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It took a lost iPhone to open my eyes to how much money I was wasting just to make calls and check my email. As I resigned myself to buying a replacement and reviewed my options, I eventually discovered I could be paying just $300 a year for a cell-phone plan instead of the $1,300 AT&T was charging me.
This all happened in 2016. After I lost my phone, I went to the local AT&T store to ask for help. I wasn't looking to switch providers, or even worrying about the cost of my cellular plan. At first, I was just shopping for a replacement phone. But the AT&T store employee informed me that those once-routine $199-new-phone offers had disappeared. And so, I was looking at $650 for a replacement.
That's when I started searching out deals at other providers. A coworker—a big Android booster—pointed me toward Project Fi, a cell-phone service now known as Google Fi. Google Fi is one of a number of MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) that leases excess wireless capacity from the big four carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint—then offers cheaper service by not paying for retail store space and huge marketing campaigns.
At Project Fi, I paid $20 up front for unlimited talk and text, and $10 for each GB of data I used. As a new customer, I was eligible for a Nexus 5X for $250, which I paid for in full up front.
Just like that, my cell-phone bill dropped from almost $110 a month to about $40 to $50 a month, depending on my data use. Factor in the cost paying for a Nexus 5X, and I was out only about $750 a year. Even better, my bill each month was clear as water—no hidden fees or surprise charges.
After a year with Google Fi, I was curious to see whether I could pay even less—particularly for data. I didn’t want to quibble any longer over the cost of streaming a podcast or a playlist without WiFi. That’s what led me to Mint Mobile, where I now pay $300 up front for a full year of service, which includes unlimited talk and text, plus 12GB of data a month.
How to Get Cheap Cell-Phone Plans
You don’t have to lose your phone to start saving money. With the tips below, you can easily shave hundreds of dollars a year off your bill, keep the same cell-phone number, and do it all in the time it takes to watch a baseball game.
Consumer Reports members are big fans of MVNOs. In a 2017 survey, customers of Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, and Ting gave those companies high praise—including top marks for customer service—earning them the top three spots in our cell service provider ratings. AT&T and Sprint ended up at the bottom.
“Because the competition is so high, there are a ton of smaller carriers with some really cheap options,” says Tina Chang, editorial manager at WhistleOut, a website that helps people compare cell-phone plans. “One of the ways smaller carriers compete is by lowering their prices or offering more perks or more data.”
There are, of course, downsides. When a big carrier like AT&T or Verizon experiences network congestion, it slows down the service for an MVNO’s customers before its own, Chang explains. And while many small providers allow you to purchase a new phone with monthly installments, not all do, so be prepared to pay for one in full up front.
Still, it’s probably worth it to shift to a new plan. In our 2017 survey, almost half of Consumer Reports members who had switched providers in the previous two years reported saving $20 or more per month on their cell-phone bills.
That’s the kind of benefit that drew Mike Brockert and his wife from T-Mobile to Consumer Cellular, saving $11 a month. “It was the price point,” he says. “Being a senior and living on a fixed income, that’s obviously attractive.” And because Consumer Cellular uses T-Mobile’s network, the 71-year-old former IT consultant says he got essentially the same service for less money.
Making the Switch
Switching cell-phone carriers may sound like a hassle, but I swear it’s not. I was able to sign up for Google Fi in less than 30 minutes, and the entire process, including porting my phone number from AT&T to Google Fi, took less than 2 hours. Switching from Google Fi to Mint Mobile was even faster—I just had to replace my SIM card (more on how to do that below) and restart my phone. I’ve spent more time waiting for a coffee at Starbucks than it took me to switch from Google Fi to Mint Mobile.
Before you make the leap, here are some things to keep in mind.
What Phone Will You Use?
If you’re still leasing your phone from your current carrier, you need to pay it off before bolting. Take a moment to confirm that it works on the new carrier’s network, too. Many phones manufactured before 2016 work exclusively on a CDMA network (used by Sprint and Verizon) or a GSM network (used by AT&T and T-Mobile), two different radio networks that were used to carry older cellular signals. However, starting with the iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 in 2016, many higher-end phones were able to use both GSM and CDMA networks. Generally, if you’re buying a phone made in the past two years, this won’t be an issue.
