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How to save on mobile plans: Your guide to 16 no-contract carriers

Rick Broida | April 25, 2014
The mobile-phone industry is in a state of flux. Where once you had little choice but to buy a subsidized phone from a major carrier and pay two years' worth of whatever monthly fees it chose to levy, now you have options aplenty.

Indeed, you'll often enjoy more and better options if you're willing to buy a new phone. Many of the no-contract carriers sell handsets directly — and even if you pay more upfront, the lower monthly rates make the math work in your favor relative to the higher rates charged by a Big Four carrier (or the two years you'd be locked into a contract).

You get what you pay for

Sounds great, right? Here come the get-what-you-pay-for caveats: MVNOs don't always deliver the same features and coverage as their Big Four brothers, despite operating on the very same networks. Virgin Mobile, for example, lacks the roaming coverage afforded by Sprint, and Straight Talk iPhone users don't get visual voicemail.

How the Big Four hope to woo you back

Now that consumers have so many options, the major carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless — are offering their own no-contract plans to try to keep their users happy. AT&T, for example, recently introduced a family-friendly four-user plan that works out to $40 per user per month, with 10GB of data to share between them.

Check out what their latest strategies are in How the Big Four hope to woo you back.

Then there's data. All the "starting at" prices listed in the carrier descriptions that follow include at least some data in their plans. However, as is the norm these days, virtually all the carriers will cap your throughput at a certain point, giving you X-amount of 4G speed and then dropping you back to a slower rate of throughput (with some still claiming "unlimited" data). In other cases your plan may include only, say, 500MB of data, period, after which you'll pay per-megabyte overage charges.

If you're wondering how much data you really need, a 2013 Nielsen study revealed that the average U.S. smartphone user consumes 733MB per month. So even if you're slightly above average, a 1GB data plan might be more than sufficient. It might be worth monitoring your usage for a month or two to find out. (If you find you're getting close to your maximum, or that you're paying for more than you need, you can always change your plan — and most MVNOs make that relatively simple.)

While you're reading the fine print, you'll want to see whether your plan includes things like picture messaging (MMS), visual voicemail, mobile hotspot (a rarity among MVNOs), number porting and short-code messaging. This last is used to deliver everything from Amber Alerts to boarding passes to Starbucks deals, but a few carriers (including Republic Wireless and UppWireless) don't support it. Figure out what's important to you, and what you can do without.


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