Chances are, you’re probably using one of the big three cellular providers in the United States: Verizon, T-Mobile, or AT&T. You’re also probably paying a lot for service you may not need quite as much right now. With a lot of us working at home more, well within reach of a home Wi-Fi network, now may be a good time to switch to a new wireless network with cheaper rates.
Mobile data is the priciest part of a cell plan these days, so if you can rely a little more on Wi-Fi instead and downsize your monthly data appetite, you can save a lot of money by switching to an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator—a silly name that means a smaller mobile service provider that runs on one of the big carrier networks.
Check out our guide to the best unlimited plans at the major carriers, best Android phones, and how to pick an iPhone. And for those who are looking to save a bit of money, here’s our guide to the best cheap phones for all budgets.
The 2 Best Plans
Mint launched in 2016 and took no time in becoming the best value among smaller cellular networks. Its $40 Unlimited plan is our favorite unlimited service, and its $25 plan is our favorite budget service. Both plans start at $30 and $15 for the first three months.
It has some good benefits too. 4G LTE and 5G are in every plan with no speed caps. For $40 a month (taxes and fees not included), you get unlimited talk, text, and data. After 35 GB, data keeps flowing but at a reduced speed. You can make free calls to Canada and Mexico. There are three more tiers: 3 GB for $25 a month, 8 GB for $35 a month, and 12 GB for $45 a month.
You can lock in the lower $15 and $30 prices if you pay for 12 months up front after your first few months. You can also bulk-buy all the tiers in 6- and 12-month packages to lower the price a bit.
Mint also offers a $5 one-week trial of its service. Download the Mint Mobile app from the Google Play Store or the Apple Store and you can try out a limited version of the Mint plan for $5. If you end up liking it and buying a plan after the trial week, Mint knocks the $5 off your renewal price.
Phone compatibility: This network runs on T-Mobile, so any ex-T-Mobile or ex-AT&T phone should work, along with many newer high-end phones that come universally unlocked, like iPhone and Google Pixel. Check here for compatibility.
Also Good for Unlimited Data
Visible was our favorite until Mint unleashed its unlimited plan, but it’s still a great deal if you prefer Verizon’s coverage, which is sometimes better in rural areas. It’s owned by Verizon and uses its network exclusively. For an unlimited plan, it’s affordable at $40 per month for one line, including taxes and fees, and it comes with unlimited talk, text, and LTE data with no speed cap. Navigating Visible’s sign-up process is simple.
One knock against Visible, compared to Mint, is that there’s no 5G access yet, only 4G LTE, although we don’t think it’s a big deal at all. 5G coverage is still scarce outside certain major cities—and it’s not all that game-changing in the city yet, either. You get a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot included, which is often missing from base plans among the three major carriers, though it’s limited to 5 Mbps and supports only one tethered device at a time. Video streaming is restricted to 480p resolution, and music streaming is held to 500 Kbps. Your first month is only $25.
Visible has only one plan, and it costs $40 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data.
Phone compatibility: It runs on Verizon’s network, so any ex-Verizon or ex-US Cellular phone or universally unlocked phone can be brought over. Check here to see if your phone is compatible.
Best for Homebodies (and World Travelers)
For people who use little data, Google Fi is an easy way to have access to the data you might need without the possibility of buying too much.
You pay $20 for one line, plus $10 per gigabyte of data, whether you’re in the US or traveling in one of the 200-plus supported countries. It’s also prorated, so if you don’t use a whole gigabyte, you won’t get charged for a whole gigabyte. (I recommend you turn off your mobile data in your phone’s menu at home to ensure you’re always using Wi-Fi.)
Google Fi uses T-Mobile’s and US Cellular’s 4G LTE and 5G networks. Data after 6 GB is free, so you won’t get a surprise, giganto bill if you lose track of your data use. And there’s free travel, so you don’t have to pay a daily fee overseas just to be allowed to pay again for by-the-minute phone calls. Instead, calls are a flat 20 cents per minute from outside the US and there’s free, unlimited texting. Data costs don’t change outside the US either.
It works with more than just Google phones now, including certain Huawei, Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Apple models, but its iOS support is still in beta. If you’re using an iPhone, Fi won’t switch between networks for best call quality, which is a feature that’s a big chunk of its appeal. The Unlimited plan exists, but is expennnnsive: $70 per month for a single phone line, not including taxes and fees.
Google Fi offers a $20 per line + $10 per GB of data plan and the unlimited plan for $70. If you have four or more lines, the standard plan is reduced to $16 per line (+ $10 per GB) and the unlimited plan reduces to $45 per line.
Phone compatibility: Only certain phones will work with Fi. The list of compatible phones is small compared to other providers.
If You Barely Use Your Phone
Ting is cheap. Really cheap. But it’s like going to a Dim Sum restaurant and ordering a la carte. You buy access at $6 per line and then you buy a package of minutes, a package of texts, and a package of data. If you call or text a lot, it gets stupidly expensive quickly. For example: 501-1,000 minutes of calling (one price for a range), 2,000 texts, and 3 GB of 4G LTE data costs $59 a month.
