You don’t need to pay an arm and a leg for cell phone service. A handful of wireless carriers offer excellent, budget-friendly options.
The MMM cell phone service recommendations are maintained by Christian Smith, creator of Coverage Critic.
Affiliate Note: Some of these companies offer commissions for online referrals. Other ones don’t. Extensive details about financial arrangements can be found here.
“I’d like a good amount of data, but I don’t need extensive coverage.”
Mint Mobile runs over T-Mobile’s network and offers some of the best prices in the industry. Mint’s customers can choose plans with either 3GB, 8GB, 12GB, or 35GB of full-speed data each month. Subscribers that use all of their full-speed data can continue using the internet at substantially reduced speeds.
Mint prices plans based whether a subscriber pays for 3, 6, or 12 months of service upfront. Normally, subscribers who pay for 12 months of service get the best rates. However, new customers can purchase 3 months of service at the monthly rate usually reserved for a year of service.
Example plan: One line with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 8GB of full-speed data for as low as $20 per month.
“I want a great deal, and I don’t need much data or extensive coverage.”
T-Mobile’s Connect plans are an awfully good deal for people who don’t use lots of data. While T-Mobile doesn’t have the best coverage among wireless networks, the company still offers solid service in most well-populated areas.
The Connect plans include unlimited minutes and texts. A version of the plan with a 2GB per month data allotment is $15 per month. A 5GB plan is available for $25 per month. T-Mobile has committed to offering these plans for several years and increasing data allotments by 500MB per year (without raising prices).
Example plan: One line with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 2GB of data for $15 per month.
T-Mobile’s Connect plans require a one-time purchase of a SIM card for $10 per line.
Tello operates over Sprint’s network and offers extremely budget-friendly options for people who don’t use data heavily. The coverage from Sprint’s network isn’t great, but the service still performs well in many areas.
Example plan: 100 minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of data for $7 per month.
“I’m an Xfinity Internet customer, and I want an awesome deal.”
Xfinity Mobile is available to Xfinity Internet customers and offers outstanding deals over Verizon’s network. Verizon’s already extensive network is further supplemented by millions of Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots that subscribers can use without any data charges.
All of Xfinity Mobile’s plans include unlimited minutes and texts at no charge. Customers pay only for data, and they can choose either (a) an unlimited data option for $45 per month per line or (b) a pay-by-the-gig option. Within a single family plan, subscribers are free to mix-and-match with some unlimited lines and some by-the-gig lines.
Xfinity Mobile subscribers who don’t continue to pay for at least one other Xfinity service will be charged an extra $20 per line each month. Additionally, only a limited set of devices are eligible for Xfinity Mobile’s bring-your-own-device program (some iPhone, Galaxy, and Pixel devices).
Example plan: 5 lines with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 10GB of shared data for $12 per line each month.
“I need 1 or 2 lines with solid coverage and plenty of data.”
Verizon Prepaid offers great coverage over the nation’s largest network. Several of Verizon’s prepaid plans come with generous data allotments.
Example plan: One line with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 15GB of data for $35-$50 per month.
“I need 3+ lines with solid coverage and plenty of data.”
Cricket Wireless is run by AT&T and offers great prices on family plans with unlimited data. Taxes and fees are typically included in the list prices of Cricket’s plans.
Data speeds are capped at certain maximums on many of Cricket’s plans. The speed caps typically won’t cause subscribers trouble during regular web browsing or streaming.
Example plan: Four lines with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and unlimited data for as low as $25 per line each month.
Cricket requires a one-time purchase of a SIM card for $10 per line.
Total Wireless runs over Verizon’s extensive network and offers phenomenal prices on family plans with huge data allowances.
Example plan: Four lines with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 100GB of shared data for $25 per line each month.
Visible is run by Verizon and offers cheap plans with unlimited minutes, texts, and data. At this time, only a limited set of phones are compatible with Visible.
Example plan: Four lines with unlimited minutes, texts, and data for $25 per line each month.
“I want solid service with great international coverage.”
Google Fi offers solid service with extremely user-friendly international roaming options. Phones designed specifically for Google Fi can seamlessly switch between access to T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks. Fi’s generous international roaming policies allow subscribers to receive service at no extra charge in roughly 200 countries.
While Fi is well-priced for those who don’t use much data, Fi’s pricing is not as competitive for heavy data users.
I generally recommend against using Google Fi if you don’t have a phone specifically designed for Fi.
Example plan: 4 lines with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 2GB of shared data for $22 per line each month.
The recently released, second-generation iPhone SE is a great option for those who want an iPhone that doesn’t break the bank. The SE has a list price of $400 and packs all sorts of high-performance hardware.
At least one model of the SE comes unlocked with compatibility for each of the four largest U.S. carriers.
The Moto G7 Power is similar to the G7 Play but comes with slightly more powerful hardware and a larger battery. As of late April, it’s $180 on Motorola’s online store.
Note: If you want to use a G7 Power on Xfinity Mobile, you’ll need to purchase the phone from Xfinity.
Canada: Recommendations for readers in Canada can be found on another page.
Coverage quality: Verizon leads the nation in coverage quality. If you spend a lot of time in cornfields or climbing mountains, you’ll probably want to choose a carrier that uses Verizon’s network. While AT&T and T-Mobile don’t offer as extensive coverage, both networks tend to offer great coverage in well-populated places.
When a small carrier piggybacks on a major network, subscribers with the small carrier will usually get coverage in essentially all the places the network is available. Subscribers with small carriers may not have access to coverage from all of their host network’s roaming partners.
Example prices and plans: Settling on an example price and plan for each carrier is sometimes tricky. The prices listed above don’t necessarily account for all discounts, short-term promotions, taxes, or fees. Full details about Mint’s price structure can be found in my Mint Mobile review.
Phone models: Phone manufacturers often make multiple models of their devices with slightly different network hardware. Purchasing devices directly from manufacturers can be helpful for finding models with extensive compatibility across networks. Note that a few small carriers are more restrictive about allowed devices than the host networks they operate over (e.g., Xfinity Mobile).
Mobile hotspots: Most plans offered by the carriers I recommend allow subscribers to setup a mobile hotspot from their phones. With a mobile hotspot, you can connect laptops and other devices to the internet through a cellular connection. Elsewhere, I maintain a list of the best mobile hotspot plans if you need service for a dedicated, standalone hotspot.
Unlimited plans: Most people don’t need fancy unlimited plans. The large majority of people use under 10GB of data each month.
Smartwatches: Only eight carriers in the U.S. offer cellular service for Apple watches. For most people, I recommend sticking to Bluetooth-only smartwatches to keep your options open and avoid huge bills.
5G Rollouts: 5G will bring big improvements in performance, but consumers don’t need to hurry to purchase 5G-compatible phones yet. 5G rollouts in the U.S. are still in early stages. So far, major networks have approached 5G with different strategies. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is great, but the network uses low-band 5G which isn’t very fast. In contrast, Verizon’s 5G strategy has focused on millimeter wave 5G. This type of 5G is outrageously fast, but terrible for covering large areas.
About Chris: The cell phone service recommendations are maintained by Christian Smith. Christian runs Coverage Critic, where he helps consumers cut through bullshit and make sense of the wireless industry. He’s a Mustachian, bike addict, and nature lover.
You can find Christian on Twitter here. If you have any questions for him, leave a comment below.