Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Absolute Cheapest (Even Free!) Cell Phone Plans, 2015 Edition

While your bill may not be $20k per month, you are almost
certainly paying way more for your cell phone than you should.

One of my most popular posts ever was my post last year on the cheapest (and yet still awesome) cell phone plans available in the US - many thousands of people read it, and many commented to thank me on it or add additional info. Since it's been about a year and there are new offers out there (and because I have more personal experience with some of the companies I'll tell you about), I figured it was time for an update, with the newest, best, and/or cheapest plans available right now, in April 2015!

First, the background:

Last year, I helped my parents and my wife cut the cord from the Death Star (i.e., AT&T Mobile) - prior to making the change, we were paying $200+ per month for two dumb phones and two smart phones on a family plan, and we didn't even have unlimited minutes. Now, my dad is paying about $0.50/month for his dumb phone plan, and my wife, my mom, and I are each paying $0/month for our smart phone plans - that's right, 100% free.

So, from $200 per month to $0.50 per month, for the four of us - that isn't a typo.

How much are you paying? If you're in the US, you're paying too much, and you're paying a lot more than the rest of the developed world is. The minimum service packages typically available in the USA do not come at a minimum price point:

Furthermore, US customers pay a lot more on average than customers in other advanced countries:

"But wait - surely we're getting more, if we're paying more, right?" you say. "Wrong," I reply. Here's a cost comparison that prices what the same level of usage would cost in each country:

So, you're paying a lot more for your cell phone than people in other countries are. What can you do about it?

I have done a lot of research into the current offerings out there, and I've found some really innovating pricing done by small companies - many of whom offer much, MUCH better deals than the big 4 in the USA (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). As I don't want all that research and knowledge to go to waste, I figured I'd write an overview of what I found and detail the best cell phone deals available (as of April 2015) for a bunch of different consumer archetypes - the odds are that you fall into one of the below buckets, and the odds are that you can save A LOT of money compared to your current cell phone bill.

(Disclaimer: My wife, my mom, and I are all on FreedomPop, my dad is on LycaMobile, my father-in-law is on RingPlus, and my mother-in-law is on BYO Wireless. I was not paid any money by any company for this post, nor do I receive any referral fees. I detail any personal experiences with the companies I've had below; I have not had personal experiences with all the below-listed companies. Also, none of the below prices include possible taxes, fees, etc., so your monthly bill from any of them might be a little higher than detailed below - e.g., when I was on RingPlus's $10/month plan, my total bill was $12.15/month, which is pretty typical.)

All of the below plans are prepaid plans (as prepaid cell plans are far cheaper than contract plans), but that means that you have to pay full price for your phone up-front (I recommend buying a used or refurbished phone, as they are perfectly functional at a substantial discount). However, even paying full price for a phone, you'll be saving a lot of money over the course of a two year contract with one of the big companies. So, I don't want to hear any complaints about how much a phone costs. You're saving oodles of money in the long-run.

Alrighty, let's save you some serious money - and if you want to support the blog, feel free to donate a portion of your savings via PayPal via the email address in the upper right part of the page ;)

This Year's Winner: Free Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users with Spring LTE Coverage: FreedomPop

