There are some great new cellular carriers since our original Best Affordable Cell Phone Service tech tip from February 2016, as such an update was warranted. The additional carriers we’ll look at include SpeedTalk Mobile, Tello, TPO Mobile, and Total Wireless. Sadly Ring Plus, our previous favorite, went out of business. If you missed our previous tech tip, read on below for how you can save money on your cell phone bill and what to look for, otherwise skip to the roundup of 5 carriers.
Smartphones are an amazing achievement of modern technology. You can have a cell phone, portable gaming device, GPS, web browser, smart home controller, and so much more in a device that fits in your hand. The downside, however, is the high cost of the data and voice plans, which start at $40-$50 at the big carriers. The big four carriers currently include Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, who all own their own network. If your data, minute, and texting needs are modest, that $480-$600 per year cost for just a starter one line plan is a tough pill to swallow. Thankfully, there are other carriers who lease excess bandwidth from the big four and offer more affordable rates. These are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO). How much money can you save by moving to a good MVNO carrier? You’d be surprised.
Some carriers offer freemium cellular plans which have no monthly cost, albeit with a few caveats and missing features. FreedomPop was one of the first carriers to offer a freemium plan. Low cost MVNO carriers with $5-$35 per month plans have given much needed competition to the high priced cellular market. FreedomPop and some carriers make calls with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) via Wi-Fi or the cellular data network, in place of or in addition to the cellular voice network. Some also charge extra or don’t offer Multimedia Message Service (MMS) texting, which consists of photos, audio, video, or group messages. There aren’t any extra charges for normal Short Message Service (SMS) texting that only contain letters, numbers, or special characters and are limited to 160 characters per message.
All the carriers in this roundup support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). With BYOD you don’t have to buy the phone directly from the carrier but can reuse an old phone, if compatible, or buy a new or used phone from a third party. The phone needs to be on the carriers supported list and meet some criteria. Generally phones meant for the network the MVNO uses, such as Sprint, may work, but phone support varies by carrier. Before buying a BYOD phone, always reference the carrier’s support material, use their online BYOD activation checker, or contact them directly to confirm compatibility. If you buy a used phone, ensure that it doesn’t have a bad or blacklisted Electronic Serial Number (ESN, also called an IMEI or MEID), it’s not currently activated or in poor financial standing with the carrier, and it’s not locked by a Google or Apple iCloud account, as those can’t be activated. If a BYOD phone sounds too daunting, to guarantee compatibility you can buy a phone direct from the carrier or an authorized seller. Let’s take a look at the contenders, ordered by price.
1. FreedomPop – Sprint and AT&T MVNO
- Base Plan
- Sprint CDMA Network: $0/month for 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB+ of 3G/4G data
- AT&T GSM Network: $0/month for 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 200MB+ of 3G/4G data
- Official Phone Cost: $30+, available retailers
- Bring Your Own Device: Yes, list of supported Sprint phones
- Port Your Phone Number: Yes
- Customer Service Contact: 1 (888) 743-8107
FreedomPop is a Sprint and AT&T MVNO carrier that was founded in 2011 and they offer a freemium plan. Instead of using the normal cellular voice network like most other carriers, FreedomPop utilizes VOIP to route calls through the data network or Wi-Fi using their FreedomPop iOS or Android app. The base free plan includes 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of data on Sprint or 200MB of data on AT&T per month. A benefit of VOIP is that you can make calls using Wi-Fi in areas that might have poor cell reception, like a school or work place. A downside to VOIP is that the data network coverage is generally worse than the voice network coverage, leaving more dead spots and poorer call quality than other carriers, when Wi-Fi is not available. FreedomPop offers a way to earn more data with Freedom Friends, which gives both parties 50MB of data every month. You can gain a max of 500MB of free data per month by having 10 or more Freedom Friends, essentially making the free Sprint plan 1GB of data per month. You can also ask a Freedom Friend to share data with you, requesting and giving up to 100MB per month per user. FreedomPop is not perfect by any means with the limitations and lower quality of VOIP calling and their customer service leaves a lot to be desired. When the plan is free it’s hard to complain and is good for those who don’t need a lot of minutes, texts, and data or who want a secondary back up cell phone.
Free Plan Caveats and Notes:
- During the sign-up process, decline any offers for free trials to get extra data or minutes. The offer generally only lasts a month and you may forget to turn them off and could get charged.
- After signing up and creating your account, disable these settings:
- Log in to your account at www.freedompop.com > at the top, hover over Billing > click Billing Settings > under Automatic Top-up click Edit > uncheck box for Top-up my account automatically when my balance falls below $2.00 > click Save.
- At the top, hover over My Account > click Account Settings > under Voicemail Preferences click Edit > if checked, uncheck box for Enable voicemail and free 30-day voicemail storage > click Save (you can pay for voicemail if you want, but it’s not included in the free plan). While still in Account Settings, under Email Preferences, click Edit > uncheck box for Third-Party Offers > click Save.
2. SpeedTalk Mobile – T-Mobile MVNO
- Base Plan: $5/month for 250 combined minutes, texts, or MBs of 3G/4G data (current plans)
- Official Phone Cost: $29+, they only sell feature phones currently but BYOD smartphones are supported
- Bring Your Own Device: Yes
- Port Your Phone Number: Yes, find FAQ called “Can I keep my phone number?”
