Best Cell Phone Carriers For Frugal Consumers

On this page, I list cell phone carriers that I think are especially well-priced. In most cases, these services have low priority; subscribers may experience substantially reduced data speeds during periods of congestion. On another page, I share a list of recommended cell phone services with higher priority.


Mint Mobile (T-Mobile’s network)

Strongly recommended low-cost carrier

Mint Mobile operates over T-Mobile’s network and offers some of the best prices in the industry.[1] While T-Mobile’s network is mediocre in terms of nationwide reliability, the network is good in most well-populated areas.[2] If you spend most of your time in regions where T-Mobile’s network offers good coverage, Mint Mobile is worth considering.

Mint’s standard plans include unlimited texts and minutes along with 3 to 12 gigabytes of high-speed data. All plans include unlimited data at substantially reduced speeds if subscribers use all of their allotted high-speed data.[3] My experience with Mint’s customer support has been good, but some Mint subscribers have less positive experiences.[4]

Mint’s website | Coverage map | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 8/13/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed. Primarily sourced from Mint’s Plans web page.


All of Mint’s standard plans come with unlimited talk time, unlimited texts, and unlimited access to data at 2G speeds if high-speed data allotments are surpassed. The three standard plans differ in the amount of data allotted: plans include either 3, 8, or 12 gigabytes of data at 4G LTE speeds.

The price of each plan varies depending on how long of a term subscribers pay for upfront.

3GB 4G LTE plan:

  • 3 months: $25
  • 6 months: $20
  • 12 months: $15

8GB 4G LTE plan:

  • 3 months: $35
  • 6 months: $25
  • 12 months: $20

12GB 4G LTE plan:

  • 3 months: $45
  • 6 months: $35
  • 12 months: $25

The rates above do not include taxes or fees. In my first order with Mint, I paid an additional 15-20% of the base price in taxes in fees.

At the time of writing, Mint has an intro offer allowing the purchase of 3 months of service at the typical rates for 12 months of service. Mint is running another promotion on its 8GB plan offering the first six months of service for only $60 before taxes and fees.

Mint also allows users to add data onto their plans in the middle of a billing cycle (details and pricing). As of 4/21/2019, a 1GB data add-on costs $10 and a 3GB data add-on costs $20.

⬇ Relationship disclosure
I aim to be extremely transparency and try to disclose conflicts of interest in detail. This section was last updated 8/13/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


I’m a member of Mint Mobile’s affiliate program. The program offers a $20 commission on each sale.[5]


Verizon Prepaid

Extensive coverage at a good price

Verizon has the most extensive coverage among the nationwide wireless networks.[6] If you value reliability, travel regularly, or live in an area where other networks offer lackluster coverage, you may be well-served by a carrier that uses Verizon’s network.

While Verizon’s postpaid service is expensive, Verizon’s prepaid options are usually much cheaper. Unlike some other prepaid services, Verizon’s prepaid service appears to offer domestic roaming capabilities similar to those received by postpaid subscribers. With the double data promotion Verizon is running on its prepaid plans, the service is a great deal for moderate and heavy users of data. For light users of data, I expect it’s possible to get cheaper service with a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that runs over Verizon’s network.

Verizon’s prepaid plans | Coverage map[7] | Partial review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 5/23/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


Prepaid phone plans (primarily sourced from verizonwireless.com/prepaid/)
All prepaid phone plans include unlimited talk and text.

  • $30/month – 1GB high-speed data
  • $40/month – 6GB high-speed data
  • $50/month – 16GB high-speed data
  • $65/month – Unlimited high-speed data

A $5/month/line discount beyond what’s listed is available if subscribers pay automatically each month. This discount is not available for the first month of service. The prices above do not include taxes or fees.

When high-speed data allotments are used, unlimited data at low (2G) speeds.[8] Streaming video will likely be limited to 480p even when the high-speed data allotment has not been exhausted.[9]

Family plans are available that provide discounts to the prices listed above. When an initial line is purchased at full price, the following multiline discounts are available:[10]

  • 6GB data – $10 off the regular price
  • 16GB data – $15 off the regular price
  • Unlimited – $20 off the regular price

Postpaid plans
For details on the pricing of postpaid plans, see Verizon’s website.

⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 5/21/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


I’m a member of one of Verizon’s affiliate programs. As I understand it, the program has the following commission structure:[11]

  • $80.00 on new service contracts
  • $24.00 on pre-paid plans and additional phone lines
  • 12% on accessories

Total Wireless (Verizon’s Network)

Extensive coverage & great prices on family plans
Total Wireless Logo

Total Wireless is a Verizon-based MVNO owned by TracFone. Total Wireless offers some of the best prices for moderate to heavy data use on Verizon’s network. For single line plans, Total Wireless often has prices that are similar to those offered on Verizon’s own prepaid plans. However, Total Wireless may offer substantially better prices than Verizon on multi-line plans.

Total Wireless’s website | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 7/15/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


Individual plans:

  • $25/mo: Unlimited talk and unlimited texts (no data)
  • $35/mo: Unlimited talk, unlimited texts, 5GB of regular data
  • $50/mo: Unlimited talk, unlimited texts, 25GB of regular data, unlimited data at significantly reduced speeds
  • $90 for 90 days (extended plan): Unlimited talk, unlimited texts, and 5GB of regular data each month

Multi-line plans:

  • $60/mo: 2 lines with unlimited talk & text and 30GB shared data
  • $85/mo: 3 lines with unlimited talk & text and 60GB shared data
  • $100/mo: 4 lines with unlimited talk & text and 100GB shared data

For $10, subscribers can add 5GB of shared data during a billing cycle.

⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 7/12/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


Total Wireless offers me a $24 commission on “top tier item sales” and a 6.4% commission on some other types of purchases. I’m not exactly sure what “top tier item sales” are.


Honorable mentions

Tello (Sprint’s network)

Extremely low-cost service

Tello is a ridiculously low-cost MVNO running on Sprint’s network.[12] While Sprint has the least extensive coverage among the four nationwide networks, Tello’s outstanding prices may still make the servic a tempting option for budget-conscious consumers. Tello’s prices are especially good for single-line users who use under 4GB of data each month. For example, a customer could purchase a plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of data for only $10 per month.[13]

Tello’s website | Coverage check | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 8/13/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed. Primarily sourced from Tello’s Build Your Own Plan page.

Tello allows users to build their own plan or select a pre-made plan. The pre-made plans are described below. Options for custom plans can be found on Tello’s website or within my review of Tello.

Economy plan — $10 per month

  • 1GB of data
  • Unlimited minutes
  • Unlimited texts

Value plan — $14 per month

  • 2GB of data
  • Unlimited minutes
  • Unlimited texts

Smart plan — $19 per month

  • 4GB of data
  • Unlimited minutes
  • Unlimited texts

Data plan — $39 per month

  • 10GB of data
  • Unlimited minutes
  • Unlimited texts

The prices above do not include taxes and fees. A Sprint SIM card is necessary to use Tello’s service. If you don’t have a SIM card, one can be purchased from Tello for $9.99.

⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 8/13/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.

I’m a member of an affiliate program that I believe offers a $35 commission on custom plans and a $10 commission on pay-as-you-go plans.


Ting (T-Mobile or Sprint’s network)

Amazing customer support

Ting offers subscribers their choice of service over either T-Mobile or Sprint’s network.[14] The service is incredibly user-friendly, and my limited experience with Ting’s customer support has been more positive than the experience I’ve had with any other carrier.

Ting operates with a pay-for-what-you-use model. Monthly bills are calculated at the end of each period. Service comes with a base price of $6 per line plus additional charges that depend on the quantity of texts, minutes, and data used across all devices on a plan.[15] Ting may be an excellent option for families that don’t use their phones intensely and live in areas where Sprint or T-Mobile’s networks perform well. However, heavy data users may find that charges add up quickly. In my opinion, Ting is rarely the best option for single-line access.[16]

Ting plans to begin offering service over Verizon’s network and cease offering service over T-Mobile’s network in the near future. If Ting’s prices do not chance with that switch, I expect I’ll strongly recommend Ting’s Verizon-based service.

Ting’s website | Coverage map | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 4/21/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed. Sourced from Ting’s Rates page.


Ting charges a base price of $6 per line. Beyond the base price, Ting uses a pay-for-what-you-use model based on the total quantity of minutes, texts, and data used across all devices on a single account.