My recommended plan: Their free plan - 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of 4G data for $0 per month. If you connect with your other friends on FreedomPop (or with other FreedomPop users via this Facebook group), you can get 50 extra MB per month per friend, up to 500MB additional free, per month. So, you can get up to 1GB of data free per month.
The Phone: In the past year, FreedomPop's phone choices have gone from pretty bad to quite good. FreedomPop will happily sell you a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4 or an iPhone 5, or you can bring your own (fully-paid off) Sprint-compatible phone, if it's on this list. If you're bringing a phone that requires a SIM card, you'll need a Sprint CDMA SIM card, which is easiest to order from Ting, strangely enough. When they added my beloved Google Nexus 5 to their BYOD list, I jumped ship immediately from RingPlus to FreedomPop, to take my monthly cell phone bill down to $0. Note that bringing your own device does incur a one-time $20 activation fee.
The Good: Yes, Virginia, you can get totally free smart phone service, and it should be enough for you if you're a light/moderate user. The service works great anywhere that Sprint has an LTE signal, and Sprint is working hard to improve their network and expand their LTE coverage, so FreedomPop's coverage is only going to get better going forward. Due to their VOIP setup, FreedomPop calls, texts, and data also work anywhere there's a WiFi signal - not just a Sprint signal. If you set your phone up to do VOIP calls and texts over Google Hangouts instead of over FreedomPop's network (which is what I do), then you can have unlimited minutes and unlimited texts for free, as long as you don't go over your monthly free data allotment.
The Bad: It runs on Sprint's network, which, despite recent improvements, isn't be best network out there. FreedomPop's VOIP voice often fails to work on Sprint's 2G/3G network, which is why I only recommend FreedomPop if you live in an area with Sprint LTE. (Emergency calls go over Sprint's [or Verizon's] normal network, so that will always work anywhere there's any signal.) And if you live in an area covered by Sprint Spark (like me - I get 38Mbps down and 10Mbps up with a ping of 48ms - on Sprint!) and have a Sprint Spark-capable phone (I'd recommend the Google Nexus 5 or the LG G2), the service is really quite excellent. However, to some extent, you get what you pay for - though I've never had a problem bringing a device to FreedomPop, setup does require some technical savvy, and their customer service is rather slow. You also have to pay attention that FreedomPop doesn't add on extra (non-free) services, and you have to disable auto top-up in order to be sure to never be charged anything for your phone service. Finally, if you do go over your free allotment, their per-minute and per-megabyte charges are higher than the other options here (they've got to make money somehow, after all). There's also no roaming off of Sprint's network, but I see this as less of a problem, given that FreedomPop also works over WiFi.
The Verdict: I think FreedomPop definitely offers the best value of any of the plans on this page (which is why I'm now with them). With the greatly improved BYOD program, the availability of top-tier (if slightly dated) phones like the Google Nexus 5, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5, the ever-improving Sprint network, and up to 1GB of data per month for FREE, FreedomPop is a much bigger contender in this year's ranking, which is why I give FreedomPop my recommendation for most users out there (especially if paired with a great Sprint Spark phone like the Google Nexus 5 or LG G2), unless you use your phone a lot in an area with no Sprint LTE or WiFi, or if you REALLY need a TON of mobile data (but if you can get good-enough service for free, surely you can cut back a little on your data usage, no?).

[Post first-draft edit: Although most people that I have signed up for FreedomPop have had no problems with their service, it just wouldn't work for my father-in-law - neither his home internet connection nor the Sprint towers near his house seemed capable of maintaining a high-quality VOIP call over FreedomPop's network. So, I moved him and his Sprint phone to RingPlus, which is probably my second-favorite low-cost Sprint MVNO. If FreedomPop isn't working for you, try taking your Sprint phone to RingPlus - they offer a wide selection of low-cost plans and are a great carrier. Or, you could also try Ting (described below) - they're more expensive than RingPlus, but they have extras like voice and text roaming on Verizon.]

Dirt-Cheap Per-Minute Service for Grandma and Grandpa: LycaMobile

My recommended plan: Their pay as you go plan (5 cents per voice minute; 4 cents per text; 6 cents per megabyte of data.) Based on what I see in dad's account, it looks like incoming calls are still 2 cents per minute (their old pricing), while outgoing calls are now 5 cents per minute. [Note: last year, Lycamobile announced that top-ups would expire after 90 days regardless of use, but Lycamobile seems to have changed its mind, as that is no longer in their terms and conditions, and my dad's credit hasn't expired. But, they might decide to reinstate that policy - with prepaid phones, anything is possible.]
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone (i.e. any phone that is unlocked and compatible with AT&T or T-Mobile). These kinds of dumb phones can be bought used for $20 or less, or you may even have some of these lying around in a drawer somewhere.
The Good: Dirt-cheap per-minute cell phone service. LycaMobile is also the only prepaid service I know of where your credit doesn't expire after a certain period of time (e.g. after 30 or 90 days), as long as you make 1 phone call or send 1 text every 90 days. Since my dad only uses about 25 minutes per month, dad's monthly bill with LycaMobile is $0.50-$1 per month. Fantastic. LycaMobile uses T-Mobile's network (and it includes 4G access where available), so coverage is pretty good, especially in cities.
The Bad: The per-minute text and data rates are higher than some of the other options on this list, so I don't recommend this for a smart phone user. Also, even though their coverage is nationwide, you can only sign up if you have an address in a city. For example, my parents in rural Tennessee couldn't sign up for this plan directly - I had to have the SIM cards shipped to me in DC and had to sign them up with a DC phone number, though the service works fine for them in Tennessee.
The Verdict: This is a great plan for people like Grandma and Grandpa, who don't use many minutes, don't need much/any texting or data, and just want a simple dumb phone with very basic, cheap service. Other options (on the Sprint network, if you prefer that to T-Mobile) are with RingPlus - they have a $0.99/month plan with 10 minutes or a $1.99/month plan with 50 minutes.

