|
$2 per day unlimited talk/text
($25 with AutoPay)
|$65 ($45 with AutoPay)|
Mobile hotspot prohibited.
|$5 SIM card|
|Boost Mobile||$35 unlimited |
3GB 4G LTE data included.
12GB mobile hotspot included.
|$10 SIM card |
(Sprint SIM compatible)
|Cricket Wireless||$25 for 3GB data only||$30|
2GB 4G LTE data included.
|$55 ($50 with Auto Pay) for up to 3 Mbps |
($60 / $55 with Auto Pay for 4G LTE speeds, includes 15GB mobile hotspot)
|$10 SIM card|
|Metro by T-Mobile||$30 unlimited |
2GB 4G LTE data included.
5GB mobile hotspot, 100MB Google One
|$10 SIM card|
|Mint Wireless||$15 unlimited |
3GB 4G LTE data included.
|N/A ($25 for 12GB 4G LTE)||Free SIM card|
|Net10 Wireless||$20 ($15 with auto refill) for 200 mins. (0.5 mins./text, 2.5 mins./MMS; carries over with renewal)||$20 |
1GB 4G LTE data included.
|N/A ($60 for 12GB 4G LTE)||$1 SIM card|
|Pure Talk USA||$20 unlimited |
1GB 4G LTE data included.
|N/A ($55 for 22GB 4G LTE)||$3 SIM card|
|Republic Wireless||$15 unlimited |
|$15 ($150 for 12 mos.)||N/A ($90 for plan with max 15GB 4G LTE: $5/GB + $15 for unlimited talk/text)||$5 SIM card|
*No iPhone support
|Simple Mobile||$25 unlimited |
|$25 ($20 first 3 mos. with Auto Reup) |
3GB 4G LTE data included.
5GB mobile hotspot included.
|$1 SIM card|
|Straight Talk Wireless||$30 for 1,500 mins., unlimited texts, 100MB 4G LTE data (150MB with Auto Refill)||$35 ($34 with Auto Refill)|
3GB 4G LTE data included.
|$55 ($50 first 3 mos. with Auto Refill)|
10GB mobile hotspot included.
|$1 SIM card|
|Total Wireless||$25 unlimited |
|$25 ($23.70 with Auto Refill)||N/A ($50 / $47.50 with Auto Refill for 25GB 4G LTE)||$1 SIM card|
|Tracfone||$10 for 30 mins./texts ($9 with Auto Refill)||$20|
1GB 4G LTE* data included; carries over month to month.
|N/A ($30 for 3GB 4G LTE*; carries over)||$1 SIM card|
|Ultra Mobile||$3 for 30 mins./texts (10¢ for each additional)||$19|
1GB 4G LTE* data included.
|$49||Free SIM card|
|US Mobile||$2.50 for 40 mins. + $1.50 for 40 texts + $2 for 100MB data*||$10||$40 for standard 1 Mbps ($45 for 5 Mbps; $55 for up to 150 Mbps)||$4 SIM card|
|Virgin Mobile||$35 unlimited |
5GB 4G LTE data included.
|$60||$10 SIM card|
|Visible||$40 unlimited |
|$40||$40||Free SIM card|
|Verizon Prepaid||$35 unlimited |
|$35 ($30 with Auto Pay)|
1GB 4G LTE data included.
|N/A ($70 / $65 with Auto Pay for 30GB 4G LTE)||Free SIM card|
|Walmart Family Mobile||$24.88 unlimited |
2GB 4G LTE data included.
10GB mobile hotspot included.
|$1 SIM card|
*Additional data costs extra.
Mint Wireless: Plans must be purchased in 3-month increments at minimum. Introductory rate listed goes up after initial three months unless plans are renewed for 12 months.
Who Has the Best Prepaid Cell Phone Plan?
Unlike traditional (postpaid) cell phone plans from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T Wireless, and T-Mobile, which typically are bundled with phone leases or contracts and can require a two-year commitment at minimum, prepaid mobile phone plans give users the flexibility of paying month to month or even per call upfront, while leaving behind the expense and hassle of worrying about overage fees, upgrade fees, early termination fees, and (usually) credit checks.
