- Carrier: Sprint and T-Mobile
- BYOD: Yes (check for compatibility)
- Cost: $15 and up
- LTE: Yes
- Tethering allowed: Yes, 3G only
Ting is a leading name among MVNOs. The company offers customizable levels of service after paying a flat $6 monthly line charge. Usage is categorized into tiers: The first 1 to 100 minutes, for example, cost $3, the next tier $9, and the next $18. There are also tiers for SMS and data usage. The company’s complete rates are on its site. A moderate usage plan of 100 voice minutes, 100 texts, and 1GB data would end up costing $28 on Ting.
Ting offers free domestic roaming for voice and text, and international roaming for GSM phones in numerous countries around the world. Pricing for international roaming can be quite high, however. If you aren’t bringing your own phone, Ting sells devices directly for a lump sum or financing via Affirm.
If you’re thinking of moving to Ting, the company says it will pay 25 percent of the early termination fee (ETF) from your current carrier up to $75.
- Carrier: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon
- BYOD: Yes
- Cost: $15 and up
- LTE: Yes
- Tethering allowed: No
Tracfone has a variety of smartphone plan options, but its pricing structure is a little outside the norm. Recurring plans, like the pay-as-you-go offerings, have varying expiry times. You can, for example, buy minutes, texts, and data that last only for 30 days, or you can buy usage that won’t expire for a year.
The best Tracfone plan would probably be the $35 plan that lasts for 60 days and has 750 voice minutes, 1,000 texts, and 1GB of data. Heavy smartphone users will want to look at other options—like those from Tracfone’s sister company, Straight Talk.
Tracfone doesn’t charge for domestic roaming, but it doesn’t make any guarantees about allowing you to roam either. In places where roaming is supported, Tracfone says it may cancel your account if more than 50 percent of your usage is on a roaming network. International roaming is not supported.
You can bring your own phone to Tracfone or purchase a phone directly from them. At the time of this writing, the selection consisted of budget phones—so if you want to rock a mid-tier or flagship phone, you’ll need to purchase it elsewhere and then buy a Tracfone SIM card.
- Carrier: Sprint
- BYOD: Yes (iPhone only)
- Cost: $50
- LTE: Yes
- Tethering allowed: Yes
Virgin Mobile has been around for a while, but it recently made a fairly unusual decision to transform into an iPhone-centric MVNO. Android phones are only allowed for existing customers on legacy plans.
Virgin has only one regular smartphone plan for its iPhones: You get unlimited talk, text, and data for $50 per month. If you want to use your phone as a mobile hotspot, it costs an extra $10 per month.
The unlimited data does have a few caveats. Virgin says it “optimizes” media streaming for more efficient bandwidth use: Videos are capped at 480p, music at 500Kbps, and any gaming data at 2Mbps. Virgin says these uses are also deprioritized during times of high traffic.
Virgin offers 800 domestic roaming minutes and 100MB of roaming data per month as part of its Inner Circle and prepaid plans. International roaming is supported by Sprint Worldwide Care. Inner Circle members can also call Virgin Mobile to have their phones unlocked, and then use a local SIM when they land at their destination.
Virgin Mobile sells iPhones directly for those who want to use the Inner Circle plan. You can also pick up a Virgin Mobile version of the iPhone at an Apple Store.
Other good options: T-Mobile and Verizon prepaid plans
While prepaid service isn’t the same as an MVNO, T-Mobile and Verizon’s versions are so similar to MVNO plans that they’re worth a mention. Pricing is extremely competitive, just like with an alternative carrier, and service also comes with caveats like secondary priority on the network and limitations on roaming.
- T-Mobile: Plans start at $45 with unlimited talk and text, plus 4GB of data. The carrier’s prepaid service includes domestic roaming for calls, as well as 200MB of domestic roaming data per month. International roaming is also supported for an additional cost; the amount varies based on the plan.
T-Mobile prepaid service also offers some features found in the company’s post-paid plans, like unlimited music streaming from select companies, a “Data Maximizer” feature to reduce bandwidth with video streaming, use of your phone as a mobile hotspot, and free calling in Canada and Mexico. The mix of features varies depending on the plan you choose, however, so be sure to examine the details of each plan carefully.
- Verizon: Prepaid offerings start at $40 per month for unlimited talk and text and 3GB of data. The company’s prepaid service includes use of your phone as a mobile hotspot, carryover of unused data when you pay on time, and unlimited texting to more than 200 international destinations. Verizon prepaid plans do support domestic roaming, but it’s not free. Higher-cost plans offer unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico for no additional charge.
