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Prepaid Cell Phones

Updated on April 20, 2012

All About Prepaid Cell Phones and Plans

Prepaid cell phone plans have come a long way in recent years. Once coveted only by those with very limited budgets or very limited calling needs, they have now expanded into the territory once dominated only by traditional carriers that required two year committments.

With better phone options, a more complete line of services, a variety of plans that better fit the needs of those who use their cell phones a great deal, and even some family plans, prepaid cellular services are now mainstream.

This page should help you sort through the options and make some solid decisions about whether or not prepaid cell phones are right for you.
 

Photo by: Rainer Ebert

The Typical Choices

There are many prepaid cellular providers out there. We will highlight some of the popular ones on this page. For all of these plans, the key characteristic is that you don't have to sign a contract or commit to the service for an extended period of time.

The prepaid cell phone plans typically come in two forms. One is the pay-as-you-go option. With these plans you purchase the phone, activate it, and then purchase airtime. Users need to track their available airtime and replenish it/buy more if they want to continue to use the service. The per minute cost is higher with this type of plan; often between 25 cents and 10 cents per minute.

Another common option is a monthly plan that charges a set fee for a certain number of minutes. There are "unlimited" monthly plans available without a contract as well, giving users unlimited talk and, potentially, unlimited messaging as well. The cost per minute varies widely from provider to provider with these plans, but in general, it is very competitve with tradtional plans and in a number of instances, even more affordable.

When Prepaid Cell Phones Are Potentially a Good Choice

Traditional cellular plans with long term contracts offer some advantages, such as discounted (or free) cell phones. However, there are times when prepaid cell phones without the long term contract are a good choice too. Here are some tips about those times when you might want to consider a prepaid cell phone plan.

You don't have established credit or have no credit card. A Pay-As-You-Go or monthly plan generally does not include any type of credit check and some don't require a credit card.

You aren't comfortable committing to the service, the bills, or anything else. If your budget can't handle the bills any more, you can drop the service at anytime without any penalty or steep cancellation fee. If you don't like the service or reception, this is true as well. No headaches, it's just gone. You have a need for cellular service for a limited time. Perhaps you don't really want a cell phone but you're selling your own house and need to be reachable over the next few months so that potential buyers can call. Or perhaps your daughter is visiting family somewhere across the country this summer. You don't typically provider her a cell phone, but feel it would be good over the next few months. Prepaid phones are great for this purpose.You depend on your cell phone but you don't really talk all that much. Most traditional phones with their contracts provide huge buckets of minutes that some people don't even come close to using. If you only want to pay for the time you use, it may be more economical to go with a prepaid cell phone that offers the pay-as-you-go option with a simple per minute charge. For many elderly individuals or those who want a cell phone only for emergency purposes, prepaid cell phones can be ideal. Even if the per minute charge is higher, the total cost may still be less than a traditional plan based on usage.

You want to provide one of your kids with a cell phone but want to be able to closely monitor their usage/control expenses. If you have to go in to purchase additional airtime, you'll be well aware of usage and there's no risk of exceeding your budget.

You want a trial period. If you're considering a traditional cell phone contract, you can choose to use the prepaid services offered by that particular traditional carrier to test out reception, service, and so forth before making the committment.

You need an affordable option. For those who don't use a lot of minutes, these plans can save money, but there's more to it. Prepaid unlimited plans and even some of the monthly options are now good competition for some traditional plans. If you identify your core needs, you may find that these more recent prepaid plans stack up reasonably well and cost a bit less, but it's important to know the details of the plan, it's services, and all associated costs.

The Drawbacks to Prepaid Cell Phones

Before opting for a prepaid cell phone, you need to be aware of the potential drawbacks or disadvantages as compared to cell phones that are tied to a contract.

Per minute cost tends to be significantly higher. Pay-as-you-go plans tend to offer minutes that cost several times that of the minutes in a traditional plan. They can save money if you don't talk much. However, the cellular industry continues to evolve and now, some prepaid cell phone plans also offer unlimited calling/messaging. These compete much better with traditional plans for those who use a lot of airtime.

Handsets cost more. Traditional cellular carriers discount the cost of their cell phones deeply in return for the 2 year contractual agreement. Without the guarantee of a paying customer for an extended period of time, prepaid phones tend to be provided minus this discount. Thus, the number of available free phones is very restricted when you go the route of prepaid phones. On the other hand, there are many economical choices in the field of prepaid phones. Phone choice is more limited. This is less true than in the past, but still the case to some extent. In the early days, prepaid phone services tended to offer only basic cell phones. Now there are more modern, advanced phones from which to select. You still won't find an iPhone for instance, but certainly there are a number of smart phones, camera phones, and so forth out there as long as you're willing to pay a bit more.

