How to save money by switching from a Big Three carrier to an MVNO

OnePlus n200 5G
(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

If you're using one of the Big Three carriers; AT&T, T-Mobile (including Sprint), or Verizon, chances are you're paying for features you don't need, or worse, don't have a plan that offers all you need. While traditionally, using one of the big carriers gave you better access to services and devices, unlocked devices today are much easier to get, and most of these prepaid carriers have more than enough coverage. Depending on your needs, there's an MVNO that fits your needs better than a postpaid carrier, and is probably cheaper.

Most of us don't need unlimited everything

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Prepaid plans have largely moved on to unlimited calls and texts across most plans, and to be fair, many people have moved on to messaging services that use data for calls and messages. That also allows these services to work on Wi-Fi, and may not even touch your mobile data most of the time.

Speaking of mobile data, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have largely moved on to unlimited data for all plans. The difference is that cheaper plans have been deprioritized so that those paying more can see faster data in times of congestion. This is often referred to as premium data. While this completely depends on the areas where you use your phone, it's possible you may not notice a significant difference using premium data in suburban areas, and especially in rural areas.

A carrier like Visible for example offers unlimited data for a low price, but its data takes a back seat to postpaid Verizon customers and almost always comes out just a little slower. Even so, for many people, this won't be apparent outside of a speed test and may prove to be more than worth the cost savings. In our Visible review, we found data to be slower than postpaid options in the area, but had no trouble using it in day-to-day tasks.

While most of us don't need truly unlimited data, it is nice to be able to stop thinking about data usage with prepaid unlimited plans. Even so, carriers like Ultra Mobile and Mint Mobile have made it easy to save on plans that don't come with unlimited data. The nice thing about these carriers, and many others for that matter, is that they sell you high-speed data allotments. That means that when you've used up your data, you can still do things like send and receive messages and emails. You can even browse social media like Twitter and Instagram with a bit of patience. 

Focus on the features you need

Verizon Wireless with Disney+

(Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

If you're using AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon, you may have services included like HBO Max, Netflix, or Disney+ that you don't even use. While these can be nice if you use them, there's a chance, you're paying extra for something that you don't use or could very easily live without.

It's great to get your streaming subscriptions bundled in if you are already paying for the plan, but if you can save a bit of money with a more streamlined plan, it's probably not worth the convenience. Plus, it makes it harder to pause your subscription when you're not actively watching a series.

Beyond that, many postpaid plans come with perks like hotspot data and international calling features. Let's be frank, unless you're calling grandma, your international calls are probably going through Facebook or something similar, which doesn't care which country you're in. Hotspot data can be nice to have if you need an internet connection on a laptop or tablet everywhere you go, but many folks are paying for it without using a single megabyte.

Can you bring more lines?

One of the big reasons to go with postpaid carriers in the past was the family plans. Not only does bringing multiple lines bring down your per-line cost, but it can also make it easier to pay for multiple new phones. The thing is, cheaper phones are extremely capable now, so if you're able to save up a little cash, you can buy one of the best cheap Android phones with plenty of performance and even 5G support and you're not locked into a carrier.

To add to that, prepaid carriers are beginning to offer their own multi-line discounts. that can save you a lot of money. US Mobile stands out as one of the best options for a family, with two unlimited family plans that can be as cheap as $20 per line with four lines. Mint Mobile is another carrier that has added family plan savings.

If you're just getting a line for yourself, you can use Visible with Party Pay to save. To join a Visible Party, you need only go to the community section on Visible's website and choose a party to join. With Visible's plan coming down to just $25 per month when you join a party, it may be the perfect plan for your new phone.

Don't get locked in with 'free phones'

There's no such thing as a free lunch, even if we all deserve one from time to time. When a carrier offers a free phone, it wants your loyalty in return. Many of the free or buy one get one phone deals at postpaid carriers actually use monthly credits to make the phone free. With carriers moving to 36-month payment plans, that means you're locked into a carrier for three years while the phone is being paid off. If you want to switch carriers, you'll have to pay the remaining balance on that phone. 

These payment plans are not rentals, and you can't return that phone to get a discount. From the carrier's perspective, you borrowed the money, not the phone.

