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No-contract cell phone plans, once known as prepaid, are growing fast. Now that T-Mobile has taken the mantle of the "Uncarrier" and gone 100 percent no-contract, more people are realizing that they don't have to commit to two-year contracts to get the phones and service they want.
All of the major carriers have low-cost arms. AT&T runs Aio Wireless. Sprint has Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile has MetroPCS and GoSmart, and Verizon, well, it 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.
But there are more carriers you may not have heard of, known as MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators. These carriers buy and remix minutes and megabytes from the major service providers into plans of their own. They might have more flexible plans than the majors, offer lower prices, or even give your money to charity.
Here are more than a dozen options you should check out:
HTC EVO Design 4G (Sprint)Several lower-profile MVNOs resell Sprint service at extremely low rates. ChitChat Mobile, for now, appears to be the most affordable of the bunch, with a $9.99 plan that has 250 talk minutes, unlimited text, and no data, and a $19.99 unlimited talk and text plan. Data options start at $3 for 50MB, and go up to $35 for unlimited Sprint LTE.
The company sells a few older Sprint phones including the $199.99 HTC Evo Design 4G, but a better deal is to get an out-of-contract Sprint phone on eBay and activate that. ChitChat will activate most Sprint feature phones and Android phones. Our one warning is that ChitChat's customer service appears to be Spartan; you get what you pay for.
Consumer Cellular is focused on the senior market, with broad rural coverage through AT&T and a range of easy-to-use phones.
The company's lowest-cost monthly plan is strictly for the user who wants the comfort and accessibility a cell phone provides, but doesn't necessarily plan to make many calls. The low $10 monthly fee doesn't include any minutes at all, and each minute used will cost 25 cents.
Consumer Cellular's other monthly plans come with minutes at more reasonable rates. Its next least expensive package is $15 per month and includes 200 minutes of calling time, which works out to 7.5 cents per minute. The packages go all the way up to $60 per month for 5,000 minutes.
Text messaging is available separately, starting at $2.50 per month for 100 messages, up to $30 a month for 15,000 messages. Each of these plans also includes Web browsing too: 10MB with the $2.50 plan, 2GB with the $30 plan.
Consumer Cellular sells Doro's simple phones; they're a Swedish company with unique, good-looking handsets geared toward technophobes. We've reviewed and recommend the PhoneEasy 618, which sells for $60.
HTC EVO 4GThe nation's only truly free monthly phone service, FreedomPop's "Freedom Phone" offers 200 voice minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of free data on Sprint's 3G, WiMAX, and LTE networks.
If you want more, you can jump up to 500 minutes, unlimited tests, and 500MB data for $7.99 per month, or unlimited voice and text with 500MB data for $10.99 per month. Additional minutes and texts cost 1 cent each, and additional data costs 2.5 cents per MB, or $9.99 per GB.
There are a few catches, though. There's no picture messaging yet, and all voice calling goes through FreedomPop's voice-over-IP system rather than the standard Sprint voice network.
FreedomPop's only official phone is the HTC Evo 4G, which it sells for $99. If you want a newer model, the company will convert almost any Sprint Android phone that's out of contract. You can buy one on eBay.
There are two companies that donate part of your cell phone bill to charitable causes: Giv and Credo. Of the two, Giv gives more away, and more flexibly: It contributes 8 percent of your monthly bill to your choice of a wide range of charities.
LG Optimus TGiv runs on the T-Mobile network, and only has two plans, both with unlimited voice and text: $40/month gives you 250MB of data, and $50/month gives you 2GB. Data is stuck on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42, not the LTE network.
You can use any T-Mobile compatible phone (including the iPhone) and Giv has some interesting lower-cost options. The older, best-selling LG Optimus One, for instance, retails for $89.99 and is a reliable, if very basic, smartphone choice.
Motorola Bravo (AT&T)H2O Wireless runs on AT&T's national GSM network, and offers plans by the month, day, or minute.
Minute plans are available in $10, $20, $30, and $100 packages, which include 5-cent voice minutes and text messages, as well as 10 cents per MB for data.
Day plans are available for $10 for 5 days, or $20 for 10 days, and get you unlimited talk and text.
