Prepaid mobile plans are a great way to save money on voice and SMS and that's true for data too. Here are my top picks for affordable prepaid mobile data on U.S. national carriers.
PTel also has some of the best pay as you go rates for voice, SMS and data. Voice is 5 cents/minute, texts are two cents each and data is 10 cents/MB. The minimum spend is $10 every two months. There is one quirk to watch out for. Unused balances do rollover if you top up before they expire. However, any residual balance from a $10, $20, $30 or $50 refill that was added over a year ago disappears. Funds added with a $100 refill rollover indefinitely as long as you top up before they expire.
You can use any T-Mobile USA or unlocked GSM device with PTEL provided it supports for the 1900 Mhz band and ideally (for maximum 3G coverage) the 1700 Mhz AWS band.
T-Mobile (877-778-2106): T-Mobile has five monthly plans. The $50, $60 and $70 month plans all include unlimited voice, messaging and data. The difference is the amount of full speed 3G or 4G data that you get before speed is throttled. The $50 plan has a soft cap of 500 MB/per month. Exceed that and your data speed is severely throttled to about 120 kbits/second. The $60 plan increases the soft cap to 2.5 GB/month. T-Mobile's $70 plan is aone of the rare few that includes unlimited data with no cap or throttle.
Confusingly there are two $30 plans. One provides a bucket of 1500 minutes or messages and a mere 30 MB of data with no way to buy more if you run out before the month is up. That plan is only available at T-Mobile stores, not online.
T-Mobile's other $30 plan is more interesting. It provides 100 voice minutes, unlimited messaging and unlimited data with the first 5 GB/month at full speed before throttling to 120 Kbps. Unfortunately, this plan is saddled with restrictions. It's available only online or with new phones purchased at Walmart and requires activating a new account with a new SIM. If you have this plan and switch to another plan you can't switch back to it without activating another new SIM! To get this deal you need to activate a T-Mobile Prepaid Activation kit (a SIM and an activation PIN) online at www.t-mobile.com/PrepaidActivation. You can buy the kit online at prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com, amazon.com or some independent mobile phone shops. T-Mobile stores do not sell unactivated SIM kits.
A free BlackBerry add-on is available on request for the $50, $60 and $70 plans. It provides BIS support which is required for BlackBerry Messenger and Email on RIM Blackberry devices.
T-Mobile's prepaid service includes data with two Daily unlimited plans. Both provide unlimited talk and text. The $2/day plan includes unlimited 2G (approximately 120 kilobits/sec maximum) data. The $3/day plan gives you unlimited data with the first 200 MB/day at full 4G ( up to about 10 megabits/sec) speeds and the rest capped to 2G speeds.
For users on Pay As You Go, there's no data other than access to the T-Mobile prepaid mobile home page (m.web2go.com) which lets you check your balance, add minutes and change plans. You can use it to temporarily switch to a day plan on days when you need data or anticipate a lot of calls or texts.
All of T-Mobile's prepaid plans include voice and SMS only (no data) off-network roaming.
Page Plus (800-550-2436): Is an MVNO that uses the Verizon network. Page Plus will activate all non-LTE Verizon postpaid phones as well as compatible CDMA phones from other operators. The iPhone is officially not allowed but it seems to be possible to activate and use one with no issues. Phones sold for or last active on Verizon's prepaid service are also not allowed. Non-Verizon phones will require manual programming for basic activation and some additional tweaking to get the data settings right before data and MMS will work. Non-LTE Verizon Smartphones usually work out of the box with Page Plus's data features.
Data is available on all plans:
- The $69.95 Plan includes 5 GB of data and unlimited voice and texts. The data overage rate is 5¢/MB.
- The 55 Plan provides 2 GB of data and unlimited voice and texts. The data overage rate is 5¢/MB.
- The $39.95 Unlimited Talk n Text Plan includes 200 MB of data with a 5¢/MB overage charge.
- The $29.95 Talk n Text 1200 Plan comes with 1200 voice minutes, 3000 texts and 250 MB of data with a 5¢/MB overage rate.
- The 12 Plan includes 250 minutes, 250 texts and 10 MB of data for $12/month with a 10¢/MB overage rate.
- Data is a pricey $0.99/MB on Page Plus' pay as you go plan plan.