Minutes:

  • None: +$0
  • 1–100: +$3
  • 101–500: +$9
  • 501–1000: +$18
  • 1001–2100: +$35
  • 2100: +1.9¢/min

Texts:

  • None: +$0
  • 1–100: +$3
  • 101–1000: +$5
  • 1001–2000: +$8
  • 2001–4800: +$11
  • Over 4800: +0.25¢/text

Data:

  • None: +$0
  • 1-100MB: +$3
  • 101-500MB: +$10
  • 501MB-1GB: +$16
  • 1GB-2GB: +$20
  • Above 2GB: +$10/GB

The rates above do not include taxes and fees.

Ting allows users to set up alerts and strict usage caps.[17]

⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 5/6/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.


I am a member of Ting’s affiliate program which offers a $25 commission for every new line activated.[18]


US Mobile (Verizon or T-Mobile’s network)

Great prices for limited use over Verizon’s network

US Mobile offers subscribers their choice of service over either Verizon’s network or T-Mobile’s network. Service is the same price regardless of the network subscribers select. While I don’t think the pricing is great for service over T-Mobile’s network, US Mobile may be a cost-effective option for those looking for plans with minimal allotments of texts, minutes, and data on Verizon’s network. Heavy users of data can probably get better deals on Verizon-based service with Total Wireless or Verizon’s own prepaid service.

US Mobile’s website | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
US Mobile offers a highly-customizable plans that are difficult to explain briefly. For information on plans and pricing, take a look at my US Mobile review or visit US Mobile’s website.
⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 7/4/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.

As of 7/4/2019, I am not aware of a US Mobile affiliate program.


Consumer Cellular (AT&T or T-Mobile’s network)

Senior-friendly plans
Consumer Cellular Logo

Consumer Cellular subscribers can choose to have service over either AT&T’s network or T-Mobile’s network. Consumer Cellular goes out of its way to make its service especially simple and appealing to senior citizens. Consumer Cellular may be a good option if you want access to AT&T’s network and value the senior-friendly aspects of the service. Other carriers offer significantly cheaper access to T-Mobile’s network.[19]

Consumer Cellular’s website | Review

⬇ Plans and pricing
Last updated 10/4/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed. Primarily sourced from Consumer Cellular’s Plans page.

Service starts at $15 per month for a single line with 250 minutes. For an additional $5, subscribers can have unlimited minutes.
Any of the following data allowances can be selected.

  • 500MB +$5 per month
  • 3GB +$10 per month
  • 10GB +$20 per month
  • 16GB +$30 per month
  • 25GB +$40 per month

A second line can be added for an additional $15 per month.[20] The second line will share the allotted minutes and data with the initial line.

AARP members can get a 5% discount on Consumer Cellular’s service. The prices mentioned above do not include taxes and fees.

⬇ Relationship disclosure
Last updated 4/22/2019. Accuracy not guaranteed.

As of 4/22/2019, I am not aware of a Consumer Cellular affiliate program.[21]


Before choosing a carrier

I recommend investigating the service quality each of the “Big Four” networks (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint) offer in areas where you use your phone before choosing a carrier. I walk through this process in How to Evaluate Wireless Service Quality.

Recommended phones

If you’re in the market for a new phone, I strongly recommend buying a nearly universal unlocked phone. These devices should work well on all four of the major networks in the U.S. I’m a particularly big fan of the Motorola G7 Play and G7 Power. Both of these phones perform awfully well given their low price points.

Prioritization

Prioritization policies govern how wireless networks handle traffic during congestion. In many cases, data use by subscribers using mobile virtual network operators and other prepaid services will have lower priority than data use by other subscribers using the same network. In most areas, congestion is relatively rare. That said, if you find that you’re experiencing lackluster data speeds while you have a strong LTE connection, you may be experiencing deprioritization. I discuss prioritization policies on the major networks elsewhere.

Most of the services I recommend don’t have particularly high priority. If you think you’d benefit from high priority, you may want to consider looking at my alternative list of recommended carriers with higher priority data access.

Methodology

On this page, I list carriers that I believe are (a) high-quality and/or well-priced today and (b) likely to be especially high-quality and/or well-priced in the future. I do this because I expect most people stick with their carriers for a little while without reassessing their options every month. That said, if you’re happy to switch carriers frequently in search of the best deal, I have a list of short-term deals on another page.

I don’t make broad recommendations or rank carriers numerically. That approach rarely works well. Since cell phone users differ substantially in how they use their phones, where they use their phones, and what kind of budgets they have, I recommend carriers that I think are a good fit for several common scenarios people find themselves in.

