Shop carefully for cell service without a contract

While it can be hard to find bargains, a contract-free service could save you money

Published: July 15, 2014 03:30 PM

More people are tearing up the traditional two-year cell phone-and-service contract and opting to go with no-contract options instead. It's a trend that started when T-Mobile shook up the industry last year, joining upstart prepaid and no-contract carriers by dropping service agreements from its lineup. AT&T and Verizon now also offer contract-free service plans alongside those that come with a two-year commitment.

But can you really save money with no-contract service? Our new study of 84 plan combinations offered by 12 carriers found that in some cases you can.

Unfortunately, the business of shopping for the best deal has become a lot more complicated. It can be difficult to get the different types of service plans to line up for easy comparisons. That’s because no-contract deals, which usually have lower monthly service charges than traditional plans, can also come with hefty price tags for their phones. Meanwhile, major carriers hide handset costs in the overall monthly fee on their traditional contract plans.

Adding to the confusion, most carriers now let no-contract customers pay for a new phone in installments, while some require that you pay full price up front. (Even though these plans have no contract for the cellular service, you do enter into an agreement for the device in the case of installment plans. If you are paying monthly for the device on an installment plan and cancel your service, you will still owe money for the phone under the equipment contract.) Most carriers also let you take the phone you already own over to their network—if it’s compatible with their system’s technology.

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

To sort all this out, you need a new cellular shopping strategy, and we developed one to help you find the best values that combine low price with high satisfaction.

We gathered up all that messy pricing data and differing details about the terms of the various plans and levels of service available from major contract, no-contract, and prepaid carriers. To allow you to also make your decision based on overall satisfaction with service, we confined our comparison to the cellular service providers rated on that score by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, based on its survey last year of 58,399 subscribers with cell-phone service in September, 2013.

Finally, we created three model customer households—an individual user who consumed about average levels of 600 voice minutes, 600 text messages, and 2GB of data per month; a family of four devouring a total of 1,800 minutes, 7,600 texts, and 8GB of data each month; and a couple using only 400 minutes, 200 texts, and 1GB of data per month between them.

We assumed the Apple iPhone 5 or 5c was the handset of choice for our example consumers, and we calculated the cost of phone, service, and any start-up costs over two years, so that traditional two-year contract plans could be compared on a level playing field with no-contract and prepaid plans.

Save most by bringing your own phone

Here's what we found. You can save a bundle by taking your own phone to a new carrier with a no-contract plan, instead of choosing a traditional two year contract plan that comes with new phones. On average, the two-year savings on the cost of the phone plus the service were $773 for our example individual user, $2,005 for our family of four, and $1,153 for our low-use couple.

To get those savings, your phone must work with the new network. You’ll need to switch out your phone’s SIM card (a small expense) for a new one. Top-rated carriers that let you bring your own phone include Consumer Cellular, Net10, and Straight Talk; AT&T is noted for reliable 4G service.

Average two-year cost of service and iPhone 5 or 5c

Terms of cellular service & phone purchase Average-use individual Family of four    Low-use couple
No-contract service, bring your own phone $1,301 $4,514 $1,867
No-contract service, pay installments for phone   2,046   6,550   3,164
No-contract service, pay full price up-front for phone   1,882   6,669   3,147
2-year contract, phone included   2,074   6,519   3,020

If you must buy a new phone, shop all options for the best value

Most carriers offer the bring-your-own phone option, but all phones don’t work with every network. If that’s the case for your preferred new carrier, you’ll need to consider the cost of buying a new handset using the variety of purchase options available.

To properly compare carrier costs, determine how much voice, text, and data you use each month and then shop around among your preferred carriers for the plan that meets your needs. Then multiply the monthly service charges and applicable smart-phone installment payments by 24 months. Don't forget to add in any up-front phone payments and activation or other start-up fees. Use your chosen carriers’ online shopping carts to precisely calculate the monthly costs of each.

The tables below show the comparative two-year cost of service plus iPhone(s) for our model consumers, taxes not included. Where cells are blank, the carrier either doesn't offer that handset purchase option at all or doesn't offer it for the specific iPhone 5/5c model we constructed. Some carriers, like Verizon and U.S. Cellular, offer a bring your own phone option, but the phone has to be from the same carrier, which doesn't fit our premise of customers seeking better value at a different carrier than the one they're currently with.

Carriers are ranked from top to bottom according to their Consumer Reports overall satisfaction rating, with the best ones at the top. The lowest-priced deals within $100 of each other are shown in bold type. Since the best values, provide a winning combination of high satisfaction and low price, look for the bold-type prices appearing in the top half of each chart.

Note that this comparison snapshot was conducted in late June to early July, 2014 and is intended to illustrate and spotlight the value differences between brands and methods of paying for the phone. Since prices can change suddenly, your actual cost may differ from the two-year costs shown here when you shop; your own particular usage patterns and service needs can also affect your total cost.

—Jeff Blyskal

Best values for an average individual user

Carrier No contract, bring your own phone No contract for service, pay installments for phone No contract, pay full price up-front for phone 2-year contract, phone included
Consumer Cellular $1,200 $1,750 $1,750
Straight Talk (prepaid)      997   1,540
Net10 (prepaid)   1,087   1,630
U.S. Cellular   2,024   2,024 $2,294
T-Mobile (prepaid)   1,440   2,000
Credo Mobile   1,235   1,784   1,764
Virgin (prepaid)   1,365
Verizon Wireless   2,505   2,745   2,295
AT&T (prepaid)   1,440
T-Mobile   1,450   2,000   2,000
AT&T   1,560   2,110   2,060
Sprint   2,146   1,956

Best values for a family of four

Carrier No contract, bring your own phone No contract for service, pay installments for phone No contract, pay full price up-front for phone 2-year contract, phone included
Consumer Cellular $4,800 $7,000 $7,000
Straight Talk (prepaid)   3,988   6,160
Net10 (prepaid)   4,348   6,520
U.S. Cellular   6,276*   6,276* $6,536
T-Mobile (prepaid)   5,760   8,000
Credo Mobile   4,218   6,414   6,334
Virgin (prepaid)   5,460
Verizon Wireless   7,379   8,340   6,540
AT&T (prepaid)   5,760
T-Mobile   3,400   5,599   5,599
AT&T   3,840   6,040   6,800
Sprint   7,144   6,384

* Because of buy-more-data pricing incentives in U.S. Cellular's Shared Connect plans, if this family bought more shared data than they need, 10 GB per month instead of 8 GB, they would actually pay less over two years: $5,316 rather than $6,276. That's because the per-line monthly connection charge is only $10 per month when you buy 10 GB or more data per month vs. $20 per month when you buy 8 GB per month.

Best values for a low-use couple

Carrier No contract, bring your own phone No contract for service, pay installments for phone No contract, pay full price up-front for phone 2-year contract, phone included
Consumer Cellular $1,200 $2,300 $2,300
Straight Talk (prepaid)   1,994   3,080
Net10 (prepaid)   1,934   3,020
U.S. Cellular   3,918   3,918 $3,150
T-Mobile (prepaid)   2,400   3,520
Credo Mobile   1,750   2,848   2,808
Virgin (prepaid)   2,250
Verizon Wireless   3,570   4,050   3,150
AT&T (prepaid)   1,920
T-Mobile   1,940   3,040   3,040
AT&T   1,800   2,900   2,800
Sprint   3,572   3,192

This report was updated to include detailed price comparison tables and recalculated overall averages.

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