TalkForGood can activate all Verizon and Alltel non-LTE postpaid phones, including iPhones and compatible CDMA phones from other operators. Non-LTE Verizon Smartphones should work without manual programming. Non-Verizon phones will require considerable manual programming to be fully functional. Verizon LTE phones are difficult and in some cases impossible to get working on any Verizon MVNO.
GoSmart Mobile (877-582-7788) is owned by T-Mobile USA. GoSmart phones and SIMs are sold online and by independent mobile dealers but are not available at T-Mobile company operated shops. GoSmart offers monthly plans only, including two plans with unlimited data. GoSmart's $45/month Unlimited Talk, Text & High-Speed Web plan delivers 5 GB of "3G" data which is throttled to about 910 Kbps. After 5 GB data speed is further throttled to 118 Kbps. The $35/month Unlimited Talk Text and Web plan includes unlimited "2G" data that's severely throttled to 118 Kbps right from the first byte.
GoSmart has native T-Mobile network coverage with no roaming. Any T-Mobile or unlocked phone will work with GoSmart.
Virgin Mobile (888-322-1122): Sprint owned Virgin has three Beyond Talk packages that include unlimited data and messaging. The packages vary only by the number of included voice minutes; 300 for $35/month, 1200 for $45/month and unlimited for $55/month.
There's a soft data cap. Users consuming over 2.5 GB in a month will have their data speeds throttled to 256 Kbps or less for the rest of the month. 2G, 3G, 4G WiMAX and LTE data is available on phones that support it.
There's no BYOD. you must use a Virgin Mobile phone. All of Virgin Mobile's Beyond Talk phones are smartphones. Current models include iPhone 4 and 4S and and an extensive range of Android phones.
Boost Mobile (866-402-7366): Owned by Sprint, Boost offers CDMA service using Sprint's native 2.5G, 3G EVDO and 4G LTE network as well as 4G WiMAX on the Sprint/Clearwire network.
Boost has unlimited and pay as you go plans. The unlimited plans include unlimited voice, SMS, MMS data. There's a soft data cap, after 2.5 GB is used in a month, data speeds are throttled to 256 Kbps or less for the rest of the month. The monthly unlimited plan is priced at $50 for feature phones, $55 for Android devices and $60 for BlackBerrys. Boost has a loyalty discount called Shrinkage that reduces the monthly plan price by $5 for every six ontime payments. The maximum Shrinkage reduction is $15.
Boost's pay as you go only works with feature phones. Unlimited pay as you data is available for $0.50/day, charged every day whether you use it or not. Pay as you go data can be switched on and off as needed online.
EcoMobile (855-825-8855) is a Sprint MVNO. Unlike Sprint owned Boost and Virgin Mobile, EcoMobile can activate any Sprint phone except iPhones, BlackBerrys and WebOS phones. EcoMobile is able to activate Sprint WiMax and LTE phones. WiMAX works on EcoMobile's $60/month plan, LTE doesn't.
EcoMobile has a wide range of plans including a pay as you go plan with good rates, 5¢ voice minutes, 2¢ texts and 10¢/MB data. A $50 nonthly plan includes unlimited voice, messaging and 3G data. EcoMobile's $60/month plan is the same but includes unlimited 4G WiMax.
Ting has an unusual pricing model that's a hybrid of pay as you go and a monthly plan. There's a $6 monthly fee plus separate buckets (Ting calls them tiers) of voice minutes, messages and data. There are five tiers for each type of usage. Minute tiers run from $3 for 100 minutes to $52 for 3000. Data tiers are from $3 for 100 MB to $60 for 3 GB. Prices across all tiers average around 2¢/minute, 1¢/text and 5¢/MB. Ting is a good value for moderate users. The sweet spot seems to be about 75-1000 minutes, 75-1000 messages and under 500 MB of data which costs between $15 and $42 before taxes and fees which run between $1 and $10/month.
Air Voice Wireless (888-944-2355) is AT&T MVNO that offers a variety of unlimited voice and text plans with varying amounts of data priced at $40 to $55/month.
Air Voice is notable for having well regarded US bases support and for the most affordable AT&T based pay as you go plan, with prices of 4¢/voice minute, 2¢/text and 33¢/MB of data.
Red Pocket Mobile (888-993-3888) is another AT&T MVNO with good data pricing on monthly and pay as you go plans.
