There was a time when the only real options for US cellular service were AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. Thankfully, those days are over: Mobile virtual network operators — MVNOs — have emerged as cheap alternatives to the Big Three. (Not Big Four?, and while the former’s network remains, the latter is the surviving name.)
MVNOs lease access from the major carriers and offer similar services at lower prices. That means you can sign up with Mint Mobile, for example, and get a sort of T-Mobile Lite service for less.
However, you may first need to complete any existing lease or contract with your current carrier, or pay a penalty to exit early. If you bought your phone directly from a carrier, check to make sure it’s unlocked and compatible with other networks. Once you’ve taken care of those preliminaries, you’re free to change plans.
One elephant in this particular room:. Your phone may support it, but not all low-cost carriers do — yet. Most are planning to roll it out soon, however, and we haven’t heard of any planning to charge extra for it.
Not comfortable with switching to a smaller carrier? AT&T and Verizon both offer prepaid plans for a lot less than their widely advertised unlimited ones. For example, if you’re able to prepay for 12 months,works out to a very competitive $25 a month. , but it drops to $35 after four months and then $25 after nine.
Still, give these other plans a look. If you don’t consume a ton of data every month (and most people don’t), there are serious savings to be had.
Are you an Optimum or Suddenlink cable subscriber? You qualify for an extra $10 savings each month, meaning you can get service for as little as $12. Unfortunately, while Altice (which runs on AT&T and Sprint networks) already supports 5G, the carrier’s unlimited plan runs $40 a month. It was previously $20.
Even if you’re not with one of those two cable systems, a $22 monthly bill isn’t bad.
Black Wireless leases service from AT&T and offers a compelling unlimited-everything plan: Just $15 a month if you pay for a year in advance (so, $180 up front), or $20 if you go month-to-month. The data gets throttled to 128kbps after the first gigabyte, so this is a plan that rewards you if you spend most of your time on Wi-Fi.
There are a number of other options that are similarly inexpensive, including a Smart Saver plan that includes 500 minutes and 100MB of data for as little as $7.50 a month (again, if you sign up for a full year).
Boost’s plans start at just $10, and for a limited time the carrier is doubling the normal amount of data that’s included at that tier: 2GB instead of 1GB. You can also get 4GB (regularly 2GB) on the $15 plan. But that benefit is available only for three months; after that, you’re back to 1GB or 2GB at the same price. You also must bring your own phone.
Either way, your plan includes unlimited calls and texts. Boost operates on T-Mobile’s network and will soon offer 5G.
A T-Mobile MVNO, Hello offers unlimited-talk-and-text plans starting at just $10. But the real standout here is the $25 plan, which adds unlimited 4G and 5G data to the mix. You also get free calls and texts to several dozen countries.
Hello is also among a relatively small number of MVNOs that caters to families: You can have up to five lines, with discounts the more you add. For a family of four, for example, the unlimited-data plan would cost just $17.50 per line.
Here’s the only real issue: If you want a mobile hotspot feature, it’ll cost you another $15 a month.
Mint takes the notion of “prepaid” cell service to the next level: You get price breaks when you pay for three, six or 12 months in advance. So, for example, a payment of $45 would net you three months on the carrier’s 3GB plan.
The deals get better as you go up the tiers, however. Prepay $360, for example (which works out to $30 a month), and you get 12 months of fully unlimited service. Mint relies on T-Mobile’s network and offers both 4G and 5G: “Whichever is strongest” based on where you’re located.
If you’re seeking service for a backup phone that’s rarely used or perhaps a preteen who needs a phone just for emergencies, consider TextNow’s sounds-too-good-to-be-true free plan. All you need is a Sprint-compatible phone and you can get unlimited, totally free calls and text messages. (Everything else requires Wi-Fi, though you have the option of adding a 2GB data plan for $20 a month.)
Want to learn more? Read about TextNow’s surprisingly good free plan.
Although US Mobile doesn’t yet offer 5G service (surprising given that it runs on T-Mobile and Verizon networks), it does offer service plans for just about every conceivable budget. That’s because you can choose from fixed plans or build a custom one. One standout is the $15 plan, which includes unlimited calls and texts and 2.5GB of high-speed data. Bump that to 10GB for $30 a month.
The carrier also offers price breaks on multiple lines. For example, three lines on US Mobile’s unlimited plan would cost $90 a month.
Visible is for those who don’t want to sacrifice unlimited service. Although 5G isn’t in the mix yet, the carrier’s one and only plan — which runs $40 a month — includes unlimited data on Verizon’s network.
However, there’s an easy way to get it for even less: Sign up for Visible’s Party Pay option, which can bring the monthly rate to as low as $25 per person. This isn’t a traditional family plan; you can do this with friends, co-workers, even strangers you meet on Reddit.
There are other inexpensive options out there, but these rank among our favorites. If you’ve found a low-cost phone plan you like better, tell us about it in the comments!
Originally published last year. Updated periodically to reflect new carrier options and pricing.
CNET’s Cheapskate scours the web for great deals on tech products and much more. For the latest deals and updates, follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for deal texts delivered right to your phone. Find more great buys on the CNET Deals page and check out our CNET Coupons page for the latest Walmart discount codes, eBay coupons, Samsung promo codes and even more from hundreds of other online stores. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Answers live on our .