These sorts of plans are ideal for anyone who needs a cheap extra handset — sometimes called a “burner phone” — or a temporary phone number for business, personal, or emergency use. A prepaid cell phone plan can also be a great way to keep your monthly phone bill down, depending on your individual coverage needs and the provider that you choose.
For customers who really only want a line for temporary, infrequent, or emergency use, many prepaid providers offer pay-as-you-go plans with a set amount of minutes or data. The cost depends on how frequently you require the service for phone calls, text messages, and data service. But there are some catches. First, credits expire if they aren't used within a given period: anywhere from 30 to 365 days, depending on the plan and sometimes on the number of minutes purchased or the amount of money deposited into the account. Second, requisite minimums on start-up amounts and/or refill amounts may make base payments much higher than anticipated.
For example, AT&T’s two a la carte plans promise rock-bottom rates: One starts as low as 25 cents per call and 20 cents per text. But the fine print reveals a minimum initial payment of $25, from which fees for individual calls or texts are deducted, and any unused balance expires after 90 days. When refilling the account, the minimum that can be added is $10, and any deposit of less than $25 will expire in just 30 days. So, plan members can expect to pay a bare minimum of $100 per year (assuming four payments of $25, good for 90 days each) even for a phone that’s barely used at all.
AT&T’s $2-daily pay-as-you-go unlimited talk and text plan works similarly, with an initial $25 payment and requisite top-ups. However, it may be a more attractive option for those who want the freedom to make more calls: Payment is deducted only for days you’re active, and you can use the phone as much as you’d like for 24 hours. Just keep in mind that AT&T, like many other providers, charges for incoming calls even if you don’t pick up the phone, so one missed call on a day when the phone otherwise sits unused is still going to cost $2, and phone bills can easily escalate if you’re not careful.
US Mobile, on the other hand, has incredibly low rates and a clear billing structure. There’s a $2 monthly service fee (plus taxes), but other than that, you pay only the cost of the plan. Choose the lowest-priced “custom” monthly talk package — $2 for 75 minutes — and the base bill will be $4. That’s all, unless you reach your limit and need to purchase more minutes as “top ups.” Plans can be purchased in increments up to 700 minutes of talk for $6, or with unlimited talktime for $8. Texts and data can be purchased in similar parcels, with “top ups” available.
Unlimited PlansPrepaid mobile phone plans can make sense even if you’re not just looking for a cheap way to keep a burner phone running on the side. The unlimited plans we surveyed offered serious savings in their own right over a typical cell phone service contract. For example, the cheapest standard wireless "Unlimited Starter" plan from AT&T is advertised at $65 per month (before taxes and fees), and that’s only after a series of discounts for paperless statements, automatic payments, etc. kick in "within two months." Before that, subscribers may be looking at a bill for the full plan price of $110 per month. Also, the assumption is that consumers will be purchasing a phone with a contract commitment and paying a subsequent activation fee (up to $45 per line). By contrast, AT&T Prepaid’s entry-level unlimited talk, text, and data plan costs $65 per month at most and can currently be had for as little as $45 a month with automatic payment. Once this limited-time promotion ends, new customers who sign on with autopay will be eligible for only a $10 discount. But even at $55, this prepaid plan offers a monthly savings of more than 15% over the post-paid plan and discounts are applied from the very first payment, with no strings attached and a lot less fine print.
Smaller prepaid providers have better prices still, even if they’re sometimes low on included perks. Visible and US Mobile offer unlimited talk, text, and data plans for just $40 for customers willing to forgo the option to make international calls. And Visible's plan prices have taxes and fees built in. Mint’s $15 unlimited talk and text plan includes free calling to Mexico and Canada and discounted rates to over 160 international countries, mobile hotspot capability, and a relatively generous 3GB of high-speed data, although the rate goes up to $25 after the first three months, unless you commit to a multi-month plan.
If you’re willing to pay $25 a month at Mint, it might make more sense to splurge on its highest-tier plan, which comes with a much more substantial data allotment: 12GB at 4G LTE speeds. And data service isn’t cut off after you reach that threshold; it’s just slower. This is true for many of the plans we surveyed, which means even heavy users might be able to make do with more limited data if a super-fast connection is not an absolute priority. Just know that, should you decide that you do need a few more gigs of high-speed service, add-on 4G LTE data frequently sells at a premium. At Mint, an extra 1GB costs $10 (and, remember, the entire plan with 3GB of data costs only $15).
