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How to Save With a Cheaper Cell Phone Plan – Types of Service, Major Carriers & Alternatives

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We just finished compiling 25 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget. But another great way to save money every month is by cutting your cell phone bill.

Americans love their cell phones. 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 $937 every year, or $78 per month, for cell phone service. That’s hardly surprising when you consider that monthly plans from the four largest carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – start at $30 and range well into the hundreds.

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While these four companies hold the lion’s share of the market for cell phone service, they’re not the only source. For consumers willing to look beyond the big four, 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.

Types of Service

When you switch on your cell phone, the first thing you may notice is whether you have a connection. Cell phone providers have many different ways of hooking you up to phone and Internet service, and some tend to be cheaper than others.

  • Wi-Fi. When you connect to WiFi, you’re tapping into someone else’s Internet connection. This is essentially the same thing you do when you use a password to hook up your tablet to your home wireless network, or when you log into your laptop at a local bar or coffee shop. Public WiFi “hotspots,” by contrast, are open to all, with no password needed – your phone can connect automatically to these as soon as you enter their range. Nowadays, there are so many hotspots around that it’s a valid option to have phone service through WiFi only, hopping from hotspot to hotspot as you travel through a city and never actually connecting to a cell network.
  • 2G. As PC Magazine explains, 2G, which stands for “second generation,” is the digital cell phone service that replaced the oldest analog systems. These days, cell phone providers don’t offer connections through 2G, which is much slower than newer 3G and 4G networks. However, you may still find yourself using 2G if you have a plan that promises “unlimited data.” In reality, many of these plans give you a limited amount of data on a high-speed network, after which you’re dropped down to a 2G connection for the rest of the month.
  • 3G. Third-generation wireless, or 3G, is the earliest generation of “mobile broadband.” As PC Magazine notes, speeds over 3G networks vary widely, from 400 kbps to more than ten times as much. The majority of wireless providers have now moved on to 4G, but some budget providers still use the 3G network. Also, many providers that offer 4G service for most web browsing note in the fine print that video streaming is limited to 3G speeds.
  • 4G. According to PC Magazine, 4G coverage isn’t necessarily faster than 3G. There are many different technologies that fall under the heading of 4G, and many ways to use those technologies, so the term is not very meaningful. However, there’s a big difference between 4G and 4G LTE – the gold standard when it comes to speed, particularly for uploads. There’s a lot of variation in speed among different 4G LTE networks, but all of them are faster than 3G.

Major Carrier Costs

According to a 2014 report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), roughly 69% of the nation’s cell phone users subscribe to either Verizon or AT&T. Add in T-Mobile and Sprint, and the figure rises to more than 97%. That’s bad news for consumers because plans from these four carriers come with a hefty price tag.

  • Verizon. Individual monthly cell phone plans from Verizon start at $35 per month. This gives you unlimited talk and text over Verizon’s top-rated 4G LTE network, plus 2GB of data (every 500MB over that limit costs an extra $15). Two gigabytes may sound like a lot, but according to Verizon’s data usage calculator, you’d exceed that limit streaming video over 4G for just 10 minutes per day. Raise the data limit to 4GB and you pay $50 per month and $15 for each 1GB over the limit.
  • AT&T. Pricing plans from AT&T is a bit of a challenge, as they vary from location to location. In central New Jersey, where I live, plans start at $30 for unlimited talk and text plus 1GB of high-speed data, with additional data at 2G speed. The cost mounts steeply as the data limit increases, going all the way up to $450 per month for 100GB. On top of that, you pay an “access fee” for each device on the plan.
  • SprintSprint offers a simple “unlimited freedom” plan. You can get unlimited talk, text, Jersey, where I live, plans start at $30 for unlimited talk and text plus 1GB of high-speed data, with additional data at 2G speed. The cost mounts steeply as the data limit increases, going all the way up to $450 per month for 100GB. On top of that, you pay an “access fee” for each device on the plan. This plan doesn’t promise top speed for streaming, but you can add it for another $20 per line. Cheaper plans start at $20 a month for talk and text with 1GB of high-speed data, and unlimited 2G data after that.
  • T-Mobile. If you want truly unlimited usage, T-Mobile is pricier than Sprint: $95 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data over 4G LTE. However, if you can accept some limits on your data use, the price drops: $80 for 10GB, $65 for 6GB, and just $50 for 2GB. Family plans start at $100 per month for four lines with 2GB of data each.