Every MVNO listed below lets you check by using your phone’s 15-digit IMEI number on their website. To find this unique identifier, look in the phone’s settings menu or dial *#06#. (Note: This won't work for Verizon iPhones.) You can find it on iOS by going to Settings > General > About and then scrolling down to find your IMEI. On Android, this information will vary by your phone and which version of Android you’re using; it’s best to Google your particular model of phone. Carriers will have a form on their website where you enter your IMEI, and the carrier will then check to see whether your phone is compatible.
You’ll also need to make sure that your phone is unlocked—if you bought your phone through a plan with a big carrier, it may be “locked” to work only with that carrier for a certain amount of time. You can call your current carrier to find out whether your phone is locked or not, and if it is locked, how to unlock it. (By law, every carrier must unlock your phone once your contract has expired.)
The same goes for buying a new phone. Make sure you buy an unlocked model not tied to a specific carrier, freeing you up to shift from carrier to carrier with ease.
As I mentioned earlier, some MVNOs will let you pay by the month for a new phone, but check the fine print and do the math. Unlike the big four carriers, they may charge interest.
How Much Data Do You Need?
This is by far the biggest factor in determining which plan to choose and how much you pay. The cellular data you use to check your email, get driving directions, or stream music or video tends to be expensive, and it’s easy to end up using more than you think.
To see how much data you typically use in a month, here’s what you do.
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Cellular, then scroll down to Cellular Data to see the total for your current billing cycle.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Network & Internet > Data Usage.
Both options break the data totals down by app, too, helping you identify the data hogs (social networking and streaming apps are usually the main culprits). To keep costs down, turn off the cellular data for apps you rarely use, and download podcasts and playlists to your phone instead of streaming them.
Find the Right Plan for You
We’ve provided some suggestions below, based on common consumer needs, but everyone is different. Consider using a website such as WhistleOut or MVNO News to compare plans. Both provide fine-grained analysis, which comes in handy for tasks such as finding out which MVNOs provide good service where you live and work.
Generally, if you’re outside a major metro area, you’ll want to use a provider that leases space on the AT&T or Verizon network, which do a better job of providing cell-phone service outside of cities than T-Mobile or Sprint do.
If you want to keep your phone number, make sure your new provider allows you to port it over (most do, but there are a few exceptions).
And before making the final call, look for introductory offers. MVNOs are always eager for new customers, so make them win you over with a great deal. For instance, Ting is now offering newcomers a plan, good through the end of the year, with unlimited text and talk and 20GB of data for just $20 a month. And because most small providers offer month-to-month payment options, you can continually bounce from one to the next, taking advantage of offers as they pop up.
Get Your New SIM Card
Once you select a plan, the new provider will give you a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, either by mail or in-store pickup. The card—about the size of a fingernail—must be installed on your phone in place of the one from your old carrier. This is how you tether the device to the new network.
The MVNO will provide a tool that opens the SIM card tray on your phone (a paperclip or thumbtack can also work in a pinch). You insert it in the pinhole-sized opening on the side of the phone, give it a firm push, and the tray will pop out. Swap in the new SIM card and you’re good to go.
Port Over Your Phone Number
Once the new SIM card is in place, you can contact the new service provider and have it port over your old phone number. Some carriers allow you to do this online, and others require a phone call. Before reaching out, be sure to have:
• Your billing details as they appear on your old carrier’s statements
• Your phone’s IMEI number
• The PIN number you used to verify your account with your old carrier (if applicable)
• The ID number for your new SIM card. Look for the 19- or 20-digit number printed prominently on the card and its packaging.
It can take up to 24 hours for your phone number to be ported, but it often goes more quickly. Voicemails won’t be ported over, so make sure to listen to them before you switch providers.