At US Mobile, users opting for an unlimited plan have a choice of two data speeds: fast (5 Mbps) and “ludicrous” (200+ Mbps). Prices increase along with speed, and the company suggests that average data consumers who don’t download huge amounts of video content should be content with the “fast” plan, which is good enough for basic surfing, social media use, and watching video.
For users who need constant access to an internet connection, most carriers offer the option to use a phone as a mobile hotspot, although some extend this privilege only with certain plans or for an additional fee. Some hotspots draw from plan data, and others come with their own allocation of gigabytes.
Some providers offer more ways to save than others. For some companies, like US Mobile, where all service is completely a la carte, it comes down to providing a wealth of options for customizing plans — so that customers pay for only what they need. With others, service prices are reduced if users opt for automatic payment or refill plans, and some offer discounts to customers willing to sign up for longer 6-month or 12-month plans or add additional lines.
Some carriers simply slash prices for a limited time, similar to AT&T, or throw in a few money-saving extras. A couple of the more notable bargains we saw were Walmart Family Mobile's multiline offer, which would cut prices for additional lines on its highest-priced plan by more than half, and a plan from Metro by T-Mobile (formerly Metro PCS) that included Amazon Prime. T-Mobile also has a plan that provides data-free music streaming from partners, a definite plus for consumers trying to curb data usage. Boost Mobile offers similar music services with all its plans. Perks really start to stack up for US Mobile customers who add multiple lines to an unlimited plan: Apple TV Plus, Netflix, and more. Net10 Wireless, Simple Mobile, and Total Wireless all have rewards programs that let members earn points for renewing service, playing games, watching clips, and social media sharing; points can be used to pay for service plans or purchase add-ons.
How Do Prepaid Cell Phone Plans Work?
Consumers who’ve had contracts with Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon often have questions about switching to a prepaid cell phone plan. We’ve answered some of the most common ones below.
What is the difference between prepaid and postpaid plans?
Increasingly, the answer is: not that much, at least not on the face of it. There was a time when prepaid carriers were best known for offering no-contract cell phone plans, whereas signing on with a traditional (postpaid) mobile plan meant locking into a long-term service agreements. Nowadays that’s not typically the case. True, in some instances, a longer commitment is required to take advantage of certain savings, but for the most part, contracts are attached to phones bought or leased through the carriers (and “locked” into usage with them), not to the service plans themselves.
In fact, a large part of the difference between cheaper prepaid plans and their postpaid counterparts is that, with the latter, consumers are paying extra for the privilege of being able to purchase or lease a phone while paying in installments as opposed to buying a new phone outright. A case that proves this point: While Sprint (which will soon be merging with T-Mobile) no longer offers prepaid plans, the carrier not too long ago introduced a reduced-rate unlimited talk, text, and data plan designed specifically for customers who don’t require a phone lease. At just $35 a month for service, Sprint’s Unlimited Kickstart plan costs more than 40% less than the company’s cheapest full-service plan, the $60 Unlimited Basic.
While postpaid plans may still come with a few extra perks to help sweeten the deal and justify some of those higher costs, and postpaid customers are sometimes given priority over prepaid when data traffic is congested, for cell phone users who already own their phones and don’t feel the need to upgrade to the latest and greatest models, there’s certainly less incentive to shell out for those higher postpaid premiums. And there are also a few prepaid carriers, like Visible, Mint, and Republic Wireless, for example, that offer third-party financing on new phones (although users may end up paying interest with these plans).
That said, the clearest separator between prepaid plans and postpaid plans is evident in the terms themselves, and it’s also the most significant distinction in prepaid plans’ favor: With prepaid plans, users pay in advance for the service option they choose, while with postpaid plans users pay at the end of the service period. Since you’re paying upfront, prepaid plans do not require credit checks, nor do they require users to store credit cards on file (except with autopay enrollment). Not only does this make prepaid plans a good option for consumers with no credit, or questionable credit histories, but it also allows those looking for a cheap “burner phone” a degree of anonymity (more on that below).
