2.8 C
New York
Monday, February 26, 2024

The Best Budget Phone Plans to Ditch the Big Carriers

Cellular plans are more fully featured than ever before. High-definition video streaming, international travel options, and lots of data usage—not to mention the bundling of television, music, and cloud storage—are there to entice you into signing up with one of the Big Three—Verizon, T-Mobile, or AT&T. Plans are also more expensive than ever before. For those extremely online, great. But for the rest of us who don't use these features, what about saving a bit of money?

You can save a fair chunk of change each month by switching to one of the smaller cellular providers. Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) charge cheaper prices because they lease wireless capacity from bigger companies, rather than maintaining their own infrastructure. 

Nowadays, an MVNO can offer many core features once restricted to the big players, and it's reasonable to expect all the best cheap phone plans to include 5G network access with the option to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot. These are our favorites.  All prices are given for one line per plan. Typically, the cost per line goes down the more of them you have on your plan, up to a limit.

Take a peek at our Best Unlimited Plans, Best Android Phones, Best iPhones, and Best Cheap Phones guides for more recommendations.

Updated August 2023: Cellular providers have been busy adding features and, in Visible's case, actually decreasing prices since we last updated this guide. We've made those changes, as well as addressing some large shifts in Google Fi's overseas allowances on one of its plans.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.


Best OverallMint Mobile ($15 to $40 per Line)

Mint launched in 2016 and has become the best value among smaller cellular networks. Its Unlimited plan is our favorite data service and starts at $30 a month (for your first three months) for impressive benefits. This introductory offer will revert to $40 per month when it's time to renew at the end of those three months. Mint Mobile lets you renew service every three, six, or 12 months. 

You get 4G LTE and 5G in every plan, though speeds on the Unlimited plan are reduced after you use 40 gigabytes of data per month, which is 5 GB more than it was the last time we updated this guide in February. Videos also stream at 480p, unless you're on Wi-Fi. All plans have unlimited talk and text, and you can make free calls to Canada and Mexico. You get mobile hot spot capability with your phone so you can connect your laptop to the internet, though the tethered data is restricted to 10 GB per month on the Unlimited plan, which is also 5 GB more than it was only recently.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

There are four tiers: 4 GB for $25, 10 GB for $35, 15 GB for $45, and Unlimited for $40. The prices are lowest if you pay for a year at a time. Mint has an offer that lowers the prices to $15, $20, $25, and $30 per month, respective to the aforementioned plans, for the first three months. These prices will revert to the actual rates if you choose to pay every three months, but if you commit to a year you can keep the discounted rate. There's also a smaller discount if you commit to six months at a time. Mint does not include wireless taxes or fees in its prices.

Mint offers a free one-week trial of its service. Download the Mint Mobile app from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store and try out a limited version of the Mint plan for free, either by having a SIM card mailed to you or by using an eSIM, if your phone supports it. 

We suggest going with the plan that’s $15 per month for 4 GB if you tend not to use much data. Go for the one that’s $30 per month for unlimited data if you're on your phone a lot away from Wi-Fi. Just remember the prices increase after your first three months.

Phone compatibility: This network runs on T-Mobile, so any T-Mobile or AT&T phone should work, along with many newer high-end phones that come universally unlocked, like iPhones, Samsung phones, and Google Pixels. Check here for compatibility.


Best for Rural AreasVisible ($25 to $45 per Line)

Visible was our favorite until Mint released its Unlimited plan, but it's still a great deal if you prefer Verizon's cellular coverage, which is better in remote or rural areas. Visible claims 99 percent of the population is covered in the US. It's owned by Verizon and uses that network exclusively (which means it's not technically an MVNO). 

Visible's base plan costs $25 per month for one line, including taxes and fees. That's a $5 decrease since early this year. It still comes with 5G and 4G LTE coverage, as well as unlimited talk, text, and data. There's also a higher-tier plan: Visible+. For $45 a month for one line, it adds 5G Ultra Wideband—a faster band of 5G service—unlimited talk, text, data roaming in Canada and Mexico (for US customers), and international calling and texting from the US to “30+ and 200+ countries,” respectively.Your 5G data speed is capped at 200 Mbps, which is speedy enough for most tasks. In times of heavy network traffic, Visible will deprioritize its customers sharing the Verizon cellular infrastructure. For the Visible+ plan, this kicks in only after 50 GB of data use. Visible will give you a gift card of up to $200 if you bring your own device, depending on the device, which is $100 lower than the maximum amount offered late last year. You'll need to pay for the first three months of service and transfer your old number first.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Videos typically stream at 480p resolution. You get mobile Wi-Fi hot spot data 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. 

