Potential caveats aside, prepaid and pay-as-you-go cell phone plans make a lot of sense for the right type of users, and not just people who don’t have the credit scores to get onboard with a contract plan. For example: No contract, pay-as-you-go plans make an affordable option for the occasional cell phone user who just needs a mobile lifeline now and then, while unlimited text and voice plans can cut bills for nonstop talkers who keep running over their monthly limits on a contract plan. But with dozens of prepaid and pay-as-you-go cellular carriers populating the U.S., finding the right one can be tough. Here are some of the top-rated prepaid cell phone providers out there, and how they’ve managed to stand out from the pack.
J.D. Power and Associates ranked Net10 number one in customer satisfaction in 2009, and all signs point to the cellular service provider’s impossibly simplistic price structure as key. Net10 offers blocks of prepaid minutes for 10 cents per minute no matter what quantity you buy, and has also teamed up with major retailers like Wal-Mart to offer both airtime cards and phones in stores. The selection of available cell phones leaves something to be desired, but prices are reasonable. (For instance, an LG300G goes for $30 with activation and includes 300 minutes.) Net10’s $79.98 unlimited voice and text plan may not be a bargain, but for pay-per-minute users it remains a reliable and affordable option.
This Sprint-owned prepaid carrier aims for an urban demographic with its reasonably stylish phones and city-centric coverage maps (though with prices of up to $300 for a flip phone, you’re laying out a nice wad of cash for the bling.) Like Net10, it offers 10-cent-per minute blocks of airtime, but the real attraction is the $50 per month unlimited talk, text, mobile Web and walkie-talkie plan. “You can slap a $50 bill down on the counter every month, and that’s your bill,” says Joseph Pawlikowski, a senior editor at PrepaidReviews.com. Just beware that it works on the somewhat esoteric iDEN network that Sprint acquired with its purchase of Nextel, and not the more widespread CDMA network that contract Sprint users are on.
PrepaidReview.com’s top prepaid provider has earned its reputation on the site by giving customers just a little extra love. “As far as prepaid customer service goes, they’re up there,” says senior editor Pawlikowski. It ranked highly in J.D. Power’s surveys as well, scoring four out of five stars for customer service. And the phones aren’t bad, either: T-Mobile actually delivers a tiny subsidy, and you can grab a handset for as low as $50.
The little prepaid cell phone carrier that no one has ever heard about actually has quite a good reputation thanks to its dirt-cheap prices and reliance on Verizon’s relatively large and reliable CDMA network. By buying minutes in $80 bulk packages, you can get them down as low as 6 cents apiece, and an unlimited talk and text plan goes for only $40 a month. PagePlus offers a fairly dismal selection of older phones, but a close relationship with Verizon makes it easy to move hand-me-downs from that service directly onto PagePlus. Just beware: The carrier has also been the victim of its own success in some ways. “They used to have the best customer service in the business, but since they’ve unveiled the unlimited plan, they’ve been getting a little overloaded,” says Pawlikowski.
This age-old name in cell phone service ranked just below Net10 in overall satisfaction, according to J.D. Power, and actually outstripped both it and T-Mobile on customer service by taking home five out of five stars. Considering that it actually owns Net10, it may seem that child has outperformed parent, but TracFone offers a few good reasons to reconsider before going with Junior. Notably, a $25 “Double Minutes for Life” card quite literally doubles the amount of minutes you get from future purchases, meaning the $160 Super Saver card with 1,000 minutes (16 cents apiece) delivers 2,000 minutes (at 8 cents apiece). Not a bad deal – if you’re willing to settle down for a while.
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