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How no-contract smart-phone plans stack up

Searching for a discounted, no-contract plan? Options abound

Last updated: July 02, 2014 09:45 AM

Those smart phones we love so much eat up our data allowances—and our budgets. But while it's not uncommon to hear about consumers "cutting the cord" when it comes to pricey cable services, they're still a little hesitant to ditch a long-standing relationship with a contracted cell-phone provider. With the average monthly cell-phone bill hovering around $93 per person, according to consumer-research company Nielsen, though, it may be time to consider a change.

Many cell-phone providers are starting to answer the call of the wayward consumer who's been searching for an inexpensive prepaid plan that's flexible and offers the convenience of a running on a major carrier's network. For example, both Sprint and Verizon Wireless revamped their prepaid plans in March.

Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

But is a facelift enough? Only time—and consumer-satisfaction surveys—will tell. In the meantime, we've compiled a comprehensive look at some of the top and lesser-known no-contract plans. Take a look at our selection of unlimited talk, text, and data smart-phone plans powered by the major carriers to see if a prepaid plan is for you. And check our story "How to choose the right prepaid phone plan for you" for more guidance.  

Here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • "Unlimited" is a relative term when it comes to data usage. Most plans offer high-speed connectivity, but data streaming tends to slow down between the first 500MB to 1GB, depending on the plan.
  • Consider network coverage as well as price.
  • Most plans carry a limited and outdated selection of smart phones. So take a look at our cell phone buying guide for advice on picking the best phone for you.
  • If you want to bring your current phone to a prepaid service, make sure it's completely paid for, unlocked, and compatible with the new network's radio system. Sprint and Verizon networks use mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology. So before signing up with a new carrier, ask whether your old phone is compatible; compatibility lists are also provided on the FAQ sections of carrier websites.
  • Review your current bill and usage rates to determine if a prepaid plan is for you. By comparing your current bill and usage rates, you can tell if you'll truly be saving on a prepaid plan.

—Kaitlyn Wells

AT&T plans

Consumer Cellular

1,200 talk, 5,000 text & 1GB data plan [Correction: Consumer Cellular is not a prepaid service but is a post-paid no-contract service—Ed.]
Price per month: $50
Activation fee: none
Phones: Apple iPhone 5s; Apple iPhone 5c; Apple iPhone 4s; Doro PhoneEasy 618; LG Escape; Huawei Vision; Motorola Moto G; Samsung Galaxy S Relay

High points:

  • Highly customizable if you don't want unlimited-type features. For example, it offers a "casual plan" for $10.00 a month that’s good for emergency-use only, making it ideal for small children. (But on this "casual plan" calls are an additional $0.25 per minute, and you can add 100 texts and 10MB of data for $2.50.)
  • Bring your own phone—which needs to be an AT&T phone or unlocked and running on a GSM network—by purchasing a free SIM card.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection that contains some older or lesser-known models.
  • No unlimited plans available.

GoPhone

Unlimited talk and text plan
Price per month: $60
Activation fee: none
Phones: Radiant; Avail 2; Lumia 520; Z998; Samsung Galaxy Express
 
High points:
  • Bring your own phone (AT&T phone or unlocked and GSM compatible) by purchasing a $10 GoPhone SIM card.
  • Unlimited texting includes phone numbers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and 100 other countries.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection that contains some older or lesser-known models.
  • Limited 4G and 4G LTE availability in select markets.
  • Must purchase an additional 1GB for $10 if you exceed your 2.5GB data allowance.

H2O Wireless

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $60
Activation fee: none
Phones: Alcatel 356, Apple iPhone 3GS, Apple iPhone 5, LG Prime, Motorola Flipside, Motorola Bravo, Pantech Pocket, Pantech Link, Sharp FX Plus, ZTE Z21, ZTE Z431, ZTE F160

High points:

  • Bring your own phone (AT&T or unlocked and GSM compatible) by purchasing a $5 to $10 SIM card.
  • Plan comes with a monthly $20 international talk credit and the ability to send 100 free international texts.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection that contains some older or lesser-known models.
  • While international calling credit is a bonus, standard call rates apply, so you may run out of the monthly allowance quickly if you frequently make international calls.

