You shouldn’t be going out as often these days, and that makes it a great time to save some money on your data plan. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T control the airwaves in the United States, but their plans are pricey. If you can rely a little more on your home Wi-Fi, you can save a lot of money by switching to an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), a smaller wireless network that runs on one of those big carrier networks. All our top picks for the best cheap phone plans also have high-speed 5G where it’s available, too.
Updated January 2021: Visible and Ting now have 5G. Some pricing has changed and been updated here to reflect it. MVNO operators have also gotten clearer about how they deprioritize traffic compared to major cellular providers.
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The Best Plans
Mint launched in 2016 and has become the best value among smaller cellular networks. Its smallest plan starts at $15 a month for the first three months, and its Unlimited plan, which is our favorite unlimited data service, starts at $30.
It has some good benefits too. 4G LTE and 5G are in every plan with no speed caps. All plans have unlimited talk and text, and you can make free calls to Canada and Mexico. The Unlimited plan lets you use as much data as you want, though after 35 GB, your data speeds may slow down.
There are four tiers, and their prices are lowest if you pay for a year at a time. If you choose to pay every three months, here are the monthly prices: 3 GB for $25, 8 GB for $35, 12 GB for $45, or Unlimited for $40.
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.
Our favorite Mint Mobile plans are $15 per month for 3 GB and $30 per month for unlimited data. Mint does not include wireless taxes and fees in its prices. Both plans will cost $10 more per month if you don’t pay annually.
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 iPhones and Google Pixels. 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. It’s affordable for an unlimited plan, costing $40 per month for one line, including taxes and fees, and it comes with unlimited talk, text, and data.
Visible just got an update to 5G, if Verizon supports it in your area. Sadly, 5G coverage is still scarce outside certain major cities—and it’s not all that game-changing yet. Your 5G data is capped at 200 Mbps.
In times of heavy network traffic, Visible will deprioritize its customers below Verizon customers sharing the Verizon cellular infrastructure. It sucks, but it’s common among these MVNOs and MVNO-like carriers, and at least Visible is transparent about it. 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. Video streaming is restricted to 480p resolution.
Visible has only one plan, and it costs $40 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data. Wireless taxes and fees are included. Monthly pricing drops to $35/$30/$25 if your plan has 2/3/4 lines on it.
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 five or more lines, the standard plan is reduced to $16 per line (+ $10 per GB), and if you have four or more lines, 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.
Owned by Sprint for many years, Boost was bought by Dish Network when T-Mobile gobbled up Sprint last year. It has five plans, from $10 to $45 a month, each with Wi-Fi hot spot data and unlimited talk and text. (The lowest tier has a 1-GB hot spot limit, which is pretty darn low if you connect it to a laptop to browse the web.) 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, though you might be better off with Visible’s unlimited plan at those prices (if you have a Verizon-compatible phone).
The $45 15-GB plan also comes with what Boost calls Shrink-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. The cheapest, lower-tier three plans are for new Boost customers only, and the lowest two require that you bring your own device.
Like Mint Mobile, the unlimited plans are limited to 35 GB of high-speed data, but unlike Mint, your data service is basically shut off (you get 2G speeds) for the rest of the month. Like most unlimited plans, this one makes us wonder why it’s labeled “unlimited” at all.
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. 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’ve got to step up to $55 a month to make free calls to Mexico and Canada. 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.
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 is 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 they 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 to get Mint for $15 to $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 deprioritized 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 (called 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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