To Contract or Not to Contract: Surveying the Prepaid Smartphone Service Landscape

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Between carriers cutting back on subsidies and the continued premiums of top-tier devices, it’s expensive to own a smartphone today. Capable, budget-friendly phones like the Moto E are helping to change this paradigm, though, and they’ve helped prepaid and contract-free services stay the most effective way to cut down your monthly bill without settling for an unseemly device. Yet, with dozens of these inexpensive services out there, how can you know which one is best for you?

Moto EUnfortunately, there’s no “perfect plan” that will cover everyone’s needs. There’ll always be some sort of tradeoff that’s dependent on your particular habits.  Are you a light user or a heavy user? Do you call for hours on end, or do you only text? Do you run through a ton of data, without caring about the other ways your gadget can communicate? You’ll need to evaluate yourself before evaluating your prepaid options.

So to help you find the contract-free plan that best suits your situation, we’ve compiled a list of five services that best represent the options you’ll encounter in your search. Don’t consider it comprehensive — like we said, there are dozens of prepaid providers out there — but it highlights a handful of the top choices, ranging from the dirt cheap to those more comparable to what you’d find from larger carriers.   

The Ups and Downs of Ditching Contracts

But first, let’s talk about why you should consider cutting up your smartphone contract in the first place. After all, if you’re one of the millions who have only ever bought phones on contract and used major carriers like AT&T and Verizon, you may be wondering what advantages there are in changing your ways.

T-Mobile prepaid plansIn truth, there are both upsides and downsides to either approach. The biggest plus of buying a phone on contract is the carrier subsidy; they pay for most of your phone upfront, and make their money back later on with regular fees. In return, you get a very nice new device for little or no immediate money. However, to recoup the carrier’s cost of the phone, you also end up paying a higher monthly rate than you might otherwise. And with carriers increasingly trying to phase out their subsidies, contract customers are only getting squeezed more and more.

Going without a contract, on the other hand, allows you to choose from a number of significantly cheaper plans, varying from the exceedingly basic to the completely unlimited. However, the catch here is that you have to supply your own smartphone to utilize these choices. This means either bringing over a phone you already own, or paying full price upfront for another device that can be used with your chosen service. If you go the latter route, you can buy a device from the service provider itself, or you can snag it unlocked from a phone manufacturer, retailer or the like.

Either way, non-contract options are a good choice for those who already have a device they like and don’t need to live on the cutting edge. Besides, the rapid progression of smartphone technology has allowed older smartphones to be available at significant discounts through secondhand sources, despite their being more than adequate for most people’s needs. Even a phone that’s a year or two old may still be well above and beyond what most people ask it to do. With that in mind, let’s examine the individual ups and downs of five of the best no-contract smartphone plans.

Page Plus

Notable Plans: $12 per month for 250 minutes, 250 messages, and 10 MB of data; $30 per month for 1200 minutes, 1200 messages, and 500 MB of data; $40 per month for unlimited minutes, messaging, and 100 MB of data; $55 for unlimited minutes, messages, and 3 GB of data

Prepaid carriers, smartphone plan, no contract, Virgin Mobile, Page Plus, Cricket, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&TA reseller for the Verizon network, Page Plus has some of widest-ranging plans of any prepaid service. Its cheapest option comes with measly amounts of data, texts, and minutes, but at just $12 per month, it’s still an incredibly cheap way to own an honest-to-goodness smartphone without getting bogged down by a typical data plan.

The $40 plan is less attractive, as it offers unlimited talk and text, but still only 100 MB of data; even Verizon’s own $45 equivalent offers at least 250 MB. But Page Plus comes back into the reasonable zone with its $55 monthly plan, which offers unlimited talk, text, and 3 GB of data. All of these — along with Page Plus’ pay-as-you-go and $30 per month 1200 minutes/3000 texts/500 MB plans — are backed up by the grand scope of Verizon’s CDMA network, so you’ll consistently have the best signal you can get just about anywhere.

Unfortunately, Page Plus’ flexibility and coverage is countered by its limited device options. Verizon doesn’t allow prepaid or reseller customers on its 4G LTE network, leaving much older 3G devices as your only options. iPhone 4 and 4S models will work, but that’s about the newest thing on Page Plus; Android users will have to go back nearly 3 years to find something that’ll work. There are still some very respectable older models available, but this’ll be an understandable turnoff for most users.

Pros: Plans start extremely cheap. Excellent coverage.

Cons:
Very limited amounts of data on the lower tiers. Only older phones accepted.

Straight Talk

Notable Plans: $30 per month for 1500 minutes, unlimited messages, and 100 MB of data; $45 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and “unlimited” data (throttled at 3 GB); $60 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and data

Prepaid carriers, smartphone plan, no contract, Virgin Mobile, Page Plus, Cricket, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&TAlthough not the cheapest provider, the Walmart-backed Straight Talk offers one of the better “no compromise” prepaid solutions around. It only offers one notable plan for smartphones: a $45 per month “unlimited” plan. As you might guess, it isn’t truly unlimited, but it’s surprisingly close — it offers genuinely unlimited talk and text, as well as a very healthy 3 GB of monthly data at full speeds. After that, your data speed is throttled rather than stopped, so there are no overage fees.

More curiously, instead of being a reseller for one carrier, Straight Talk is a reseller for all of them. Indeed, Straight Talk supports both GSM and CDMA networks, so its plans work with AT&T and T-Mobile devices as well as a handful of compatible phones from Verizon and Sprint. This variety is nice to an extent, but it isn’t as convenient as you might imagine. You pay the same rates no matter which carrier you’re on, so putting a Sprint or T-Mobile device on Straight Talk effectively gives you less coverage for the same cost. You can also activate Verizon phones on Straight Talk, but under the same restrictions as Page Plus: no 4G devices.