There are few prepaid plans for families Mostly prepaid plans focus on individuals.

You have to take the time to monitor usage and buy additional time With the pay-as-you-go option you can run out of talk time if you don't keep up with this. In some cases, unused minutes expire versus rolling over to the next month. Shoppers need to check terms of service to see when minutes expire as this continues to change.

How to Choose a Prepaid Cell Phone Plan

Prepaid cell phone plans have come a long way in recent years, the options have expanded greatly as the costs per minute have continued to drop. Competition has increased and so choosing a prepaid plan can get confusing. Here are a few things shoppers should consider:

Reception. The first thing to check is the coverage area. If you can't get good reception where you live, work, and play, the service won't be a bargain. Usage. You need have a good idea of how many minutes you will use in a month and how many messages you will send and receive. This will help you determine which plan will suit your needs. If you're going to use 1000 voice minutes, you probably don't want a pay-as-you-go plan that charges 20 cents per minute. That $200 bill could be a shocker. With that level of usage, a matching monthly plan or perhaps an unlimited plan would be a better choice. Again, in many instances however, if you miscalculate, most carriers will let you switch the next month to a different plan without penalty.Rates. This is an obvious one but once you know your usage, you need to compare rates based on these numbers. Be sure you know whether there will be only a per minute charge, a daily charge, or both. The expiration of minutes. If you purchase 100 minutes thinking that you will use the phone for emergencies only and hope to use those minutes over the course of a year, you need to know how long those minutes will sit in your bank before expiring. In some cases it's 30 days, in other cases it may be 90 days or more. Other costs. Are there activation fees? Are there additional or higher charges for roaming and so forth? Other services. What other services, beyond voice calling, do you want? Voicemail, caller ID, picture messaging, and so forth are examples. Are those services available and are there additional costs associated with them?

What About Customer Service?

It may be good to talk to friends about which service they use and how they like it. Or you can check out the JD Power website for customer service results. In 2011, Boost Mobile took top honors in their survey.

Net10 Prepaid Cell Phones

Net10 offers a simple, easy to understand service. After purchasing and activating a phone, users pay 10 cents for calls nationwide at any time. Text messages cost 5 cents per message. Obviously, this is economical for those who have, say 300, 400, or even 500 minutes of talk time in a given month. For those who chat more, their unlimited calling and text/picture messaging plan might be a better option at $50 per month. The phones vary in price from $19.99 to $59.99.

Of course, their plans require no contract. You can learn more at the website

Tracfone

Tracfone gives users the choice of pay-as-you-go plans or monthly plans without any contract. The per minute cost figures out to be about 20 cents per minute. They offer a 50 minute individual plan for $9.99/month, 100 minute plan for $19.99/month, and a 150 minute plan for $29.99/month. Their family plan is similarly priced. Interestingly, Tracfone has an offer called double minutes for life; with this feature, users can get twice the number of minutes; which essentially cuts the customer's cost per minute in half.

In addition, Tracfone offers something called StraightTalk which gives users unlimited calling and messaging for $45/month. They also have a plan for 1,000 anytime minutes and 1,000 text or multimedia messages for $30/month.

Available phones are priced from $9.99 to $49.99. Find out more at the Tracfone website

Boost Mobile Prepaid Cell Phones

Boost also offers a 10 cents/minute pay-as-you-go option. Text messages are also 10 cents to send or recieve and MMS messages are 25 cents to send or receive. Users also get wireless web for 35 cents/day unlimited. Beyond this, Boost also offers an unlimited plan with text, talk, web access, and walke talkie function for $50/month. Their unlimited plan also has unlimited 411 calls, e-mail, and instant messaging. Phones are priced from $59.99 to $300.

You can learn more about Boost Mobile on their site.

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile has updated plans that give users more of the data services that they want. All of their Beyond Talk plans provide unlimited messaging, email, data, and web access. The $25/month plan gives users 300 voice minutes in addition to this while their $40/month plan provides 1,200 voice minutes, and the $60/month plan has unliminted voice calling.

