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From Boost to Cricket, these little carriers could save you big bucks

Smartphone plans are a lot more competitive than ever before. Gone are the days when you were forced to choose solely between pricey, restrictive carriers. Now, there are quite a number of affordable options, especially through MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators.

MVNOs piggyback on networks owned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and resell their services at wholesale prices. The result is data, talk, and text plans that are way more economical than any you’re likely find at Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Which MVNO offers the best coverage, the best unlimited plan, and the most extras? Our guide lays out all you need to know about the best MVNOs.

Pros and cons

MVNOs have their upsides, but they aren’t perfect. Many have a monthly data cap or will throttle data use on unlimited plans. Phone selection is also less than desirable on many MVNOs, though many have begun BYOD (bring your own device) programs for unlocked phones.

While MVNOs may have their drawbacks, they tend to offer lower pricing and more diverse plans. Many even offer special international calling options that are cheaper than what you’ll find on postpaid carriers.

The best MVNO for unlimited data

Boost Mobile

boost mobile live tv sports streaming Mike Mozart/Flickr

Boost Mobile is owned by Sprint, and offers a range of inexpensive single-line plans. In fact, it has one of the cheapest prepaid data plans on the market.

Boost Mobile’s $35 a month plan includes unlimited talk, text, and 3GB of 4G LTE data. On the other end of the spectrum is its $50 plan, which adds unlimited data to the mix. There’s also a $60 plan that offers unlimited LTE data with 20 GB of mobile tethering and HD streaming.

Price Plan Additional Benefits
$35 Unlimited talk and text, 3GB LTE data
$50 Unlimited talk, text, and LTE data 8GB tethering and HD streaming
$60 Unlimited talk, text and LTE data 20GB tethering and HD streaming

Boost Mobile also offers a wide variety of family plans that offer similar features and discounts based on the number of activated lines. There are also International Minute Packs you can purchase if you’re traveling abroad — they start at $3 for 90 days of service, which adds a fixed number of minutes for calls and unlimited international texting for select countries. The pricier $10-per-month International Connect Plus plan includes unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada and reduced-rate calls to more than 200 destinations.

Boost Mobile’s big drawback is its lack of smartphone compatibility — we suggest referencing its compatibility checker before making a switch. Boost Mobile does stand out for its reasonably-priced unlimited plans and its multi-line discounts. Flexible roaming options are icing on the cake.

Recommendations:

  • Enable automatic bill pay for a $5-per-month savings.
  • Add $10-per-day International Connect Plus for cheap calls and texts overseas.

The perks of the Boost Mobile plans:

  • International benefits and cheap international data.
  • No overage fees.

The downsides of Boost Mobile plans:

  • Boost Mobile’s network isn’t compatible with a lot of phones.
  • Caps on mobile hot spots.

The best MVNO with lots of coverage

Straight Talk

best MVNO

If you’ve stopped in a Walmart recently, you’ve probably seen ads for Straight Talk. The MVNO, a partnership between the retail juggernaut and TracFone, offers coverage across all four major networks in the U.S.: Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Straight Talk’s monthly plans range from $30 a month, which includes unlimited texts, 1,500 minutes of talk, and 100MB of 4G LTE data, to $55 a month, which adds unlimited talk and 12GB of 4G LTE data.

Line cost Data
$30 100MB
$35 2GB
$45 10GB
$55 Unlimited
$60 10GB (international)

Straight Talk doesn’t have group plans, but it does have great international data options. For $60 a month, you get unlimited calls, texts, and 10GB of 4G LTE speeds, as well as unlimited text and calls to Mexico, China, Canada, and India. Since Straight Talk works across all four major carriers, it’s compatible with most unlocked phones.

The MVNO’s plans are a little pricier than most, but the network’s unparalleled footprint and its cheap international data set it apart from the competition.

Recommendations:

  • Enable auto bill pay for a $1-per-month savings.
  • Straight Talk’s $60 international plan is a great value for overseas travelers.

The perks of Straight Talk plans:

  • Coverage across all four major carriers.
  • Cheap international data and free calling and texting to Mexico, China, Canada, and India.
  • No overage fees.
  • No caps on data usage.

The downsides of Straight Talk plans:

  • No family or group plans.
  • Pricier plans than some MVNOs, depending on the data allotment.

The best Alternative MVNOs

Google Project Fi

best MVNO

Google’s Project Fi relies on a combination of Wi-Fi hot spots and three networks — Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular — for service. But that’s not the only thing that makes it unique.

On Google Fi, every plan starts at $20, which covers unlimited talk and text. Data is a flat $10 for 1GB of 4G LTE, but you only pay for what you use. Bill protection was also recently added to Fi, meaning you won’t be charged any additional data charges once you hit the 6GB mark. For example, if you have a single line, you’ll only be charged for data up to 6GB of use, meaning your bill should top out around $80. Data used over that limit will be throttled, though.

Project Fi offers a multiline option in the form of Group Plans, which lets you add other people to a subscription for an additional $15 per user a month. Other perks include fee-free tethering, which lets you use your phone as an internet hot spot, and free texting and access to high-speed data (at $10 per GB) in more than 135 countries around the world.