Cheap, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (if you can live with Sprint's 3G): Republic Wireless

My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including 3G only data) for $25/month.
The Phone: If you're going with the cheaper 3G plan, I'd recommend the Moto G for $149.
The Good: People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. My brother is on Republic Wireless with a Moto G and is very pleased with his experience thus far. Republic does offer some roaming (you can check their coverage map), so it may even be a good option for those of you in more rural areas.
The Bad: I wouldn't say it's bad, but it is a reality of using Republic Wireless - they want you to connect to WiFi at home, work, and wherever else you can. When you're connected to WiFi, they route all your calls and data through WiFi, which is much cheaper for them. They consider WiFi to be your primary cell phone connection, and the actual cell service as a backup for when you're not near WiFi. Finally, I don't like the fact that I can't bring my own phone (e.g. my beloved Google Nexus 5).
The Verdict: If I had a teenager, this plan with the Moto G is almost certainly what I'd get for them - it's hard to argue with unlimited everything for $25, if you are content with Sprint 3G data speeds. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements. If you don't want/need mobile data, Republic Wireless also has a plan that is unlimited talk and text (but no mobile data) for $10/month.

Inexpensive, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (with Sprint's 4G LTE): Republic Wireless

My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including up to 5GB of 4G LTE data) for $40/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a 2nd gen Moto X for $399 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone). Since the Moto G is 3G only, you have to have the Moto X for this plan.
The Good: The same as the above, with the addition of 4G LTE data (up to 5GB per month, and slowed after that).
The Bad: Same as the above.
The Verdict: An excellent option if you want an excellent phone and unlimited everything with 4G LTE service, without totally breaking your bank. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive (but metered) Service, with Free Voice and Text Roaming on Verizon: Ting

My recommended plan: There is only one plan, and it scales with your usage as detailed here.
The Phone: They have the largest variety of phones available for sale of any of the companies listed on this page, including recently-launched phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and others. You can also bring almost any Sprint phone, and I'd recommend buying a Google Nexus 5 or 6 from Google and taking it to Ting to use.
The Good: Huge variety of phones (and the ability to bring your own). People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. Ting offers free voice and text roaming on Verizon, so they have voice and text (not data) coverage practically everywhere. Your monthly bill scales to your actual usage, so if you use very little in one month, your bill shrinks dramatically, and then goes back to normal the next month.
The Bad: They don't have any unlimited service plan options, and their service is way more expensive than FreedomPop's free service.
The Verdict: If you're not an extremely heavy cell phone user but want 4G (and/or want a wider selection of phones), Ting will likely save you money and will definitely offer you more phone options than Republic Wireless. They also offer the absolute newest phones, if you're not content with FreedomPop's slightly dated phones. If you're in rural America, their roaming deal with Verizon has you covered for voice and text, but not data. Ting also just a launched a GSM-based service on T-Mobile's network, but since T-Mobile's coverage is often worse than Sprint's, I can't really recommend their GSM service.

If You HATE Sprint but Want Loads of Data for Cheap: T-Mobile Monthly4G

My recommended plan: 100 Minutes, Unlimited Texts, and Unlimited Data (up to 5GB at 4G speeds) for $30/month.
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone will work, though obviously, you'd want one compatible with T-Mobile's 4G LTE service. Might I recommend the Google Nexus 5?
The Good: T-Mobile earns props for being the only company of the big 4 that earns a spot on my list at all, even if it is a bit of a niche plan. If you simply HATE Sprint irrationally (or if Sprint's coverage in your area is particularly bad), this plan is a cheap way to get lots of data.
The Bad: Very low number of minutes (not a problem for me, but a problem for some/many). This plan is only available from Wal-Mart or directly from
The Verdict: An excellent option for people who want lots of data and don't want to / can't use Sprint, and/or who already have an unlocked GSM smart phone they can use with this service. I had an out-of-contract Samsung Galaxy S2 from AT&T and used it on this plan for several months until the phone finally broke (when I replaced it with a Google Nexus 5 and switched to an even-cheaper RingPlus plan, and then to FreedomPop after that). However, I'll note that T-Mobile's coverage is often quite poor outside of cities.

