How to choose the right no-contract phone plan for you

See which of these four common phone-usage scenarios fits your needs

Published: April 15, 2014 08:00 AM

Thinking of moving to a no-contract phone plan? Which plan you choose depends on how you'll use it. Here are four common usage scenarios; see which one matches your life, and then check our comprehensive prepaid plans comparison to make your choice.

You have friends or family overseas

Ultra Mobile, on the T-Mobile network, is great for individuals who make calls to other countries. For $49 per month, this unlimited plan includes unlimited texting with devices overseas, a $20 international calling credit, and the ability for those out of the U.S. to dial your number like it's a local call, so there's no additional charge. But keep in mind this plan requires you to supply your own unlocked phone, so there's an additional $10 charge for a SIM card. Also, mobile coverage isn't as widely available as on other plans, so do your research before opting for this plan.

As an alternative, AT&T's H2O Wireless offers a similar unlimited plan but costs $60 per month. It also comes with a $20 international calling credit, but free outgoing international texts are limited to the first 100. This plan does have a small selection of smart phones, but the devices are outdated. So you may be better off bringing your own unlocked, compatible device and purchasing a $10 to $15 SIM card for this plan.

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

You're a budget-conscious parent

Zact, on the Sprint network, is ideal for families who want to customize their service on a continual basis. While it doesn't offer traditional unlimited plans, a plan offering 1,000 talk minutes and 1,000 texts and 1GB of data is $43.37 per month (which is shareable on multiple devices). Since the average teen texts 3,300 times a month, according to Nielsen, you may need to adjust your plan's text allowance throughout the month—which is doable with the swipe of a finger on your device.

Zact also has a feature that lets you set talk, text, and data usage limits per device. So to prevent your teen from checking Facebook nonstop, you can set a monthly allowance just for that app on his phone. You can also lock the phone during family dinners so he won’t be tempted to text or call friends throughout the meal. The best part is that you can set "approved" numbers (like your own), and the kids can always dial 911 in case of an emergency. Helicopter parents will approve.

Another plan marketed to families, Walmart Family Mobile runs on the T-Mobile network. While it's only $39.98 for the first device, each line requires you to purchase a $25 starter kit with a SIM card to activate the devices. Limited to five lines, this plan offers a $5-per-month discount for each additional line, dropping the price to $34.98 per additional line. (Additional discounts may be available if you receive government assistance.) 

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

You need a cheap plan for talking and texting

Plans don't get much cheaper than the one offered by Sprint's Freedom Pop. For $6.67 per month—which is charged annually, so $80 per year—you get unlimited talk and text and 500MB of data. That's just half of a gigabyte, but it may be fine if you only occasionally check e-mail and your social networking accounts. (When you purchase a new plan, though, Freedom Pop actually gives you an additional 500MB of data, which it says is automatically offered to new customers.) And while the price is rock bottom, coverage is more limited than that of other plans, so it's not for everybody.

Virgin Mobile’s payLO plan, also powered by Sprint, is $40 per month and is another great option for high-volume texters who occasionally access the Web. You can transfer your existing phone number to your new device, and it offers lost-phone replacement at a discounted price. On the downside, you can't use an Android phone with this plan.

Consumer Cellular (which runs on AT&T’s network but isn't owned by AT&T) is another option for occasional data users, or for those who need a smart phone just for emergency situations. While a high-usage plan costs $50 (for 1,000 talk minutes, 5,000 texts, and 500MB of data), "casual plans" start at $10 per month and charge $0.25 per minute for calls and $2.50 per month for just 100 texts and 10MB of data.

You want all the mobile bells and whistles

For a large selection of current smart-phone models, go with Sprint's Boost Mobile, which sells the Apple iPhone 5s, among other models. It’s $55 per month for an unlimited plan, but you can lower your bill further: For every six months of on-time payments, the bill drops by $5, and you can reduce it to $35 per month in just 18 months.

Net10, which is operated by Tracfone (our highest-rated prepaid cell-phone carrier), also offers a wide selection of newer smart phones. For example, Net10 carries the Apple iPhone 5s and the Samsung Galaxy S 4. But if you prefer to bring your own phone, that's no problem, as a SIM card ranges from $7 to $15. Additionally, its $50-per-month unlimited plan drops by $5 when you opt for automatic bill pay, and you can keep your existing phone number.

While its carrier networks aren't specified, Net10 says it partners with America's top-four networks, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. But like other prepaid plans, coverage provided even by a combination of the carriers may vary, so check the Net10 maps to ensure that coverage on any unnamed network is available in your area.  

—Kaitlyn Wells

Be sure to check our guide to prepaid phone plans for details!

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