The Best Cheap Phone Plans for 2021

 The Best Cheap Phone Plans for 2021

Plans That Pay
Most Americans are signed up with one of the major carrier brands—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—or runner-up US Cellular, but there are many more choices available to US cell phone customers looking for a bargain. Dozens of MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) and prepaid carriers offer big discounts by piggybacking on the major networks to deliver lower prices.

All the major carriers have low-cost brands, and their deals are worth checking first. AT&T runs Cricket Wireless. T-Mobile currently owns Metro. Verizon owns Visible. If you're looking for a wide range of stores and solid customer service, these brands have excellent prices and should be your first shopping stops. We'll mention them below when appropriate.

For the other brands, which typically don't have stores, pay attention to their reputation for customer service and to their enabling networks. Some MVNOs give you an option to choose between different enabling networks, and some are tied to only one. One company, Google's Project Fi, uses T-Mobile and US Cellular's networks interchangeably on some phones, but for the rest, you have to choose which network you want when you buy your SIM card.

Boost Mobile is a major MVNO player with competitive pricing, but you'll want to think twice before switching to it. When the company was purchased by Dish in 2020, it originally planned to use T-Mobile's network for the foreseeable future. Dish now claims T-Mobile is uncompetitive and has signed a contract to lease service from AT&T for the next decade. This is likely to spell big trouble for current Boost customers who still use T-Mobile's CDMA network or bought carrier-locked devices. 

We're ordering our picks by how much you want to spend per month, to give you the best value at every price level. Depending on your needs, even one of the big three networks could have a plan that works for you. For the best carrier service where you live, check out our results for the Fastest Mobile Networks in the US and Canada.


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Which Phones Work With These Networks?
Some of the smaller carriers do not sell their own phones or limit their selection to low-end phones that may be locked to their network. We recommend purchasing a cheap phone that is compatible with multiple carriers. If you're on a fixed income, something on our list of the best phones for seniors might be a good fit. You can also check with the carrier to see if your current phone works on its network if you're looking to save a little money.

Most unlocked phones are compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile, and with any carrier that uses their networks. If you're looking for an unlocked phone that works on all three major US systems, consider any factory-unlocked iPhone that's of the XR or later varieties, the Samsung Galaxy S9 or higher, the Google Pixel line, or the Moto G series. Or take a look at our list of the best unlocked phones.

Unlocked Phones to Suit Any Plan
Apple iPhone 12 mini
Apple iPhone 12 mini Review
$729.00 at Amazon
See It
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G Review
From $249.99 with Eligible Trade-In at Samsung
See It
Google Pixel 4a
Google Pixel 4a Review
$349.00 at Google Store
See It
What About Customer Service?
In general, when you turn to these less-prominent carriers, you're not going to get the sort of customer service you get from the major networks. The issues we hear about most involve new service activations and billing. Since there are no retail stores for the smaller carriers, any problems you encounter have to be handled by call centers or online help desks, often staffed by outsourced agents who don't have the knowledge or resources to correct many issues. A quick search on Reddit provides plenty of cautionary tales about small MVNOs. We've done our best to research all of our recommendations closely, but it would be wise to do some searching on your own before you pull the trigger.

If good customer service is a concern, you'll want to check out Consumer Cellular. For nine years running, our readers have chosen Consumer Cellular as their favorite carrier. You can also turn to the wholly owned brands of the big carriers, which have their own store networks: AT&T's Cricket and T-Mobile's Metro. Verizon's Visible doesn't have any stores, but it has Verizon behind it.

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