Both T-Mobile and Verizon of course sell phones, as they’re major carriers. Verizon offers financing on its prepaid phones, while T-Mobile does not. They also both support BYOD, provided the phone is compatible with the network.
Everything you need to know about MVNOs
If you’ve always paid $80 or more per month for your cell phone bill, $50 per month (or less) for similar service might sound like a trick. It’s not, but you should be aware of the pros and cons of MVNO plans.
The benefits are straightforward: Lower-cost coverage with no contracts. Features are comparable to post-paid plans, too, unless you specifically have your heart set on a cell phone plan that includes a free subscription to Netflix (T-mobile post-paid) or HBO (AT&T post-paid).
Some MVNOs even include regulatory fees and taxes as part of their touted price—meaning the advertised per-month charge is exactly what you’ll pay. (MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless are two MVNOs that do this.)
MVNOs do come with caveats, but their impact depends on your situation and preferences. For example: The four major carriers deprioritize MVNO traffic on their networks, particularly during times of heavy congestion. If the network isn’t strong in your area, you’ll notice it on a day-to-day basis.
But if the network is strong, you’ll typically encounter deprioritization when a network’s getting slammed, like during a concert or trade show, or while at an amusement park on a very busy day. And in those situations, it’s likely you’d still have trouble with service if you were a direct, post-paid customer of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile.
Here are the other caveats that come with choosing an alternative carrier:
Coverage & Roaming: These days, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T’s standard plans include domestic roaming for calls and data in their plans. MVNOs, however, don’t universally offer that kind of coverage. Some include domestic roaming for both calls and data, others include it only for calls, yet others offer the option of both but charge extra for it, and still others don’t offer it at all, period.
International roaming is also as varied, though you won’t find it included for free nearly as often as domestic roaming. If this is important to you, study an MVNO’s plans carefully to ensure you’ll get affordable roaming coverage.
In general, we suggest looking up the coverage map for whichever network works best in your area, to verify if your most frequented locations fall within AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon’s primary coverage zones. That will give you an idea of what to expect if you’re considering an MVNO that doesn’t offer domestic roaming. You can also quiz friends and family already on those networks about their reception in those specific areas as well.
Speed caps: Some MVNO plans have a lower maximum data speed compared to plans contracted directly with AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon. (Cricket Wireless, for example, caps all data throughput at 8Mbps.) People who don’t stream much high-definition content won’t really notice a limitation like this, but folks who use their cell phones as mobile hotspots may chafe under such a restriction.
Related are “data maximizer” features on plans, where only video throughput is throttled down to “DVD quality” levels. Some MVNO plans enforce this as a feature, while others allow you to toggle it off if you want higher-quality streaming.
Tethering: Not all MVNO plans support the use of your phone as a hotspot—not even as a paid option. Those that do sometimes will only permit use at 3G (not LTE) speeds. Be sure to read the fine print for this if speed is a priority when tethering.
It should also go without saying, but if you plan to bring your own device (BYOD) to an MVNO, the device must be compatible with that MVNO’s underlying network, be it Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T. You may also need to have your existing carrier unlock your phone, even if it is compatible.
How do you tell if your phone is compatible? The easy way is to use a website like Frequency Check, which has the specs for hundreds of phones and allows you to cross-reference them against a particular network’s requirements. The harder way is to look up your phone’s specs and then manually cross-reference them against each network’s supported technology and frequency bands.
As a rule of thumb, phones that work on AT&T typically will work on T-Mobile and vice versa. The same applies for going between Sprint and Verizon. AT&T and T-Mobile both use GSM technology on their networks, while Sprint and Verizon have stuck with CDMA. However, you may not get nearly the level of coverage if the phone doesn’t support all the correct bands.
(Example: The A1723 model of the iPhone SE, which is the version sold by Sprint, doesn’t support Verizon’s main LTE band , but it does support Verizon’s secondary LTE bands [2, 4]. So your LTE coverage won’t be as good as if you had the A1662 model of the iPhone SE, which does support LTE band 13.)
One note about GSM vs CDMA: GSM allows the use of data while on a phone call, while CDMA does not. Having access to Google while on a conference call can be pretty handy, if you’re choosing between, say, T-Mobile and Sprint as the underlying network for an MVNO plan.