Visible offers a free 15-day trial. You don't have to enter any credit card information, but bafflingly, the free trial is available only to iPhone users. (Android users have to jump right in.)

Visible's base plan now costs $25 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data. Wireless taxes and fees are included. Visible has discontinued Party Pay, which let you save money on plans that had more than one line.

Phone compatibility: It runs on Verizon's network, so any Verizon or 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 TravelersGoogle Fi ($20 per Line + $10 per GB)

Whether you're a longtime work-from-home employee or a world traveler who only occasionally makes international calls, Google Fi is an easy way to buy small amounts of data and not have to pay for too much. We have a whole guide on how to switch to Google Fi, if you'd like all the details.

For the base Flexible tier, 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 mobile data in your phone's menu at home to ensure you're always using Wi-Fi. There are two Unlimited plans for $60 and $70 (promotional pricing is $50 and $65, respectively), and the top tier includes a year of YouTube Premium, a $120 value. Plan prices don't include taxes or fees though.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

The largest change to Google Fi this year is that you can no longer use any overseas data, texts, or calls with the Simply Unlimited plan. That overseas component was Google Fi's main appeal and a differentiator among other low-cost cellular plans. The change is not enough to warn somebody off Google Fi entirely, since we recommend the Flexible plan that retains included overseas data, as well as unlimited free texts and calls (like Unlimited Plus), but a routine traveler should avoid the Simply Unlimited plan specifically. Calls on the two good plans are a flat 20 cents per minute from outside the US.

The lower Simply Unlimited plan limits hot spot tethering to 5 GB, while the higher Unlimited Plus has no limit on tethering. The Flexible plan's tethering is covered by its $10 per GB à la carte setup. While the Flexible and Unlimited Plus plans include shareable data to use with tablets and other devices, Simply Unlimited does not.

Google Fi uses the 4G LTE and 5G networks of T-Mobile and US Cellular. It'll throttle (slow) your data after you pass a certain monthly threshold: 15 GB for the base tier and 35 and 50 GB for the unlimited plans. Data after 6 GB is free on plans for a single phone line, so you won't get a surprise bill if you lose track of your data use. That data threshold increases the more lines you have on your plan.

It works with all kinds of phones, including those from Samsung, OnePlus, Google, and Motorola. Unlocked iPhones work too, though it's still in beta, and 5G isn't supported on Apple devices. Fi switches between US Cellular and T-Mobile for the best quality, but this network switching is only available on select phones (iPhones not included). You can check whether your device is fully compatible here.

Google Fi offers a plan for $20 per line + $10 per GB of data and unlimited plans for $50 and $65. If you have five or more lines, the standard plan is reduced to $16 per line (plus $10 per GB), and if you have four or more lines, the unlimited plans go down to $20 and $40 per line, respectively.

Phone compatibility: Most phones will work just fine with Fi, but only a handful fully support its unique network-switching feature.


Best if You Hardly Use Any DataTing ($10 to $55 Per Line)

Ting revamped its data plans not long ago from the most à la carte method imaginable—in which you paid on a sliding scale for every single aspect of a phone plan—to a more typical tiered system. All plans include 5G and 4G LTE network access, unlimited talk and text, and a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. The $10 Flex plan comes without any data, and you pay $5 per gigabyte of data you use. If you hardly use data, this is the best plan on the market. You have the core features of fast network access and limitless talk and text without the high price of paying for data you won't use.

The $25 plan includes 5 gigabytes of data, all of which you can use over a hot spot, but the $35 plan lets you use only 8 gigabytes of its 12-gigabyte allotment over a hot spot. Both are solid deals, but they are outclassed a bit by the competition. There are two unlimited plans for $45 and $55 per month, but competitors offer better options, when you consider Ting’s high prices and, well, its definitely limited data: 22 and 35 GB of data, respectively, before 2G kicks in.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

If you exceed your monthly data allowance, Ting drops you down to 2G network speed. That's brutal. Practically all MVNOs and MVNO-like carriers drop your speed after you exceed your data, even unlimited plans, but 2G is particularly slow. You can pay $5 per extra gigabyte of data to retain 5G and 4G LTE speeds, and any leftovers of this top-off data carry over to the next month.

