Smartphone plans are a lot more competitive than they used to be. Gone are the days when you were forced to choose from pricey, restrictive carriers. Now, there’s a lot more out there.
MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, are well worth a look. These companies piggyback on networks owned by ISPs (internet service providers) 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.
So 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 of MVNOs
MVNOs have their upsides, but they aren’t perfect.
They often have monthly data caps. Their plans aren’t always as speedy as the big-carrier competition. And there’s phone selection to consider: Some MVNOs require that you buy a device from them.
But while MVNOs have their drawbacks, some MVNOs extend discounts to customers with multiple lines, and offer benefits like cheap international data and calls. In most cases, the cost savings are worth the inconveniences.
Best MVNO for unlimited data: Boost Mobile
|2||$50 + $30||Unlimited||$80|
|3||$50 + $30 x 2||Unlimited||$110|
|4||$50 + $30 x 3||Unlimited||$140|
|5||$50 + $30 x 4||Unlimited||$170|
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.
Boost Mobile doesn’t offer a “family plan” in the traditional sense, but you save money on your monthly bill when you add lines. Here’s how it works:
|Lines||Discount||Total (with a $50 a month plan)|
There aren’t any overage fees, meaning you won’t have to pay a penalty if you go over your plan’s data cap. And for a limited time, all Boost Mobile plans include international roaming. Customers get unlimited calls and texts and 8GB of data in Mexico.
If that doesn’t suit your globetrotting needs, Boost Mobile’s International Minute Packs, which start at $3 for 90 days of service, add calls and unlimited international text for select countries. The pricier $10-per-month International Connect Plus includes unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada and reduced-rate calls to over 200 destinations.
Boost Mobile’s big drawback is its lack of smartphone compatibility — we suggest referencing its compatibility checker before making a switch. But that said, Boost Mobile stands out for its reasonably priced unlimited plans and its multi-line discounts. Flexible roaming options are icing on the cake.
- 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:
- Free 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 data usage.
Best MVNO for lots of coverage — Straight Talk
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 United States: Sprint, Verizon, 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.
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 8GB of 4G LTE speeds, and unlimited text and calls to Mexico, China, Canada, and India.
Straight Talk’s plans are a little pricier than most, to be fair. But the network’s unparalleled footprint and its cheap international data set it apart from the competition.
- Enable auto bill pay for a $1-per-month savings.
- Straight Talk’s $60 international plan is 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 plan.
- Pricier plans than some MVNOs, depending on the data allotment.
Best Alternative MVNOs
Google Project Fi relies on a combination of Wi-Fi hotspots 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.
Project Fi offers a multi-line option in the form of Group Plans, which let 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 hotspot, and free text and 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 few phones with it: The Google Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 6. It’s also a little expensive if you use more than a few gigabytes of data each month. But if those limitations don’t bother you, Project Fi is one of the most innovative MVNOs out there.
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 $55, up to 4 lines for $25 a month for each additional line.
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.
The MetroPCS network is compatible with most devices. But for a limited time, it’s offering two free LG phones to subscribers who switch from another carrier.
MetroPCS may not offer as many benefits or bonuses as other MVNOs, but its competitive pricing and international add-ons make it a compelling pick.
Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T, and uses AT&T’s network.
It offers single-line plans that start at $30 a month unlimited talk and text with 1GB of data and go up to $60 a month unlimited talk, text, and data. The carrier’s $40 a month plans are eligible for Cricket Wireless’ Group Save option, which extends a discounts to subscribers with two or more lines.
When it comes to plan extras, Cricket Wireless isn’t as generous as the competition. But for $50 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 $100 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 4GB plan isn’t a bad deal for $40.
Virgin Mobile has been around for some time now, and operates in countries all around the world. In the United States, unlimited data plans start at $1, but there’s a catch: You’re stuck with the iPhone.
Here’s how it works: You buy the iPhone of your choice, the cheapest being the $400 iPhone SE, and then sign up for Virgin Mobile’s Inner Circle plan. You pay $1 for the first 12 months of service, and $50 per year thereafter.
Virgin Mobile doesn’t offer much in the way of extras, but you can pay a bit more for features like hotspot data and international data. International calls is another charge.
Virgin Mobile comes with other perks. Since the MVNO is a part of the larger Virgin corporate empire, you’ll occasionally get offers from Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Wines. That might include a companion ticket to the U.K., for example, or an extra night in a hotel.
Virgin Mobile is by far the cheapest prepaid unlimited MVNO out there. Sure, you have to shell out for a new iPhone, and Virgin Mobile’s network — Sprint — is widely regarded as the carrier with the slowest coverage. But if none of that bothers you, Inner Circle is a great option.
Republic Wireless has gained a lot of notoriety 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 include unlimited talk, text, and Wi-Fi data. 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 hotspot, but not roaming — there’s 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’s connected to Wi-Fi most of the time, its two cheapest cell plans — the $20-per-month Wi-Fi-only and $30-per-month 2GB plan — are worth considering.
FreedomPop, another no-frills MVNO, offers cheap (and even free) data from AT&T and Sprint. But don’t expect much in the way of perks.
FreedomPop divides its plans into three categories: Phone data plans, SIM card plans, and hotspot and USB devices. When it comes to FreedomPop’s phone plans, you’re limited to handsets sold by FreedomPop. But its SIM and hotspot/USB plans, work with devices you already own.
FreedomPop’s paid data plan is $20 a month for 1GB of 4G LTE data, but there’s also a free, no-cost option — Basic 200 — that includes 200 minutes, 500 text messages, and 500 MBs of data.
FreedomPop has a group plan option that starts at $15 a month for unlimited calls, text, and 1GB of shared data. You can add up to 10 lines to a single subscription (for a $5 line-free per line), and for a limited time, FreedomPop is offering a bonus 50MB of free data for each family member.
FreedomPop may not offer as many perks as the competition, but it’s the only MVNO that offers completely free, no-strings attached data. It’s the absolute cheapest way to connect a smartphone, tablet, or other cell-enabled device.
Update: We reorganized and added some more useful details to this article.
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