Americans love their cellphones. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be willing to pay so much for them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $1,218 every year, or $101.50 per month, for cellphone service. That’s hardly surprising when you consider that unlimited monthly plans from the three largest carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — start at $60 for a single line and range well into the hundreds of dollars.
Although these three companies hold the lion’s share of the market for cellphone service, they’re not the only sources. For consumers willing to look beyond the big three, there are plenty of ways to stay connected at a more reasonable rate — and you don’t have to give up decent coverage to do it. This makes swapping out your pricey cellphone plan for a cheaper plan one of the easiest ways to save money on a tight budget.
There are several ways to reduce your cellphone bill. Prepaid plans generally cost less than monthly plans, especially if your usage is low. In addition, there are several budget providers — some of which are actually subsidiaries of the big three — that offer cheaper coverage.
Prepaid Plans From Major Carriers
If you’re with one of the major carriers, one way to reduce your cost is to switch to a prepaid plan. These cost less per month, even for the same level of usage. And if you don’t need as much data as you’re paying for with your current monthly plan, you can lower your data caps and save even more.
With AT&T Prepaid — formerly known as GoPhone — you can pay as little as $30 per month for unlimited talk and text, plus 5 gigabytes (GB) of high-speed data. Increasing the monthly fee gets you more data: 15GB for $40, and unlimited data for $50. Or, if you prepay for a year in advance, you can get 8GB per month for just $25.
T-Mobile’s cheapest prepaid plan, called T-Mobile Connect, costs just $15 per month for unlimited talk and text, plus 2GB of high-speed data. You can bump the data limit up to 5GB for $25 per month. If you stick with either of these plans, T-Mobile will increase your data allowance by 500MB each year you renew. If you need more data, T-Mobile’s Simply Prepaid plans range from $40 per month for 10GB of 4G LTE data — the current standard for mobile broadband — to $60 for 10GB of data at LTE speed plus unlimited data at a slower 3G speed.
If you’re with Verizon, switching to prepaid won’t save you much, but it will get you more data for your dollar. The company’s cheapest prepaid plan costs $40 for unlimited talk and text plus 5GB of data. You can upgrade that to 15GB for $50 or unlimited data for $65 — a slightly better deal than Verizon’s unlimited monthly plan.
Sub-Brands From Major Carriers
The three major carriers have a little secret: They all have budget-priced sub-brands that use their networks but don’t carry their names. By switching to one of these lower-cost brands, you can keep your existing phone and continue using the same network while sharply cutting your monthly bill.
As the low-cost arm of AT&T, Cricket offers a choice of four no-contract plans. Each plan provides unlimited talk and text, plus a different amount of high-speed data over 4G LTE. For a single line, you get 2GB for $30 per month, 10GB for $40, unlimited data for $55, or for $60, unlimited data plus 15GB of mobile hotspot data. Choosing automatic payment for any of the top three plans cuts its price by $5 per month.
Formerly owned by Sprint, Boost Mobile was acquired by Dish when Sprint merged with T-Mobile in April 2020. According to CNET, the deal allows Boost to continue to operate on T-Mobile’s network for seven years while Dish builds its own 5G network.
All of Boost’s contract-free, prepaid plans offer unlimited talk, text, and data. However, with the cheapest plans, which range from $10 to $45 per month, only a limited amount of that data — from 1GB to 15GB — is at 4G LTE high speed. The $50 plan includes unlimited LTE data plus 12GB of mobile hot spot data, and the $60 plan provides 30GB of mobile hot spot data. Both of these plans include unlimited video streaming — in standard definition (SD) for the $50 plan and high definition (HD) for the $60 plan.
All plans from MetroPCS are contract-free and offer unlimited talk, text, and data over T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network, plus access to its new 5G network where available. However, some of those plans give you only a limited amount of data at top speed. The $30 monthly plan gives you 2GB, the $40 plan offers 10GB, and the $50 plan offers unlimited high-speed data plus 5GB of mobile hot spot data and 100GB of Google One cloud storage. For $60 per month, you can increase your mobile hot spot data to 15GB and add a free subscription to Amazon Prime Video.
