The prepaid phone plan has been with us almost since cell phones were in the mainstream. And while they have been mostly relegated to emergencies and burner phones in popular culture, there are prepaid plans that are perfectly fine replacements for someone who doesn’t use their phone much or wants a cheaper alternative.
And while most people wouldn’t even consider a prepaid phone or prepaid phone plan, they have their place in some situations or with some families. They are an affordable way for people to reach out and allow people to communicate with the outside world when they otherwise wouldn’t afford to. They can be a backup option should a phone get damaged or broken. And the plans have gotten better over the years, and even major carriers are providing them. And if you’re reading this, you might be interested in those.
Here’s what you need to know about prepaid phone plans and our top choices that are available today:
What to Look for in a Prepaid Phone Plan
So perhaps you’ve decided on getting a prepaid phone plan. Yet what should you look for? What makes a good phone plan? The exact weight of the different factors might vary by customer, but here are the general things to look at:
Price: There is still a cost to calculate with a prepaid phone plan. Think about the price per minute or GB and how that compares to other options. In most cases, you’ll be paying a premium compared to standard phone plans, and plans with more built-in usage will generally be cheaper than those with limited usage. But also consider how much data you will use and how much you need premium service. You can compare prepaid plans to each other, but comparing contract plans and prepaid is a little like comparing apples and plantains.
Offers or Discounts: On top of the price, are there any offers, discounts, etc., that you can take advantage of to reduce your overall rate? These are common in family plans or if you are a member of some organizations or professions. You might be able to save a lot per month, or at least a fair amount, when you first start with the prepaid plan. Note that the discounts might not be as great as with contract plans for families needing a bunch of lines, though some offer family plans or an equivalent.
Rollover: If all goes to plan and you don’t use everything you paid for, what happens to all those minutes or that data allowance? There might be a prepaid plan where the minutes, etc., expire after a time, or there is a limit. Try to avoid this as much as possible. Alternatively, a generous rollover policy might be great for an emergency or a busy month. There is no disadvantage to a good rollover policy.
Quality of Service: Just because you are using a prepaid plan does not mean that you should settle for a service that doesn’t work. Make sure you have a phone plan that can work well in your area and gets decent enough data and reception. Both matter in today’s world, even if your data will be quite limited.
Coverage: Heavily related to service quality is coverage. Depending on the prepaid plan, you’ll be working with the coverage space of one of the major providers. Make sure you will get good service in your area and places you frequent. A phone is no good without the ability to use it.
Available Phones or Compatibility: Some prepaid phones or phone plans are with devices that are effectively meant to be disposable. If you are in a pinch, this is fine enough, but if you are working with a phone already, you don’t want it to be a waste. You might also need to buy a new phone with your phone. See what your options are for a prepaid plan, and match your needs for a phone alongside that. We will say it is much better now than it used to be.
MVNO or No MVNO
You’ll see a few examples of them in the coming elections, but the term MVNO might come up either explicitly or in practice. And before you get a prepaid plan, you should know what it is.
So what is it? It is a mobile virtual network operator, and they are effectively resellers of smartphone-related services (data, cell service, texting). They will lease capacity off a major provider that would otherwise waste extra capacity at cheaper prices and resell it to consumers. MVNOs benefit from not having to maintain the infrastructure and licenses, but they are generally deprioritized compared to the major provider customers. If you’re interested in learning more, there are plenty of resources on the major MVNO service providers and how they work.
If you have a choice between the two and all else is equal, you want not to use a MVNO plan and instead work directly with one of the major carriers. MNVO plans are, perhaps in exchange for being much cheaper, also deprioritized compared to people working on a contract with a major carrier.
The Top 5 Prepaid Phone Plans
Many prepaid phone plans are available in the United States alone, so we cannot provide an in-depth analysis of them. However, here are five options that we think are worth your consideration:
1. Mint Mobile
Mint Mobile is a prepaid plan that offers excellent value for the data. It is an MVNO that is one of the best and most popular in the business and offers several different plans ranging from 4GB at $15 per month to unlimited data (though only 35GB of high speed data) at $30 per month. We think the unlimited plan is an excellent offer for those who need it, but any of their plans could be the best one for the right person.
