Save some bucks by going small

US Low-Cost Carriers Buyer's Guide

By Simon Sage

The phones we use are expensive enough — our phone service doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, too. Several new carriers are breaking the mold of what we used to pay for service, and the rewards are huge.

As the number of smartphone choices out there have expanded, so too have the number of wireless carriers. You're no longer choosing between just two or three national carriers — there are dozens of new and innovative options that are turning smartphone service upside down and passing huge savings on to the customers. With monthly prices ranging from free for basic use to $55 for everything you could want, you no longer have to break the bank to use your phone.

Ting FreedomPop Republic Wireless T-Mobile Prepaid Straight Talk Boost Mobile AT&T GoPhone Simple Mobile
$9/month for 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 100MB of data Free for 200 minutes, 500 texts and 500MB of data $5/month for unlimited talk, text and data on Wifi only $30/month for 100 minutes, unlimited text and 5GB of high speed data $30/month for 1500 minutes, unlimited talk and 100MB of data $35/month for unlimited talk, text and 1GB of high speed data $40/month for 500 minutes, unlimited text and 500MB of data $40/month for unlimited talk, text and 1GB of high speed data
Use however much data, send as many texts, and place as many calls as you want and pay for just that at the end of the month. Free option with cheap additional plans, but the service options and devices available are quite limited. Republic Wireless offers extremely affordable phone plans because its devices leverage Wifi primarily and mobile networks secondarily. Great service with less fuss and slightly lower prices — thanks to low taxes and no fees — than Simple Choice. Straight Talk is a prepaid carrier operated by Walmart, offering service on all four major carriers — depending on the phone you buy — with inexpensive plans. Boost is a Sprint-owned company with competitive plans that offer large data allotments, up to 10GB per month of high speed data. GoPhone is AT&T's own prepaid carrier, and it has improved in the past year to drop prices and raise data allotments. Very similar plan structures to other prepaid carriers, but has recently increased data allotments and has always offered good international calling plans.
Pay for only the talk, text and data that you use — Ting says the average bill for its customers comes to about $21 per month. Minutes $3 for 100/month up to $35 for 2100 (+1.9¢/min extra) Messages $3 for 100/month up to $11 for 4800 (+0.25¢/message extra) Data $3 for 100MB/month up to $29 for 2GB (+1.5¢/MB extra) More info Check out Ting's complete rates plan for more. Everyone gets a basic level of free service, and you can choose to pay monthly or yearly (with a discount) for higher usage.Free500MB data, 200 minutes, 500 texts$11/month or $80/year500MB data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$20/monthUnlimited data (1GB throttle), unlimited talk, unlimited text Basic plans are restricted to Wifi only, but if you pay more you'll get access to Sprint's 3G and 4G networks.$5Unlimited data, talk and text over Wifi only$10No mobile data, unlimited talk, unlimited text over 3GM$25Unlimited 3G data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$40Unlimited 4G data, unlimited talk, unlimited text Plans mirror its postpaid options in price and usage, with the one exception being its cheapest $30 plan.$305GB high-speed data, 100 minutes, unlimited text$501GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$603GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$705GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$80Unlimited data, unlimited talk, unlimited text Two basic monthly plans with slight discounts for paying in advance and reloading automatically$30100MB data, 1500 minutes, unlimited text$453GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text Unlimited usage on every plan, so you only pay for the amount of high-speed data you'll use.$351GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$455GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$5510GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text Three basic plans, the top two of which throttle when data allotments are maxed out.$40500MB data, 500 minutes, unlimited text$451GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$602.5GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text Three basic plans that throttle when data allotments are hit. $10 extra per month gets you international calls and texts, too.$401GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$503GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text$605GB high-speed data, unlimited talk, unlimited text
Bring your own Sprint device, or Ting will sell you a variety of devices at competitive prices You can buy one of a handful of mid-range or low-end Android phones, or bring your own device — including late-model iPhones. Limited to just four — Moto E, Moto G (2013), Moto X (2013), Moto X (2014). Bring your own unlocked GSM device, or buy one of many from T-Mobile. Bring your own GSM handset and choose AT&T or T-Mobile. Buy one of a variety of mid-range phones to use on the Verizon or Sprint. Buy a full-price phone from Boost, but many of the latest devices are available if you want them. Bring any AT&T-compatible device, or buy one of its cheap options Bring your own T-Mobile device, or buy one of a handful of available devices from an affiliate shop.
Sprint Sprint Sprint, Wi-Fi T-Mobile AT&T or T-Mobile (BYOD); Verizon or Sprint (Buy device) Sprint AT&T T-Mobile


With the exception of Ting, every time you see "4G" data mentioned, keep in mind that this involves slowing download speeds from LTE once you've passed your data allotment. You won't have to worry about overages in those cases, but you might face long buffering times on your YouTube videos. Data buckets have a set expiration, and don't typically carry over month to month, so make sure to not let it go to waste and that you're not paying for more than you need. Many providers will provide SMS alerts if you're approaching your limits. The notable exception is Ting, who will charge you only for what you use each month.

Talk and text

Talk and text is generally limited to within the U.S. unless you purchase international add-ons (Ting does include texting to international numbers from outside the US), but otherwise there are only occasionally caps on talk time, and rarely limits on texting. Again, the exception here is Ting, which places no caps on usage.


Most of these networks operate under (or are owned by) larger networks built on traditional postpaid business. That means even if you're paying up to one company, your voice and data is actually going through Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint networks. Sometimes a low-cost carrier will offer service on one of several networks, which is helpful depending on your coverage situation. Make sure you check the coverage map of the potential carrier's network to make sure you'll have service where you are, especially if having high-speed LTE access is a priority.

Some low-cost carriers may also have tight restrictions on roaming on other networks (some offer only voice and text roaming, for example), and in most cases do not offer international data roaming.


Network types may also restrict what kinds of phones you're able to use. Many of these carriers use "bring your own device" (or BYOD) as a major selling point, but networks that operate primarily on one type of technology won't be compatible with others (CDMA vs. GSM phones, namely). Even if a carrier is technically compatible with your device, they may still require a device purchase from them to get service.

Be sure to do your research ahead of time so you can be sure that the phone you choose will work properly on the network you're considering.


Keeping a prepaid phone account topped up is vital to ensuring continual service, so the convenience with which you can reload is paramount. Automatic recurring credit card payments, online top-ups, refill cards with redemptions codes, and recharging by phone are all common options. Many prepaid carriers offer a discount for setting up automatic payments. If your service is postpaid like Ting, you pay at the end of the month (like traditional phone service) and just for the data, minutes, and texts you've used.

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