Major Carrier Costs

Cheaper Alternatives

Clearly, a monthly plan from one of the four top providers is no bargain. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce your cell phone 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 four – that offer cheaper coverage.

Prepaid Plans From Major Carriers

If you’re with one of the four major carriers, one way to reduce your coverage 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 save even more.

  • AT&T. With AT&T GoPhone, it’s possible to get a phone with no monthly fee at all. Instead, you pay only for the minutes and data you use: $0.25 per minute, $0.20 per text, and $0.01 per 5KB. You can also pay $2 for each day you use the phone, which includes unlimited talk and text, plus the same pay-per-use rate for data. Monthly prepaid plans start at $30 per month for unlimited talk and text, but no data (except via WiFi). For $45 per month, you can tack on 3GB of high-speed data, and for $60 you can raise the limit to 6GB.
  • SprintSprint Prepaid is a bit more generous with high-speed data, allowing 1GB for $35 per month, 3GB for $45, and 6GB for $55. All these plans include unlimited talk, text, and 2G data. The catch is, you must buy a Sprint Prepaid phone to take advantage of these rates.
  • T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s Simply Prepaid service, priced by the month, costs more than Sprint’s. It starts at $40 per month for unlimited talk and text, plus 3GB of 4G LTE data. You can bump the data limit up to 5GB for $50 per month or 10GB for $60. However, for light users, T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go plans are a real bargain. For a mere $3 per month, you get either 30 minutes of talk time or 30 text messages, or any combination of the two, over 4G LTE. Additional minutes and texts cost $0.10 each. If you also want data, you can tack on a “data pass.” This costs $5 for one day and up to 500MB or $10 for one week and up to 1GB.
  • Verizon. If you’re with Verizon, unfortunately, switching to prepaid won’t save you very much. Its cheapest plan costs $30 for unlimited talk and text, with data through wi-fi only. You can upgrade that to $45 for 2GB of data and $60 for 5GB, plus unlimited talk and texting, over 4G LTE. That’s more than you’d pay for the same amount of data with one of Verizon’s regular plans.

Sub-brands From Major Carriers

The four major carriers have a little secret. As Money Talks News reports, 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.

  • Cricket. As the low-cost arm of AT&T, Cricket offers a choice of four no-contract plans. Its four plans offer unlimited talk and text, plus a limited amount of high-speed data over 4G LTE. You get 2.5GB for $40 a month, 5GB for $50, 10GB for $60, and unlimited data for $70. Choosing automatic payment for any of these three plans cuts their costs by $5 per month.
  • BoostBoost runs on Sprint’s 4G LTE network. All of its plans offer unlimited talk, text, and data, but only a fixed amount of that data is at high speed – after you exceed your monthly limit, the speed drops to a more moderate 2G level. You can get 2GB of high-speed data for $35 per month, 5GB for $40, and unlimited high-speed data for $60. As a perk, your data limit gets “boosted” by 500MB per month when you pay three bills in a row on time.
  • Virgin Mobile. Also operating on Sprint’s network, Virgin Mobile offers much the same deal as Boost. Its no-contract plans include unlimited talk and text plus limited high-speed data, with 2G after you hit your limit. Plans range from $30 per month for 500 MB of data to $50 a month for 6GB. For lower usage, Virgin offers three tiers of “PayLo” plans, ranging from $20 to $40 per month, with limited amounts of talk, text, and data.
  • GoSmart Mobile. GoSmart Mobile runs off T-Mobile’s 3G network, but with a twist: It offers 4G LTE speeds for Facebook use only. Plans start at $25 per month for unlimited talk, text, and Facebook, but offer no other web access. Other tiers offer unlimited talk, text, and web access, but with only a limited amount of data at 3G speed – once you hit your limit, you’re dropped to 2G speed. You get 4GB for $35 per month, 12GB for $45, and 20GB for $55.
  • MetroPCS. All plans from MetroPCS are contract-free and offer unlimited talk, text, and data over T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network. However, like other providers, MetroPCS gives you only a limited amount of data at its top speed. The $30 monthly plan gives you 1GB at “up to 4G speeds,” the $40 plan offers 2GB at “up to 4G LTE,” and the $50 plan bumps the limit up to 4GB. For $60 per month, you can use all the high-speed data you want.
  • Total Wireless. The Total Wireless website touts its use of “America’s largest and most reliable 4GLTE network,” but for some reason doesn’t say that this network is Verizon’s. What it does say is that it offers a variety of plans for either one or multiple users, all with unlimited talk and text. Individual users can get talk and text only for $25 per month, or talk and text plus 5GB of data for $35 per month. Families can share 8GB of data over two phones for $60 per month, 12GB over three phones for $85, and 15GB over four phones for $100.

