How to save on mobile plans: Your guide to 17 no-contract carriers

Tired of dealing with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless? We tell you about some good alternatives.

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Net10

Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $31.50 per month (with auto-pay) for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 1996

A subsidiary of pay-as-you-go giant TracFone Wireless, Net10 sells mostly midrange and low-end phones, with some models actually offered free when you sign up for no-contract service. But the bigger appeal is for owners of post-contract phones from the Big Four: Net10 supports both GSM and CDMA handsets, meaning it’s not just AT&T and T-Mobile expats who can get in on the action, but also the Sprint and Verizon crowds. At press time, the company was offering SIM cards and activation kits (the latter for CDMA phones) for just 99 cents.

The carrier’s low-end plan isn’t great, but there’s a $50 per month option ($45 with auto-pay) that gives you 5GB of 4G data. There’s also a separate set of plans based on a point system, one that awards you $300 toward a phone upgrade after 18 months as a subscriber.

Page Plus Cellular

Piggybacks on: Verizon Wireless
Starts at: $12 per month for 250 voice minutes, 250 texts, 10MB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 1993

Owners of post-contract Verizon handsets have few third-party options. Technically, Page Plus Cellular isn’t one of them, even though the carrier taps Verizon’s renowned CDMA network. That’s good news if you want Verizon’s network for less than Verizon charges, but bad news if you want to BYOD. According to the Page Plus FAQ page: “While some phones not purchased directly from Page Plus or one of its dealers may work on the Page Plus network, we do not support them and their functionality may be limited.”

However, if you’re in the market for a new phone anyway, Page Plus does sell a wide range of compatible models, including inexpensive, entry-level phones and higher-end models like the iPhone 6S and Motorola Nexus 6. Unfortunately, while there is a bare-bones service plan for just $12 per month, the carrier’s other plans more or less match Verizon’s—meaning there’s not much incentive to make a change.

Republic Wireless

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $25 per month for unlimited voice minutes/text, 1GB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 2011

Calls routed over cell towers cost money. Calls routed over Wi-Fi networks cost almost nothing. Republic sells smartphones that tap Wi-Fi whenever possible, switching to towers only when necessary.

Those phones—the 2nd-generation Motorola Moto E and Moto X, and 3rd-gen Moto G—can operate on Republic’s Sprint-powered network for as little as $25 monthly, and the carrier will refund you for any unused data. According to the company, customers who choose the Small plan receive an average monthly payback of $8, while the Medium plan ($40 per month) typically nets $16 back. So there’s a financial incentive to hit up Wi-Fi networks whenever possible. Just one wrinkle: Call quality over Wi-Fi isn’t always stellar.

RingPlus Mobile

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: Free for 1,000 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2015

Something about RingPlus feels almost experimental. The new Sprint-powered carrier offers no-contract plans that range from completely free to $109.99 per month. For example, the current Michelangelo plan gives you 1,000 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages and 500MB of 4G data—all for free. You don’t even have to pay an activation fee.

What’s the catch? When you place an outgoing call, you’ll hear a snippet of music or short ad instead of the usual ringing. That’s barely a catch at all; the real one is that MMS messages (text messages containing photos or video) aren’t included; they’ll cost you 4 cents apiece. You’re also required to maintain a $10 top-up balance, but it’s there only to cover any overage charges. Meanwhile, RingPlus offers added perks like Wi-Fi calls (as an alternative to roaming fees, which run 14 cents per minute) and free voicemail-to-email transcription. Too good to be true? Maybe, but for now it’s too good to overlook.

ROK Mobile

Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $49.99 per month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 5GB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2014

ROK Mobile’s key demographic: Anyone who would normally subscribe to Apple Music, Spotify or another music-streaming service. Because the carrier’s one and only monthly plan includes a streaming service of its own, one stocked with 20 million ad-free tracks and supporting unlimited skips and offline listening. Meanwhile, your $49.99 also nets you an impressive 5GB of 4G data.

ROK will sell you a phone directly (its online store carries all the latest models), but you can also bring nearly any unlocked phone, because the carrier operates on both CDMA and GSM networks. But it’s not clear until well into the sign-up process whether you have to pay extra for a SIM card, and there’s no online sales or support staff available to answer such questions.

