Everyone needs a phone, but not everyone wants to sign anything resembling a carrier contract to get one. Maybe you’d rather pay only for the service you absolutely need while avoiding extra fees or maybe you just don’t want to submit to a credit check.
Whatever your reason, a prepaid plan can be a brilliant option. When I lived in London for three years, I used a T-Mobile prepaid plan during the weeks when I returned home for visits. It let me keep my longtime US number and I wasn’t paying for service I didn’t use when I was in England. (My UK carrier, Three, gave me free data roaming in the US, but that came with its own set of complications.)
Like with postpaid carrier plans, sorting through the maze or prepaid options isn’t easy, especially as you jump between the sometimes-made-to-be-confusing websites of several carriers. Better to see the various plans in one place, which is what I’ve provided here.
For this comparison, I’ve stuck to the “Big 4” US carriers plus the major prepaid-only carriers that piggyback off a larger operator’s network. Since all prepaid plans listed here have unlimited calls and messaging in the US, the main differentiator between them is how much data you get each month and how fast that data will be. Of course, your choice of available phones will vary, as well, but I’ll leave that decision up to you. CNET has a wonderful section of phone reviews to get you started. Just remember that for prepaid plans, you’ll have to pay the full cost of a handset up front.
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A few other things before you get to the numbers:
As you might expect on a prepaid plan, your service will end if you don’t pay for a month ahead of time.
For all of the below data plans that have a cap, you’ll encounter significantly slower speeds for the rest of the billing period once you hit that limit. Carriers call it “data prioritization,” though it’s akin to throttling. You won’t completely lose data service nor will you be subject to hefty overage fees.
Like with postpaid plans, the most demanding prepaid users also will find that their speeds are “data prioritized” once they use a certain amount of gigabytes per month. Most carriers will start stepping on the hose at 22GB or 23GB, but T-Mobile lets you use 50GB each month before it steps in.
Unless otherwise noted, promised speeds for included data allowances are up to 4G LTE. What speed that actually translates to in the real world will depend on your location and how much demand there is from other users at a given time.
In the “Select additional Features” column, I’ve excluded options (like Wi-Fi calling) that are standard for each carrier, regardless of which plan you choose. I’ve also excluded features that require extra fees.
MetroPCS, Cricket and Boost include taxes and fees in the monthly plan price. For other carriers, you may be subject to additional charges depending on your location.
For nearly all plans listed below, carriers regularly offer discounts and temporary specials to lure new customers. Check what’s available before you sign up.
If you find that a prepaid is still too much for your needs, AT&T and T-Mobile also offer pay-as-you-go plans where you pay $3 per day for unlimited calls and messaging. Data is not included, but it’s a fine choice if you need a phone only for emergencies.
* Monthly discount if you enroll in auto-pay.
When you have family (and friends)
Most prepaid plans will let you add up to five additional lines of service to a single account, typically with the extra lines costing less the more you add. Extra lines are ideal for families that want multiple phones without getting several bills.
That said, navigating your way through the price structures can be baffling. Some plans list the price by line while others list the total price by number of lines (pricing structures can vary even within a single carrier). So, to keep things as comparable as possible, all plans in the next chart are listed by the price per line. If a carrier only has the total price on its website, I estimated the cost per line based on how much a single line would normally cost.
One more thing to note: T-Mobile handles multiple lines for prepaid customers differently than other carriers. Rather than letting you add lines to one of the plans listed above, it has a separate prepaid family plan for up to five lines. The date allowance for each line is 10GB including mobile hotspot use.
* Monthly discount if you enroll in auto-pay.
** Pricing for extra lines on this plan is listed on the carrier’s website by the total number of lines.
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