Cricket Wireless (formerly Cricket and Aio Wireless)

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $50
Activation fee: Free online, $25 in store
Phones: Nokia Lumia 520, Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy S5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 5c, ZTE Prelude, LG Optimus L70, Motorola Moto G, ZTE Sonata, ZTE Overture, Samsung Galaxy Express, Nokia Lumia 1310
 
High points:
  • Bring your own phone (AT&T or unlocked and GSM compatible) by purchasing a $10 SIM card.
  • Unlimited international texting (with 35 countries)
Low points:
  • Internet slowed at 2.5GB data usage
  • Plan only available with smart phones

Do your homework before you choose a smart phone using our buying guide and Ratings.

Sprint plans

Boost Mobile

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $50
Activation fee: none
Phones: 40 smart phone models, including the Apple iPhone 5s, Samsung Galaxy S 5, and LG Optimus F7

High points:

  • A robust smart-phone selection
  • The Boost Mobile Deployed Military Program allows servicemen and servicewomen to incur no service charges and reactivation fees when their accounts are restored.

Low points:

  • Internet speed slows at 2.5GB of data usage

Freedom Pop

Unlimited talk and text plan, 500MB data
Price per month: $6.67
Activation fee: none
Phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Victory 4G LTE, Samsung Galaxy S 3, iPhone 5

High points:

  • A very inexpensive option for talkers and texters
  • Free options available for "light" phone users

Low points:

  • Limited smart-phone selection with some older or lesser-known models
  • The plan is billed annually, so $80 is due upon signup
  • Coverage isn't as widely available as most prepaid plans.

Sprint SmartPlus

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $60
Activation fee: None for Prepaid plans

High points:

  • You can transfer your existing phone number to the new device

Low points:

  • Limited smart-phone selection with some odler or lesser-known models
  • Currently, all compatible devices mut be purchased in a Sprint store
  • Internet speeds slow at 2.5GB of data usage
  • Video streaming may be limited to 3G speeds

Zact

1,000 talk and text plus 1,024MB data plan
Price per month: $43.37
Activation fee: $10
Phones: ZTE Awe (out of stock currently)

High points:

  • This plan features a la carte options that can be customized per device.
  • Users receive an automatic credit back if they don't use all of their talk/text/data each month.

Low points:

  • Limited smart-phone selection with some older or lesser-known models.
  • You must use one of this company's devices.
  • No unlimited plans are available.
  • Limited 4G LTE availability in some markets.

User our story "How to choose the right prepaid plan for you" to help you decide.

T-Mobile plans

Ultra Mobile

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $49
Activation fee: none
Phones: not applicable

High points:

  • Unlimited global text is included.
  • A $10 monthly international call credit is included.
  • Call Me Free feature allows international callers to dial the user as a free international call.
  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Bring your own phone—which needs to be unlocked and running on a GSM network—by purchasing a $10 SIM card

Low points:

  • Coverage isn't as widely available as most prepaid plans.
  • This plan doesn't provide any smart phones, so you must bring your own unlocked device running on a GSM network and pay for a $10 SIM card.
  • Internet speeds slow at 1GB of data usage.

Walmart Family Mobile

Unlimited plan (postpaid)
Price per month: $39.98
Activation fee: $25 (for starter kit)
Phones: Alcatel One Touch Evolve; Alcatel One Touch Fierce; Alcatel 606A; Concord Smartphone; Nokia Lumia 521; LG Optimus L90; Apple iPhone 5; Samsung Galaxy S 4; Samsung Galaxy S 3; Samsung Galaxy Exhibit; Samsung T139; Sparq II

High points:

  • Bring your own phone—which needs to be unlocked and running on a GSM network—by purchasing a $25 "starter kit."
  • A $5-per-month discount is applied to each additional line.
  • If you receive government assistance, you may qualify for the Lifeline Discount, dropping the price to $29.88 or less/month.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection with older or lesser-known models.
  • Must purchase a $25 "starter kit" per device, which includes a SIM card to activate each line.
  • Plan is limited to five lines.
  • Limited 3G coverage in some markets.