Red Pocket's best deal is a $59.99/month plan that includes 2 GB of data (more than any other AT&T based prepaid option) along with unlimited voice, SMS and MMS and data. Red Pocket charges $9.99 for a SIM, but they always seem to be available on eBay for less than a buck, including shipping.
AT&T (800-901-9878): The largest US GSM operator offers an a $65 Smartphone Monthly Plan with Data that includes unlimited voice and messaging and 1 GB of data per month.
There's also a $25 monthly plan with unlimited messaging and 250 minutes. The $25 plan doesn't come with any data but add-on data packages are available at $5/50 MB, $15/200MB and $25/1 GB. The packages expire after 30 days, but if you add another one before expiration, the unused data rolls over. So if you add a $25 package and use less than 1 GB in that month, on the 30th day of your package's duration you can add another $5 or $15 package to retain your balance. To add a data package to your account you can either call 611 from the handset and wade through the voice response menus or use the AT&T's Pay As You Go Online site. It's also possible to set up automatic refills using the web site.
AT&T also offers a $50/month unlimited voice, messaging and web plan. While this sounds good, only feature phones get unlimited data included on this plan.
AT&T's best choices for smartphone data use are either the $65 smartphone plan or the $25 or $50 monthly plan coupled with one or more data packages per month, You can use any phone that supports ATT's 850/1900 bands and isn't locked to another operator. To get data working on iPhones, use WiFi to visit www.unlockit.co.nz/ with the iPhone's Safari browser and follow the instructions.
Verizon (800-901-9878) has a couple of prepaid smartphone plans that include unlimited voice and messaging . There's a $70 plan that includes 2 GB of data per month and a $60 plan with 500 MB of included data. Any Verizon smartphone except phones that support LTE data can be activated on these plans.
For feature phones on Verizon's basic 25¢/minute pay as you go and $2/day unlimited plans, unlimited data is available for $1/day, which is only charged on days when you actually use data. Verizon doesn't allow any smartphones, BlackBerries or even feature phones that require what Verizon calls an “Nationwide” plan on the basic prepaid plans that include dollar a day data.
Verizon also has a $50/month unlimited talk, text and web plan. It's even more limited than the pay as you plan in terms of allowed phones. Only recent and some older Verizon phones sold specifically for prepaid can be used. A post on Howard Forums details which phones can and can't be used on the $50 Unlimited plan.
MetroPCS (888-8metro8), which was acquired by T-Mobile in May 2013, offers unlimited talk, text and (throttled after 500 MB) data for as low as $40/month. The operator's roaming agreements give users no extra cost texting almost everywhere in the country as well as voice and and 2G data roaming on Sprint.
Available phones include basic feature phones and numerous Android devices. Many non-MetroPCS CDMA handsets, if professionally flashed with MetroPCS firmware, can also be activated on the service. MetroPCS is a good option if you spend most of your time in the areas where there is MetroPCS data coverage. MetroPCS will begin switching from its own CDMA network to T-Mobile's GSM technology in 2013. Current MetroPCS CDMA devices will work until 2015.
Straight Talk (877-430-2355): América Móvil's $45/ month Straight Talk Unlimited plan includes "unlimited" data.
Straight Talk allows you to use your own unlocked GSM or locked T-Mobile phone on the $45 plan. T-Mobile based SIMs are $14.99 and are only available online from www.straighttalksim.com and from Walmart. Prior to january 2013 Straight Talk also sold SIMs that worked on the AT&T network but currently only T-Mobile based SIMs are available.
Straight Talk also sells its own line of phones which, depending on phone model, run either the Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile network. Straight Talk's smartphone selection includes the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 and a BlackBerry Curve which all use the Verizon network as well as a number of Android phones which run on the Sprint, Verizon or AT&T network depending on model.
Although Straight Talk advertises data as unlimited, users, especially those using AT&T network, report having their data severely throttled after using as little as 30 MB in a day or 800 MB in a month. Straight Talk's terms of service prohibit "continuous" video streaming but Straight Talk customer service representatives say audio and video streaming regardless of duration is banned.
NET10 (877-836-2368): Another América Móvil brand with an unlimited monthly plan that's similar but not identical to Straight Talk's. Key differences:
- NET10 phones, SIMs and airtime are sold by independent dealers and national chains like RadioShack, BestBuy and Walgreens. Straight Talk is only available at Walmart and online.
