Sell-old-cell-phone“Help me choose a cell phone plan!” It is one of the most common questions that we get, aside from “Are you ready to order?” and “Do you want ketchup with those waffles?” So here’s the information that we’ve compiled about the best value plans for cellular service. At the end of this post, we revealed the carrier and plan that we use …….it was the best deal for our needs.   An updated discussion of 2016 cellphone plan options  can be found at this more recent link.

Republic Wireless

As of 2015, Republic may be offering the best wireless phone values in the U.S.  It charges $25 per month for a 3G unlimited plan and $40 per month for 4G monthly service. It also offers a $10 monthly plan for don’t need data access when they are on the road and don’t have WiFi access. Pretty sweet pricing. The catch — and its not a bad catch — is that calls, text and data are handled by WiFi and, if there’s no WiFi signal available, the phone switches over to a cellular network. Currently, you are limited to the use of only two phones: the Moto X and Motorola Defy. Both are decent phones: the X is a highly rated smartphone that Republic is offering for $299 (it sells for over $500 on Amazon).

To the extent that there are downsides, it is that Republic uses the Sprint wireless network, which is among the weaker wireless networks. The other bad catch is that if you exceed 5GB of Sprint data per month for three consecutive months you will be cut back to lower speeds.
Currently, I have an unlimited data/text and limited talk plan with Virgin Mobile that costs $35 per month. For $10 less, I can buy can get Republic. The savings would allow me to buy the Motorola Defy and pay it off in less than a year. From then on, I get pure savings. The Moto X phone would take me over two years to pay off. However, if I had a more expensive Verizon or AT&T plan (typically $80 per month), the Moto X upfront cost would be paid off within six months with the monthly savings. For anyone paying over $50 per month for unlimited talk/text/data, Republic is worth a gander.  For information about mobile VoIP services, click here.

Cricket Wireless – Lowest cost for limited talk but unlimited data/text

For an inclusive plan that covers all the basics, the $25 per month option from Cricket Wireless is well worth considering. It includes 300 minutes, voicemail, caller ID, unlimited messaging, and unlimited mobile web. (for $10 more per month, the plan is enhanced to 1000 minutes and includes unlimited song downloads, ringback tones and ringtones).  H2O Wireless and Consumer Cellular also offer decently priced unlimited talk-text-voice plans.

Virgin Mobile

Want unlimited text and data but voice isn’t so important?   Check out Virgin Mobile’s “Beyond Talk” plan is $35. It includes 300 anytime minutes and unlimited mobile and text. Importantly, it is available for Android smart phones , unlike the recently announced Verizon prepaid mobile phone plan and some of the other prepaid low-cost plans.    Virgin Mobile is offering some reasonably powerful smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S and the iPhone 5.   The one catch is that Virgin’s “unlimited data” plan is capped at 2.5GB per month after which data speed is reduced significantly.

Solavei – Unlimited service at perhaps the best price.

$49 per month for unlimited service sound too good to be true? It may be true and may be even cheaper than that. Solavei is a wireless reseller that is offering T-Mobile’s network and its alleged 4G service at $49, but it lowers the monthly service charge even further for customers who refer other customers.  Multi-level marketing meets cellular service! If you don’t refer any other customers, this still could be a good deal although T-Mobile’s 4G speeds aren’t anywhere close to Verizon’s LTE or even Sprint or AT&T’s speeds yet. If you do have friends who’d be interested in this plan, you can reduce your monthly bill down to as low as zero. Worth checking out.

Airvoice Wireless – If you only want voice or text

If data isn’t a biggie for you and you don’t need a lot of voice minutes, the $10 talk and text plan from Airvoice Wireless may represent one of the best values around. $10 per month gets you 250 voice minutes or 500 text messages over a period of 30 days.  Regular anytime minutes are $0.04 each, while regular text messages – both sent and received – are $0.02 each. Cell phone plans that include data start at $35 per month.

TracFone Wireless – Senior plans for emergency cell phones.

