Your smartphone is your lifeline, but despite its utility, service can be costly. If you feel like you’re paying too much for your cellular service, consider using a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) instead of the more expensive major mobile vendors. MVNOs offer the best of both worlds with the same quality of coverage but at a lower price than the major carriers. That’s because they use the same networks as the Big Four — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile — while providing a hugely diverse product range. Best of all, these pay-as-you-go plans offer a chance to ditch the large bill while still getting the most from your mobile device.
The best MVNO for unlimited data
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile offers three major plans to fit your budget, backed by an expansive LTE network. In addition to providing nearly blanket nationwide coverage, Metro by T-Mobile offers additional perks on certain plans. Google One is included for customers on the $50 plan, and customers on the $60 monthly plan now get Google One and an Amazon Prime membership. An even cheaper, stripped-down plan that includes 2GB of high-speed data per line is now available for $30 per month. Metro customers also can access T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G network. You can enable automatic bill pay for a $5-per-month savings and add a plan for your tablet, hotspot, or another connected device to your current service for $10 to $35 per month. Stateside international calling for $15 per month extra is available alongside a large selection of discounted phones.
|10GB high-speed||Unlimited high-speed||Unlimited high-speed|
|No mobile hotspot||5GB mobile hotspot||15GB mobile hotspot|
|Music Unlimited included||Google One 100GB included||Google One and Amazon Prime included|
|Save $10 on each additional line||Save $20 on each additional line||Get four lines for $120|
The best MVNO with lots of coverage
Straight Talk, a partnership between retailer Walmart and TracFone, has proven durable over time. The MVNO offers coverage across the Big Four, while Straight Talk’s monthly plans range from a basic $30 per month, which includes unlimited text, 1,500 minutes of calls, and 100MB of data, to $60 per month, which adds unlimited talk and text, plus unlimited data with the first 25GB at high speed, then at 2G. New plans let you add on 1GB or 2GB for $5 or $10 per month, respectively, which does not expire, activates only when you have used your data allotment, and rolls over if unused. Straight Talk doesn’t offer group plans, but it does have great international data options. Since Straight Talk works across all four major carriers, it’s compatible with most unlocked phones.
|$35||Unlimited (5GB high-speed)|
|$45||Unlimited (25GB high-speed)|
|$55||Unlimited (10GB hotspot data)|
|$60||25GB (unlimited international)|
The best Alternative MVNOs
Google Fi relies on a combination of Wi-Fi hot spots and three networks — Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular — for service. It is one of the most innovative and easy-to-use MVNOs available. Flexible plans start at $20 for unlimited talk and text, while Unlimited plans start at $70 for a single line. Data is a flat $10 for 1GB of 4G LTE, but you only pay for what you use. The company’s bill protection feature means you won’t be on the hook for additional data charges once you hit 6GB. Data used over that limit gets throttled. Google Fi offers multi-line Group Plans, which lets you add people to a subscription for an additional $15 per user a month. Other perks include fee-free tethering, which lets you use your phone as an internet hotspot, and free texting and access to high-speed data at $10 per 1GB in 200 countries around the world. Google Fi is compatible with most phone brands and platforms, though iPhones and some Android handsets do not support Google Fi’s key feature of switching between carriers.
Mint Mobile has a nice way of letting you try out the service before committing. Test Mint Mobile’s service with a three-month contract before making the decision to climb on board for a year or more, which breaks down the cost per month to $25 with 12GB of data and $15 per month with 3GB. All plans offer unlimited talk and text, nationwide coverage, and 5G or 4G LTE (whichever has the strongest signal). An unlimited plan offers 35GB of high-speed and 5GB of hotspot data, with an introductory rate of $30 per month for three months and renewals priced at $40 per month. If you need more data, you can buy it at $10 per gigabyte. You can use your T-Mobile-compatible device and order a SIM card to activate it on your account. Mint Mobile also sells a wide range of phones.