Straight Talk

Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $30 per month for 1,500 voice minutes, unlimited texts, 100MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2009

Like Net10, another TracFone-owned enterprise, Straight Talk sells both phones and BYOD service. Also like Net10, Straight Talk supports both CDMA and GSM handsets, leveraging AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks to supply coverage for different models and different areas of the country.

So, what sets the two apart? Not much, except for plans: Straight Talk offers a bit more bang for the buck with its $45 rate, which includes unlimited everything (with data throttling only after you hit 5GB). What’s more, you can get $5 off your monthly bill (if you choose the $45 or $60 plan) when you sign up for auto-pay, though this savings drops to $2.50 after the first three months.

TextNow Wireless

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $18.99 per month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2009

Like Republic Wireless, TextNow relies on specially coded phones that leverage Wi-Fi for calls—except when Wi-Fi isn’t available, at which point they revert to cell towers. That’s what helps keep plan prices low, with options starting at just $18.99. However, that affords you just 500MB of data at 3G/4G; after that, data speed drops to 2G. If you want, say, 2GB at a reasonable speed, you’re looking at $39.99 per month—not exactly a bargain. Indeed, that same monthly rate buys you a similar data allotment from several other MVNOs, but without the potential headaches associated with voice-over-IP calling.

What’s more, using TextNow means buying one of the company’s handful of Android phones, a few of which are free when you sign up for service. (You can also get a first-generation Moto G for just $9.99.) If you bring your own Android or iOS Sprint phone, you won’t get the cell-tower “fallback” if your Wi-Fi or data connection isn’t good enough for a VoIP call.

Ting

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $15 per month for 100 voice minutes, 100 texts, 100MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2012

Originally a CDMA-only network limited to owners of post-contract Sprint phones, Ting now supports GSM handsets as well. And it continues to be the only carrier that truly charges you based on your usage, offering six different tiers each for minutes, messages, data and number of devices. An online calculator shows you exactly what you’ll pay per month as you juggle your choices.

In other words, if you like to get really granular when it comes to picking a plan, Ting is your best option. The carrier’s excellent online dashboard lets you monitor usage and quickly make changes to device and plan settings. As for phones, a SIM card for your existing device will cost you $9, though Ting also sells a wide range of new and refurbished phones.

Ultra Mobile

Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $19 per month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 100MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2014

Along with H2O Wireless, Ultra Mobile is among the few carriers to bundle international calling and texting along with the usual menu of services. The $19 starter plan includes unlimited calling within the U.S. and to 11 countries, unlimited global texting and $1.25 of “call anywhere” credit, while the $29 plan adds 1,000 international minutes (which are good for calls to more than 70 countries).

Ultra Mobile doesn’t sell phones, and its website could do a better job explaining the company’s BYOD options. Basically, you pick the plan you want and then order a SIM card for your unlocked GSM phone. The card is included with your order, which covers your first month of airtime. One important fine-print detail: If you choose the $19 or $29 plan, you don’t get unlimited data: Mobile data is turned off once you exceed your allotment, leaving you no option but to buy more or wait until next month. Higher-priced plans include unlimited data, but as with most carriers, it gets throttled to 2G speed.

Virgin Mobile

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $35 per month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 1GB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 2001

Not long ago, Virgin Mobile offered some of the most competitive service plans around—provided you were willing to buy one of their phones. The company continues to offer a good mix of models (including the iPhone 6S), but you still can’t bring your own, and the carrier’s service offerings now seem merely average, not exceptional.

However, if you like music, there’s a solid perk in the form of Virgin’s DataFreeMusic feature, which lets you stream unlimited tunes from the likes of iHeartRadio, Pandora and Slacker without impacting your monthly data allotment. Just make sure to check the coverage map first: Although Virgin taps Sprint’s network, it doesn’t provide the same roaming blanket as Sprint proper—a potential problem if you live, work and/or travel in remote areas.

This story, "How to save on mobile plans: Your guide to 17 no-contract carriers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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