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There was a time when the only real options for cellular service in the US were AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. But there was also a time when you could get any color car you liked as long as it was black. A lot’s changed since then, and these days mobile virtual network operators — MVNOs — have become a cheap alternative to the Big Four cellular providers. MVNOs lease access from the major carriers and offer similar services at a fraction of the price.
That means you can sign up with Mint Mobile, for example, and get a sort of T-Mobile-lite service at rock-bottom prices. Before we get to the plans, though, keep in mind you might not be able to jump ship at this very moment. To change carriers, you’ll need to complete any existing contract with your current carrier, or likely pay a penalty to exit early. If you bought your phone directly from a carrier, you’ll probably need to. Once you’ve taken care of those preliminaries, though, you’re free to change plans and save a bundle.
There are a surprisingly large number of wireless networks out there, but here’s a handful that offer the best and most intriguing deals we could find.
Black Wireless has been around for a while, but somehow flew under our radar until recently. Black Wireless leases service from AT&T, and offers a compelling unlimited-everything plan for just $15 a month (if you sign up for a year — or $20 if you go month-to-month). The data gets throttled to 128kbps after the first gigabyte, so this is a plan that rewards you if you spend most of your time on Wi-Fi.
There are a number of other plans that are similarly inexpensive, including a Smart Saver plan that includes 500 minutes and 100MB of data for as little as $7.50 a month (again, if you sign up for a full year).
As you can tell from its website, the AT&T-based Consumer Cellular caters to an older, Greatest Generation demographic — but the resulting focus on simplicity and flexibility can serve anyone quite well. Consumer makes it easy to build your own wireless plan, a la carte style, by choosing each component of the plan and immediately seeing how it affects the bottom line. You can create a $20-a-month plan that includes 250 minutes, unlimited texting and 500MB of data.
But Consumer Cellular really comes into its own if you want to buy a plan for you and a partner. You can add a second phone for $15 a month, and all minutes and data are shared — not something you commonly see among MVNOs. That means 250 minutes, unlimited texting and 500MB cost just $35, or about $17 per line per month. Not a bad deal.
Mint Mobile runs on T-Mobile’s network and should work with almost any GSM phone. Mint offers a dirt-cheap $15-a-month trial plan for your first three months. It includes unlimited talk and text and 3GB of data, as well as free access to T-Mobile’s hotspots. After the first three months, it jumps to $25 a month.
So unless you like jumping around from plan to plan, you might want to start with Mint Mobile’s sweet spot: a six-month commitment buys you unlimited talk and text plus 3GB of data for $20 a month.
Red Pocket has a slew of plans, but the cheaper end of the spectrum is hard to beat. If your telecom needs are modest, you can spend as little as $10 a month on 500 minutes, 500 texts and 500MB of data. Or step up to unlimited voice and texts, and 8GB of data, for $19 a month.
Unlike a lot of MVNOs, Red Pocket offers a practical family-plan alternative: The first line is $30, and up to four additional lines are $20 each. That buys you unlimited voice, minutes and data (though the data is throttled after 5GB for LTE or 3GB for CDMA). The family plan involves additional setup charges, so be sure to read the gory details on the site.
Whether you have a phone that’s compatible with Tello’s Sprint network, it’s hard not to be charmed by the network’s build-your-own plan, in which you can choose the data and minutes you’d like, and instantly see what it’ll cost you. And though you can choose unlimited voice, text and data for $39 a month, you can dial it back to as little as $6 for 100 minutes, free text and 500MB of data. Or choose a very respectable 500 minutes and 1GB for $9 a month.
You can use a similar set of sliders to dial in a family plan for up to five people. Because you can configure each line separately, it’s possible to buy unlimited data for Mom and Dad, but just 500MB for Grandma.
And right now — though I don’t know how long this deal will last — Tello is doubling everything at no extra cost. So what’s ordinarily 1GB and 500 minutes for $9 a month becomes 2GB and 1,000 minutes. Still for $9.
Want straight-up free? You can get it — sort of — with TextNow, which offers an ad-supported voice-over-Wi-Fi service that delivers calling, voicemail and texts in an app you can install on your Android or iOS phone. But there’s more: With a $10 activation kit, TextNow can port your phone to its Sprint-based network. There, you can get voice, data and 2GB of data for $20 a month.
Read more about TextNow.
Ting leases its service from three of the Big Four: T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. Moreover, Ting takes a slightly askew approach to rate plans — it doesn’t have any. Rather than locking you into a data-and-voice plan, Ting uses a pay-for-what-you-use model. You can use a tool on the site to get an estimate of what you’ll pay based on what data, voice and texts you plan to use in a month, but you are literally charged for what you use.
Even better, you can add multiple lines and your usage is pooled, which can conceivably save you quite a bit of money compared to having separate plans. If you feel better imposing limits on yourself, you can set alerts and caps in your account so you don’t break the bank.
Some car dealerships offer a “no haggling experience” by putting the final price — no negotiations — right on the windshield. That’s basically the value proposition of Visible, which is a fully-owned Verizon brand. And while it’s not as inexpensive as some of the other options on this list, it gives you unlimited everything. You pay $40 all-in, and that buys you unlimited voice, text and data, along with mobile hotspot capabilities (which are capped at 5Mbps). This is a small thing, but much appreciated: The $40 total is literally the price you see on your bill; there are no additional taxes or fees.
Even cooler, Visible is getting on board with family plans, too — except that your “family” doesn’t even need to be related to you. You can invite up to four other people to join your group plan, and the cost is lower the more people who join. Two people pay $35 a month, while four people pay just $25 each.
Read more about Visible’s group plan.
Have you a found a supercheap phone plan you like better than any of these? Tell us about your favorite plan in the comments.
Originally published earlier this year, this article has been updated with the latest information on these carriers.
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