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Though mobile phones have improved over the years, cellular plans have either stayed the same or gotten worse. With streaming video on-demand and data-hungry apps, it can be hard to find a plan that works for you without draining your wallet.
The biggest consideration is whether to go with a contract or no-contract plan. On the whole, no-contract plans through an MVNO are ideal because MVNOs are more flexible, more competitive, and thus will save you money.
In fact, there are several other ways that you can benefit by switching to an MVNO. The only catch is that some MVNOs may be limited in device selection and availability depending on whether they’re GSM networks or CDMA networks.
Here are our top picks if you’re looking for a great smartphone plan in the US.
What you get: A completely free mobile plan that includes enough minutes, text messages, and data for lightweight users. May be unavailable in certain regions of the U.S.
That’s right, FreedomPop is a 100% free mobile plan. It’s the first of its kind in the U.S. and truly lives up to its promises. You can get month-to-month mobile coverage without ever paying a single cent, except for the device itself.
The basic free plan provides 200 minutes, 500 text messages, and 500 MB of data every month. This plan is absolutely perfect if your phone is more for emergencies rather than regular communication, and even better if you’re always around Wi-Fi so you never dip into data.
But if that isn’t enough, FreedomPop offers an unlimited plan that includes unlimited voice, unlimited text messages, and unlimited data for $19.99 per month. The catch is that only the first 1 GB of data is 4G speed. Afterwards, it drops to 3G speeds.
There are no contracts with FreedomPop. If you ever want to cancel your service, you can do so without any fees or penalties. Check out our review of FreedomPop for more details.
What you get: Another free cellular service with an on-demand twist. Best for users who need unlimited text messages but can rely on Wi-Fi networks for voice and data.
Joining FreedomPop in the free cellular service revolution is Scratch Wireless, an MVNO that utilizes the Sprint network. Their approach is surprisingly innovative and, as the mobile landscape continues to shift, increasingly tempting for a larger range of users.
Scratch Wireless works on a “Wi-Fi first” basis, meaning it relies on Wi-Fi for everything and only switches to cellular when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Nowadays, the only time Wi-Fi isn’t available is during commutes and travel, so this works out well for a lot of people.
When you do need cellular service for voice or data, you have to buy it on-demand using “passes”, which are available for as low as $1.99 for 24 hours of unlimited voice or 24 hours for 50 MB of data up to $24.99 for 30-day data access up to 1 GB.
The catch is that you have to buy a Scratch smartphone to use the service. The good thing is that you get unlimited text messages whether you’re on Wi-Fi or cellular.
Bottom line? The passes are not that great in terms of value, but they’re really only there for emergencies. According to Scratch Wireless, only one third of their customers will buy a pass in any given month. The lack of smartphone selection is a bummer, but you can’t really complain for free service.
What you get: An affordable cellular service that consistently provides excellent value for money by refunding the data that you don’t use.
Republic Wireless is an MVNO on Sprint’s network and was the pioneer behind the “Wi-Fi first” approach to cellular service. In short, that means it uses Wi-Fi by default and only falls back to cellular service when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
The best part of Republic Wireless is their Refund Plan, which starts as low as $10 per month and grants unlimited voice, text, and data over Wi-Fi and unlimited voice and text over cellular. But what about data over cellular?
Data packages are available in increments of 0.5 GB at $7.50 per increment per month. If you use less data in a month than what you’re signed up for, Republic Wireless will refund you the difference down to the increment below yours.
So the Refund Plan with 1 GB would cost $25 ($10 + $15) per month, but if I only used 0.7 GB in a given month, I’d be refunded for the 0.3 GB that I didn’t use and I’d only have to pay $20.50 for the month. Keep in mind that the refund only goes down to the next increment, which would be the 0.5 GB mark.
We recommend this plan for anyone who needs a lot of minutes and text messages but not so much data. It’s nice to know that you won’t be charged for data that you don’t use.
To use Republic Wireless, you must buy one of their Moto series phones. Fortunately, the Moto comes in three different tiers, each designed for a different kind of user, and they’re actually quite good for the price.
What you get: A pay-for-what-you-use cellular plan that ends up providing excellent value for lightweight users. Power users who need “unlimited” anything should look elsewhere.
At first, Ting’s payment model can be a little hard to decipher. Once you get a grasp on it, though, it ends up being a convenient way to only pay for things you actually use.
Let’s break down the payment model to see how it works. Keep in mind that each individual aspect (voice, text, and data) is independent from the other two. To start, each device on a Ting account has a base cost of $6 per month.
If you use between 1 to 100 minutes in a month, you pay $3. Between 101 and 500 minutes, $9. All the way up to 2101+ minutes, where you pay $35 + $0.019 per minute beyond 2100. The same system goes for text messages and data, albeit with their own scaling values.
If you don’t use any voice, text, or data in a given month, you pay $0 for each of them. Yes, that’s really how it works with Ting. The average monthly bill for Ting customers is $23 per month, per device.
Obviously it can get pretty expensive if you’re the kind of person who needs unlimited voice, text, and data, which would cost a minimum of $81 ($6 + $35 + $11 + $29) per month, per device. But if you barely use your phone, Ting is well worth it.
Even better news is that you may be able to bring your own device to Ting! Use their BOYD availability checker to see if your device is eligible for transfer.
What you get: An unlimited data plan that squeezes the most value out of your dollar, especially for users who don’t need many voice minutes.
Virgin Mobile has a different corporate status depending on which country we’re talking about, but in the U.S., Virgin Mobile is a subsidiary of Sprint. And as it turns out, their unlimited data plan is one of the best plans available for data-intensive users.
For $35 per month, you can choose between one of two packages. The first includes unlimited voice, unlimited text, and unlimited data where only the first 250 MB per month is available as high-speed 3G/4G data. Slow data is only marginally better than having no data, so we don’t really recommend this one.
The second package includes unlimited text and unlimited data where the first 2.5 GB per month is available as high-speed 3G/4G data, but only 300 minutes. We think this could actually be worth it, depending on your circumstances.
You won’t get 2.5 GB of high-speed data for this price from any other provider, so take advantage of it as long as you don’t talk much on your phone and can sacrifice the minutes.
What you get: The best value and most affordable no-contract provider for users who frequently make international calls.
Last up on this list is Ultra Mobile, which is an excellent — perhaps the best — provider for users who frequently make calls to friends or family members abroad. No one else offers as much as Ultra Mobile in terms of international minutes.
For $19 per month, you get unlimited domestic voice, unlimited texts, 100 MB of high-speed 4G data, and unlimited international voice to 11 countries, including Canada, Mexico, China, and the UK.
For $29 per month, you get unlimited domestic voice, unlimited texts, 1 GB of high-speed 4G data, and unlimited international voice to 60 countries. View the list of foreign destinations to see what’s available. You also get an extra 1,000 minutes to an additional 15 countries.
It doesn’t get much better than this for heavy international callers. The price is more than worth it.
The Best Cellular Data Plan For You
Compare the above no-contract data plans with any mainstream, contract-based data plan and you’ll see that these offer much more value for money. That’s just one reason why no-contract plans are becoming so popular.
The lack of an “unlimited high-speed data” will disappoint many, but as long as you learn to manage your data usage, this actually ends up being less of an issue than you might think.
For example, be sure to adhere to good practices for minimizing data usage and you’ll find your data usage plummeting next month. Supplement with these data-reducing apps and you’ll never again have to deal with your data being throttled because you used too much.
But now it’s time for you to voice your thoughts. Which mobile data plan is the best fit for you? Are there any other great value plans that we missed? Share with us in the comments below!