It can go up from there. If you max out the options, you’re sitting at $82 per month. There’s no option for unlimited calling and texting, which feels a decade out of date, and because of that, you have to pay for what you use beyond that. You could easily end up with a bill deep into three figures. We don’t advise using Ting if your bill would end up as high as any of the other providers on this list.
But if you aren’t a heavy phone caller or tend to text with apps that don’t rely on SMS (check your recent phone bills), it may be a good option for tailoring a plan to your needs. It’s also a good option for people who need a cell for emergencies or very occasional use.
Ting starts at $12 per month for a phone line with 100 call minutes, 100 texts, and no data. Prices escalate up to $82 per month as you use all three.
Phone compatibility: Ting runs on Sprint’s network, which is now T-Mobile’s network. It previously announced plans to begin using the Verizon network, but those plans seem to have been frozen since Dish Network bought Ting in August 2020. There’s no word yet that it’ll be merged with Dish’s other cell provider, Boost Mobile, but we’ll keep this page updated if there are any developments. For now, check your phone’s compatibility here.
Owned by Sprint for many years, Boost was bought by Dish Network when T-Mobile gobbled up Sprint earlier this year. We’ll keep this page updated as Dish’s plans for Boost become clearer in the future.
It has five plans, from $10 to $45 a month, and each with Wi-Fi hot spot data and unlimited talk and text, although the lowest tier has a 1-GB hot spot limit, which is pretty low if you connect it to a laptop to web browse. Still, all the plans are competitively priced for the data and features offered. The two top tiers, at $45 for 15 GB and $35 for 10 GB are outright good deals, although you are nearing Visible’s unlimited plan at those prices.
The $45 15-GB plan comes with what Boost calls $hrink-It!, a scheme that lowers the price to $35 a month after six consecutive months of on-time payments. This plan feels oddly punitive, which we don’t like. The unlimited plans make no financial sense at $50 and $60 per month. If that’s your thing, go to Visible or one of the major carriers.
Also, the unlimited plans are limited to 35 GB of high-speed data, after which you get 2G for the rest of the month. All cell providers’ “unlimited” plans have limits, which is one of my ongoing gripes, so it’s actually refreshing to see one come right out and put a number on it. Although they (and everyone else) could also just stop calling it “unlimited” …
Phone compatibility: As always, universally unlocked phones will work, along with phones brought over from T-Mobile and AT&T. Make sure yours is compatible by checking here.
Cricket is fine. It’s eh, pretty good, so-so. There’s nothing egregious about its offerings, but nothing about them really stands out, either. It’s owned by AT&T and has been eclipsed by newer offerings that deliver more features than it manages. But it still offers solid service, and some of the tiers make a good case for themselves.
The $35-a-month tier for 10 GB of 4G LTE data ($40 if you don’t use auto-pay) makes the most sense, although it’s light on features compared to the competition. But at least Cricket’s prices do include taxes.
You get no Wi-Fi hot spot unless you pay $65 a month for the top tier, which includes 15 GB of hot spot data. Yet even if you’re paying that much, you’re limited to streaming video at 480p. You’ve got to step up to $55 a month to make free calls to Mexico and Canada.
Cricket’s best plan costs $35 a line for 10 GB of data.
Phone compatibility: Any universally unlocked phone, along with ex-T-Mobile and ex-AT&T phones.
Services to Avoid
Straight Talk is a collaboration between Walmart and TracPhone. It uses the broadest variety of cellular networks of all the providers in this guide—Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. It costs $35 a month for 5 GB of 4G LTE data, but after that 5 GB you’re knocked down to 2G, which is so slow it’s usually unusable. It’s only available at Walmart. Here’s its phone compatibility checker.
Xfinity is another well-known name that we’d pass on. Two members of WIRED’s Gear Team have had Xfinity Mobile and weren’t fans of it. It’s also just not a good deal compared to our other options. For $15 a month you get 1 GB of data, and for $30 a month you get 3 GB of data. We advise you get Mint for $25 instead.
Metro, which is owned by T-Mobile, offers these plans: $30 for 2 GB, $40 for 10 GB, or two unlimited tiers. Metro really pushes its unlimited tiers, which offer basically the same features at the same price as regular T-Mobile plans, except for the fact that you may be de-prioritized during times of congestion. In many instances, it’s smarter to skip Metro and go straight to T-Mobile.
Some Technical Nitty-Gritty
These smaller providers (MVNOs) use other networks’ cellular infrastructure—almost always one or more of the big three or US Cellular. They typically work just as well as the standard network. If the network is congested, there’s a chance those big carriers will prioritize their customers first, but we already know they deprioritize their own users during congestion, as well.
It used to be crucial to know which type of cell network technology your carrier used: GSM or CDMA. If you had a phone that worked for one then it probably wouldn’t work on the other, and so switching cell carriers might have meant having to buy a new phone. Nowadays, it’s less important to know the difference. Many new phones work with either type of network. Still, every provider has a page that lets you see whether your current phone will work on it, so make sure to check it if you plan to jump ship.
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