Last week we wrote about simple ways to lower your monthly cell phone bill. One tip we mentioned was using a prepaid cell phone plan instead of committing to a long-term contract. The response from readers was amazing. In both comments and e-mail, reader after reader said prepaid cell phones were the way to go. Here are just a few of the comments readers have left:
Kimberly: “I did research, compared, and ultimately went with Net10 because of their .10 a minute slogan that I had to test out for myself – and being without a contract sounded pretty sweet as well. Luckily, Net10 ended up being a great choice that has helped me save more than $65 a month with their pay-as-you go minutes – prefect for the low level cell user.”
CowboyFan10: “Awesome article – NOBODY likes monthly cell phone bills. As Kimberly mentioned, Net10 is a great alternative. It is an awesome prepaid service in my experience and is a real money-saver. You can’t beat 10 cents/minute – including long distance calls! I can keep in touch with my family and friends for an awesome low price. I recommend it to everyone trying to save money the smart way AND get an awesome deal in the process.”
Jan: “The nice thing about prepaid is you can always get more minutes if you need them. I don’t save as much as $65 a month, but I’m saving more than $30.”
Factoid: New prepaid cell phone subscribers accounted for almost two-thirds of all new cell phone customers in the fourth quarter of 2009 (Source: CNET News)
So we thought we’d put together a comprehensive review of the best prepaid cell phone plans available. In this review, we’ll cover four things:
- Price: Which services offer the cheapest prepaid cell phone plans
- Phones: What prepaid cell phones are available and at what price (preferably free!)
- Coverage: How does the cell coverage stack up among prepaid plans
- Promo Codes: Links to regularly updated deals being offered by the popular prepaid cell phone services
As you review your options, it will help to keep several things in mind. First, there really is no “best” prepaid cell phone plan. What is optimal for one person’s cell phone use may not be optimal for somebody else’s mobile phone needs. Second, while there are plenty of cell phone options available with prepaid plans, not all of the latest cell phone technologies are available with prepaid plans. My personal favorite, the iPhone, for example, is not available with a prepaid plan. Finally, it’s always important to watch the “gotcha” fees. We’ll cover some of them in the coverage section below, but it’s important to understand the terms and conditions of any plan before making a purchase.
Cheapest prepaid cell phone plans
When it comes to price, prepaid plans fall into one of two categories: (1) companies that offer nothing but prepaid service, and (2) the major cell phone carriers. For the most part, you’ll find the best deals from those companies that specialize in prepaid cell phones. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all prepaid plans charge by the minute. You can also find unlimited usage monthly plans that do not require a long-term contract.
Cell Phone Carrier
Unlimited Plan Cost
|Net10||$0.10 per minute||Net10 wins the award for the lowest cost prepaid service.|
|AT&T Wireless||$0.25 per minute|
$3.00 unlimited per day
|$3.00 charge occurs only on days you use the phone.|
|Cricket||$35 per month||$50 for Smartphones and 1GB of data|
|Verizon Wireless||$50 per month||$70 for Smartphones and 2GB of data|
|T-Mobile||$0.10 per minute||Requires purchase of 1,000 minutes to qualify for this price|
|Tracfone||$0.20 per minute|
As you compare cost, it’s important to keep in mind that buying minutes also buys you service activation. In other words, buying 200 minutes from Net10 extends the activation of your phone by 30 days. After 30 days, any remaining minutes cannot be used unless and until you buy more minutes to further extend the activation of your cell phone.
Free and low cost prepaid cell phones
Prepaid cell phones present two issues. First, you won’t find a free phone like you can get if you commit to a 2-year contract. You can, however, find deals that offer enough free minutes with the phone to cover the cost. Second, the selection of prepaid cell phones is not as extensive as it is with other cell plans. The good news is that you will find a good selection of phones.
Here are several of the more popular phones currently available with prepaid plans (Note: Available cell phones vary by location, so the actual phones you’ll see if you follow the links below will vary based on your zip code):
Net10 Cell Phones
With Net10, you get 300 minutes of air time with the purchase of a phone, which at $0.10 a minute is a $30 value. Several of Net10′s phones cell for $30 or less.
- Motorola w375 Reconditioned Cell Phone ($39.99)
- LG300G ($29.99)
- LG600G cell phone ($39.99)
- Samsung T201G Cell Phone ($39.99)
Verizon Wireless Prepaid Phones
Verizon Wireless prepaid phones include $10 of airtime:
AT&T Wireless Prepaid Phones
Best coverage among prepaid plans
If there is one word you hate to see on a call phone bill, the word is “roaming.” With prepaid cell phones, some charge roaming fees and some do not. Net10 does not charge roaming fees and its coverage is extensive, in part because it uses the networks provided by major cell phone carriers. Both TracFone and Cricket charge roaming fees.
For the major cell phone carriers, coverage gets a bit more complicated. While you might think that the coverage is the same whether you buy a prepaid phone or sign up for a contract, it is not. For example, check out these two coverage maps from Verizon Wireless:
The first map shows coverage in red and no coverage in white for its voice and messaging plans. Note that there is no roaming on the first map. The second map shows prepaid coverage in dark purple and prepaid roaming coverage in light purple. Currently, Verizon Wireless domestic roaming rates add $0.20 per minute. Of course, if you will always use the cell phone within a prepaid coverage area, than roaming is not an issue. But the key is to look closely at the coverage area of the cell phone service you are considering to understand whether roaming charges may apply.
Prepaid cell phone promo codes
If you are in the market for a prepaid cell phone plan, here are links to current promo codes:
- AT&T Wireless Deals and Discounts
- Net10 Promotional Codes and Discounts
- Verizon Wireless Promo Codes and Rebates
- LetsTalk Coupons and Discounts
Published or updated November 12, 2011.