Having a phone in your pocket is something of a modern necessity, but the expense of service can pinch at your wallet. If you don't use your phone very often, that pinch can feel downright insulting. Prepaid cell phone plans may well be the solution: They're significantly cheaper than contract plans for those who don’t spend hours on the phone or stream much video.
Prepaid wireless plans are flexible, adaptable and affordable. They let you pay on a month-to-month basis and cancel any time, with no termination fees and nothing tying you to a single provider. But their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness: Unlike contract carriers, prepaid providers don't subsidize the cost of brand-new phones – that's why their monthly prices are so low. If you're dying to have the latest and greatest phone from Apple or Samsung, you'll have to pay its full, unsubsidized cost up front, which can easily pass the $600 line. However, if you're in the market for a low-cost phone and plan, there's nothing better than prepaid.
To help you pick a prepaid provider, we've tracked down the very best. Great options like T-Mobile, H20 Wireless and Cricket sit atop the pack, but others offer compelling features and price points as well. If you find yourself unsure about whether prepaid is right for you, read up on some of the articles on prepaid cell phones we've compiled, or simply dig into our reviews.
Prepaid cell phone providers used to offer simple, pay-per-minute and pay-per-text services to customers, and many still do. But with customer antipathy toward contracts on the rise, many prepaid services are broadening their plan selections to attract new customers. Keep the following service features in mind as you read our reviews, and you'll find the best provider for you in no time:
Prepaid plans tend to favor flexibility over all-in-one bundling. There are unlimited talk, text and data options available from a few, but the data allocations in those plans are often throttled. If you go over a specified limit (usually around 2.5GB), you may see your speeds drop to molasses-like 2G rates.
Prepaid plans are often best when you know your own usage habits and can plan around them. If you tend to text a lot, for example, but don't really talk on the phone, you can pay for a large text package, and save by choosing a small voice package – or even opt for no included voice minutes at all.
The best prepaid providers have daily plans and pay-as-you-go deals, in addition to monthly offerings. If you use your phone only rarely, you can go with one of these plans to pay for your phone only when you have to use it. Even paying for every voice minute or text message can be a money-saver for infrequent phone users, if the charges don’t add up to the amount of a monthly package.
When it comes to prepaid providers, phone selection is important, so be sure to check that the provider you're considering carries the phone you want with the features you need – 4G LTE compatibility, expandable storage and so on. Some prepaid providers include a selection of exceptionally inexpensive phones in addition to premium offerings.
Just as important as phone features, however, is compatibility from one provider to the next. The beauty of prepaid is the ability to switch away from a provider if you don't like the service. Thus, it's often a good idea to get a phone that's compatible with multiple providers. Check the type of 3G or 4G network each uses – phones at one GSM provider, for example, are usually compatible with other GSM providers, but not with CDMA networks.
Like so many contract carriers, prepaid phone providers usually offer all the features you'd expect out of cellular service, from long-distance and conference calling to caller ID and directory assistance. Be aware, however, that directory assistance often comes tagged with an extra charge per call; only a few providers offer unlimited 411 dialing.
Help & Support
A good prepaid plan may help your wallet, but if you ever have trouble with the service or your phone, you'll want to be able to turn to a great customer service team. Look for providers with a wide variety of contact options, as well as FAQ pages to help you avoid waiting on hold.
Cell phones may be a necessity these days, but expensive contract plans certainly aren't. Look for a provider with the phone you want and the coverage you need, then use your budget to narrow down the number of minutes and texts and the data allocation you'll have on hand every month. Don't worry if you don't like your choice – we’re talking about prepaid service, after all, so as long as it's compatible with your phone, you can switch to a new provider whenever you like.