Check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings for more tips.

TracFone Wireless plans

*Plans run on a "top four" network or "multiple" carrier networks.

Net10

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $50
Activation fee: none
Phones: Apple iPhone 5s; Apple iPhone 5c; Apple iPhone 5; Apple iPhone 4s; Huawei Ascend 2; Huawei Ascend Y; Huawei Ascend Plus; Huawei H210C; LG 235C; LG Optimus Showtime; LG Optimus Q; Motorola Defy XT; Samsung S390G; Samsung T404G; Samsung Galaxy S 4; Samsung Galaxy S III; Samsung Galaxy Proclaim

High points:

  • Get a $5 discount if you opt for automatic bill pay.
  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Offers some smart phones that are newer models.
  • Bring your own phone—which needs to be a compatible phone or unlocked and running on a CDMA or GSM network—by purchasing a $7 to $15 SIM card.

Low points:

  • Carrier networks are undisclosed, so check coverage area maps before selecting this plan.
  • Internet speeds slow at 2.5GB of data usage.

Straight Talk

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $45
Activation fee: none
Phones: 40 smart phone models, including the Apple iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy Centura

High points:

  • A robust smart phone selection.
  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Pay $495 for a one-year-unlimited plan ($41.25 per month) and save $45.

Low points:

  • Carrier network is unknown, so check coverage area maps before selecting this plan.
  • Internet speeds slow at 2.5GB of data usage.
  • Limited 4G LTE availability in select markets.

Page Plus Cellular

Unlimited talk and text plan
Price per month: $55
Activation fee: $10 (none if you use your existing number)
Phones: Huawei Ascend Plus; Huawei Ascend Y; Huawei Glory; Kyocera Milano; Kyocera Rio; LG 220; LG Optimus Zip; ZTE Majesty

High points:

  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • 200 international calling minutes

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection that contains some older or lesser-known models.
  • Carrier network is unknown, so check coverage area maps before selecting this plan.
  • Monthly data allowance is limited to 3GB, and additional data is expensive.

Still undecided? Read "How to choose the right prepaid plan for you."  

Verizon Wireless plans

Verizon Smartphone Plan (a.k.a. AllSET Plan)

Unlimited talk and text plan
Price per month: $50
Activation fee: $35
Phones: Apple iPhone 4; Apple iPhone 4s; Samsung Galaxy Legend; Motorola Moto G

High points:

  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Bring your own device availability.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection that contains some older or lesser-known models.
  • Comes with 500MB of data at $45, so you need to pay $5 if you want an additional 500MB to bring you to about 1GB.
  • Bring-your-own-phone availability is limited to compatible 3G Verizon devices. (For example, Windows Mobile, 4G smartphones, and most Push to Talk devices can't be transferred to this plan.)

Our cell phone buying guide and Ratings can help you choose the right smart phone for you.

Virgin Mobile plans (powered by Sprint)

Beyond Talk Unlimited Data & Messaging

Unlimited plan
Price per month: $55
Activation fee: none
Phones: Apple iPhone 4; Apple iPhone 4S; Apple iPhone 5c; Apple iPhone 5s; HTC Desire; Kyocera Event; Kyocera Rise; LG Optimus F3; ZTE Reef; Samsung Galaxy Ring; Samsung Galaxy S III; Samsung Galaxy Reverb; Samsung Galaxy Victory 4G LTE; Samsung Galaxy S5; Virgin Mobile Awe; Virgin Mobile Supreme

High points:

  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Lost-phone replacement at a discounted price.

Low points:

  • Internet speeds slow at 2.5GB of data usage.
  • Video streaming may be limited to 3G speeds.

payLO Talk & Text

Unlimited talk and text plan
Price per month: $40
Activation fee: none
Phones: Kyocera Kona; Kyocera Brio; Samsung Montage; Samsung Entro

High points:

  • Transfer your existing phone number to the new device.
  • Lost-phone replacement at a discounted price.

Low points:

  • Limited smart phone selection with some older or lesser-known models.
  • This plan is not Android-device compatible.
  • Monthly data allowance is limited to 50MB, and additional data is expensive.
   

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