Ready to find a new cellular provider? Here are some good options.
Low Data Users
If you don’t use much cellular data, you can find a plan for under $20 a month.
For $6 a month, you get 100 minutes of talk and 500MB of data. For $8 a month, you get 300 minutes of talk and 1GB of data. And for $10 a month, you get unlimited talk and text and 1GB of text. Tello uses the Sprint network.
If you need slightly more data, Mint Mobile offers a 3GB plan with unlimited talk and text for $15 a month. The catch: You’ll need to pay $45 up front for three months of service. Mint Mobile uses the T-Mobile network.
If you’re fond of using streaming services and social networking apps beyond the range of your home WiFi, you need a high-data plan. You’ll also want to read the fine print in the service agreement: Some plans offer unlimited data but cap speeds at 1 megabit per second, which is too slow for streaming Netflix or YouTube clips. Other companies offer lots of data but don’t allow you to use your phone as a mobile hotspot, which you may want if you're often working on a laptop away from WiFi (or don’t want to pay for—or trust—airport WiFi).
Mint Mobile offers a great deal if you're willing to pay $300 up front: You get unlimited talk and text and 12 GB of LTE data a month, for what works out to $25 a month. You're able to use your phone as a mobile hotspot. If you do go over your data limit in a month, your data speed gets throttled to 2G speeds, or you can buy an additional 1 GB for $10 or 3GB for $20. Mint Mobile runs on the T-Mobile network.
For $40 a month, you get unlimited talk, text, and LTE data. After 23GB of data, your speed may get throttled to ease network congestion—but it’s hard to zip through 23GB of data in a month unless you're streaming Netflix to your phone nonstop. You can also use your phone as a mobile hotspot. TextNow runs on the T-Mobile and Sprint networks.
This new Verizon spinoff offers unlimited talk, text, and data on Verizon’s network for $40 a month. Data speeds are usually capped at 5 megabits per second, which is not blazing fast but is just enough to stream Netflix in high-definition. However, if you sign up right now, that data speed cap will be lifted for the lifetime of the account. No word on when this deal will end, but it’s worth jumping on while it lasts, considering Verizon’s big footprint and fast data speeds.
Through July 31, new customers can receive 20GB of data, with no hotspot restrictions, for $20 per month. That’s an incredible deal. The catch? At the end of 2019, the plan reverts to Ting’s regular price: $10 per gigabyte (as in $200 a month for those 20 gigabytes). On the bright side, you have plenty of time to look for yet another phone plan. Ting runs on the Sprint and T-Mobile networks.
Big carriers coax you into enrolling your whole family in a plan by lowering the price for each person you add. But those discounts can be deceiving. “The big carriers may offer you a $20 discount for each new line,” says Chang of WhistleOut. “But with a lot of smaller carriers, the individual line is so cheap that you’re still paying less when you do the math.”
Metro by T-Mobile
For families with kids who love to stream YouTube and Spotify, this carrier offers four lines with unlimited data for $120 a month and runs (as you may have guessed) on the T-Mobile network. It also throws in a free Amazon Prime membership. However, it allows for streaming video only at 480p, which looks decent enough on a phone screen, but not stellar.
Cricket offers four lines with unlimited data for just $100 a month but caps speeds at 3 megabits per second; fast enough for streaming music and podcasts but not blazing fast if you have a kid playing Fortnite on his phone. It further caps speeds specifically for video streaming at 1.5 megabits per second, good enough for standard-definition video at 480p but not for HD. It runs on the AT&T Network.
If you spend significant time outside the U.S., Google Fi is your best option. “We travel a lot internationally, and the included coverage is pretty amazing,” says marketing executive Kelley Gudahl, based in New York City. Available in more than 200 countries, Google Fi provides unlimited text messages and charges $0.20 per minute for calls made outside the U.S. and just $10 per GB of data. That said, if you’re comfortable switching out SIM cards, you’ll save more money by simply buying a cheap prepaid plan when you arrive at your destination.
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