Vigin Mobile also offers a number of Broadband plans and a variety of smartphones including the Blackberry Curve 8530, LG Rumor Touch, LG Rumor 2, and Kyocera Loft. You can learn more about their prepaid cell phone plans and phones on their website.

MetroPCS

MetroPCS has several plans ranging in price from $30 to $45 per month. The $30/month plan offers users unlimited voice and SMS messaging. This covers local and nationwide calling as well as global texting. The $45/month plan adds in MetroNavigor (GPS service), e-mail access, as well as instant and picture messaging. They also offer several family plans including a family unlimited plan with nationwide text, talk and web access for 4 lines at $100/month.

They offer a variety of phones including several smartphones. The Blackberry 8330, Samsung Finesse R810, and Samsung Code for instance are all available for $50. You can learn more on their site.

Consumer Cellular Prepaid Cell Phones

Consumer Cellular is another option available for pay-as-you-go type services. They offer a number of plans. For instance, their Anywhere Casual plan provides voice calling for $.25/minute, an Anywhere 1000 plan that provides a bank of 1000 minutes for $40 with additional calling at $.25/minute, and an Anywere 2000 plan with 2000 minutes for $60 and additional calls at $.10/minute. For those with limited calling needs this means that the cost could be as low as 3 to 4 cents/minute.

They do have some free phones while others are priced as high as $50. You can see the available phones and discover addtional plans on their website.

Cricket Communications Prepaid Cell Phones

Cricket is another smaller provider of prepaid cell phones and service. They offer several unlimited plans that require no contract and allow you to pay monthly. These range in price from $35 to $60/per month. For instance, they have an unlimited talk and text plan for $35/month.

They also have the more traditional pay as you go options. One plan offers unlimited local calls for $1/day, another provides unlimited local calls as well as unlimited text and picture messaging for $2/day, and the final plan adds unlimited long distance, directory assistance, and mobile web for $3/day. You only pay for the days when the phone is used. You can learn more about what Cricket offers on their plan page

Simple Mobile

Simple Mobile is a newer option for finding prepaid cell phone plans. The service for Simple Mobile runs off of the T-Mobile network and therefore provides 4G data speeds. The company offers no phones, instead the service is designed for users who have an unlocked GSM phone. There is a list of compatible phones on their website. Users just have to insert a Simple Mobile SIM card into the unlocked phone or their micro-SIM card into their tablet to start using the service.

Simple mobile offers a $40/month unlimited talk and text plan, a $50/month unlimited talk and text plan with 100MB of data, and a $60/month plan with unlimited everything (talk, text, and data). There are no contracts and international text messaging is included. International calling is available but carries additional costs; details available on their site.

Prepaid Cell Phones From Traditional Carriers

Prepaid plans are also available through traditional cellular providers as well.

With the plans from T-Mobile, you can pay-as-you-go by pre-paying for minutes or you can select to pay by the day. With the pay-as-you-go option, the per minute rate varies based on the number of minutes you purchase: fewer minutes means higher per minute cost. If you purchase only 30 minutes you'll pay more than 30 cents per minute of talk time. If you purchase 1000 minutes, you'll pay approximately 10 cents per minute. On the pay-by-the-day plan you pay $1 for every day that you use your phone, plus 10 cents per minute. Text messages are 10 cents per message to send, 5 cents to receive, and 25 cents for picture messages. You can see more on the T-Mobile website.

If your usage is focused more on web browsing and messaging, then T-Mobile's most recent offer with Wal-Mart may also be of interest. For $30 per month, users get unlimited web access and messaging, plus 100 minutes of talk. You can find out more here.

Verizon Wireless on the other hand, has 4 prepaid plans. Their basic plan charges 25 cents per minute of talk time and 20 cents per text message. The Core plan costs 99 cents/day plus 10 cents for both voice minutes and text messages. The Plus plan is $1.99/day plus 5 cents for voice minutes and text messages, while the Unlimited Talk plan is $3.99/day for unlimited voice minutes and 1 cent/text message. They also have text messaging bundles available with these plans. You can get more information here.

AT&T has the GoPhone with pay-as-you-go and monthly no contract plans. Plans vary but as an example they offer a Simple Rate Plan that charges a flat 25 cents/minute for calls as well as an Unlimited Calling plan that charges a daily access fee of $3. Monthly plans are offered at $29.99 for 200 minutes, $39.99 for 300 mintues, $49.99 for 400 minutes and $69.99 for 650 minutes. This calculates into approximately 11 to 15 cents per minute. Text messages are 20 cents each and picture messages 25 cents. There are however, text messaging packages available for a more economical option. You can get further details about their prepaid cell phone plans on their site.