- NET10's unlimited plan is $50/month, Straight Talk's is $45. But NET10 gives users on auto pay a $5/month discount making the effective price the same.
- Straight Talk no longer offers AT&T SIMs, NET10 does.
- NET10 AT&T SIMs have a hard data cap at 1.5 GB/month rather than arbitrary throttling.
If you need unlimited voice and messaging combined with a sizable amount of high-speed data, good choices are:
- AT&T network: Airvoice $40 for 500 MB, NET10 $50 for 1.5 GB, RedPocket $59.99 for 2 GB
- Sprint network: Boost Mobile Unlimited $55 ($40 afer shrinkage) for unlimited data throttled after 2.5GB or EcoMobile if you want to use your own Sprint phone.
- T-Mobile network: Straight Talk or GoSmart's $45/month plan or PTel's $50 plan.
- Verizon network: Straight Talk $45 for approximately 2 GB before throttling or PagePlus $69.95 5 GB.
- AT&T network: AT&T $25 plan with rollover data add-ons
- Sprint network: Virgin Mobile $35 unlimited data, first 2.5 GB unthrottled, , unlimited texts, 300 voice minutes.
- T-Mobile network: T-Mobile $30 unlimited data, first 5GB unthrottled, unlimited texts, 100 voice minutes.
- Verizon network: PagePlus $29.95 plan for 250 MB with 5¢/MB add-on data or PagePlus $12 Plan (10 MB, 10¢/MB overage).
- AT&T network: Airvoice $10/month pay as you go plan
- Sprint network: EcoMobile $10/month pay as you go plan or Ting's $6/month plus usage plan
- T-Mobile network: PTEL's $5/month pay as you go.
- Verizon network: TalkForGood's $6/month Smart Plan
|Plan||Monthly Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||Network||SIM Cost or Activation Fee ||Allowed Phones||Voice||Text||Data|
|Go Smart Unlimited Talk, Text & Web||$35 - $45||T-Mobile||$8.00||Any Unlocked GSM or T-Mobile||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited $35 - throttled to 118 Kbps. |
$45 - 1st 5GB throttled to 910 Kbps, then 118 Kbps
|PagePus Unlimited Talk n Text||$39.95 - $69.95||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except iPhone and Verzion prepaid||unlimited||unlimited||$39.99 200 MB. |
$55 2 GB.
$69.95 5GB. (overage $0.05/MB)
|PTel Unlimited Everything||$40 - $50||T-Mobile||$4.99||Any Unlocked GSM or T-Mobile||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited |
$40 - 250MB unthrottled. $50 - 2GB unthrottled
|MetroPCS||$40 - $60||MetroPCS (CDMA)||0||MetroPCS and some other flashed CDMA||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited 2|
|Straight Talk Unlimited||$45||Verizon, Sprint (CDMA), AT&T, T-Mobile (GSM)||0-$14.99||Straight Talk or T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||unlimited||unlimited||"unlimited"with arbitrary throttling|
|Red Pocket Unlimited||$49.99 - $59.99||AT&T (GSM)||$9.99||Any Unlocked GSM or AT&T||unlimited||unlimited||$49.99 500 MB. |
$54.99 1GB. $59.99 2GB
|NET10 Unlimited||$50/month||AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or verizon||$9.99||Straight Talk or T-Mobile, AT&T or unlocked GSM||unlimited||unlimited||AT&T: 1.5GB. others "unlimited"with arbitrary throttling|
|EcoMobile||$50-$60/month||Sprint||0||Most Sprint||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited, $50 plan is 2G/3G only, $60 plan adds WiMAX|
|T-Mobile Monthly||$50 - $70||T-Mobile (GSM)||0 - $10||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||Unlimited||Unlimited||$70 -Unlimited, Unthrottled. $60 -throttled after 2.5 GB |
$50 - throttled after 500 MB
|Boost Mobile Unlimited||$50/month (Android $55, BlackBerry $60)1||Sprint (CDMA)||0 ($10 for used phones)||Boost, some Sprint||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited (throttled after 2.5GB|
|AT&T GoPhone Unlimited||$50||AT&T (GSM)||0-$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited for feature phones only, no data for smartphones.|
|Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk||$55||Sprint (CDMA)||0||Virgin Mobile Only||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 256 Kbps after 2.5 GB)|
|Verzion Smartphone Plan||$60-$70/month||Verizon||0||Any Verizon phone except LTE devices||unlimited||unlimited||$60 - 500 MB. |
$70 - 2GB
|AT&T GoPhone Smartphone Monthly with Data||$65||AT&T (GSM)||0-$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||unlimited||unlimited||1 GB|
2 $40 MetroPCS plan is throttled to 2G speeds after 500 MB, $50 plan is throttled after 2.5 GB, $60 plan is available for LTE devices only and is unlimited and unthrottled.