The best way to avoid getting locked into a plan like this is to buy unlocked. Most of the best Android phones are available unlocked and will work just fine on any of the big networks. If you want to go with a flagship-tier phone like the Galaxy S22 but can't pay the full amount, you can sign up for payments through Samsung to get reduced monthly payments. With this, the phone is still unlocked and you can take it to any carrier you want. Your credit card may also offer a zero-interest option for paying for large purchases, though you'll want to read through the conditions thoroughly.

With an unlocked phone, you can try out multiple carriers and networks with a simple SIM swap. Some carriers like Visible and Mint even offer limited-time trial SIMs, whether physically or via eSIM, so you can see if the network is a good fit for you.

Forget about monthly, buy the whole year

Mint Mobile 12-month plan pricing

(Image credit: Mint Mobile)
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Prepaid carriers can't force you to stick around, so they need to be more flexible and more competitive with their plans. One way these carriers are convincing customers to stick around for longer is by offering multi-month plans for a discount. Mint Mobile is the stand-out carrier for this business model with its three, six, and 12-month discounts, but many other carriers offer similar plans.

Some people, like construction workers, may see larger payouts in the form of bonuses when a job is completed, so taking care of a year's worth of cell phone service may prove to be worth it. While paying yearly for phone service will sting more at first, you don't have to think about it for a year and it saves you money. Just be sure you have the coverage you need before committing.

Do you need international service?

MVNOs have some great options for people that need international service. Boost Mobile has been known for its great service to Mexico with its Todo Mexico add-on plan. If you've been paying extra to call relatives or friends in Mexico or Canada, you can save some money with Boost Mobile's calling options. You also get some roaming data in Mexico, making it great if you travel to Mexico frequently.

Google Fi SIM card

(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

Another MVNO with plans specialized for international calling is Lycamobile. You can check and see which countries are supported on which plans on the website to make the right choice. Lycamobile also has competitive domestic rates including family plan discounts. If you need to call a specific country that doesn't get a lot of attention from other carriers, there's a good chance Lycamobile has you and your family covered without having to pay by the minute.

If you need to travel internationally often, a carrier like Google Fi can help you save money with its included data and texting roaming in more than 200 countries (opens in new tab). No more wasting money on an expensive day pass or travel passes on a postpaid carrier.

If you don't need any international service, a carrier like Visible has no support for international service which helps it keep prices down.

Bundle with an existing plan

Sometimes you can bundle an MVNO with other services such as your home internet. If you're a Suddenlink or Optimum internet customer, you can join Altice Mobile for $20 per month, per line, with up to five lines. While there is some fine print to read such as autopay requirements and activation fees, you can still save quite a bit of money over one of the Big Three if it works for you.

Xfinity Mobile is another great option with a competitive unlimited family plan on Verizon's network. It even works with C-band 5G which isn't included in all Verizon 5G plans.

Consumer Cellular offers a 5% discount to AARP members as well as being one of the few carriers to still offer a basic talk plan.

What you may not want to give up

Fast speed test app with AT&T Stream Saver enabled

(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

One thing that may not be immediately apparent about prepaid unlimited plans is that many of them have limited video streaming speeds. Streaming video is hard on a cell phone tower, which needs to serve data to dozens of phones at any one time in a timely manner. Because of this, carriers have begun limited video quality to SD resolutions. This typically means video will stream at 1.5Mbps to 2.5Mbps depending on the carrier.

While this is plenty for 480p and even some 720p streams, you won't be making the most of your 1080p or 1440p displays on the go. To be clear, many people won't notice the lower quality video, but if you're one of the people that can immediately tell when your video drops to a lower quality or isn't in 60fps, this may be a concern for you.

Find the plan that makes the most sense for you

If you are able to narrow down exactly what you need from your phone service, you should be able to find an MVNO that's a great fit for you. When you're looking at buying your next phone, consider getting it unlocked so you can try out a few different carriers to find the one that works best for you. One of the best things about an MVNO is that it's prepaid and contract-free, so as long as you own the phone, you're free to take it with you to try another service.

When Samuel is not writing about networking or 5G at Android Central, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.