Paying in advance also helps consumers keep a better handle on expenditures and think twice before they purchase add-on service. While there are postpaid providers that offer a la carte service plans, like Ting and Consumer Cellular, these carriers automatically bump subscribers up to the next plan level when limits are exceeded. At Ting, for example, it costs $9 for up to 100 minutes, but talk for 101 minutes, and the monthly rate doubles to $18. Some postpaid providers also charge upgrade fees to subscribers who decide to switch to a different monthly plan after finding that their current one doesn’t fit their usage needs. With a prepaid plan, users have the freedom to walk away from a plan or a company at any time — no waiting until the end of a billing cycle, no more money owed, and no need to contact any service representatives. A switch can be as simple as buying a new prepaid phone card. (Just be sure you’ve activated your new service before closing out with the previous provider if you want to keep your phone number.)
What networks do prepaid phones use?
Independent phone carriers that offer prepaid wireless plans and burner phones are also known as mobile virtual network operators. Rather than operate and maintain their own cell towers and networks, like the big four cellular phone carriers, MVNOs rent coverage and data bandwidth from those companies. Because they don’t have to maintain all that infrastructure, they’re able to keep end costs down for consumers. So, if you’re partial to a particular network, you should check to see if the prepaid plan you’re considering leases from that provider. Some MVNOs offer access to more than one network; Tracfone, for example, is the largest prepaid provider and works with all four major networks (Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T).
Aside from offering better coverage in some geographic areas than others, different networks use different cellular standards: i.e., GSM vs. CDMA. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM, a network system that’s common in much of the world, whereas Sprint and Verizon use CDMA, which has much more limited use. Neither standard is necessarily superior to the other, but they’re worth noting because many phones are designed to work with only one or the other. That said, many newer smartphones are universal models that can be used on both GSM and CDMA networks.
Can I use my current phone with a prepaid plan?
All the cell phone plans we compared offer the option to use an existing phone rather than purchase a new phone directly from the company. But there are some catches. First and foremost, the phone must be “unlocked.” The main difference between a locked and an unlocked phone is that an unlocked phone is not tied to any cell phone carrier or service contract. If you didn’t purchase your device unlocked, you’re still legally entitled to cut ties with a carrier and unlock your phone once its been fully paid for and you’re no longer under any contractual obligations.
However, before moving on to your new prepaid plan, you will need to check your device’s compatibility with the phone company’s network (see above). If the phone is unlocked and compatible, in most cases, all you need to do to activate service is purchase a SIM card from your new prepaid plan provider. Older CDMA phones do not use SIM cards, and may require contacting your carrier to have them configured for service, or “reprovisioned,” after they’ve been unlocked.
Can I use my old number on a prepaid phone?
In most instances, you should be able to port your phone number to a prepaid provider when you switch. But if what you’re looking to do is turn your existing phone into a “burner phone” in the more traditional sense — i.e., a phone with a number that’s anonymous and not easily traceable to you (in the past these were usually cheap phones that were pretty much disposable, hence “burners”) — there are now many options for setting up any device with temporary numbers that can be used for business purposes or other communications you wish to keep private. Among these, PCMag editors recommend the Burner app, probably the best known of these services; a small monthly fee allows you to create multiple numbers. Alternatively, Google Voice provides a free number that can work across all your devices.
Where can I buy a burner phone?
Of course, phones can be purchased directly online from prepaid phone carriers, but even some smaller companies like Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, Simple Mobile, Total Wireless, and Ultra Mobile have bricks-and-mortar locations. Some carriers also sell their phones at other wireless providers’ stores. But you don’t have to go out of your way to get your hands on a cheap burner phone. Not surprisingly, Amazon sells a plethora of prepaid mobile phones, and they can also be purchased from major retailers including Target, Walmart, which probably has the largest in-store selection, and Best Buy, which has a slight edge in terms of the number of carriers represented. Even Dollar General has a small selection of burner phones. You’ll also find prepaid phone cards that include preloaded plans/minutes on sale at all of these locations and a host of others (check your local supermarket) — which can make starting or refilling plans even easier.
Which cell phone carriers sell the most prepaid cell phones?
