Prepaid Carriers Buyer's Guide

As we head into the home stretch of 2016 we find ourselves in an era where contracts and long-term service agreements are longer a thing. Sure, there are some of us who are serving out the end of a plan, but, largely, many of us are not contractually obligated to a wireless carrier.

For the sake of this buyer’s guide we will be looking at the prepaid carriers and their respective options. To that end, we’ll cover the main brands that utilize the tier-one networks offered by the big four companies: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

Get Started

If you are still unsure as to whether your prospective carrier offers coverage in your area, you can often look it up on their website. Any self-respecting service provider will let you check on a map ahead of time, often by looking at zip codes.

Rate Plan

Once you’ve determined that service will be available where you need it, you’ll need to pick the right rate plan. In most cases you’ll find that you get unlimited talk and texting capabilities. Gone, for the most part, are the days of worrying about minutes. This is not to suggest you might not run into adding minutes on via top-up cards, though. Depending on what you pick out you may occasionally have to add talk time.

Other features that often come with prepaid plans include voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, and three-way calling. Chances are very good you will not get the “nickel and dime” treatment over these.

As you start to look at the various plans offered by the big four carriers you might find some overlap. Most will offer some of the same features but every so often there will be some standout options or reason to consider them.

No-Contract versus Prepaid

Contrary to what some might believe, there’s a difference between a prepaid carrier and a no-contract plan. Both plans are the sort of service you can sign up for that typically run month to month, but the no-contract options tend to offer more value for your money. Namely, you get more data or extra perks for roughly the same price as a prepaid plan.

Whereas most of the big-name carriers have largely gotten away from contracts, they still want you to stick with them. To that end, they’ll try to get you into plans that keep the same data allotment and bundles, and handset selection.

This brings up another key difference in no-contract versus prepaid. The former tends to give customers more phone selection at a carrier level with the latter offering fewer options. In the past we found prepaid brands often sold older tech that was a generation or two behind. Today’s prepaid carrier options are much more attractive.

Another pain point for some is whether a carrier will perform a credit check prior to service. The prepaid route should never run your credit but the no-contract options may sometimes do so, particularly if you’re financing a device.

Indeed, there are also the notion of equipment installation agreements to contend with; you may be splitting the cost of your phone up over a period of say, two years. Alas, you might not be able to walk completely away from your service provider without some sort of payoff or fee.

Carrier Options

Verizon Prepaid

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Customers can choose from a variety of devices to be used with its prepaid rate plans. Texting to Mexico and Canada is unlimited across its three options; however, only the largest plan offers talk to those countries. All plans give customers the ability to use their devices as mobile hotspots.

  • $45 per month: 2GB of 4G LTE data
  • $50 per month: 5GB of 4G LTE data
  • $60 per month: 6GB of 4G LTE data
  • $70 per month: 10GB of 4G LTE data

If one needs more data before the end of a billing cycle, Verizon will sell bundles in a trio of increments. A $5 add-on provides 500MB data to be used over 30 days;  the $10 add-on provides 1GB data to be used over 90 days; the $20 add-on provides 3GB data to be used over 90 days.

Verizon will give 1GB of monthly data as a reward for automatic monthly payments. The carrier recently added HD Voice and other VoLTE features to its prepaid plans.

T-Mobile Prepaid

tmobile_mapAs a service provider that utilizes a GSM network, T-Mobile‘s Prepaid plans can be paired with pretty much any unlocked smartphone. Indeed, it’s a simple as purchasing a SIM card and picking the proper rate plan.

Given that T-Mobile was the first to move away from contracts, its Simply Prepaid plans are not all that different from its post-paid offerings. Specifically, you get a lot of the same benefits that come with its standard option. This means you get features such as Wi-Fi Calling, Data Maximizer, Music Unlimited, and mobile hotspot. Coverage in Mexico and Canada can be added for $5 per month.

  • $40 per month: 3GB of 4G LTE data
  • $50 per month: 5GB of 4G LTE data
  • $60 per month: 10GB of 4G LTE data

T-Mobile Simply Prepaid gives customers access to the same T-Mobile‘s network but without any strings attached. All of its plans offer unlimited talk, text, and data; speeds slow to 2G upon hitting the monthly data allotment.

T-Mobile Simple Choice Prepaid plans are slightly different and come with 2GB, 6GB, 10GB, and Unlimited data selections. Moreover, these plans include Data Stash, Binge On, and Music Freedom, meaning a lot of your data usage could be inconsequential to the allotment.

In addition to single line accounts, T-Mobile offers shared plans as well. The premise here is that you save money for each line you tie to the plan. As is the case with the individual options, you can get different tiers of data for different budgets, and each line receives its own allowance. As far as tiers go, there are 2GB, 6GB, 10GB, and Unlimited choices.

Last, but not least, T-Mobile also has a Pay As You Go route which starts at $3 per month. For the money, customers receive any combination of 30 minutes of talk or text messages. Additional talk and text is charged at a rate of ten cents per minute/message. For those who want to add some high-speed data, T-Mobile has $5 per day (500MB) and $10 per week (1GB) options.

AT&T GoPhone

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Subscribers can choose from a selection of phones specifically paired with GoPhone plans or purchase a GoPhone SIM card kit for unlocked or approved handsets. Features include include unlimited talk and text in the US plus unlimited messaging to Mexico, Canada, and more than 100 countries.

Customers interested in more than one line of service can save with multi-line discounts through GoPhone. A $5 monthly discount is applied for those who enroll in automatic payments.

  • $30 per month: $5 per 250MB LTE data
  • $45 per month: 3GB of 4G LTE with rollover data
  • $60 per month: 6GB of 4G LTE with rollover data

Those who sign up for the $45 and $60 plan receive Rollover Data, which means unused data in one month can be pushed to the next month. This way you have a cushion in the event that next month is a data-heavy one.

Customers in the $45 and $60 plan can add on data at a rate of $10 for 1GB. The $60 plan also allows for purchase of a $30/3GB bucket.

Another option for GoPhone subscribers is to pay $2 per day for unlimited nationwide talk and text or $0.25 per minute and $0.20 per text message. Data is available for the $2/day option and is priced at $1 for 100MB. In essence, a 30-day month with 5GB of data usage would come out to $110 going this route.

Sprint Prepaid

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Sprint Prepaid, as one might expect, uses the same nationwide network as its tier-one offering, but without any long-term commitments. Whereas there are specific pools of data to pick from, customers can enjoy unlimited access.

  • $35 per month: 1GB of 4G LTE data
  • $45 per month: 3GB of 4G LTE data
  • $55 per month: 6GB of 4G LTE data

Once you hit the threshold you’ll find speeds slowed for the remainder of the billing cycle. Subscribers who need more data can add on packs for $5 (500MB) or $10 (1GB) a piece. Additionally, Sprint has other services which can be added to your monthly plan, including international calling, Premium Called ID, and Insurance.

The selection of phones is quite bare as compared to its standard post-paid rate plans, but all of them are wallet-friendly and often cost under $100.