Sub Brands Major Carrier

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)

Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, create their “virtual networks” by buying and reselling minutes and megabytes from the four 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 leading providers.

Both PC Magazine and Digital Trends offer their takes on which MVNOs are the best:

  • Consumer Cellular. Consumer Cellular markets its services chiefly to senior citizens, with easy-to-use phones, exclusive benefits for AARP members, and plans focused more on talk and less on data use. All the same, it earns rave reviews from the tech-savvy readers of PC Magazine, particularly for its excellent customer service. Consumer Cellular sells talk plans and “Connect Plans,” for data and texting, separately. Its most basic talk plan costs $10 monthly plus $0.25 for each minute of talk time. Higher-tier plans include more free minutes, up to $50 for unlimited talk. Connect Plans start at $2.50 per month for 300 texts and 30MB of data and go up to $40 per month for unlimited texts and 4GB of data.
  • Straight TalkStraight Talk is a subsidiary of TracPhone, which PC Magazine calls “the granddaddy of the MVNOs,” with more than 25 million subscribers under various brand names. Straight Talk offers an assortment of no-contract plans that include unlimited texting. For $30 per month, you get 1,500 minutes of talk and 100MB of data. For $45, you can bump that up to unlimited talk and 5GB of data at 4G LTE speeds, with extra data at 2G speed. You can cut this price a bit by paying up front for several months at a time: $130 for three months, $255 for six months, or $495 for a year.
  • Page Plus. Another TracPhone brand, Page Plus is one of the few MVNOs that runs over Verizon’s top-rated network. Its most bare-bones monthly plan, for $12, includes 250 minutes, 250 texts, and 10MB of data at 3G speed. Higher-tier plans, ranging from $30 to $70 per month, include 4G LTE speed, along with higher usage limits. Page Plus also offers pay-as-you-go plans, starting at $10 for 120 days of use. This includes 100 free minutes and $0.10 for each additional minute; you can also text for $0.05 per message and use data at $0.10 per MB. At each tier of pay-as-you-go service, the number of minutes increases and the price for each additional minute drops. So, for $80 you can get 2,000 minutes good for an entire year and pay only $0.04 for additional minutes. However, prices for texts and data are unchanged.
  • Republic Wireless. With Republic Wireless, you get most of your data over WiFi, switching over to Sprint’s 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 for unlimited talk and text, with data available only over WiFi. At higher tiers, you can get more data at 3G and 4G LTE speeds – starting at $20 a month for 1GB and going up to $90 for 10GB. One catch is that you can’t bring your own device, although Republic offers a choice of several smartphones from Motorola, Samsung, and Nexus.
  • FreedomPopFreedomPop is the only MVNO we’ve seen with a plan that’s 100% free. Its basic plan gives you 200 minutes, 500 messages, and 500MB of data – most of the time this is over WiFi, but if you wander out of range you remain covered by 4G LTE without paying a penny more. If you want more usage, you can pay just $80 per year for unlimited talk and text plus 500MB of data per month, or choose the Unlimited Everything plan for $20 per month. Data use is unlimited on this plan, but your speed drops to 3G level after the first gigabyte. Also, PC Magazine warns that FreedomPop users have a lot of complaints about its customer service.
  • H2O Wireless. Digital Trends recommends H2O Wireless as the best choice for international travelers. All of its monthly plans offer unlimited calling and texting to more than 50 countries, plus a limited amount of international talk time for countries not on the list. Its cheapest plan, for $30 per month, gives you unlimited talk and text to selected countries, $10 worth of talk to all other countries, and 500MB of data. Its top-of-the-line plan, for $60 per month, upgrades that to $20 worth of international talk and unlimited data – though only the first 4.5GB is at 4G LTE speed. You can also choose pay-as-you-go service, which you buy in $10 increments. Out of that $10, you pay $0.05 each for minutes and texts and $0.10 per MB of data. One caveat: You can’t bring your own phone to this plan, though it offers a good selection of popular models.
  • Ultra Mobile. PC Magazine’s pick for international callers is Ultra Mobile. For 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.
  • TPO Mobile. TPO Mobile has a unique perk: It gives a portion of your monthly bill to charity. Its monthly plans start at $8 for unlimited texts, plus 1,000 talk minutes and 500MB of data at 4G LTE speed. From there, plans go up to $60 per month for unlimited talk and text plus 7GB of data. Whichever plan you choose, 10% of your payment goes to a charity that you can choose from a list of more than 30.
  • Ting. Unlike other MVNOs, Ting doesn’t offer any “plans,” per se. Instead, you pay for what you use. Starting with a base rate of $6 per device, you can add as many devices to your account as you like. Then, you tack on the three M’s – minutes, messages, and megabytes – as separate charges each month. There are several tiers of usage for each of the three Ms, and Ting bills you for whatever level of usage you hit in a given month across all your devices. For instance, you could pay $6 for one phone and add on 100 minutes of call time for $3, send 1,000 messages for $5, and use 500MB of data for $10, for a total of $24.
  • US MobileUS Mobile runs on T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network, and it can accept all the same phones as T-Mobile. Like Ting, this carrier lets you build your own plan. The cheapest option is $9 a month for 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 100MB of data. From there, you can scale all the way up to 5,000 minutes, unlimited texts, and 6GB of data for $59 a month.
  • Krew Mobile. For families who need multiple lines, one of the best deals out there is Krew Mobile. This carrier gives you three lines on T-Mobile’s LTE network – one for a parent and two for the kids – all for a flat $39.95 a month. The parent’s line has 2GB of high-speed data, with additional data over 2G, plus unlimited talk and text. The kids’ lines share 60 one-hour blocks of talk and text. When you sign up, you get your first two months of service at a reduced rate of $19.95 a month.
  • Google Fi. There’s been a lot of buzz about Google’s Project Fi. This plan gives you access to three different LTE networks – Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular – and automatically hooks you up to whichever one is strongest. Or, if you’re within range of a wi-fi hotspot, it connects you to that instead at no cost. You pay a flat $20 a month for unlimited talk and text, plus $10 per GB for data. If you don’t use the full GB, you get credit for the unused data on your next statement.