The Ting plan we like most costs $10 per month, although you also have to pay $5 per gigabyte of data.

Phone compatibility: Ting uses the Verizon and T-Mobile networks, so a phone that works on either of those services is likely to work on Ting. Check your device's compatibility here.


Honorable MentionsBoost Mobile ($8 to $60 per Line)

Owned by Sprint for many years, Boost was bought by Dish Network when T-Mobile gobbled up Sprint. It has five plans, from $15 to $45 a month, each with Wi-Fi hot spot data, 5G network access, and unlimited talk and text. There are lots and lots of catches and stipulations. New customers can get the lowest two tiers for $8 and $15 if they pay for 12 and 3 months of service upfront, respectively, but if you're already a loyal Boost customer, you're out of luck. The lowest tier is also limited to 1 GB of data, which isn't much at all.

All plans include a mobile hotspot, but with the low data allotment on the lowest-tier plans, you'll use up that 1 or 2 GB of data quickly if you connect it to a laptop to browse the web. You can use the entire data allotment of each limited plan over a hot spot, which gives higher limited tiers a leg up over similarly priced plans.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

The unlimited plans make no financial sense at $40 and $60 per month. If that's your thing, go to Visible or one of the major carriers. The two cheapest, lower-tier plans are for new Boost customers only, and the cheapest one requires that you bring your own device. Like Mint Mobile, the unlimited plans are limited to 35 GB of high-speed data, after which you get reduced speeds. 

The Boost Mobile plan we like costs $35 per month for 10 GB.

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 Wireless ($30 to $60 per Line)

Cricket is … eh, fine. 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, although it now offers 5G network access on all plans. It was one of the last holdouts until recently. 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 include taxes. You have to step up to $35 a month to make free calls to Mexico and Canada. You get no included Wi-Fi hot spot unless you pay $60 a month for the top tier, which includes 15 GB of hot spot data. And even at that price, you're limited to streaming video at 480p. 

Cricket's best plan costs $35 a line for 10 GB of data.

Phone compatibility: Any universally unlocked phone, along with T-Mobile and AT&T phones.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Services to Avoid

Straight Talk is a collaboration between Walmart and Tracfone. It uses the broadest variety of cellular networks of all the providers in this guide—Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. It now has a dizzying lineup of plans, broadly split into Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum tiers. None of them make much sense. The Bronze tier costs $35 a month for 10 GB of 5G data, but after that you're knocked down to 2G speeds, which is so slow it's almost unusable. Higher tiers include unlimited data, but they'll also throttle you down as low as 2G speeds, according to their somewhat opaque terms and conditions. At least 5G and 4G LTE network access is available on all plans. Straight Talk is available only at Walmart. Here's its phone compatibility checker.

Xfinity is another well-known name that we'd avoid. Two members of WIRED's Gear team have had Xfinity Mobile, and they weren't fans of it. It's also just not a good deal compared to our other options. All Xfinity plans offer 5G and 4G LTE network access, but at this point, so does practically everybody. For $15 a month you get 1 GB of data, for $30 a month you get 3 GB of data, and for $60 a month you get 10 GB of data. Of three Unlimited plans, the top two tiers allow 720p-resolution streaming, which is a nice touch, and cap high-speed data at 30 GB and 50 GB. But at $45 to $65 per month, the three plans are rather expensive for a “low-cost” carrier. Get Mint Mobile instead.

Metro, which is owned by T-Mobile, offers a $30 plan that includes 5 GB of 5G data. The higher tiers include unlimited data, although the $40 tier doesn't include any mobile hot spot allowance. You have to step up to the $50 and $60 tiers for 5 GB and 15 GB of data, respectively. They're still available in certain cases, although Metro calls them “Heritage” plans that are being phased out. The $40 unlimited tier offers basically the same features as regular T-Mobile plans, except for the fact that you may be deprioritized during times of congestion. In many instances, it's smarter to skip Metro and go straight to T-Mobile.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Some Technical Nitty-Gritty

These smaller providers 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, 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, 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 is compatible, so check it if you plan to jump ship.

Related Articles

Latest Articles