Chances are, you have a mobile phone plan with one of the three wireless giants in the U.S.: AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. These carriers are attractive to many customers for their extensive network coverage, high-speed data connectivity and broad array of services. Along with offering a range of individual and family plans, they provide international roaming options, stores nationwide where customers can get in-person assistance, and perks such as access to Netflix, Disney Plus or other streaming services with certain plans. But the benefits come at a premium price.
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon primarily offer postpaid plans (in which customers are billed for service at the end of the month rather than prepaying for it) that provide unlimited data, calls and text messages. They range from about $60 to $90 per month for a single line of service, and you’ll pay more for a family plan. In some cases, you can purchase a limited amount of high-speed data each month for a lower price, but the discount may not be significant. For instance, AT&T offers a plan with unlimited calls and text messages and 4 gigabytes of data for $50 per month.
If you’re looking for a less costly alternative, you have some compelling options with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). MVNOs piggyback on the networks of larger carriers, so they can offer similar coverage and data speeds. Because they don’t take on the costs of operating and maintaining a network, they can charge less for their plans. Mint Mobile, for example, an MVNO that runs on T-Mobile’s network, offers a plan with unlimited calls, text messages and high-speed data for as little as $30 per month. Most MVNO plans are prepaid, which can be helpful if you’re trying to stick to a budget. Light users can take advantage of plans that provide tiered data for a cut-rate price. Consumer Cellular, for example, has a plan with unlimited calls and texting and 5GB of data for $25 a month. To see how much data you typically use monthly, review your recent cell phone bills.
Understand the trade-offs
Affordability is a plus with MVNOs, but they come with some trade-offs. These are some things to check for.
Reduced data speeds
Although these providers use the same networks as the major carriers, the smaller outfits tend to be deprioritized during peak usage hours, when the bigger carriers put their own customers first. MVNO customers might experience slower data speeds during those periods. That’s an important consideration if you need reliable access to high-speed data — say, because you use your phone for business. That said, developments in 5G and 4G data speeds mean that MVNO customers are still likely to be able to watch videos, download apps or files to their devices, and perform other activities without issues, despite reduced data speeds.
Lack of roaming coverage
Some MVNOs don’t offer roaming coverage — which allows you to connect to another provider’s network when you go outside your own carrier’s service area. If you regularly travel internationally or to remote areas in the U.S. and need access to the mobile network while you’re there, you may want to stick with a larger carrier. Or choose one of the MVNOs that offer roaming options, such as Google Fi or Mint Mobile.
Limited devices for sale
Typically, MVNOs sell a limited selection of phones and any discounts they provide on the devices they sell may not be as deep as the ones from major carriers, which often offer attractive deals on new phones when you sign up for a plan. However, if you want a device that an MVNO you’re considering doesn’t offer, you may often be able to save by purchasing it directly from the manufacturer or a third-party retailer or by buying a used or refurbished phone. Many reputable online and brick-and-mortar retailers (like Amazon, eBay, Back Market and Best Buy) sell refurbished phones that have been thoroughly tested and come with warranties.
Lack of high-street stores
Finally, consider how you prefer to interact with your network's representatives when you need help. Many MVNOs don’t set up brick-and-mortar stores, so you may have to contact them by phone or online. However, some MVNOs, such as Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile, do have stores where you can get help with your account or buy a new phone. Additionally, some large retailers, such as Best Buy and Walmart, sell SIM kits that can help you get started.
Eight good value mobile companies
If you don’t mind forgoing all of the bells and whistles that the big carriers provide, you’re comfortable managing your account mostly online or over the phone, and you can live without the latest technology when it comes to devices and data, an MVNO plan may be a good fit. Before you commit to a carrier, check whether you can give it a test run during a trial period. Cricket Wireless, Mint Mobile and Google Fi, for instance, offer a free trial of their plans on your device without disrupting your current service.
Consider the providers below, which stand out for the value and features their plans offer. Consumer Cellular, Cricket Wireless and Mint Mobile also scored highly against their competitors in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Wireless Phone Service and Cell Phone Study, which is based on interviews with nearly 16,000 wireless customers. The pricing listed here is for a single line of service. You can check each carrier’s website for its family-plan prices.
Besides these options, also consider regional carriers that offer wireless service in specific areas of the country. These carriers typically have smaller networks than the major carriers, but they often offer more competitive rates and better coverage in their local areas. GCI, for example, provides wireless service in Alaska, and Union Wireless operates in Wyoming and Montana.
Networks: AT&T and T-Mobile
Standout plan: For $25 a month, you can get 5 gigabytes of data and unlimited talking and texting.
Consumer Cellular has gained popularity among older adults. Its selection of devices includes easy-to-use phones designed for seniors, with large fonts, simple menus and emergency buttons, and the carrier is known for excellent customer service, with representatives who are patient and helpful.
Consumer Cellular also offers exclusive benefits to AARP members, including a 5% discount on monthly service. The carrier offers a range of plans with limited data allowances for those who use their phones primarily for talking and texting. A plan with 1GB of data and unlimited talking and texting is $20 monthly, or upgrade to a $35 monthly plan with 10GB of data. The unlimited data plan is $50 monthly.