If there’s a major downside to Project Fi, it’s that you can only use a handful of phones with it: The Google Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, Moto G6Moto X4, Google Pixel, Pixel XL, LG G7 ThinQ, LG V35 ThinQ, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 6. If those limitations don’t bother you, Project Fi is one of the most innovative and easy-to-use MVNOs out there. We’ve also found Fi offers excellent and convenient customer service.

Ting

Ting Mobile is an independent MVNO that uses Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks to provide service to its customers. While many carriers have a small selection of plans for their customers to choose from, Ting doesn’t lock you into a specific plan: Instead, Ting bills you for the least expensive plan each month based on your usage.

The least expensive plan will run you $9, but that includes 100 minutes of calls with no texts or data. Adding texts to the mix will add a minimum of $3 to your monthly bill; however, if you send more than 4,800 texts a month, you’ll be charged $11 plus $.0025 per text that’s over your limit. Finally, 2GB will add an additional $20 a month to your plan, with each additional gigabyte coming in at $10.

While Ting provides solid service, it is definitely a plan for people who don’t use their phones frequently. If you text frequently or use a lot of LTE data, Ting is not the service for you, as you’ll find it’s not competitive with other carriers.

MetroPCS

best MVNO

MetroPCS, which is owned and operated by T-Mobile, has basic, cheap data plans that work with most phones.

For $30 a month (including taxes and fees), you get unlimited talk and text and 2GB of 4G LTE data. At the pricier end of the spectrum, MetroPCS offers unlimited data for $60 a month. MetroPCS lets you add multiple lines to a single plan. A two-line plan starts at $60; each additional line up to four lines costs an additional $30.

International options start at $10 a month for unlimited calls to over 75 countries, unlimited text, and 20 minutes of calls to Cuba landlines. MetorPCS’s Mexico Unlimited package, a $5-a-month add-on, adds unlimited calls, texts, and data (depending on your plan) in Mexico.

While MetroPCS provides pretty solid coverage, there are some downsides. First, it’s more expensive than some other MVNO’s. Customer service — online, by phone, and in store — also leaves a lot to be desired.

Cricket Wireless

best MVNO

Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T, and uses AT&T’s network. It offers single-line plans that start at $30 a month for unlimited talk and text with 2GB of data and go up to $60 a month for unlimited talk, text, and data. The carrier’s $40-a-month plans are eligible for Cricket Wireless’ Group Save option, which extends a discount to subscribers with two or more lines.

When it comes to plan extras, Cricket Wireless isn’t as generous as the competition. But for $55 a month, you get unlimited texts from the U.S. to 38 countries, plus data, calls, and texts to and from Mexico and Canada. If that won’t do, you can add one of Cricket’s two international packages to your monthly subscription. Cricket International costs $5 a month and adds calls to phones in 36 countries, and Cricket International Extra costs $15 and adds unlimited messaging to phones in 36 countries and 1,000 minutes of calls to 32 other countries.

Cricket’s group plan offers substantial savings (up to $70 with five lines). You can bring your own phone, if you choose (check Cricket’s website to see if it’s compatible). And if you don’t mind dealing with data caps, its 5GB plan isn’t a bad deal for $40.

Republic Wireless

best MVNO

Republic Wireless has gained a lot of attention over the past few years, and for good reason: It was among the first MVNOs to offer calls over Wi-Fi. Republic Wireless, like Google’s Project Fi, seamlessly switches between Wi-Fi and cell networks without dropping your call.

Still, there are inevitably times you don’t have access to Wi-Fi, and Republic Wireless sells data from Sprint and T-Mobile to help with that. Its Clear Choice plans start at $15 a month, and it includes unlimited talk and text. The priciest runs $45 a month for unlimited talk, text, and 10GB of cellular data.

Republic Wireless is about as basic as it gets. All plans include a mobile hot spot, but no roaming — there are no international calls. There aren’t group plans or family plans to choose from, either, and while you can bring your own phone to Republic Wireless, not every model is supported. (We suggest checking this list.)

Republic Wireless isn’t for everyone. But if you don’t use a lot of data and your phone is connected to Wi-Fi most of the time, its two cheapest cell plans are worth consideration.

Wing

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A relative newcomer, Wing offers prepaid service with lots of perks. In addition to unlimited talk and text on all plans, Wing also offers tethering and visual voicemail for all its smartphone plans. It’s also one of the few MVNO’s that offers a risk-free 30-day trial.

Plans start at $15 for a relatively paltry 500 megabits of data and go up to $70 for unlimited LTE service. While it’s definitely not the cheapest plan, Wing uses dynamic pricing so you’ll receive bill credits for the data you do not use. It’s also worth noting that Wing doesn’t charge for activation, SIM cards, and doesn’t seem to nickel-and-dime customers like some other prepaid services.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Wing is its impressive selection of smartphones. Although there’s a few low-end phones available through Wing, the vast majority of its inventory is devoted to flagships. On its website you’ll find the Samsung Galaxy S9, iPhone XS Max, and even the Pixel 3 alongside previous generations of the same brands. If you don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for your new phone, Wing also offers financing options through Affirm.

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