Monthly plans start at $30 with unlimited talk and text, plus 50MB of data. You also get $5 free for international calling anywhere in the world. A $40 plan comes with 500MB of data, $50 gets you 1GB plus unlimited international talk and text, and $60 is for 3GB.
A Motorola Bravo phone plus a free SIM and $50 of airtime costs $199.
Sprint-based Kajeet bills itself as "the smart phone for kids." Every service plan comes with Kajeet's suite of online parental controls. This allows parents to monitor who children can talk and text with, the times when the phone may be used, how much money may be spent, and what features may be accessed.
Kajeet is also the only carrier we know of that filters the Internet, letting you whitelist or blacklist specific Web sites on your kid's phone.
Plans start as low as $4.99 per month. That includes 10 minutes of call time, as well as text messages for 10 cents and picture messages for 25 cents. A $19.99 monthly plan includes unlimited text and picture messaging, as well as 150 voice minutes. $24.99 per month gets the same plan but with 500 voice minutes, 500MB of data, and a GPS phone locator, while $50 per month includes unlimited texts, picture messages, voice minutes, 2GB of data, and a GPS phone locator.
Kajeet's phones are also a bit pricey, but you can also bring any out-of-contract Sprint feature phone or Android phone, whether it's 3G, WiMAX, or LTE.
Net10 is a subsidiary of the popular TracFone. Like TracFone, it piggybacks on various national carriers' networks depending on where you are in the country.
The carrier has a very flexible set of plans, with minute plans, monthly plans, and shared family plans.
Plans by the minute start at $20 for 200 minutes (10 cents/minute), and are good for 30 days. $30 gets you 300 minutes (10 cents/minute) and 60 days of service, $45 is good for 600 minutes (7.5 cents/minute) and 60 days of service, and $60 gets you 900 minutes (6.6 cents/minute) with 90 days of service.
Monthly plans start at $15 for 200 minutes. $50 gets you unlimited voice calls, text messages, and 2.5GB of data, and $65 is for the same plan but with unlimited international long distance calls. Family plans start at $90 for unlimited talk and text and 2.5GB of data.
Along with its competitive rates, Net 10 also offers a wide variety of reasonably priced phones. The Huawei W1 is a rare prepaid, low-cost Windows Phone, running Windows Phone 8 for $199.99.
Page Plus Cellular
Kyocera Milano (Sprint)Page Plus Cellular offers something that many other prepaid carriers don't: Verizon's network. Relatively few virtual carriers run on Verizon's award-winning voice system.
Standard plans start at $10 for 100 minutes and last for 120 days, with steps up from there. These minutes will also roll over, provided you replenish your account with a new plan every 120 days. Page Plus's best deal, though, is a 2,000-minute, $80 card which lasts a whole year. That comes out to $6.66/month for a Verizon phone. Pretty amazing.
For equal amounts of talking and texting, there is a $12 monthly plan that includes 250 minutes and 250 text messages. You can get unlimited talk and text, along with 500MB of data for $39.95, and if you need more data than that, you can get unlimited talk and text with 5GB of data for $69.95.
Phone selection here is pretty weak. The Kyocera Milano, pictured, is available for $99.95.
Moto X (c)On Sprint's network, Republic Wireless offers one of the cheapest possible plans with one of the best possible phones. Republic's secret is that the carrier desperately hopes you'll do most of your calling, texting, and data usage over Wi-Fi, keeping its costs down. That way, it can offer a $10/month unlimited talk and text plan. $25 adds 5GB of slow 3G Sprint data. $40 gives you 5GB of Sprint LTE. All plans also include unlimited free Wi-Fi calling from anywhere in the world, useful for international travelers.
Republic only has two phones, but one of them is an absolute killer: The Moto X is one of the finest smartphones on the market right now, and $299 is $200 less than you'll find it for on Motorola's Web site. Just be aware that Republic uses special firmware, so its phones can't be transferred to other carriers.
Kyocera Hydro Edge and XtrmUsing Sprint's network, Ting has an unusually configurable set of plans. You can custom-mix minutes, messages, and megabytes of data in six different buckets each, generating some very unusual plans: For instance, it's possible to do a plan that's only texting and data if you're not much of a talker.
Ting's best deals actually come with plans that don't have a lot of talking, as there's no unlimited talk or text options. A teenager, for instance, could get 100 minutes, 500MB of data, and 4,000 text messages for $33.
