Most Americans have a cell plan from one of the major carrier brands—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—or the slightly-less-popular UScellular. However, many more choices are available to US customers looking for a bargain. Dozens of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and prepaid carriers offer significant discounts by piggybacking on the major networks to deliver lower prices.
Pay attention to these providers' reputations for customer service and which networks they use. Some MVNOs allow you to choose between different networks, whereas others are tied to a single provider. One company, Google Fi, uses T-Mobile's and UScellular's networks interchangeably on some phones, but for the rest, you have to choose which network you want when you buy your SIM card.
We order our picks by their respective monthly prices so that you can compare the best options within your budget. Remember, these recommendations are for a single line of service. Bundling two or more lines on the same account may help reduce monthly costs on some of the below plans. For the best carrier service where you live, check out our stories on the best mobile networks in the US and Canada.
Editors' Note: These prices and plan details are accurate at press time, but they change frequently. We plan to update this story on a monthly basis.
Which Phones Work With These Networks?
Some of the smaller carriers do not sell phones at all, or they might limit their selection to low-end phones that work only on their network. Therefore, we recommend purchasing a cheap, unlocked phone that is compatible with multiple carriers. Even if a phone is listed to work with all major carriers, you should still verify that your carrier supports the phone before you buy it: With the growing popularity of 5G, some MVNOs are being fussy about supported devices. If you're on a fixed income, something on our list of the best phones for seniors might be a good fit. You can also check with the carrier to see if your current phone works on its network.
Most unlocked phones are by default compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile and should work with any MVNO or prepaid carrier that uses those networks. If you're looking for an unlocked phone that works on all three major US systems, consider any factory-unlocked iPhone that's of the 2018-era XR or later; the Samsung Galaxy S9 or later; the Google Pixel line; or the Moto G series. Or, take a look at our list of the best unlocked phones.
Unlocked Phones to Suit Any Plan
4.5 Outstanding 4.5 Outstanding 4.5 Outstanding 4.5 Outstanding 4.0 Excellent 4.0 Excellent 4.0 Excellent 4.5 Outstanding
What About Customer Service?
In general, the less-prominent carriers do not provide the same level of customer service that the major networks do. The issues we hear about most involve new service activations and billing. Because there are few or no retail stores for some smaller carriers, you must resolve any problems via a call center or online help desk. Often, agents don't have the knowledge or resources to correct some issues. We've done our best to research our recommendations closely, but you should check them out yourself before you pull the trigger.
If good customer service is a concern, check out Consumer Cellular. For nine years, our readers have chosen Consumer Cellular as their favorite carrier in this regard. You can also turn to the wholly owned brands of the big carriers, which have a network of physical stores: AT&T's Cricket and T-Mobile's Metro. Verizon's Visible doesn't have any stores, but Verizon still backs it. In some cases, these big, carrier-backed prepaid brands cost a bit more.
The Best Free Cell Phone Plans
Let’s be honest: You can’t get much for free nowadays. However, if you’re looking to do only fundamental things with your phone, two decent free smartphone plans are available.
Freedompop’s Freemium(Opens in a new window) offers 10 minutes of phone calls, 10 text messages, and 25MB of high-speed data per month. You don't get 5G or any other bells and whistles but, if you’re home and connected to Wi-Fi most of the time, you should be able to get by with Freedompop’s free offering.
The TextNow starter plan(Opens in a new window) is another option. You get unlimited talk and text with no data but, because nothing is truly free, you have to deal with ads in the app used to make calls and send texts. You must spend $1 up front for an activation kit, including a SIM card, but that’s the only amount you need to pay.
The Best Cell Phone Plans for $10 or Less Per Month
Although it's possible to get mobile service at $10 per month or less, the number of carriers that offer such deals is dwindling rapidly. Even when plans come in at the $10 mark, most do not include taxes and other fees that can vastly increase the price, depending on where you live. Right now, we recommend three carriers that offer reliable service at a rock-bottom price.
Tello(Opens in a new window), which piggybacks off T-Mobile's network, provides the most bang for your buck. On its website, you can create a custom plan with unlimited calls, texts, and 1GB of data for $10 per month. It's a solid deal if you have an old phone or are looking to buy an unlocked phone that works on multiple carriers.
RedPocket's(Opens in a new window) basic plan comes in at $10 per month and gives you 500 minutes of talk time, 500 text messages, and 500MB of data. It's also the only MVNO in this price range that has relationships with all the major carriers so that you can select the option with the best service in your area.
When it comes to maximizing the amount of data you can get for $10 or less, Unreal’s(Opens in a new window) 2GB plan is the best option. To get 2GB for $10 per month, you need to pay for a year upfront, which could be a pretty serious drawback for some users. This plan relies only on the T-Mobile LTE network, so make sure the coverage is good where you live.
The Best Cell Phone Plans for $11-$20 Per Month
Though it may be a little more expensive than other small carriers, Consumer Cellular(Opens in a new window)'s simple, senior-focused plan comes with excellent customer service and it’s one of our readers' favorites. With AT&T and T-Mobile as its backbone, you can expect solid coverage around the country. Its lowest-cost plan offers unlimited talk, text, and 1GB of data for $20 per month. You won’t need a landline anymore because you can make all the calls you want with this plan.