How to Decide

With so many providers and plans to choose from, there’s obviously 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 cell phone.

Factors to consider include:

  • Coverage. It’s essential to have a network that keeps you covered in the areas where you spend the most time. Verizon’s network is the strongest overall, 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 WiFi, it’s possible you can get by only with WiFi 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.
  • Speed. 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.
  • Usage. 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. Verizon’s data usage calculator can help you figure out how much data you need in your plan.
  • International Use. 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. According to PC Magazine, this probably means one that runs on T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s network, since both use Global System for Mobile (GSM), the technology that’s prevalent in most parts of the world. Verizon and Sprint use Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which is strong in North America but rare elsewhere.
  • Phone Choices. If you have your heart set on a particular cell phone, 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.
  • Customer Service. Evaluating customer service through reviews can be tricky since every provider has both satisfied and unsatisfied customers. The best information comes from surveys that talk with a large number of users. In a 2015 survey of more than 2,500 cell phone users, JD Power reports that customers of AT&T, T-Mobile, and Virgin Mobile are happiest with the care they receive. A larger survey of Consumer Reports subscribers from 2016 identifies Consumer Cellular as a standout for customer support. Other small companies, like Cricket, Republic Wireless, Page Plus, and Ting, also get high ratings.

Factors Consider Decide

Final Word

Every cell phone 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, FreedomPop can give you all the service you need for free.

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 $60 per month for an unlimited plan from Sprint or MetroPCS. And if your usage varies widely from month to month, a build-your-own-plan carrier like Ting or US Mobile could be your best deal.

For international travelers, H2O and Ultra Mobile offer great international access. For families, Krew Mobile offers great prices for multiple lines. And for those who just want no-frills service with great customer support, Consumer Cellular is a standout. There’s something for everyone – decide what kind of service you need and go with the best option for you.

For more ways to save money every month, read our Top 20 Ways to Save on Groceries.

How much does your mobile plan cost you? Comment below to share you experiences with the Money Crashers comunity.

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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