It uses Verizon’s infrastructure, so you will want to check if you are compatible and covered.
- Mint Mobile is popular and perhaps the best prepaid plan if you want to utilize a family plan with different data allowances for the lines. While there does not appear to be a discount for multiple lines at this time, we think this is fine at the low prices already on offer.
- A free SIM card is included in the plan.
- Access to Verizon’s network and overall coverage.
- Unlimited talk and text across the country.
- Access to 5G coverage where it is available.
- Free calling to both Canada and Mexico.
- All plans have a mobile hotspot feature.
- Easy activation with the Mint Mobile app. You can probably get everyone set up in less than an hour.
- You can keep your current number and phone or get new ones if needed.
- WiFi calling and text are included when WiFi is better than your coverage.
We think Mint Mobile might be a good prepaid choice for you if:
- You want perhaps the most affordable plan while still getting enough data and service to operate normally most of the time.
- You want a prepaid family plan that provides the best deal possible for those who are responsible.
- You want a variety of plans for your family or are uncertain exactly how much data you’ll need just yet.
2. AT&T Prepaid 16 GB 12-Month Plan
The AT&T 16GB 12-month prepaid plan does come with some perks you might not find otherwise with a prepaid plan. You will be able to use hotspot data, HD video streaming, and roll over unused data for a month. It is pretty close to a standard phone plan, but it is still prepaid, and you won’t have to worry too much about extra charges or the type of commitment a contract plan requires.
And by all accounts, AT&T is competitive regarding prepaid plans. How so? Check out the features and options listed below:
- You will get 16GB of high-speed data each month. After you use this data, the connection speed will slow to 128kbps, which is only useful for most basic tasks online.
- This data will roll over if you don’t use it all in one month. This helps ensure you will be able to use everything you pay for.
- The ability to stream HD video (1080p) using your data plan. Streaming at that resolution means the 16GB of data will be used up quickly, but the option is there.
- Unlimited texting to more than 230 counties.
- You can talk, text, and use data in Mexico and Canada. Note that data might not always be at full speed in Mexico and Canada.
- You can use your phone as a mobile hotspot (though this uses 16GB of data).
- You will have a mobile security perk in the form of AT&T ActiveArmorSM mobile security. It isn’t necessary, and there are other security programs, but it’s nice.
- There is another unlimited prepaid plan that costs $50 per month (with autopay). It comes with 5G accessibility, so that plan might better serve people who truly need to utilize the fastest wireless speed. However, there are likely better options for that price, and the data can be slowed down if the network is busy.
An AT&T prepaid plan is a great choice if:
- You don’t mind making an upfront payment to save for an AT&T plan in the long term.
- You will benefit the most and get the best coverage by being with AT&T
- You would like advantages such as the ability to use your phone as a mobile hotspot, the ability to stream HD video, and rollover data
3. Verizon 15GB Prepaid
Verizon is one of the big three providers, offering an excellent prepaid plan for you. We recommend the 15GB plan, but note that others are just as good or valid based on your and your family’s needs. It might be a little tougher to navigate all the options here, but we know that you can figure out what’s best. Make sure you’re on the right page and don’t accidentally sign up for a contract plan.
You will also get many more features than other prepaid options, and most users won’t notice much difference between it and a prepaid plan. If you’re hesitant about the disadvantages we mentioned, this is the one for you.
You can expect the following with a Verizon Prepaid Plan:
- Unlimited talk and text in the United States.
- Unlimited calling in Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands.
- Unlimited texting in more than 200 countries.
- 5G access nationwide, something that isn’t always available on prepaid plans.
- After someone uses their data allowance, they will be in 2G speeds until the next month. Note that in today’s online environment, 2G speeds are good for perhaps checking email or downloading a text file and not much else.
- The ability to use your wireless network connection as a mobile hotspot.
- The ability to stream video up to 480p. There are paid options for those who want a better wireless streaming experience.
- The 15GB prepaid plan, which we recommend for most users looking for a prepaid plan, costs $50 a month. However, this can be lowered through discounts.
