Introduction: Which Discount Carrier Is Best
There’s life beyond the Big Four wireless carriers, particularly if you’re looking to keep costs down on your monthly cellphone bill. About a dozen different carriers — including some names you’ll recognize and some you won’t — promise low monthly rates without too many trade-offs for service.
Based on our research and testing, MetroPCS is the best of the bunch, as it uses a far-reaching network with fast LTE speeds, while also offering attractively priced data plans that start at $30 for 2GB.
Saving money on your cell phone bill doesn’t mean having to sacrifice on data. TextNow’s revised smartphone plans now includes an option with unlimited talk, text and data that sneaks in just under our $40 threshold.
For bargain hunters who don’t need that much data, Republic Wireless offers the most flexibility, charging just $5 per month for each gigabyte on top of a $15 base rate for unlimited talk and text. Google’s Project Fi wireless service provides great coverage, particularly for overseas travelers, and it’s more accessible now that Google is extending it to devices beyond its own Pixel phones.
Latest News and Updates (Updated June 21)
Unreal Mobile, a FreedomPop spinoff that annnounced plans to debut shortly after T-Mobile and Sprint unveiled plans to merge, has gone live with its own low-cost wireless service. Using Sprint’s network, Unreal promises unlimited data, though at 2G speeds (a fairly common practice among prepaid services). Where Unreal stands out is its newly tweaked pricing: you can get 1GB of LTE data for $10 a month, with 2GB costing $15 and 5GB available for $30. Other features include a built-in VPN security service. You’ll have to check at Unreal’s website to see if you live within its coverage area, though.
How We Picked the Best Low-Cost Carrier
We evaluate the best and worst carriers overall, including some of the options featured here. But the criteria is different when considering low-cost options. For starters, we looked only at carriers that offered monthly plans costing $40 and less. After all, if you’re on the lookout for an inexpensive service provider, your monthly bill is going to be the first thing you consider.
MORE: Best Unlocked Smartphones
But price isn’t the only criteria we looked at. We also considered the variety of plans each carrier offered and whether you could move to a different plan if your talk, text and data needs change. We took special features into consideration: Do the carriers offer discounts on multiple lines? Are features like hotspot data included with plans? And what other perks, if any, can subscribers expect?
When considering whether to use a discount carrier, you should absolutely check on which network they use and how that coverage is in your area.
It’s important to note that none of these discount carriers operate their own network. Rather, as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, they piggyback on the cellular networks built by one or more of the Big Four carriers. We looked atf which network each carrier used and how it performed when we tested for LTE speeds. (When considering whether to use a discount carrier, you should absolutely check on which network they use and how that coverage is in your area.)
Some carriers, such as Republic Wireless and Project Fi, also offload calls and texts to Wi-Fi when available, as part of keeping monthly costs low. We took that feature into consideration as well.
Most of these carriers let you bring your own device, selling you a SIM card to use on your own phone. Others will sell you a phone if you’re looking for a new device, so we looked at phone selection, and whether the carrier offered the last flagships alongside older models and budget phones.
Best Cheap Carrier Overall: MetroPCS
When we ranked all carriers, MetroPCS crashed the Top Four, finishing ahead of Sprint. It’s easy to see why: As a T-Mobile subsidiary, MetroPCS reaps the benefits of its parent company’s network.
T-Mobile finished second in our last round of LTE speed testing, just behind Verizon. And that benefits MetroPCS subscribers, as there’s no noticeable performance gap between T-Mobile and MetroPCS. (T-Mobile does reserve the right to prioritize its own traffic ahead of other carriers on its network, but we haven’t experienced that throttling when using MetroPCS.) In some of the locations where we tested, MetroPCS turned in faster times than its parent company. Subscribe to MetroPCS and you can be confident that anywhere T-Mobile’s network reaches, you’ll enjoy solid service.
The ZTE Blade Z Max is one of the low-cost phones MetroPCS offers customers. (Credit: Tom’s Guide)MetroPCS also offers a good selection of phones, including the latest flagships from Samsung and Apple. The carrier also offers some exclusives at attractive prices: The solid ZTE Blade Z Max phablet is available for just $119 at MetroPCS.
As a T-Mobile subsidiary, MetroPCS reaps the benefits of its parent company’s network.
If there’s a drawback to MetroPCS, besides its low ratings for customer service, it’s that the carrier has limited plan options for $40 or less. You can either opt for a 2GB, $30 monthly plan or a 5GB, $40 monthly option. Either of those MetroPCS plans include the ability to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot (drawing from your plan’s data) and an optional Data Maximizer feature where you can stream video at 480p resolution (and thus, consume less of your data when watching Netflix or YouTube). The $40 plan also lets you listen to music from select streaming services without touching your data allotment.
MORE: Best MetroPCS Phones – Top Smartphones, From Best to Worst
The $40 plan also lets you listen to music from select streaming services without touching your data allotment. You can add additional lines for $30 — no savings at all if you’re on the 2GB plan, but a $10 discount on MetroPCS’s 5GB offering.
You can find other plans that will cost you less money each month at other carriers, but MetroPCS’s superior performance and customer-friendly extras push it over the top.
Full Report: Metro PCS
Republic Wireless: Best Bargain Plan
Republic Wireless has the most attractive assortment of plans among discount carriers, offering unlimited talk and text to all subscribers along with reasonably priced tiers of data. A plan with 2GB of data — which is enough for the average user — costs $25 a month. If you need more, Republic lets you add 1GB of LTE data for $5, undercutting the $10-per-gigabyte that Project Fi charges.
Republic keeps costs low by using Wi-Fi to handle calls, texts and data when available; otherwise, you’re using the cellular network of either Sprint or T-Mobile. Adaptive coverage blends Wi-Fi and cellular to deliver improved call quality.