Standout plan: The Unlimited Plan is a good choice for those who want a lot of data without breaking the bank. For $55 a month, it offers unlimited data, talking and texting in the U.S. as well as Mexico and Canada.
If you don’t need unlimited data, check out Cricket’s other plans, including one with 10GB of data for $40 a month or 5GB for $30 a month (both come with unlimited talking and texting). If you’d like to give Cricket a test run before you commit, you can get a 14-day free trial on your phone that provides unlimited talking and texting and 3GB of data. Cricket also operates retail stores nationwide.
Standout plan: The $50 monthly Simply Unlimited plan offers unlimited talking, texting and data in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, plus calling and texting from the U.S. to more than 200 countries and territories. You also get 5GB of hotspot tethering, allowing you to share your phone’s internet connection with up to 10 other devices at the same time.
If you’re a light data user, you can tailor Google Fi’s Flexible plan to suit your needs. For one line of service, you’ll pay a base price of $20 per month for unlimited talking and texting, plus $10 per gigabyte of data. If you use the Unlimited Plus plan ($65 a month), you’ll get unlimited data, calls and texts in the U.S., unlimited usage of your device as a mobile hotspot, and free data and texts in more than 200 countries and territories (calls in those locations are 20 cents per minute). You can test Google Fi free for seven days without losing service from your current carrier.
Standout plan: The Unlimited plan offers unlimited calls, text messages and high-speed data for $30 monthly during the first three months. After that, the price remains at $30 monthly if you commit to 12 months of service; otherwise, you’ll pay $35 monthly for six months or $40 monthly for three months.
If you don’t need unlimited data, consider other Mint Mobile plans that offer 5GB of data starting at $15 monthly, 15GB starting at $20 monthly or 20GB starting at $25 monthly (all of the plans include unlimited talking and texting).
You can purchase credits for international roaming (rates depend on the country; in Mexico, for example, you’ll pay 5 cents per minute for calls, 2 cents per text message and 2 cents per MB of data used). Plus, calls from the U.S. to Canada, Mexico and the U.K. are free. Mint offers a free seven-day trial of its service with 250MB of data, 250 texts and 250 minutes for calls.
Standout plan: For $9 a month, the Economy plan from Tello is a great option for light data users. It includes 1GB of data and unlimited talking and texting.
Tello also offers broad ability to customize a plan with the amount of data and minutes you need. You could, for example, choose 5GB of data, 300 minutes of calling and unlimited texting for $14 a month. You can use your minutes for calls to more than 60 countries, too.
Standout plan: For $35 monthly ($25 monthly for the first three months), you can get 20GB of high-speed data, plus unlimited talking and texting.
Twigby also offers a 2GB plan for $15 a month, 5GB for $20 a month or 8GB for $26 a month (all the plans offer unlimited talking and texting). Plus, get unlimited calls to more than 80 countries with Twigby’s plans.
Network: T-Mobile and Verizon
Standout plan: For a rock-bottom $6 a month, you can get 1 GB of data and unlimited talk and text.
If you need more data and unlimited calls and text messages, you can choose from tiered data plans with various monthly allotments — including $10 for 2GB or $18 for 6GB — or unlimited data plans with a range of prices and perks. The Unlimited Premium plan, for example, is $37.50 a month and comes with 10GB of data for a mobile hotspot.
Standout plan: For $35 a month, the Visible+ plan provides unlimited talking, texting and data on Verizon’s fastest 5G network, 5G Ultra Wideband. You also get unlimited use of your phone as a mobile hotspot, unlimited calls and text messages to Mexico, and 500 minutes monthly of calls to more than 30 countries.
Visible also offers a $25 monthly plan with unlimited talking, texting and data on Verizon’s 5G and 4G LTE networks as well as unlimited mobile hotspot usage. Calls and text messages to Canada and Mexico are unlimited, too.
Tips for Switching Carriers
Choosing a different wireless carrier may provide significant savings on your phone bill, but you’ll need to prepare for a smooth transition.
- Don’t cancel your plan with your current carrier before initiating the switch — otherwise, you could lose cellular service until you start the new plan, and you may not be able to transfer your phone number to the new carrier.
- Collect details about your current account, including the account number, so that you can provide it to the new carrier if needed.
- If you plan to keep your current mobile device or purchase one from the manufacturer or a third-party retailer, ensure that it’s unlocked and compatible with the new carrier’s network.
- It’s also a good idea to back up the data on your device before you switch.
- Check the new carrier’s website for instructions on how to transfer your phone number. (If the carrier has retail stores, you may be able to get in-person assistance.)
- Identify whether your phone uses a traditional, removable SIM card or an eSIM — the type of SIM you have affects how the new service will be activated. An eSIM is built into the device and can be activated remotely. Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, may not offer eSIM support for all of their plans, though it’s becoming increasingly common.
- Once you’ve taken those steps, you can purchase a plan and, if necessary, a SIM card from the new provider and activate service. Your previous service should be automatically canceled, but it’s advisable to contact your former carrier to confirm and resolve any outstanding issues.
Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, a monthly, trustworthy source of advice and guidance. Subscribe to help you make more money and keep more of the money you make.
Ashlyn Brooks is a financial writer and former civil engineer. She's on a mission to show others how to save and spend smarter through purposeful money habits. Her work has been featured on Investopedia, Bankrate and Yahoo Finance.
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