In 2018, Verizon created Visible, a new low-cost brand that’s sold exclusively online. Visible offers exactly one plan: a flat $40 per month — including all taxes and fees — for unlimited talk, text, and data over Verizon’s 4G LTE network. You can also use your phone as a mobile hot spot, but only for one device at a time, at speeds up to 5 megabits per second. Adding extra lines to your plan reduces the cost per line; you pay $70 per month for two phones, $90 per month for three, or $100 per month for four.
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)
Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, create their “virtual networks” by buying and reselling minutes and data from the three major carriers. Their plans offer increased flexibility and, in many cases, lower costs. The downside is that you don’t get the reliable customer service you can expect from the leading providers.
Various tech publications, including PCMag and Tom’s Guide, offer their takes on which MVNOs are the best. They compare different providers based on such factors as network quality, choice of plans, available devices, and overall value. Their top picks include:
8. Mint Mobile
Initial rates with Mint Mobile are quite low. When you first sign up, you can pay as little as $15 per month for unlimited talk and text with 3GB of data on T-Mobile’s network — either 4G LTE or 5G, whichever is stronger. You can bump that data limit up to 8GB for $20 per month,12GB for $25, or unlimited data for $30.
However, the only way to keep these low rates after your first three months is to pay upfront for a full year of the service. If you stick to your three-month contract, your rate jumps to $25, $35, or $45 per month, or $40 for the unlimited plan.
9. Consumer Cellular
Consumer Cellular markets its services chiefly to senior citizens with easy-to-use devices, exclusive benefits for AARP members, and plans focused more on talk and less on data use. All the same, it earns a strong recommendation from the tech-savvy staff of PCMag, particularly for its excellent customer service.
Consumer Cellular offers plans with unlimited talk and text for prices ranging from $25 per month for one line and 500MB of data to $90 per month for three lines and unlimited shared data. It also has lighter-use plans with 250 talk minutes and unlimited texts per month, plus varying amounts of data. These start at $20 per month for one line and 500MB and go up to $85 per month for three lines and unlimited shared data.
10. Google Fi
Tom’s Guide recommends Google Fi as the best choice for frequent travelers. This plan gives you access to three different LTE networks — Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular — and automatically hooks you up to whichever signal is strongest. You can also get 5G access if you’re using a phone that’s compatible with T-Mobile’s 5G network. And, if you’re using a phone designed for Google Fi within range of a Wi-Fi hot spot, it connects you to that instead at no cost.
You pay a flat $20 per month for unlimited talk and text, plus $10 per GB of data, up to a maximum of 15GB. Google Fi also offers an unlimited plan for $70 per month, with up to 22GB of high-speed data and slower speeds after that. And you pay nothing extra for data when using your phone outside the U.S.
11. Republic Wireless
With Republic Wireless, you get most of your data over Wi-Fi, switching over to the T-Mobile-Sprint LTE network only as needed. This allows Republic to offer service at lower rates than most other providers. Its cheapest plan is $15 per month or $150 per year for unlimited talk and text. Data is normally available only over Wi-Fi, but you can add cell data for $5 per GB.
At higher tiers, you can get more data at 3G and 4G LTE speeds — starting at $20 per month for 1GB and going up to $90 per month for 15GB. One catch is that iPhones are incompatible with Republic’s service.
12. Ultra Mobile
PCMag’s pick for international callers is Ultra Mobile. For $16 per month or $168 per year, you can get unlimited international calling to more than 80 countries, plus unlimited texts worldwide. You can add varying amounts of data — either 4G LTE or 5G — to this plan, from 1 GB for $19 per month to unlimited data for $39 per month, with international roaming and call credits included. It works with any T-Mobile-compatible phone.
13. US Mobile
US Mobile works with two 4G LTE networks: a Global System for Mobile (GSM) network that works with all devices, and a Super LTE network that provides more reliable coverage. It also offers low-band 5G access on its GSM network, meaning that if you have a 5G-compatible device, you automatically get 5G coverage with speeds up to 20% higher than 4G LTE. Users on the Super LTE network can sign up for early access to three months’ worth of high-band 5G coverage, with speeds up to 10 times faster than 4G LTE.