Ting has a good selection of Sprint phones, although they're generally pretty expensive; the most affordable one is the Kyocera Hydro Edge, at $188. You can also bring a limited number of out-of-contract Sprint models over to Ting.
Ultra Mobile, which runs on the T-Mobile HSPA+ network, is our favorite plan for heavy international callers. Its $29 plan offers unlimited talk, text, and 100MB of data, along with up to 1,250 minutes of calling to various foreign countries. Impressive international rates here include a penny a minute to India, and two cents a minute to the Dominican Republic.
Ultra has two high-end plans: The $49 plan has 1GB of data and a $20 monthly international call credit, while the $59 plan gives you 4GB of data, but only $5 of international credit.
The carrier only sells SIMs, not phones, so you'll need to pick up an unlocked phone to use it. Check our Best Unlocked Phones list for T-Mobile compatible phones.
LG Viper 4G LTE (Sprint)Zact remixes some of Kajeet's parental controls with Ting's personalized plans, using Sprint's LTE network. It's a very good deal for family plans, letting you use your customized plans across multiple devices and set your kids' phone usage restrictions by time and day of the week. A chatty little plan with 500 minutes, 25 texts, and 50 MB of data is just $17.01/month with one device on Zact, which is a better deal than you get from competitors.
Zact's major down side is that since it requires custom firmware, it only works with four specific phone models. The best deal is on the LG Viper 4G LTE, for $199.
Republic Wireless is a low-cost wireless carrier and an MVNO that leverages Sprint's network. The company offers both pre-paid and monthly plans, manages to keep its calling plans and rates so low because of two major factors: First, they only support one device (right now)—the Motorola Defy. The Moto X is coming soon, and
that's a huge deal; subscribers are really looking forward to it, and it's Republic Wireless' support is a big deal to Motorola as well. Part of this makes sure device acquisition and testing costs are low, but it also means that Republic can offer support because everyone on their network has the same devices.
Republic also boasts that its plans are low because of its "hybrid calling" feature, which pushes you to Wi-Fi-based VoIP calls whenever you have access to a Wi-Fi network. Cellular is essentially a fallback for when Wi-Fi isn't available, and many users don't use any data at all because they're rarely somewhere without Wi-Fi access unless they're traveling. Those of you who praised Republic noted its exceptionally low plan prices (some as low as $20/mo, with an unlimited plan for $25/mo), their exceptional customer service (that's not just responsive, but proactive, especially on social media, at seeking out customers who are having problems and trying to help you), and free roaming. They're not perfect though: Everyone's on edge waiting for the Moto X, but right now they have one device on their network. The proprietary software that lets your phone swap between Wi-Fi and Sprint's CDMA network has to be present for your phone to work, meaning no flashing ROMs for you. MMS across networks has also been an issue, but one easily fixed by using an alternative texting app.
Ting offers both pre-paid and monthly options, and is an MVNO that leverages Sprint's network. They earned huge praise in the tech-savvy community because the company offers completely customizable a la carte pricing plans. That means you can choose how many voice minutes you need, how many text messages you need, and how much data you need, without
being locked into plans that fit one part of your needs but not the rest. The goal of the carrier is to be flexible enough to charge you only for what you need, without forcing you to pay for what you won't use. If you don't use minutes or texts or even data, they'll credit it back to you. If you're curious, they have have a calculator to see how much you would save by switching—odds are they'll be able to save you some money, and if you want to switch, they'll even chip in toward your current carrier's early termination fee.