If you do want to buy a phone direct from your new prepaid cell phone carrier, some carry a lot more options than others. Straight Talk sells around 80 different models — the most of any company in our survey. The selection ranges from a bare-bones ZTE Z233 flip phone that costs $10 to the latest Apple iPhone 11 Max and Samsung Galaxy S10+, both of which are 100 times as pricey. There are also several reconditioned models that come free with the purchase of a plan. At the other end of the spectrum, Republic Wireless customers have only about two dozen handsets to choose from, and Republic doesn’t offer the newest iPhone 11 (but does carry new Samsung phones and the Google Pixel). In general, prices at these carriers are in line with what you’d pay for an unlocked cell phone from Best Buy or Amazon, but it always pays to compare before you buy.
Which providers offer international prepaid cell phone service?
Many prepaid phone carriers offer free calling within the United States, Canada, and sometimes Mexico, but most require users to pay extra charges or purchase add-on packages for other international calling. If there are specific countries you tend to call a lot, be sure to confirm they’re covered. Not surprisingly, the big names tend to cast wider nets and are more likely to allow customers to use their phones while traveling abroad. A couple of small carriers don’t offer international calling at all.
The following providers are notable for their international service or lack thereof:
- AT&T Prepaid: All unlimited plans offer free texting to more than 100 countries. All but the base $35 plan include unlimited talk and text to Mexico and Canada, as well as unlimited talk, text, and data use within those countries.
- Boost Mobile: Among other add-ons, users have the unique option to purchase a certain number of minutes to select countries. Plans are good for 90 days and include unlimited texting.
- Cricket Wireless: Unlimited plans include Canada and Mexico as well as free unlimited texting to 37 countries.
- Republic Wireless: No outbound international calling or texting, with the exception of Canada and select territories. The company reserves the right to charge up to 50 cents per minute for calls made to U.S. territories. With Wi-Fi calling, customers can call or text the United States, Canada, and U.S. territories from anywhere in the world.
- Simple Mobile: Unlimited plans include unlimited international calling to 69 destinations, $10 credit for more than 100 destinations, plus roaming in 16 Latin American countries.
- Tracfone: Free basic international calling to nearly 60 countries. Excludes unlimited talk/text smartphone plans. International Neighbors program allows friends and family in Mexico to call Tracfones at local rates, with no fee for this service.
- Ultra Mobile: Plans include global texting and unlimited international calling to more than 80 destinations, plus international calling and roaming credits.
- US Mobile: No international calling available.
- Total Wireless: All international calling is extra, no Mexico and Canada service, no international roaming.
- Verizon Prepaid: Unlimited plans include texting to 200 international destinations. Roaming in Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands is $5 per day.
- Visible: Service is limited to the continental United States and Hawaii; no international calling.
Which Prepaid Phone Service Is Best, According to Reviews?
Several reliable outlets review and recommend the best unlimited mobile phone plans for different needs. Sources we consulted include Consumer Reports, Top Ten Reviews, PCMag, and Nerdwallet, as well as a few phone-specific sites, like Android Authority. Among the standout companies were Metro by T-Mobile, which gets positive marks from PCMag, as well as Reviews.com and Tom’s Guide, for what reviewers describe as reliable service with few dropped calls and smooth streaming. Republic Wireless was frequently lauded for its innovative use of Wi-Fi networks for call and data routing, which helps keep both costs and data expenditures lower. Users also applauded the smaller carrier’s responsive customer service.
But for best-in-class customer satisfaction, it’s not a prepaid service that tops the list of favorites. Postpaid provider Consumer Cellular which promises plain, simple, and customizable low-cost cell phone plans for seniors, appears to be the brand to beat. PCMag calls out the carrier as a reader favorite for being particularly easy for older clients to use. In our research, we also took note of the simply explained instructional materials on the site, including buying guides designed to help non-techies find the phone and plan that would be the best fit. There was also a good selection of basic phones with big buttons designed with older users in mind. The icing on the cake for the over-50 crowd: Consumer Cellular offers AARP members a 5% discount on services and a 30% discount on accessories. True, Consumer Cellular can’t compete on price with the best prepaid cell phone plans, but if you’re not a heavy data user, you’ll most likely save over what you’d be paying at one of the major postpaid carriers. Consumer Cellular is more than happy to help potential customers compare costs, with a savings calculator right on its website.