US Mobile doesn’t offer any “plans,” per se. Instead, this carrier lets you build your own plan. The cheapest option is a mere $5 per month for 75 minutes, 50 texts, and 50MB of data. From there, you can scale all the way up to unlimited talk and text with 8 GB of data for $40 per month plus taxes and fees.
How to Decide
With so many providers and plans to choose from, there’s no single one that can be identified as the best. Instead, you have to figure out which one works best for you based on how you use your cellphone.
Factors to consider include:
It’s essential to have a network that keeps you covered in the areas where you spend the most time. Verizon’s network was the strongest overall in a 2019 study by RootMetrics, but it’s not worth paying more for it if your home territory is covered just as well by another carrier’s. Check out coverage maps, and also ask your neighbors how good their reception is with the providers they use.
If you spend most of your time in densely populated areas that fall under the umbrella of Wi-Fi, it’s possible you can get by with Wi-Fi only and you don’t need to worry about network data coverage. On the other hand, if you travel a lot, Google Fi’s flexible network offers a good way to make sure you’re covered wherever you go.
The network you use doesn’t just determine your area of coverage; it also affects your upload and download speeds. 4G LTE speeds matter most with uploads, so if you spend a lot of time uploading, access to a 4G LTE network should be a priority for you. On the other hand, if you use your phone mostly for talking and texting, it’s likely you can get by with 3G or even slower speeds.
As for 5G, PCMag says it only affects speed significantly if you happen to live in an area with high-band or mid-band coverage. As of 2020, most of the country has only low-band 5G, which isn’t noticeably better than 4G LTE.
If your phone is truly for emergencies only, then you can get by with a bare-bones plan that offers a limited number of minutes and little or no data use. If you do a lot of calling and texting but little web surfing, you should opt for a plan with unlimited talk and text but not worry too much about data limits. By contrast, if you spend a lot of time listening to music or watching video on your phone, the best plan is the one that gives you the most data at the best price. AT&T’s data usage calculator can help you figure out how much data you need in your plan.
If you often make calls to friends abroad, you need a plan that includes international calling. If you frequently spend time abroad yourself, it’s important to choose a provider that can keep you connected while you’re out of the country. This means you need 4G LTE coverage, the current worldwide standard. You also need to make sure the phone you’re using is compatible with the specific frequencies used in the countries you visit most often.
If you have your heart set on a particular cellphone, or if you’re strongly attached to the phone you have now, then you need a carrier that supports that phone. However, if you’re willing to switch phones to get the lowest monthly rate, that opens up a wider range of low-cost options, such as Republic Wireless.
Evaluating customer service through reviews can be tricky because every provider has both satisfied and unsatisfied customers. The best information comes from surveys that talk with a large number of users.
In a 2019 survey of more than 12,000 cellphone users, JD Power reports that customers of Consumer Cellular, T-Mobile, and Cricket are happiest with the care they receive. A large survey of Consumer Reports subscribers from 2020 also identifies Consumer Cellular as a standout for customer support. Other MVNOs, particularly Google Fi, also get high ratings.
Every cellphone user is unique. Only you can decide which provider is best for your needs. However, there are a few clear standouts.
For instance, if you carry a phone for emergencies and hardly ever use it, US Mobile can give you all the service you need for just $5 per month. On the other hand, if you’re a hardcore user who does a lot of music and video streaming, it’s probably worth shelling out $40 to $50 per month for an unlimited plan from Visible or Boost. And if your usage varies widely from month to month, a build-your-own-plan carrier like US Mobile could be your best deal.
For international travelers, Google Fi and Ultra Mobile offer great international access. Families can get great prices for multiple lines with Boost, Cricket, or Visible. And for those who want no-frills service with great customer support, Consumer Cellular is a standout. There’s something for everyone, so decide what kind of service you need and go with the best option for you.