Owning a cell phone is a modern necessity, but the expense of decent service can often pinch at your wallet. Prepaid cell phone plans are a useful solution, offering cheap, contract-free rates for those who don’t spend hours on the phone or stream videos on the move. They're flexible, adaptable and affordable; you can pay month-to-month and cancel at any time, with no termination fees and nothing tying you to a single provider.
Of course, the biggest strength of prepaid wireless plans is also their biggest weakness: Unlike contract carriers, prepaid providers don't subsidize the cost of new phones. This keeps their prices low, but if you're dying to have the latest and greatest from Apple or Samsung, you'll have to pay the full cost of the device up front, and new phones often retail for over $600. If, however, you're in the market for a low-cost phone and plan, there's nothing better than prepaid.
For its sheer flexibility and solid rates, T-Mobile stands atop the pack, while Ting is a close second, thanks to its rock-bottom prices and spectacular customer service. If you need stability in your coverage, you can turn to H2O Wireless, which connects to AT&T's strong network. Of course, should 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 antipathy toward contracts on the rise, many 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. Many offer unlimited talk, text and data options, but the data allocations in these plans are usually throttled. If you go over a specified limit (usually around 1GB), you'll see your speeds drop to molasses-like 2G rates.
The best prepaid providers have daily cell phone 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 and pay for your phone service 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.
We all want phones that feel personal and are fun to use, so be sure to check that the provider you're considering carries the phone you want with the operating system you like, whether it is Apple's iOS, Google's Android or another. Most prepaid providers include a selection of inexpensive feature phones in addition to smartphones, if you don't need any bells and whistles.
Like so many contract carriers, prepaid phone providers usually offer all of the features you'd expect out of cellular service, including long-distance and conference calling, 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 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 FAQs 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, 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. As long as it's compatible with your phone, you can switch to a new provider whenever you like.