While most Americans are signed up with one of the major carrier brands—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, or Verizon Wireless—there are many more choices available to US cell phone customers looking for a bargain. Known as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), these low-cost carriers piggyback on the four major networks and can deliver lower prices, especially for individual users who aren't looking to be part of a family plan.
All the major carriers have low-cost spinoffs, and their deals are worth checking first. AT&T runs Cricket Wireless. Sprint has Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile owns GoSmart and MetroPCS. And Verizon, well, Verizon just has prepaid plans. If you're looking for a wide range of stores and solid customer service, these brands should be your first shopping stops.
What Do You Need?
If you're looking for a deal on wireless service and fit into one of the groups below, click on that link to see which carriers are right for you:
Are These the Only Carriers I Should Consider?
There are several carriers we're not listing here, and want to explain why. Google Fi is invitation-only and requires an expensive Nexus handset. Lycamobile's plans are extremely similar to Ultra Mobile, just a little more expensive. Ting's plans are similar to US Mobile, but again a bit more expensive. TextNow has call quality problems. And we're putting FreedomPop and RingPlus in the doghouse because we've received too many complaints about their customer service.
One big change over the past year is how many of these brands are no longer focusing on selling phones. The AT&T- and T-Mobile-based brands, especially, work with unlocked phones, so take a look at our list of The Best Unlocked Phones and The Best Super-Cheap Unlocked Phones for a handset to use. They may also work with your old device from your previous carrier.
We also need to explain TracFone, which is the grandaddy of the MVNOs, and appears in many guises. All of the TracFone brands tend to change their plans frequently, sometimes even trading bonuses between them, so it's good to know what's TracFone and what isn't. Family Mobile, Net10, Page Plus, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk, Telcel America, Total Wireless, and yes, TracFone, are all TracFone.
Finally, these aren't the only carriers you should consider. Depending on your needs, even one of the big four networks could have a plan that works for you. For more plan shopping advice, check out our story on How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Plan. And for the best carrier service where you live, check out our results for the Fastest Mobile Networks.
The cheapest option other than free services like RingPlus and FreedomPop (which we don't recommend because of customer service complaints), ChatSIM costs $15 for the SIM, plus $15 per year. Yep, that's per year. It even works globally. The catch: it's for messaging only, through a list of approved apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. There's no standard calling, no SMS, and no iMessage. You can buy credits for picture messaging and VOIP calling. I have a ChatSIM loaded into the phone I give my 10-year-old when we get separated, because I don't have to worry about maintaining it.
Red Pocket runs on several different networks and has a range of plans, but what we're focused on here are its one-year pay-as-you-go talk cards. There's a 1,000-minute card for $100 that runs on the AT&T network, and a 2,000-minute card for $100 that runs on the Sprint network (yes, Red Pocket has decided that AT&T's coverage is worth twice as much as Sprint's.) Texts "cost" one minute per text. You can use Red Pocket with an unlocked, AT&T-compatible device or with a used Sprint LTE phone.
Republic Wireless starts at $10/month for unlimited talk and text, with no data, on the Sprint or T-Mobile networks. Republic's secret is that it desperately hopes you'll do most of your calling, texting, and data usage over Wi-Fi, keeping its costs down. While its 1GB plan for $25 is also a pretty good deal, its higher-usage plans are much more expensive and less appealing. All plans also include unlimited free Wi-Fi calling from anywhere in the world, which is useful for international travelers. Republic will start offering an excellent range of phones in July, so if you're interested in buying a phone directly, hang out until then.
This T-Mobile-based carrier, run by TracFone, has a great heavy data deal at 10GB for $55/month. That comes with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and unlimited international text, and it undercuts T-Mobile's own 10GB plan ($80) in a big way. You can use any T-Mobile-compatible phone with the service.
TracFone has an extremely complex system of discounts, bonuses, online specials, and in-store promos that feel almost like a table game in Vegas. If you play it right, though, you can get great value. For instance, some of TracFone's devices offer "triple minutes," which can be combined with a 400-minute, voice-only, one-year prepaid card to give you 1,200 minutes over the year for $99.99, or $8.33 per month. TracFone also offers smartphone options with data, but you'll find better deals elsewhere; the carrier's real deals come for occasional voice users. Most TracFone devices run on the AT&T network.
US Mobile is the least expensive of several "roll your own" plan carriers, like Ting. Its minimum plan is 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 100MB for $9, which is pretty impressive, and you can scale your plan up from there. The carrier uses T-Mobile's LTE network with any T-Mobile-compatible phone. It gives you the best balance of price and heavy 4G LTE usage.
Group 3: If You Need the Best Network
Most MVNOs run on Sprint's and T-Mobile's networks because they offer the best rates to virtual network operators. But especially in rural areas, you may need Verizon. These carriers put you on the big, red, award-winning network.
Consumer Cellular is focused on the senior market, with broad rural coverage through AT&T and a range of easy-to-use phones. Our readers love this carrier, awarding it Readers' Choice with a spectacularly high customer service rating. The company's plans make the most sense if you're primarily a voice user, rather than text or data. They start at $15 per month and include 250 minutes of calling time, which works out to 6 cents per minute. Consumer Cellular carries a decent range of easy-to-use phones. We recommend the Doro PhoneEasy 626 simple flip phone, the Motorola Moto E, and the Motorola Moto G. GreatCall also serves seniors using the Verizon network, but our readers prefer Consumer Cellular.
The People's Operator (TPO)
Founded in part by Jimmy Wales, the guy who started Wikipedia, TPO offers a less-expensive charitable alternative to its competitor Credo Mobile. TPO outdoes Credo in several ways. It lets you choose between Sprint's and T-Mobile's network. It gives 10 percent of your bill to your choice out of a politically broader range of charities, from the National Council of La Raza to the Wounded Warrior Project. It's also cheaper than Credo at every service level, starting at $16/month for 1,000 minutes and 500MB, and scaling up to 7GB for $60.
An intriguing but very limited option from the folks behind ZIP SIM (an anonymous, disposable SIM), Krew Mobile gives you three lines on the T-Mobile network for $40/month. The first line has 2GB of data; the other two 'child lines' split 60 one-hour blocks of unlimited talk and text assigned by a parent. The idea is that this is for kids with part-time phones, which they use primarily to keep in touch with their parents—the way I use ChatSIM at home.