Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Absolute Cheapest (Even Free!) Cell Phone Plans, 2016 Edition

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

A few of my most popular posts continue to be my post last year on the cheapest (and yet still awesome) cell phone plans available in the US - many thousands of people have read them, and many commented to thank me or add additional info. Since I've been helping some friends switch phone companies recently, I figured it was time for an update, with the newest, best, and/or cheapest plans available right now, in August 2016!

First, the background:

Two years ago, 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 August 2016) 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 RingPlus, my dad is on LycaMobile, my father-in-law is on Ting, and my mother-in-law is on Selectel 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 Smart Phone Users with Spring LTE Coverage:

My recommended plan: The biggest promotional free plan you can grab. Currently, you can get 500 minutes, 500 texts, and 500 MB free per month anytime (with a one-time, up-front top-up fee), though they regularly (read: usually every 2 weeks) run promotions were you can get MUCH more for free every month. My wife, my mom, and I are all on a plan that gives us each 3500 minutes, 3500 texts, and 3500 MB of LTE data for FREE, every month. The highest plan I've ever seen them offer was a 6000/6000/6000 free plan, but they regularly run promotions that offer 2000+/2000+/2000+ for free, every month, after a one-time top-up fee.

The Phone: Best is to bring your own (fully-paid off) Sprint-compatible phone (I'd recommend a Google Nexus 5x) - you can check whether it's compatible here. If you're bringing a phone that requires a SIM card, you'll need a Sprint CDMA SIM card, which is cheapest to order from Ting, strangely enough, though you can also order a SIM from RingPlusIf you don't want to wait for a big promo to sign up with your own phone, you can also buy a phone from the RingPlus Marketplace (may require account creation/login to access) that comes pre-activated with one of their big free promo plans.

The Good: Yes, Virginia, you can get totally free smart phone service, and with a ton of minutes, texts, and MB to boot. The service works great anywhere that Sprint has native towers, and Sprint is working hard to improve their network and expand their LTE and 3G coverage, so RingPlus's coverage is only going to get better going forward (I've noticed a significant improvement in Sprint's network in the past two years since I've been with RingPlus). Unlike FreedomPop, RingPlus's voice service runs over Sprint's towers, so you can make calls anywhere Sprint has a signal - it doesn't have to be a LTE signal to work well.

The Bad: It runs on Sprint's network, which, despite recent improvements, isn't be best network out there - but, Sprint's network is much better than it was even just a couple of years ago, and RingPlus works anywhere Sprint has a signal. And if you live in an area covered by Sprint Spark (like me - I get 38Mbps down and 12Mbps up with a ping of 48ms - on Sprint!) and have a Sprint Spark-capable phone (I'd recommend the Google Nexus 5x), 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 RingPlus, setup does require some technical savvy, and their customer service is rather slow. The only "catches" are that you have to listen to songs/ads when making outbound calls, and that you have to make an outbound call at least once every 60 days - otherwise, your plan might be downgraded, but those are easy for me to live by for my free 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, though you can set up roaming on your phone with some extra setup (and extra cost, of course).

The Verdict: I think RingPlus definitely offers the best value of any of the plans on this page (which is why I'm now with them). With an awesome BYOD program that lets you use pretty much any top-tier phone you want, the ever-improving Sprint network, and 3000+ minutes 3000+ texts, and 3000+ MB of data per month for FREE, RingPlus is the clear winner in this year's ranking, which is why I give RingPlus my recommendation for most users out there (especially if paired with a great Sprint Spark phone like the Google Nexus 5x).

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.) [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.]

Note that Lycamobile's pay-as-you-go plan is an unlisted plan. To use that plan, get a Lycamobile SIM and load money on the SIM ($10, $20, or however much) and DO NOT choose a monthly plan. Your SIM will then default to the unlisted pay-as-you-go plan, which will be your Lycamobile plan unless/until you pick one of their monthly plans.

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. RingPlus is another option, however, as you can also activate Sprint dumb phones on one of RingPlus's free plans.

Note: LycaMobile also has one of the cheapest unlimited talk and text plans available ($19/month, with 100MB of data included), running on T-Mobile's network, which is another compelling offering of theirs. LycaMobile also includes unlimited calling to 10 foreign countries, which could be important for some.

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 5x?

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 RingPlus). However, I'll note that T-Mobile's coverage is often quite poor outside of cities, though they too have been improving their network substantially in the past year.

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 - two years ago, Verizon finally opened up it's LTE network to a companies other than Verizon. The best-known Verizon MVNO is definitely Page Plus Cellular, and probably offers the best value for most smartphone users. 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.

Other readers have reported that, if you already have an AT&T or Verizon number and port that number to Tracfone, then you can get AT&T or Verizon service at Tracfone's prices. I have no experience with that myself, however, but it might be an option worth looking into.

Finally, there are other companies (Puppy Wireless, Selectel Wireless) that offer tiny plans on Verizon's 4G network for very little money, if you're a very light user.

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: Puppy 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 some of Puppy Wireless's CDMA plans, 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, 250 minutes, 250 texts, and 25MB of data for $12/month, or pay $15 per month to bump that up to 200MB of 3G data on Verizon's network. Puppy Wireless also offers even tinier 4G plans on Verizon's network, but I think their real value is in super-cheap 3G access to Verizon's network - either way, there's no cheaper way to get coverage on Verizon's network, if that's a priority for you.

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.

Other Honorable Mentions:

  • Republic Wireless: Perhaps the pioneer in ultra-cheap cell service, they're well-known for their excellent customer service and community, though I don't find their current plan offerings very compelling, especially when compared with RingPlus.
  • Ting: Another pioneer in cheap cell service, they haven't dropped prices as quickly as some other MVNOs. But, my father-in-law is with Ting (because for some reason, the ads with RingPlus drove him crazy), but RingPlus now offers some plans without ads (the "Mad" plans), so I don't think Ting is very compelling right now either.
  • US Mobile: They shamelessly stole Ting's business model and made the plans even cheaper. Runs on T-Mobile's network and has a fancy account dashboard.
  • FreedomPop: Definitely the pioneer in free monthly cell phone service, but their free offering (200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of data free per month) doesn't hold a candle to RingPlus's promotional free plans, and their VOIP phone setup leads to much less reliable voice calls than RingPlus's real cell service. FreedomPop does have one compelling offering - a SIM card that gives 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 200MB of data free in 30+ countries throughout the world. I grabbed one for when I travel abroad in a country covered by their free international service.
  • TextNow: If 3000+ minutes and texts per month for free from RingPlus really isn't enough for you, you can get unlimited minutes/texts with varying amounts of data at various price points on Sprint's network with TextNow.
  • AirVoice Wireless: If you need unlimited talk and text on a non-Sprint network, you can get unlimited talk and text (with a paltry 100MB of data) for $20/month on AirVoice, which runs on AT&T's network.
  • Tello: Super-cheap pay-as-you-go service on Sprint's network. Top-ups don't expire for 6 months.
  • TPO Wireless: Offers unlimited talk and text plans on either Sprint's or T-Mobile's network with substantially more data (2GB for $25/month).

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.

Note to people signing up for a Sprint MVNO like RingPlus: 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. Most people report that Sprint seemed to have fixed most of the activation problems several months ago, 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.