What had been the “big four” wireless carriers became three after T-Mobile’s 2020 merger with Sprint, meaning less competition and choice for consumers (along with the possibility of higher rates). The combined company, along with fellow giants Verizon Wireless and AT&T, dominate the cellular landscape with roughly 430 million total subscribers.
But you don’t have to pay hefty bills to use their cell towers.
Nowadays, there are much cheaper options to help you budget and save, including Red Pocket Mobile (with plans starting as low as $5 per month) and Tello (plans starting at $8 per month.
The emergence of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) have been a godsend for budget-conscious cell phone users, often offering the coverage of the major carriers at half the cost.
MVNO carriers like Cricket Wireless don’t own their own network hardware but rather operate over the same cell towers as the “big three,” often targeting the prepaid, no-contract market. Subscribers can usually sign up without a credit check and benefit from lower monthly rates than their host operators.
But, as they say, you get what you pay for, and that can sometimes be the case with MVNOs. Because they don’t own their own networks, MVNOs can’t always offer the same range or quality of service as the big three. For example, under heavy network loads, access for an MVNO subscriber using A&T’s network will often be prioritized below AT&T’s own subscribers, resulting in performance limitations (i.e. dropped calls or no access at all).
Nevertheless, if you’re willing to accept that performance tradeoff, you’ll find that the cheapest cell phone service options are typically offered by MVNOs, though it’s still largely a hidden secret for many. As of 2018, there were an estimated 139 active MVNOs in the United States, but only about 7% of wireless subscribers got their service through one.
If you want to save money on your cell phone bill, consider subscribing to one of the dozens of MVNOs in the United States.
Cheapest Cell Phone Plans with Data
At A Glance
If you’re a light cell phone user, Tello might be the service for you. Like other MVNOs, Tello allows you to tailor a plan to your individual needs, starting at as little as $8 a month. If you have trouble making up your mind, Tello offers ready-made plans for individual users ranging from $10 to $19 per month. Family plans start at $5 per line and go up $39.
At a Glance
Red Pocket Mobile offers some of the cheapest plans to be found anywhere with the ability to scale up. An extra $5/month gets you 1 GB of data and unlimited texts. For $19/month, you can get unlimited talk and text plus 3 GB of data. Each plan also comes with the benefit of being able to choose whichever network you’d like to use. Its services are compatible with nearly any phone in the United States, so there’s no need to buy a new phone if you like your current one.
At a Glance
It doesn’t get much simpler than Republic Wireless, which offers plans starting as low as $15 a month for unlimited talk and text and gives you the flexibility to add or remove data as you see fit, paying $5 per GB. The company boasts of no surprise fees and a risk-free 14-day trial. You can also get 12 months for the price of 10 if you sign up for an annual installment plan.
At A Glance
Mint Mobile keeps its plans so cheap by offering bulk deals. The more months you pay for up front, the cheaper your bill will be. The 12-month plan offers the best discount. For $180 you get 12 months of unlimited talk and text, plus 3GB of data per month. This sounds like a contract but it’s not. Yes, you’re paying up front, but if you decide to cancel there are no early termination fees. Also, you don’t have to worry about overages, since you can only use what you’ve already paid for. If you use all your data before the end of your cycle, simply text UPDATE to 6700 and follow the instructions. Another bonus is that they provide the mobile hotspot for no additional charge. The data from the hotspot comes from your monthly allotment.
Cheapest Unlimited Cell Phone Plans
If you want to spare yourself the time and inconvenience of having to monitor your monthly talk, text and data usage, without the tradeoff of racking up large monthly bills, there are plenty of good options to explore. As it turns out, going for the bells and whistles of an unlimited plan doesn’t have to break the bank.
At A Glance
Sprint’s Unlimited Kickstarter Plan will set you back only 35 bucks a month if you sign up for autopay. You can either bring your own device or buy one through Sprint. The package features unlimited streaming in standard definition. Sprint’s basic text and data are available in more than 200 world locations.
At A Glance
There’s nothing hidden in the fine print about Visible’s $40 unlimited plan. By unlimited, they mean unlimited, so surf, talk and text to your heart’s content. And by $40, they mean $40, no added fees, taxes or activation charges. Or, as they put it, “no additional nonsense.” And it all comes on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. You can also slice $15 off your first month’s bill when you switch.
Cheapest Family Cell Phone Plans
Cell phone bills really pile up once you start adding lines, but there are some MVNOs that also cater toward families, as well as deals to be had with the traditional carriers. These family plans will save you the most.
At A Glance
This may be the only family package you’ll be able to find offering four lines of unlimited service for under 100 bucks a month (if you sign up for auto refill). The first 100GB of shared data are provided at high speed, slowing to 2G thereafter. You also get hotspot access up to 10GB per line.