AT&T devices, on the other hand, have no restrictions on Straight Talk — you can even get full LTE service with a modern enough phone. If you’re even considering Straight Talk as a provider, an AT&T phone (or an unlocked, AT&T-compatible phone) is what you want to use. You can get all the speed advantages of a contract-based account for much less money.

Pros: Excellent coverage. Reasonable prices. Lots of phone choices.

Cons: Phone selections are confusing.

Cricket Wireless

Notable Plans: $25 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and no data (for basic phones only); $35 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 500 MB of high speed data; $45 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 2.5 GB; $55 per months for unlimited minutes, messages, and 5 GB of data

A newly-acquired subsidiary of AT&T, Cricket — which recently merged with AT&T’s old Aio Wireless service — is essentially an “AT&T Budget” brand running on the same network; it has a different name, but provides close to the same level of service. Cricket’s “Basic” plan offers unlimited talk and text, as well as “unlimited” data that’s actually throttled after 500 MB. This is normally $40, but signing up for automatic credit card payments nets you a $5 discount on any plan.

Prepaid carriers, smartphone plan, no contract, Virgin Mobile, Page Plus, Cricket, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&TFrom there, data tiers are very reasonably priced: an extra $10 per month steps you up to 2.5 GB of data, while another $10 that gets you 5 GB at high speed. Cricket’s high-speed data doesn’t run as fast as other devices on AT&T’s network, but Ma Bell’s coverage is still more than fast enough for anything you’d do from your mobile device, with a maximum limit of 8 Mbps on a 4G LTE connection and 4 Mbps on an HSPA+ one. If you exceed your data limits, you’re throttled down to 0.12 Mbps until the beginning of your bill cycle.

Cricket also offers something that’s pretty rare for a prepaid service: group discounts. If you buy a second line, you get $10 off of the total cost of your service. A third line is $20 off, while fourth and fifth lines are $30 each off. This doesn’t combine with the aforementioned auto-pay discount, so you’ll pay regular plan prices, but it’s still quite the savings for families or groups of friends. A family with five smartphones on the “Basic” plan would pay $110 per month, for instance, instead of the usual $200. Each line has its own data allowance, so accounting for one heavy data user in the family only costs a few dollars more. Dollar for dollar, this is a significantly better savings than even the equivalent sharing plans of major carriers.

Pros: Excellent coverage. Group sharing discount saves money for families.

Cons: Somewhat limited speed.

T-Mobile

Notable Plans: $30 per month for 100 minutes with unlimited messages and data (throttled after 5 GB), or $2 per day of use (for select users only); $40 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 500 MB of data; $50 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 1 GB of data; $60 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 3 GB of data; $70 per month for unlimited minutes, messages, and 5 GB of data

Prepaid carriers, smartphone plan, no contract, Virgin Mobile, Page Plus, Cricket, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&TWith its new emphasis on no-contract plans, T-Mobile has essentially remade itself into a prepaid provider. It also boasts the single best offering, contract or not, for the non-talker but frequent texter and internet addict: $30 per month gives you unlimited messaging and up to 5 GB of data at full, major network 4G speeds (throttled to about 0.1 Mbps after that), albeit with a miniscule 100 minutes per month. Especially for younger people who rarely use their minutes, this is an absolute steal. On most large carriers, you might pay $30 just for data alone, and you wouldn’t get anywhere close to 5 GB at that price.

Unfortunately, if you want more than 100 minutes per month, you have to trade away some data. That $30 plan is a special feature limited to phones that are either sold by Walmart or activated online at T-Mobile.com. The next tier up offers unlimited minutes and 500 MB of high-speed data for $40 per month, but that’s not as great a deal compared to its competition. You have to go up to the $70 tier before you get back to 5 GB of high speed data, a fact that makes Skype, Google Voice, and other VoIP services look quite appealing when paired with the $30 plan. And although it’s improving, T-Mobile’s other major drawback is its limited coverage compared to AT&T or Verizon resellers, which could make ponying up an extra $10 or $20 per month for a rival service worthwhile.

Pros: Inexpensive. Generous data options.

Cons: Limited coverage. Must choose between minutes and data.

Virgin Mobile

Notable Plans: $35 per month for 300 minutes with unlimited messaging and data (throttled after 2.5 GB); $45 per month for 1200 minutes with unlimited messaging and data (throttled after 2.5 GB); $55 per month for unlimited minutes, messaging, and data (throttled after 2.5 GB)

Prepaid carriers, smartphone plan, no contract, Virgin Mobile, Page Plus, Cricket, Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&TOwned and operated solely by Sprint, Virgin Mobile — alongside its cousin brand Boost Mobile — is effectively the yellow carrier’s prepaid division. Its plans reflect that. While they’re not quite as generous as the parent company’s rates, they’re still a pretty good deal. For $35 per month, you get 350 minutes, unlimited messaging, and unlimited data — although the latter is throttled if you use more than 2.5 GB in any given month. And if you sign up to automatically pay your bill with a credit card, you’ll get $5 a month knocked off your bill, bringing it down to $30 for the entry-level plan or $50 for the unlimited minutes one.

Being a Sprint subsidiary also gives Virgin access to most of its parent’s device offerings. However, unlike Page Plus, Virgin will only officially activate Virgin-branded phones. That still makes for a fairly hearty selection (which includes the iPhone 5s), but it means that you’ll likely end up paying quite a bit more cash upfront than you would if you could bring your own device. Beyond that, Virgin’s coverage is even more limited than that afforded to regular Sprint customers; Virgin phones won’t roam onto Verizon if you get outside native Sprint coverage.

Pros: Inexpensive. Decent data options.

Cons: Limited coverage. Supports Virgin-branded phones only.

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