Visible provides great coverage through Verizon’s network to offer a single plan — $40 for unlimited data on an LTE network with no roaming. Also, it piles on the discounts as you add more lines to your plan. Visible saves you money with Party Pay, which lowers the cost of multiple lines, as each person gets billed separately. Two lines cost $35 per line, and three and four lines cost $30 and $25 each, respectively. Mobile hotspot speeds are capped at 5Mbps and limited to a single device at a time. Wi-Fi calling is available on some phone models. Most iPhone models are supported, along with a limited selection of some popular Android choices, like the Galaxy S20 series and Pixel 4 series. Or, just buy a phone directly from Visible.
Ting Mobile is an independent MVNO that piggybacks off Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. Ting doesn’t lock you into a specific plan but rather bills you monthly for the least expensive plan based on your usage and the number of lines you have. Each line costs $6 per month. The least expensive usage of one line will run $9 per month, including 100 minutes of calls with no text or data. Adding text to the mix adds a minimum of $3 to your monthly bill. Ting’s service is solid, but it’s best for folks who do not have heavy data or text usage.
Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T and uses AT&T’s network. It offers single-line plans that start at $30 a month for unlimited talk and text with 2GB of data and go up to $60 a month for unlimited talk, text, and data and a 15GB mobile hotspot. The carrier’s $40-a-month plans are eligible for Cricket Wireless’ Group Save option, which extends a discount to subscribers with two or more lines. You can bring your own phone — check for compatibility on Cricket’s website. As for plan extras, $55 per month gets you unlimited texts from the U.S. to 37 countries, plus data, calls, and texts to and from Mexico and Canada. Alternatively, you can add one of Cricket’s two international packages to your monthly subscription. Cricket International costs $5 a month and adds calls to phones in 35 countries, and Cricket International Extra costs $15 and adds unlimited messaging to phones in 35 countries and 1,000 minutes of calls to 31 other countries. Cricket’s group plan offers substantial savings of up to $70 with five lines.
Republic Wireless was among the first MVNOs to offer calls over Wi-Fi. Like Google Fi, Republic Wireless can switch between Wi-Fi and Sprint and T-Mobile cell networks. Its My Choice plans start at $15 per month for unlimited talk and text. The priciest runs $25 per month for unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data. All data plans include a mobile hotspot, but no roaming — and there are no international calls, group plans, or family plans. You can bring your own phone to Republic Wireless, but it does not work with iPhones, and not all Android models are supported — check this list first to make sure.
Free Extend Home unlimited home phone service is now included with all My Choice plans, allowing your phone number to work across your cell phone and home phones, connected via an adapter. You can then alternate between phones at will when you are at home. Republic Wireless isn’t for everyone. However, if you don’t use a lot of data and your phone is connected to Wi-Fi most of the time, its two cheapest cell plans are worth considering.
Boost Mobile, the discount carrier formerly owned by Sprint, is now owned by Dish and competes head-on with Metro by T-Mobile. A new $35-a-month plan features 10GB of LTE data, and even cheaper plans offer 5GB, 2GB, and 1GB for $25, $15, and $10 per month, respectively, with families able to mix and match plans. Boost’s new Shrink-It plan costs $45 a month for 15GB of data, but after three months, Boost cuts the cost by $5 and gives you an added $5 discount at six months to sink the monthly bill to $35. Boost continues to use T-Mobile’s network for the next seven years, accompanied by the same traffic limitations as the Metro plan.
Boost Mobile offers a wide variety of family plans that offer similar features and discounts based on the number of activated lines. There are also International Minute Packs you can purchase if you’re traveling abroad — they start at $3 for 90 days of service, which adds a fixed number of minutes for calls and unlimited international texting for select countries. Among Boost Mobile’s drawbacks is its lack of wide smartphone compatibility — be sure to reference the compatibility checker before making a switch.
Simple Mobile runs on the T-Mobile 4G LTE network and markets both domestic and international unlimited talk and text plans. Unlimited plans range from $25, $30, $40, $50, and $60 per month with unlimited calling and texting, plus data plans ranging from 3GB data to unlimited 4G LTE data, including a 15GB mobile hotspot. This network gives discounts for automatic re-ups, has comprehensive service for international destinations, and has wide coverage from T-Mobile’s extensive network. Upgrade plans feature a specific number of minutes for international calls, unlimited international text, and 4G LTE for 69 destinations. You can bring your own device or purchase a phone from a choice of late-model smartphones.