- The other plans range from 5GB for $40 a month by default to an Unlimited Plus plan with excellent data and unlimited hotspot data that starts at $75 per month.
- The ability to lower your bill by $5 a month by enrolling in autopay.
- If you prepay for 4-9 months, you will save $5 per month. If you enroll for 10 months or more and prepay, you will save $10 a month. It’s certainly an expensive undertaking but worth it for those who can pay the upfront cost.
- The ability to have up to 10 devices on a prepaid family account.
- The option to bring your own device depends on the phone you have.
Get a Verizon Prepaid plan if:
- You want to get a Verizon plan but do not want the more expensive Verizon plans with lots of data you will not use.
- You want a prepaid plan that is much like a contract plan in many respects.
- You want the ability to save quite a bit of money by paying well ahead of time.
4. Visible Unlimited Data
Stradling, the line between MVNO and non-MVNO, is Visible, a phone carrier operating under Verizon that exists as a lower-cost alternative to Verizon’s mainline service. There are no contracts or physical stores to work with, and it’s easy to understand everything they have to offer (one plan).
Visible is worth it for its party plans, which allow users to get good service for $25 a month each if they can find a group of people willing to go in with them. However, it is still slower and deprioritized than the major carriers and might not be best for everyone.
In terms of the more detailed features and price breakdown, you will get:
- Unlimited 5G/4G data, talk, and text in the United States. Note that the data might not be as fast as from a main plan from the major providers, and after 35GB, speeds might reduce further. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic deal for the price and enough for standard browsing at least.
- Unlimited hotspot data, though it should be noted that the hotspot speed will not be as fast as other carriers.
- Unlimited calling to Mexico and Canada is included in the plan.
- All taxes and fees and included in your bill.
- You can bring your phone and phone number.
- The use of Verizon’s network, which has excellent coverage across the United States. You will almost certainly be able to use it.
- As for the price, as of this writing, the base price for a Visible plan is a simple $40 a month. However, if you join a part of four or more people in their Party Play program, the monthly cost goes down to $25 a month.
- Additionally, there is no activation fee.
We recommend a Visible plan if:
- You have a group of people or family who all want decent service.
- You want to have a major provider’s coverage and backing but do not mind deprioritizing compared to contract users with the network.
- You want the combination of the best and the most affordable unlimited prepaid data plan.
TextNow is an interesting plan to talk about. It is certainly not the best. It is limited in scope. It doesn’t have any data by default, and you must pay a lot for even one GB. You need to download an app for TextNow to work on your phone, and that app has ads on it. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
These problems would be unacceptable if not for one fact: TextNow is free. You will need to pay 99 cents for a SIM card that works with it and download an app where available, but there will be no cost to using TextNow for your basic needs. It’s bare-bones as far as well, anything is concerned, but for people needing the cheapest way to connect to people possible, TextNow is absolutely it.
Some of the things you can expect with TextNow are:
- A free monthly plan that is supported by ads. This plan provides unlimited calling and texting, though no wireless data.
- Users have the option to remove ads for $9.99 a month.
- Additional plans are available with data ranging from 1GB of data for $8.99 a month to 5GB for $27.99 a month. Note that you will not get ads on the app with a 2GB per month plan or higher. Also, note that these are horrible prices for data unless you need just a bit of it.
- The ability to bring your number to the plan or get a new one if needed.
- Coverage across most of the United States. If you are worried about coverage, you can check this page. People in Nebraska might want to pick another prepaid plan.
- TextNow uses T-Mobile’s network.
- When setting up, you’ll need to order an activation kit for 99 cents. You will need this to use the service.
- TextNow has a partnership with Swappa, so you may be able to get a reasonable price on a new phone if you need one.
- The ability to bring an existing device to TextNow. If you’re worried about compatibility with an unlocked phone, you can use this checker.
We recommend getting TextNow if:
- You are mostly fine using WiFi calling, a more limited network and use little wireless data.
- You want the absolute cheapest option of free service (supported by ads).
- You are not looking for a family plan or a group discount.