|Plan||Monthly Minimum Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||Network||SIM Cost or Activation Fee ||Allowed Phones||Voice||Text||Data|
|T-Mobile $2 Pay By The Day||$3.33 or $2/day used||T-Mobile (GSM)||$10||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||Unlimited||Unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 119 Kbps)|
|T-Mobile $3 Pay By The day||$3.33 or $3/day used||T-Mobile (GSM)||$10||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||Unlimited||Unlimited||unlimited (throttled after 200 MB)|
|TalkForGood Smart Plan||$6/month||Verizon (CDMA)||$6||Any non-LTE CDMA except Verzion prepaid||30 (overage 5¢/min)||30 (overage 1¢/each)||5 MB (overage 6¢/MB)|
|Ting||$6/month and up + taxes and fees 1||Sprint (CDMA)||$6||Most Sprint||2¢/min (average) 2||1¢/each (average) 2||5¢ MB (average) 2|
|PagePlus The 12||$12/month||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except iPhone and Verzion prepaid||250 (overage 5¢/min)||250 (overage 5¢/each)||10 MB (overage $0.10/MB)|
|AT&T $25 Monthly Plan||$25||AT&T (GSM)||0-$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||250 (overage 10¢/minute||unlimited||$5/50 MB, $15/200MB and $25/1 GB|
|PagePlus 1200 Talk n Text||$29.95/month||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except iPhone and Verzion prepaid||1200 (overage 5¢/min)||3000 (overage 5¢/each)||250 MB (overage $0.05/MB)|
|T-Mobile $30 Monthly 4G 3||$30||T-Mobile (GSM)||$10||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||100 (overage 10¢/min)||Unlimited||Unlimited (throttled after 5 GB/month)|
|Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk||$35||Sprint (CDMA)||0||Virgin Mobile Only||300||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 256 Kbps after 2.5 GB)|
2 Ting: average prices based on using half the middle tier of minutes, texts and data3 T-Mobile: Plan only available with phone + SIM bundles purchased at Walmart or when activating a SIM on new account at www.t-mobile.com/PrepaidActivation
|Plan||Monthly Minimum Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||Network||SIM Cost or Activation Fee ||Allowed Phones||Voice||Text||Data|
|PagePlus Prepaid||$2.50/month1||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except Verzion prepaid||4¢-10¢/min||$0.05/ea||99¢/MB|
|Boost Mobile Pay As You Go||$3.33/month||Sprint (CDMA)||0 ($10 for used phones)||Boost, some Sprint||20¢/min||20¢/each||Unlimited - 50¢/day|
|PTel Real PAYGO||$5.001||T-Mobile (GSM)||$4.99||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||5¢/ min||$0.02/ea||10¢/MB|
|AT&T Go Phone||$8.332||AT&T (GSM)||0-$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||10¢/min||$0.20 each, |
200 - $4.99,
1000 - $9.99,
unlimited - $19.99
|0.2¢/KB ($2/MB) 3|
|EcoMobile$10 Plan||$10.00||Sprint (CDMA)||0||Most Sprint phones||5¢/min||2¢/each||10¢/MB|
|Air Voice $10 Plan||$10.00||AT&T (GSM)||$4.99||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||4¢/min||2¢/each||33¢/MB|
|Verzion Prepaid||$10/month||Verizon||0||Verizon Prepaid feature phones only||25¢/min||20¢/each. |
Unlimited (Verizon phones only) $10.
Unlimited to all $20/month
|unlimited - $1/day|
2 AT&T deducts a monthly 911 fee of between 25¢ and 96¢ from your GoPhone balance in some states
3 ad-hoc data - 0.02¢/KB not available with smartphones.
Updated 3-May 2013 - Rewritten and expanded
Image by Cell Phone Tower in the Sky by Kevin Zolkiewicz Attribution License
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