- Customer Service Contact: 1 (866) 701-5577 or dial 611 from a SpeedTalk phone
SpeedTalk Mobile is a T-Mobile MVNO carrier that offers very affordable plans. Their plans are marketed to seniors, probably due to their no frills pricing and low allotments, but the affordability of their plans appeal to anybody who is a light cell phone user. You can activate almost any T-Mobile compatible or GSM unlocked phone with their service. There is no contract hassle and they don’t charge frees for number porting, activation, voicemail, or the SIM card. They offer three plans with a 30 day billing period and no rollover, ranging from $5 per month for 250 combined minutes/texts/megabytes of data to the $18 per month for 500 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of data. They also offer some plans with a rollover duration of 180 to 365 days, but the allotments are not very generous. Compared to Tello and TPO Mobile, they have very competitive rates, with the better of the three depending on your usage and network preference.
3. Tello – Sprint MVNO
- Base Plan: $9/month for 100 minutes, 200 texts, and 200MB of 3G/4G data and unlimited 2G data (current plans)
- Official Phone Cost: $29+ and no activation fee
- Bring Your Own Device: Yes, with a $9.99 SIM
- Port Your Phone Number: Yes, find FAQ called “How can I port in my number?”
- Customer Service Contact: 1 (866) 377-0294 or 1 (678) 306-1436 (available 24/7)
Tello is a Sprint MVNO carrier that was founded in 2016 and offers refreshingly simple and flexible plans. There are almost no monthly fees, in Michigan I was only charged $0.48 in taxes/fees on 100 talk minutes and not the $2-6 like some other carriers. The benefits of Tello goes on and on, with no fees for number porting, activation, voicemail, or tethering, it’s all included in every plan. You can fully customize your plan to fit your needs and change the plan at any time, with the previous minutes/texts/data rolling over for the next 30 days, even if there’s only 1 day left on your billing period. You can even choose to have zero minutes, texts, or data but just note that there is a $5 minimum for pre-paid plans. All pre-paid plans have unlimited data, which is throttled to 2G 64kbps after your 3G/4G data allotment is used up. Tello customers pay on average $13.50 per month. Ting was one of our favorites from our previous roundup but their customers pay on average almost double, at $23 per month. Overall Tello is our favorite carrier in the roundup by offering the best balance of price, flexibility, and features that should appeal to almost anybody.
4. TPO Mobile – Sprint and T-Mobile MVNO
- Base Plan: $10/month, after $5 auto-pay discount, for 500 minutes/texts and 250MB of 3G/4G data (current plans)
- Official Phone Cost: N/A
- Bring Your Own Device: Yes, with a $6.99 CDMA SIM or $0 GSM SIM (if needed)
- Port Your Phone Number: Yes
- Customer Service Contact: 1 (844) 876-8326
TPO Mobile is a Sprint and T-Mobile MVNO carrier that was founded in the UK and expanded to the US in 2015. A bonus with any plan is a 10% bill donation to a charity of your choosing, out of 36 options. They offer service on the Sprint CDMA network with $6.99 SIM card or the T-Mobile GSM network with a free SIM card. They run frequent promotions for half off the first month of service, excluding the base plan and some other plans. Plans start at $10 per month for 500 minutes/texts and 250MB data, and go up to $45 per month for unlimited minutes/texts and 4GB of data, after a $5 auto-pay discount. There is a $20 per month plan for cellular tablets with 2GB of data, again after a $5 auto-pay discount. Overall, TPO Mobile offers generous allotments for reasonable prices and the 10% donation to charity is something that differentiates them from other carriers.
5. Total Wireless – Verizon MVNO
- Base Plan: $33.20/month, after $1.80 auto-refill discount, for unlimited minutes/texts and 5GB of 3G/4G data (current plans)
- Official Phone Cost: $19.99+
- Bring Your Own Device: Yes
- Port Your Phone Number: Yes, find step 3: activate + transfer number
- Customer Service Contact: 1 (866) 663-3633
Total Wireless is owned by TracFone and exclusively available online and at Walmart. Even though they have the most expensive base plan in our roundup, they have the great coverage of the Verizon network and actually offer the best value for high usage users. You can activate almost any Verizon compatible phone with their service. There is a no data plan with unlimited minutes and texts for $23.70 per month, after auto-refill discount. There are family plans for 2-4 phone lines ranging from $57 to $95 for 15GB to 25GB of shared data. You can purchase an extra 5GB of data at any time for $10 and it never expires as long as your service stays active. The value offered with Total Wireless is quite incredible. If you’re considering Verizon, the best family plan, or have high data needs, take a hard look at Total Wireless because they are tough to beat.
Cell Phone Service for Everyone
What we’ve learned from these 5 carriers is that you don’t have to pay through the roof for good cell phone service. With some up front cost for the phone, it can be attainable for almost anyone. The best carrier to pick depends on your usage needs, location, and budget. If you’re looking for a first or backup smartphone, then FreedomPop can give you totally free cell phone service. If you have very low usage needs or want a pay-as-you-go plan, then Speedtalk Mobile or Tello both offer a minimum monthly charge of $5 and reasonable rates for minutes/texts. If you don’t use much data but talk on the phone a lot, then TPO Mobile gives generous minutes and texts. If you have very high usage needs for minutes, texts, and data or want a great family plan on the reliable Verizon network, then Total Wireless is very tough to beat. Your options are vast and what you do from here, I leave up to you.There are a lot of great online resources to research each carrier even more. Some of these resources are listed below:
- Prepaid Phone News
- Best MVNO
- Will My Phone Work
- RV Mobile Internet Resource Center
Disclaimer: This is for information purposes only. ITS does not have any contract or agreement that requires us to recommend any specific product or service. We encourage you to read reviews and research each carrier, resource links above. Carriers directly tested by ITS include FreedomPop and Tello. Note that prices are subject to change and may be lower or higher, depending on market conditions or discounts. The views and opinions expressed by other sites linked in Best Affordable Cell Phone Service, may not be those of ITS or the University of Michigan-Flint.