Why You Might Want a Prepaid Phone Plan
Is a prepaid phone plan right for you and perhaps your household? Here are some of the reasons you might want to consider using one:
- Some people might not feel much of a need for a smartphone plan but might still want to have a phone available for emergencies. Some people still use landlines, and that’s (mostly) ok. Yet they can’t bring their landlines with them on their rare excursions into the world.
- One example is children who might have to go to school or have practice and must contact their parents for a ride back. Parents might not want to give their children free reign of the internet with an expensive device (though strong parental controls are now a thing), but the prepaid phone plan allows for some degree of reaching out.
- And the other obvious example is people who are elderly or disabled yet live at home alone some or all of the time. They might not feel the need for a smartphone as they’re used to a landline at this point, but if they head out, they will want a way to reach their house.
- And then some people cannot afford the cost of an expensive phone with a regular payment for phone services. A family of four can easily spend over $200 monthly on phone service. Nonetheless, given how essential having a phone is, people still need a point of contact. A prepaid plan can be just that for people who have fallen through tough times.
- You might not want a prepaid phone plan or a prepaid phone for yourself, but they make it a great option to gift or support someone else. They allow you not to have to control the line and risk someone using your data or being able to access your information but allow them to reach out and get whatever help or support they need.
- Sometimes, people might want to go dark on their regular line but want another line to reach out to people or communicate more privately. A prepaid phone can work wonders for that purpose.
- Smartphones are expensive, and you might not want to take a $1000 device everywhere, especially when it isn’t built for rugged conditions. A simple phone with a prepaid phone plan costs far less, and if something happens to it, it is an acceptable loss.
- Some people don’t use that much high-speed data, even if they are an average internet users on their smartphones. They might always be around good WiFi. In such a case, why pay for what isn’t used?
You might have another reason that you are thinking of. If so, that’s as valid one as any.
Reasons to Not Get One
However, if prepaid phones were cheaper and more convenient universally, everyone would be using them, and we wouldn’t have the telecommunications industry with major carriers that we have today. Here are some of the main arguments against getting a prepaid phone plan:
- Gigabyte for gigabyte, prepaid phone plans will be much more expensive than their committed, monthly counterparts. People who use a lot of data regularly may struggle to find a plan that meets their needs. There are “unlimited” prepaid plans, but users will likely be deprioritized on data after a certain point on those plans.
- Sometimes you might need to pay upfront (given that they are “prepaid” plans), but to get the best deal, you might need to pay for months or even a year ahead. This effectively commits you to what you might feel is an inferior plan. Additionally, spending that much money upfront might not be feasible or recommended for some people.
- The other thing is that if you’re getting a new device, you can usually pay for one in installments with a major provider service contract. That is much less likely with a prepaid plan.
- You might be somewhat limited in the phones you can use. You should certainly be able to find some provider or another that will work with the phone you have, but it will not be as easy as starting with one of the three major carriers.
- Prepaid plans are simply awful on average for international travelers. While some offer options for texting internationally without issue, you might want to have an extra travel feature purchased if you travel to a place.
- The service quality will likely not be as great as on a prepaid plan as on a contract plan. Call and text service will likely be fine, if not perfect 24/7, but you will notice a difference with the limited data you will probably have.
And like there might be reasons to get one not listed here, there might be additional reasons not to get one. It all depends on your personal situation.
The Above Can Change
While we went through the above as thoroughly as possible, there will be changes over time. New prepaid plans might be a perfect deal for your situation or where you live but might not be good for the average user. There might be slight (or even major) changes to the prepaid phone plans listed above.
We try to keep our work as updated as possible, but we do encourage you to double-check everything you might be signing up for as you consider it. You’ll give yourself more time and information to make the right decision. You will also better understand the benefits and limitations of your eventual plan.
There are many prepaid phone plans available if you look, from your local store to more online than the average person can count. We hope this piece has shed a little light on what you should be looking for and some options you can work with. Whatever your need, there should be a prepaid plan for you, at least for the moment. And should you need another or want to switch to a longer-term option, we hope you will return to this site.