LTE Data in Rural America: Page Plus Cellular

Good news for those of you who live in the middle of nowhere and simply HAVE to have 4G LTE data - this past year, Verizon finally opened up it's LTE network to a company other than Verizon, and that company is Page Plus Cellular. With Page Plus, you can get access to Verizon's LTE network for a good deal less than what Verizon charges. The downside to Page Plus is that the LTE speed is capped at 5 Mbps - while that's fast enough for most purposes, it's a lot slower than the 15+ Mbps you'd see on Verizon's LTE network or the 60+ Mbps you'd see on Verizon's XLTE network.

That said, Page Plus may be in the process of being shut down - so soon,  the only prepaid options for Verizon LTE (also at capped speeds like Page Plus) might be Straight Talk and TracFone. (/sarcasm/ I'm SURE it's just a coincidence, but the parent company for both Straight Talk and TracFone [which, also coincidentally, just launched LTE service on Verizon's network] recently bought Page Plus, so this probably has nothing to do with buying up and then shutting down a competitor. /sarcasm/). It will be a shame if Page Plus disappears, because it offers a much wider array of plans than either Straight Talk or TracFone.

Oh well - if you live in the middle of nowhere, you've got to take what you can get, I suppose, or give your first born child to Verizon.

Honorable Mention for Verizon Coverage on the Cheap: BYO Wireless

I'm sure some of you out there are like my mother-in-law, who lives in a rural area and wanted Verizon's coverage, but wanted to pay a lot less for it, particularly since she doesn't need unlimited minutes or much data. With BYO Wireless's CDMA network, you can bring your own non-LTE Verizon devices (e.g., an iPhone 4s) and get 2G and 3G Verizon coverage for cheap - for example, my mother-in-law is going with the 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 20MB of data plan for $5/month, or with the 250 minutes, 250 texts, and 50MB of data plan for $10/month on Verizon's network. There's no Verizon 4G with BYO Wireless, but there's no cheaper way to get coverage on Verizon's network, if that's a priority for you. Setup was very easy - just enter the IMEI of the phone, follow the instructions, make a phone call, and bam - my mother-in-law was up and running with the exact same service she had before in just 5 minutes, but she is now paying $5-10/month instead of $80/month. BYO Wireless also offers GSM coverage through T-Mobile's network (and that includes LTE), but I think their real value is in their low-cost access to Verizon's network. If you want a bit more data on Verizon but are still OK with 3G speeds, Red Pocket Mobile offers 300 minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of 3G data on Verizon for $20/month, which is also a pretty good deal.

So, that's what I found - have you found an even better deal? If so, let me know in the comments.

(FYI - the best list of all MVNOs available in the USA is probably this one right here - if you explore that list and find an awesome deal I that I overlooked, be sure to let me know in the comments.)

Also, the above obviously only applies to my American readers - but if you're from another country and have found a sweet cell phone deal, feel free to share that in the comments as well.

[Post first-draft edit/warning: Sprint has changed their system for how they check whether phones are eligible to be activated on a Sprint MVNO, and there are reports that Sprint is falsely rejecting a lot of phones for their MVNO services. So, to be safe, I'd recommend either buying your phone directly from either Google/Apple/Sprint or the company above that you want to do business with, OR get the seller (if you're buying a used phone via Ebay, Amazon, Craigslist, etc.) to send you the ESN of the phone they're selling before you buy so you can check to make sure it is able to activate via the Ting ESN checker, RingPlus ESN checker, or FreedomPop ESN checker. But, in the past couple of weeks, Sprint seems to have fixed most of the activation problems they were having, so I'm hoping this won't be much of an issue moving forward - but, I would still check the ESN of a phone before buying it.]