US Mobile(Opens in a new window) is by far your best choice in this price range. The carrier offers unlimited talk and text, plus 12GB of data for just $20 per month. The plan even includes 5G and international roaming at no extra charge.
Mint Mobile offers an introductory plan with unlimited calls, unlimited text, and 4GB of data for $15 per month. However, it requires a three-month commitment and an upfront payment. If you want to keep the rate once the introductory period is over, you need to pay for a full year of service. It's a good deal, but you need to shell out a large sum upfront to get the T-Mobile network-backed deal. Mint Mobile is our Readers' Choice for smartphone plans, so it’s definitely worth the commitment.
The Best Cell Phone Plans for $21-$30 Per Month
If you’re looking for an unlimited plan or one with a lot of data, this is the price range for you. We're getting to the point of not being "cheap" anymore, but these are still far more affordable than typical plans from the big three.
Tello offers unlimited data, calls, and texts on T-Mobile's network for $29 per month. That’s as good as it gets for $30 or less. Of course, there are limitations—data speeds after the first 25GB of 4G LTE/5G data (depending on where you live) will be much slower. On the bright side, unlike the next option, you don’t need to pay for a year upfront.
Mint Mobile is another solid choice if you want a fully unlimited data. For exactly $30 per month, you get all the talk, text, and data you want on T-Mobile’s network. However, you need to pay for one year upfront, which is how Mint can keep the price down.
If you’re not looking to spend $30 per month and you’re comfortable with slightly less data, you can get US Mobile’s 18GB plan for $25 per month without having to pay upfront. For most users, 18GB is more than enough and it’s hard to beat a price of $25 per month.
The Best Cheap Tethering Plan
Not all cheap phone plans support tethering because users who tether tend to consume much more data. If you want an affordable option that includes tethering and a large quantity of data, RedPocket’s 10GB for $30 per month is the one to choose. It works with all the major carriers, so you can pick the one that gets the best coverage in your area during signup.
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The Best Cheap Hotspot (Data Only) Plan
If you’re looking for data only, StraightTalk offers the best option. For $25 per month, you get 4GB of data to use on your tablet or mobile hotspot. Part of what makes StraightTalk a good option is that it uses all of the major carrier networks. That means you won't ever need to worry about your device not having an adequate connection.
The Best Cheap Family Phone Plans
In the world of cheap smartphone plans, the best way to save even more money is by grouping with your family. Some of the best MVNOs and carriers offer huge discounts when you add more lines.
Google Fi is one of the best plans to go with if you plan to add additional lines because Google drops the price for each person substantially. With four lines, Google’s Simply Unlimited plan drops from $50 per line to $20 for each one. For three lines, the price is $25 per month per line. You get 5G on T-Mobile and UScellular, so the connection is fast and reliable.
Visible by Verizon also offers discounts for each person you add. And those people don’t need to be in your household—any of your friends can join. The normal cost for an unlimited line is $40 per month but, if you have four or more people, the price drops to $25 per line, which is hard to beat for an unlimited plan on Verizon’s network.
The Best Cheap 5G Plans
Ready for the next generation of mobile connectivity? Before you jump head-first into the 5G pool, read our in-depth primer on the next generation of cellular technology. 5G is a very different beast than previous connectivity standards and, in the US especially, most 5G smartphones are optimized for specific carriers. That means if you decide to switch carriers, your phone may offer limited 5G access or no 5G access at all. Check out our list of the best 5G phones we recommend right now, but make sure to check out the 5G connectivity standards for each carrier before you commit to a plan.
Most small carriers offer a 5G plan, but it's essential to pay attention to the fine print. For example, it's common for carriers to restrict 5G plans to sub-6GHz, cap speeds, or even limit the amount of data you get in "unlimited" plans. For this reason, we think Metro and Visible are your best bets.
Visible(Opens in a new window) offers the best affordable 5G plan on Verizon's network. For $40 per month, you get unlimited calls, text, and 5G data capped at 200Mbps. If you're looking to save even more money, Visible's Party Pay(Opens in a new window) plan is an excellent option. You can add up to three additional family members, friends, or roommates and knock $5 off your monthly bill for each additional line. The savings apply to all lines, so a Party Plan with four lines costs just $25 per month per line. You don't have to worry about collecting Venmo payments for everyone's portion of the bill either; Visible bills each member separately.
Metro(Opens in a new window) is slightly more expensive. Unlimited plans with 5G access come in at $50 per month. It’s an excellent deal if you’re in an area with solid 5G coverage on T-Mobile. The price includes 5GB of hotspot data, 100GB of Google One storage, and an unlimited streaming music feature that works with more than 40 different services. Although T-Mobile prioritizes its main customers over Metro subscribers when the network is congested, this behavior is unlikely to significantly affect your network speeds if you have a good 5G connection.
If you’re not concerned about having unlimited data and just want a reliable 5G connection on T-Mobile’s network for as little dough as possible, you should consider our Mint Mobile's 4GB plan, which gives you 4GB of 5G data as well as unlimited talk and text.
Finally, for more on how to get a good deal, check out our top tips to get the best price on a cell phone.
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