Full Report: Republic Wireless
TextNow: Best Unlimited Plan Under $40
Best Unlimited Plan Under $40
Discount carriers are squeezing more data into their plans, with offerings of 5GB available for less than $40. But TextNow outdoes all its low-cost rivals, giving you unlimited talk, text and data for $39.99.
TextNow’s able to squeeze in more data by relying on Wi-Fi to provide connectivity whenever possible. Otherwise, you’re either using the cellular network of Sprint or T-Mobile, depending on what phone you’re using. The plan also includes unlimited calling and texting between the U.S. and Canada, with low-rates on other international calling.
Don’t need unlimited data? You can still get a big 5GB pool of LTE data at TextNow for $10 less.
Full Report: TextNow
Project Fi: Best Coverage
If you’re using one of Google’s premium Android devices, it’s hard to top the prices at Google’s Project Fi service. You get unlimited talk and text for $20 a month and each gigabyte of data adds another $10 to your monthly bill. That’s double what Republic charges per gigabyte, but Project Fi credits you for the data that goes unused on your plan, so judicious web surfing rewards you with a lower monthly bill. In those months where you need to use a lot of data, a newly added Bill Protection feature caps your monthly cost at $80 even if you use more than the 6GB of data that would buy. Subscribers with an eye on monthly costs likely won’t want to take advantage of this feature regularly, but it’s nice to know that it’s there when you need it.
Project Fi also helps keep your data usage down by employing Wi-Fi when available. Otherwise, you switch seamlessly between the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.
Project Fi is particularly appealing when you travel. In more than 135 countries, you continue to draw from the same pool of data you would in the U.S. at no addition cost.
Google has taken steps to address one of Project Fi’s biggest shortcomings: only a limited number of phones work with the service. While Google’s latest Pixels and last year’s Pixel XL are available as options, Google expanded beyond its own phones to add the Moto X4 Android One last year; more recently, it added support for the Moto G6. Both of these phones costs hundreds of dollars less than the Pixel, giving you a less expensive way to access Project Fi. Google says the LG G7 ThinQ and V35 ThinQ are coming to its network as well.
Full Report: Project Fi
Other Cheap Carrier Options
MORE: What Is Tello, and Is It Worth It?
While the four options above represent our top picks for low-cost carriers, we looked at more than half a dozen other service providers. Here are the pros and cons for each cheap carrier, including our top picks.
|Carrier||Best Plan (Data/Monthly Cost)||Pros||Cons||More Info|
|Boost Mobile||3GB/$35||Network performance comparable to parent company Sprint||Only one plan under $40 a month; relies solely on Sprint for cellular service||See All Plans|
|Consumer Cellular||3GB/$40||Attractive discounts for AARP members; Network coverage provided by AT&T and T-Mobile; Mix-and-match plans||Costs can add up if you’ve got big data needs||See All Plans|
|Cricket||5GB/$35 (with autopay enrollment)||Recently increased data allotments for plans; Finished highest among discount carriers in our customer support testing||Data speeds are capped at 8Mbps; Very few perks compared to MetroPCS and Boost||See All Plans|
|FreedomPop||5GB/$35||Free plans available if you keep talk, text and data to a bare minimum; Reasonably priced family plans; Discounts available if you pay ahead for several months||Limitations on which devices you can use; Confusing, hard-to-find array of plans||See All Plans|
|MetroPCS||5GB/$40||Relies on T-Mobile’s network; Wide selection of phones; Data Maximizer feature||Spotty customer service; Limited plan options under $40||See All Plans|
|Mint SIM||2GB/$15||Very low monthly cost, at least initially; Uses T-Mobile’s network||Low rate requires you to pay for three months of service upfront; Prices increase after initial discount unless you commit to a year of service||See All Plans|
|Page Plus||5GB/$40||Uses Verizon’s network; Wide selection of phones on top of BYOD option; Autopay discounts available; Increased data allotment in plans||Only two of its prepaid plans offer any value; Pay-as-you-go options are not very appealing||See All Plans|
|Project Fi||1GB/$30||You pay only for the data you use; Now supports Moto X4 in addition to more expensive Google devices||Other carriers offer more data for the same price||See All Plans|
|Republic Wireless||2GB/$25||Appealing range of plans; Use of Wi-Fi keeps plan costs down||Limited to Android devices||See All Plans|
|Straight Talk||2GB/$35||Plenty of devices supported; $1 discount for autopay enrollment||Carrier ranked poorly in our customer service and network speed tests; Limited low-cost options||See All Plans|
|Tello||10GB/$39||Flexible plans let you assemble talk, text and data limits that fit your usage||Relies solely on Sprint, with coverage unavailable in areas that require roaming||See All Plans|
|TextNow||Unlimited/$40||Aggressively priced plans; Discounts when you add additional lines||Relies on Sprint for coverage; Phone selection focuses primarily on aging models||See All Plans|
|The People’s Operator||2GB/$25 (with autopay enrollment)||Discounts available through autopay; Portion of bill goes to charity||You must bring your own device||See All Plans|
|Ting||2GB/$40 (estimated)||Uses T-Mobile’s network as well as Sprint’s; Supports international calling and roaming; Customers pay only for the text, talk and data they use||Pricing can vary from month to month based on usage||See All Plans|
|Unreal Mobile||2GB/$15||Low-cost plans; Features include VPN security service||Coverage not available in all areas; limited to CDMA based phones at this time||See All Plans|
|US Mobile||3GB/$35||Works on both T-Mobile and Verizon networks; Flexible plans let you customize talk, text and data||Pricing varies depending on which network you use||See All Plans|
|Visible||Unlimited/$40||Works on Verizon’s network; no limits on talk, text and data||You need to bring your own device; service is currently invitie-only||See All Plans|
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