Sprint had worked with WalMart to offer their Common Cents prepaid cell phone plans but that was discontinued and folded into the Virgin Mobile PayLo plans.

Smaller Prepaid Cell Phone Services

There are also smaller prepaid services out there. They have the disadvantage of not being available everywhere, so you have to check the coverage areas carefully before deciding on them.

One such service is Page Plus Cellular. They offer standard rate plans that become economical as you buy larger bundles of minutes. These plans give users 83 minutes for $10, 300 minutes for $25, and 700 minutes for $50; minutes do roll over. They also have Text N Talk Plans like their Talk N Text 1200 plan which provides 1200 voice minutes, 1200 picture or text messages, and 50MB of data for $29.95. Those who text a lot can add "power text" to their standard plan for $10.95 for 2,000 text, or $19.95 for unlimited texts. You can learn more here.

Liberty Wireless is another prepaid cell phone service. They offer a variety of plans. Currently, I found one for 28 days of unlimited everything (voice, data, and text) for $50 as well as one that offers 500 minutes for $20. You can look for current plans at Liberty Wireless.

Shop for Prepaid Cell Phones

If you didn't find the cell phone plans that you want, be sure to visit our site.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Consumer Cellular is NOT Prepaid. They are NO Contract.

      That said , they offer very good rates and don't "bundle."

      So you can have very little voice cost while having lots of data and

      vice-versa.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      prepaid is the way to go. Even if you want a smartphone. No more contracts and getting hit with a early termination fee.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      One of the modern conveniences that may help an individual to stay connected is the cell phone. In addition, to actually receiving phone calls, the cell phone can be equipped with other applications that help the individual with their communication needs. Some of those additional applications include the ability to text messages to others, having the capability of connecting to the Internet, taking pictures, etc. free government cell phones

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 6 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks for cutting through the undergrowth on prepaid plans and delivering useful information.

    • Phillyfreeze profile image

      Ronald Tucker 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      I have been looking for a Prepaid plan to replace my current cellular company and this lens has help me to decide...I will definitely go with the Walmart prepaid because they will be around for awhile...unlike some of the other smaller companies.

    • profile image

      Linnath 6 years ago

      Really informative lens-nicely done. I realize with all the competition, these are the kind of pages who's info changes frequently. I signed up with Net10 about 3 or 4 months ago, and their unlimited everything plan is now $50, and no longer $79.98! I've heard that it used to be a very limited area that could use this option, but even that seems to have changed, as they run off both cdma(Verizon) or gsm(AT&T). There is so much variety out there now, it really isn't difficult to find a company and plan to suit your individual needs. Prepaid is most definitely the simplest way to go!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Wow! Great information. Just what I've been wondering a lot of questions were answered, Great lens!

    • cannedguds lm profile image

      cannedguds lm 7 years ago

      Prepaid wireless cell phones are the future and the future is here! These phones are way too cool and awesome and they really help us save a lot of money! Thanks for sharing this lens! It's such a wonderful time reading everything from top to bottom!

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 8 years ago

      [in reply to Doctor TracFone] Yes, I think I indicated that the Wal-Mart offers were via Straight Talk and the link should take people to their site. Good tip about the fact that some of these plans charge a daily usage fee in addition to the per minute charges. That's in the info provided but I hadn't stated that specifically. Definitely something to be very aware of when comparing prices!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Nice post. A few clarifications:

      Straight Talk is the brand that you refer to as the Walmart phone, also mentioned under the TracFone listing.

      Though it's from the same company as TracFone, it's a separate brand and runs on a different network than most TracFone handsets.

      Straight Talk is available nationwide at Walmart and online at http://straighttalk.com/ShopPhones

      Also, the cost of TracFone airtime is significantly lowered when one buys either a phone that comes with Double Minutes For Life (DMFL) or a DMFL card if the phone isn't already loaded.

      Some analysts have said, in fact, the with DMFL, the cost of TracFone minutes is comparable to Net10's, which makes sense!

      Regardless, TracFone, Net10 and Straight Talk have no per-day charges, activation fees or contracts.

      Many of the others do, so shoppers need to be very careful.

    • Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 8 years ago from Concord VA

      Thanks for all of the great information. I've been wanting to find out more about the prepaid plans...and now I have all the info right here, without searching for it!