The company recently announced an iPhone beta for iPhone 4 and 4S owners, allows you to bring most Sprint devices with you, and has a long list of supported phones. They have a roaming agreement with Verizon Wireless and US Cellular, so even if you wander outside of Sprint's range and still use your phone, you won't be billed ridiculous roaming fees for it, and those of you who praised Ting called out their stellar customer service, both on social media and on the phone (you call and they actually answer!), no additional fees or charges for things like upgrades, tethering to your laptop or other devices, or even regulatory fees—that's right, Ting doesn't pass along FCC and other government charges through to you like other carriers do. They also use a referral system to get new customers, and offer their current customers discounts, deals, free phones, and more to spread the word. They're not perfect either: They're headed to a post-paid structure for those who like pre-payment agreements, and their selection of phones is wide, but could be wider. Still, I've rarely seen anyone with anything less than glowing things to say about Ting. Fun fact: Ting is owned by Tucows, also the folks behindHover, one of your favorite domain name registrars)
Page Plus is a national pre-paid wireless provider and MVNO that rides the Verizon Wireless network. The service does have monthly plans, but its garnered fame and praise for its pre-paid plans, which come at amazing prices, no-nonsense agreements, and no contracts. Like many pre-paid carriers, you buy what you need up-front at the beginning of the month by
purchasing refill cards or filling up your account, and go from there. If you need more, you can always refill—you can check out their full list of plans here.
The company has also made waves for having essentially a wide-open device activation policy, meaning almost any Verizon Wireless (and some Alltel) device can make the jump to Page Plus without hassle (there are some restrictions though). They'll even (unofficially) let you bring and activate other CDMA devices if they know they'll work, including phones from Sprint, Cricket, and a few others. Those of you who nominated Page Plus praised its national coverage and speedy network, thanks in part to the fact that it rides Verizon Wireless' backbone. Many of you jumped ship from Verizon Wireless to avoid "Share Everything" plans and other Verizon contract nonsense. They're not perfect either—data prices aren't that stellar and while they use Verizon Wireless' networks, they don't have access to 4G LTE yet. If you're frequently near Wi-Fi, it's not much of an issue—especially since the number of voice and texts you get are incredible for the money you spend to get them.
NET10 Wireless and Straight Talk are both subsidiaries of TracFone Wireless, so we decided to group them together (not that we had to, they could have easily made the top five on their own respectively). TracFone itself is a subsidiary of Mexico's telecommunication giant, América Móvil, and includes a number of other smaller carriers, including Simple Mobile, SafeLink, and
Telcel. For our purposes, TracFone is a huge pre-paid carrier with MVNO agreements with all four major American carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint.) That also means that their device selection is incredible, and if you don't like the plans and devices available on one of their sub-brands, you can check out one of the others to see if there's something that works for you. Straight Talk, for example, is a partnership between TracFone and Walmart, is sold exclusively through Walmart stores, and offers remarkably low plan prices ($30 for people who need tons of minutes and texts but little (30Mb) data, and a $45 unlimited plan for unlimited everything—sans streaming). NET10, for its part, eschews contracts and bills and lets you manage everything by buying refill cards or by refilling your minutes, texts, or data from your phone itself—$50 every month gets you an unlimited everything plan. TracFone however, is limited to TracFone branded handsets, but the selection is solid (if a little old). The others have some BYOD (bring your own device) policies.
Virgin Mobile is actually a collection of brand and telecommunication companies that operate under the same umbrella, but do business independently in each country they operate. In the United States, Virgin Mobile USA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint, and rides their network. They started as an MVNO for Sprint,
but Sprint bought out Virgin (but retained the branding) in 2009. Since Virgin Mobile is essentially an arm of Sprint, it has access to new devices and Sprint's 4G LTE network. They offer both pre-paid and monthly wireless plans at a variety of price points, including unlimited plans. You can check out all of their plans here—no contracts or signed agreements required.
One of the nice things about Virgin Mobile is that they offer both feature phones with unlimited talk and text for those who just need to make phone calls (called payLo), but also high-end smartphones for those who stream music and movies and can't be separated from their devices (called BeyondTalk). They even offer 4G modems and mobile hotspots, starting around $5/mo (called Broadband2Go). You could very well walk away with a brand new smartphone on Virgin Mobile with 300 minutes, unlimited texts, and unlimited data for $35/mo. Of course, "Unlimited" is really 2.5GB, after which you'll be throttled, but 2.5GB is pretty generous compared to the standard plans offered by the big carriers directly. Unlimited everything is only $55/mo. Those of you who praised Virgin Mobile noted their low plan prices, support for Sprint's mobile network, and auto-refill, which works like a standard carrier's billing, but can be canceled at any time. They're not perfect though: Many of you noted that Sprint's network sucked in your area, Virgin Mobile doesn't have roaming agreements with other carriers, and they don't feature unlocked devices. However, if you need a cell phone to have a phone, they're a great and really affordable option.