I try to understand the wireless industry from a number of different angles. I regularly:

  • Dig into the methodologies and results of third-party evaluations
  • Track plan offerings and prices
  • Trial wireless services
  • Learn about technology and hardware behind wireless networks
  • Keep up on developments in wireless devices
  • Follow community forums
  • Dig into network management procedures
  • Interact with industry insiders

Limitations

  • I am not impartial since I receive commissions from some cell phone carriers. For details about monetary relationships (or lack thereof) see the “Relationship disclosure” sections.
  • I’ve tried to prioritize investigating carriers that are likely to be good options for many consumers, but it’s possible there are good carriers I haven’t tried or listed.
  • When assessing network quality, I draw on information collected by other evaluation companies. I’ve written about the methodologies used by many of these companies: RootMetrics, Opensignal, Tutela, Consumer Reports, and Nielsen. I have non-trivial concerns about every one of these companies’ methodologies.
  • Consumers vary in what they’re looking for from a cell phone carrier. While I try to cover a number of common situations consumers find themselves in, there are consumers with use cases I don’t cover.

Footnotes

  1. Expand the “Plans and pricing” section below for more information.
  2. Here’s my rough, high-level assessment of the four nationwide networks in terms of network reliability:

    • Verizon (best)
    • AT&T (2nd place)
    • T-Mobile (3rd place, significantly behind AT&T)
    • Sprint (worst)

    I go into far more more detail about the reliability of nationwide networks here.

    If you tend to spend time in a limited number of areas, coverage quality in those areas will be more important than nationwide coverage quality. For an explanation of how you can assess coverage quality in small regions, see The Ultimate Guide to U.S. Wireless Service Quality.

  3. “High-speed data” refers to typical data use (usually 4G speeds). Once all of the high-speed data allotted in a plan is used, Mint subscribers have access to unlimited data at 2G speeds. Expand the “Plans and pricing” section for more information.
  4. I go into more detail in the “Support experience” section of my Mint Mobile review.
  5. See Mint Mobile’s affiliate program web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019) for additional details.
  6. I discuss this in some depth in my article Reliability of Nationwide U.S. Wireless Networks.
  7. Scroll down on the linked page to get to the section with a coverage map.
  8. “DVD-quality streaming (up to 480p) on smartphones.”
    From Verizon’s Prepaid webpage on 5/23/2019 (archived here).
  9. “Once high-speed data is used (including Mobile Hotspot), you will have 2G speeds the remainder of the month. Your data experience and functionality of some data applications such as streaming video or audio may be impacted unless you purchase additional data.”
    From Verizon’s Prepaid webpage on 5/23/2019 (archived here).
  10. If purchasing lines with different data allotments, it looks like the total discount can be maximized by designating the line with the least data as the “initial line.”
  11. This is based on information found within my account on FlexOffers.com. I believe the commission structure Verizon offers via CJ (Commission Junction) is different.
  12. “Coast-to-coast wireless coverage is provided on Nationwide Sprint® Network.”
    From the Why Tello web page as of 4/21/2019.
  13. Based on Tello’s pricing as of 8/13/2019 (see Tello’s plans page). Taxes and fees may not be included in the $10 figure.
  14. See Ting’s Coverage web page (archived copy as of 4/18/2019). As of 4/18/19, that web page mentions that subscribers have their choice of either Sprint’s network or an unnamed, nationwide GSM network. That is T-Mobile’s network. At the time of writing, users can have a single plan with some devices on Sprint’s network and other devices on T-Mobile’s network.
  15. For more information, either expand the “Plans and pricing” section below or take a look at Ting’s Rates webpage.
  16. Expand the “Plans and pricing” section below for more details on data pricing.
  17. “You can set alerts and hard usage caps in your Ting Dashboard. You can even set custom alerts and caps for different phones under your account. That means one phone can have access to data while another can be restricted to talk and text.”
    From Ting’s Rates page on 4/21/2019 (archived here).
  18. See Ting’s Partnerships web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019).
  19. As of April 2019, Consumer Cellular’s prices don’t appear to vary based on the network used. Mint Mobile is an example of an MVNO that offers access to T-Mobile’s network at lower prices.
  20. I believe Consumer Cellular allows more than two lines on an account, but it looks like additional lines must be purchased over the phone rather than online.
  21. Consumer Cellular does have a sort of referral deal for existing customers that offers bill credits when subscribers are referred via email. As of 4/22/2019, I am not making use of that deal.

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