TracFone Wireless is the one service I recommend to seniors who are looking essentially for an emergency cell phone to use periodically. Tracfone offers a special deal that bundles large-button phones (not smart phones, though) with one year of service for $99 per year for 400 minutes (essentially, $8.25 per month). Tracfone offers this at its website and through resellers. In fact, I found the same deal offered through HSN for the too good to be true price of $64.45. I bought it. It worked. It’s true! If you don’t need a one-year commitment, TracFone’s Pay-as-you-go airtime cards start at $9.99 for 30 minutes with a 30 day expiration period, but the rate gets less expensive with larger refills. The $79.99 card, for instance, includes 450 minutes with a 90-day expiration period.

Safelink –  cell service for low-income customers

SafeLink Wireless offers free phones & free minutes to low-income people who are currently enrolled in programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, TANF/Welfare, or SSI. SafeLink offers up to 250 minutes and 1250 text messages per month. SafeLink Wireless is a U.S. federal government program, funded by those “Universal Service Fund” fees you see on your phone bill each month

Straight Talk – Unlimited service at a reasonable price.

Straight Talk is available exclusively through Walmart stores across the country. The basic $30 monthly plan includes 1,000 nationwide minutes, the same number of nationwide text messages, 30MB of mobile web access, and no contracts.    The best value is extracted from the unlimited one year plan. While there is a larger up-front cost of $495, this provides virtually unlimited everything for a 12-month period, including minutes, messages, and web. This works out to just over $40 per month.

THE BIG FOUR

Unfortunately most Americans appear to go with the safety of the “big four” carriers:   Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T.     T-Mobile and Sprint have begun to offer some pretty decent value propositions with their plans.  Sprint’s offers an $80/month All-In plan which includes $60/month for “unlimited” service plus $20/month to lease one of three eligible handsets: the Apple iPhone 6 (16GB), Samsung Galaxy S6 (32GB) and HTC One M9 (32GB).  Not a bad deal for an all inclusive, although Sprint tacks on some options, like Early Upgrade and Easy Pay, which can create confusion.  No down payment is required on the hardware, but there is a $35 activation fee.   T-mobile also offers “unlimited” data at 4G speeds, not-so-coincidentally priced at $80/month ($50 base price with a 1 GB cap, plus $30 for truly unlimited data and speed). But on top of that $80 you’ll pay $27.08 per month for a phone. AT&T and Verizon don’t even bother to offer unlimited data in their plans.

As to service quality,  three of the four carriers pretty much share the same network quality — none of it is particularly outstanding, according to JD Power’s most recent survey.   The one exception is Verizon, whose service in the West is clearly superior.    Of course, that higher quality comes at a cost;   Verizon charges premium prices for its service.   AT&T also charges premium prices for clearly inferior service and we continue to discourage consumers from using AT&T if they live in California.

Consumer Reports’ end-of-the-year survey of its members found that T-Mobile nudged past Verizon for the top cell carrier. Its readers were most satisfied with T-Mobile customer support and value, though they ranked the network’s call and data quality below that of Verizon and AT&T. Only Sprint was found to have more Web problems and slower data speeds than T-Mobile.  So while T-Mobile may not have the best coverage or speed, it offers the best “value”, as viewed by Consumer Reports’ members — we agree. But keep in mind that these same savvy consumers rated  Consumer Cellular, Ting, Jitterbug, Credo, Virgin Mobile and U.S. Cellular as offering even better values than the top-4..

As to the phone service that we use? Well, we need a smart phone with unlimited texting and data, but we don’t use it much for voice (voice quality on cell phones is marginal. (We use Ooma VOIP phone for most voice calls )  So we went with the $99 Amazon Fire smart phone and the T-Mobile $30 month plan as well as the Google Nexus 6 with a Consumer Cellular $25 per month plan.   We also signed up for Google’s Project Fi (only available for Nexus 6 phone owners) for $30, but with 10GBs of data and which includes unlimited domestic talk and text,unlimited international texts, low-cost international calls, Wi-Fi tethering and coverage in 120+ countries.   It is a compelling offering and includes some free gifts, including an external battery, Nexus 6 case and earbuds for sharing music.    You can read more about it at our Cellular Price Wars blog.