At A Glance
This plan will set your family back $140 per month (after you sign up for auto pay) for four lines, and it comes with unlimited talk, text, 4G LTE data, as well as DVD-quality streaming. T-Mobile also throws in Netflix for good measure. It may be a little more pricey than the MVNOs, but if you value top-notch performance and speed at a reasonable price, you’ll get your money’s worth.
At A Glance
Cricket offers four lines of unlimited talk, text and data access for $100 per month, though with download speed slowed to 3mbps. Its unlimited talk and text service includes Mexico, Canada and 38 other nations. The only drawback is the slower download speeds.
Cheapest Cell Phone Plans without Data
For most cell phone users these days, their devices are much more than talking devices; they are their main mechanism for surfing the web, staying up with the news and even watching their favorite TV shows and movies, all of which require data.
But if you’re still living in the 1990s and still see your cell phone as little more than a talking (or texting) device, you can save even more money by going with plans without data.
At A Glance
One of the largest and most well-known prepaid carriers, TracFone offers 30-minute airtime cards for $9.99 per month that give users up to 30 minutes of talk and text time. It also contracts with all major carriers, so your service will depend on where you live and the phone you buy.
At A Glance
By signing up for Good2Go’s autopay, you can talk and text to your heart’s content for only 10 bucks a month on a nationwide 4G LTE network. The service is compatible with AT&T and comes with a free SIM card activation kit.
At A Glance
Ting is the type of service that you can pay for only what you want – everything is sold à la carte. While Ting is a great choice for users who want some data in their plans, you can save even more by going talk- and text-only with its a la carte options (rates start at $6 for one line, with additional costs to add minutes and texts). You can save even more by adding multiple lines and sharing your talk and text time.
How to Get Out of a Cell Phone Contract without Paying an Early Termination Fee (ETF)
So, you’ve found a new plan that will cut your monthly cell phone bill in half. Only problem is you’ve still got eight months left on your current contract.
Your carrier doesn’t want to see you go, and they won’t let you walk away even if you ask politely. However, there are a few ways to part with your carrier early, without paying an ETF. Here are some suggestions:
Transfer to a Carrier that Will Pay Your ETF
The competition amongst the big carriers for your cell phone service is tight. That’s why they’re often willing to offer absurd deals. Some will go as far as paying your ETF. These offers are usually limited time only.
Sounds nice, right? The obvious pitfall here is you’ll be freeing yourself of one contract to be locked into another.
Still, if your current carrier has poor service in your area or your rates are just too high, a fresh contract with a new carrier is worth considering.
Transfer Your Contract to Someone Else
Most contracts allow you to transfer your service to someone else. This is similar to transferring a car lease. Find someone willing to take on the service and fill out a transfer service application. Just remember the new owner will need to pass a credit check. Keep your bill current, as you will be responsible for all payments until the application is finalized.
Look for a Loophole in Your Contract
You’ll need to rummage through the fine print in your bills to look for any modifications you don’t recall agreeing to. If this sounds meticulous that’s because it is. But If your carrier has made changes to your contract after you signed it, you may have a legitimate claim to cancel your service without paying the ETF.
However, many cell phone contracts state they can change the terms whenever they wish. You have to prove the changes are “materially adverse” in order to legally opt out. An example of a materially adverse change would be if your carrier agreed to charge you $90 a month for service, then out of nowhere upped it $110 a month. This is uncommon.
When deciding on a cell phone plan, remember to ask yourself what features are invaluable to you. Some of us can get away with using wi-fi at home or at the office, we only need 1GB of wiggle room for our daily commute. Others will struggle with their limits if their plan provides anything under 20GB for watching Netflix.
Whatever your circumstances, there are plenty of high-quality and affordable options with MVNOs that will allow you to save your money and stay out of debt.
- Statista (2019) Number of Subscribers to Wireless Carriers in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/283507/subscribers-to-top-wireless-carriers-in-the-us/
- Jones, D. (2016, October 6) MVNOs in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.ipass.com/blog/mvnos-in-the-u-s/
- Loftsgordon, A. (ND) The Two Main Types of Cellphone Contracts. Retrieved from https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/consumer-protection/protections-for-consumer-purchases/the-two-main-types-of-cell-phone-contracts.html
- N.A. (ND) “What is an MVNO? Mobile Virtual Network Operators Explained.” Retrieved from https://coveragecritic.com/mobile-phone-service/mobile-virtual-network-operators-explained/
- Rasmussen, A. (2018, Dec. 12) “The State of MVNO in 2018: More than 1,300 Active MNVOs in 79 Countries” Retrieved from http://www.weconnectthailand.com/news/the-state-of-mvno-in-2018-more-than-1300-active-mvnos-in-79-countries/