When looking for the cheapest cell phones, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. There many different providers and regional carriers, each offering a large variety of plans and possibilities. Some people may be better off going with a prepaid plan while others are best served with the plans that come with a contract. In addition to minutes, consumers must also consider extra features, text messages, mobile data, long distance and so much more. Shopping around for the best possible deal can result in significant savings.
Seven of the Least Expensive Cell Phone Plans
It is important to remember that while some plans have the lowest initial cost, they can become very expensive with overage charges and other fees. In this way, it is prudent to consider your overall needs when choosing a package. Please note that the prices listed here reflect the best offers available at the time this article was updated in March 2013, but they are subject to change.
For an inclusive plan that covers all the basics, the $25/month option from Cricket Wireless is well worth considering. It includes 300 minutes, voicemail, caller ID, unlimited messaging, and unlimited mobile web. For people who want even more, the $45/month plan gets bumped to 1000 minutes and throws in unlimited song downloads, ringback tones and ringtones from Muve Music.
The "10" in NET10 Wireless refers to the fact that base rate is ten cents per voice minute. There are no additional fees and text messages cost only five cents each. This gets cheaper with larger top-ups through the pay-as-you-go option, as well as through 30-day monthly plans. For instance, prepaying for 1500 minutes costs only $100, working out to an effective rate of 6.67 cents per minute. This prepaid top up has an expiration period of 180 days. Monthly plans can be even cheaper with 750 minutes costing $25 for a 30-day period. Despite the lower rates, NET10 Wireless offers high-end phones like the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S III.
Promising to "cut your cell phone bill in half, Straight Talk is available exclusively through Walmart stores across the country. The basic $30 monthly plan includes 1,000 nationwide minutes, the same number of nationwide text messages, 30MB of mobile web access, and no contracts. The best value is extracted from the unlimited one year plan. While there is a larger up-front cost of $495, this provides virtually unlimited everything for a 12-month period, including minutes, messages, and web. This works out to just over $40 per month.
SafeLink Wireless is entirely different from other cell phone providers, but it is only available to low income individuals who qualify for the program. There is an application process, but SafeLink says that customers "may qualify if you participate in programs such as Food Stamps or Medicaid." Those who do qualify get 250 free minutes every month for local and national long distance calls, plus texting. There are no credit checks, no bills and no contracts. SafeLink works with the federal government's Lifeline support program.
The $10 talk and text plan from Airvoice Wireless may represent one of the best values in the nation. For those $10, customers are provided with up to 250 voice minutes or 500 text messages over a period of 30 days. Regular anytime minutes are $0.04 each, while regular text messages - both sent and received - are $0.02 each. Data is charged at $0.33 per megabyte. For users who need more, there is also a $30 unlimited talk and text plan. Cell phone plans that include data start at $35 per month.
Parent company to both NET10 Wireless and Straight Talk, TracFone Wireless also offers wireless service under its own name brand. Pay-as-you-go airtime cards start at $9.99 for 30 minutes with a 30 day expiration period, but the rate gets less expensive with larger refills. The $79.99 card, for instance, includes 450 minutes with a 90-day expiration period. The best prepaid value is with cards that offer one year of service, as these double the minutes. The $99.99 card provides 400 minutes, going all the way up to the $199.99 airtime card for 1500 minutes.
Catering primarily to seniors, Jittberbug cell phones are designed to be simple and straightforward, rather than having too many complex and confusing features. Keeping monthly costs low are the Basic 14 and Basic 19 plans, which provide 50 minutes and 200 minutes for $14.99 and $19.99 a month, respectively. This includes carryover minutes and does not require a contract.
Assessing Your Needs
Average Minute Usage
According to ABC World News, the average American typically uses between 600 and 1,300 minutes per month on a cell phone. Keep in mind that it's generally easier to go up in minutes than down once you sign a contract. Many people use fewer minutes and you should start out as low as you think you can go, but don't underestimate your usage as you may find yourself paying large overage charges. Monitor your usage carefully and adjust your plan accordingly.
Data Usage Considerations
Smartphones are increasingly popular and while it may be possible to rely solely on Wi-Fi, the vast majority of users will want to have a wireless data plan for mobile Internet access on the go. Many cell phone providers even require a wireless data plan in order to qualify for a subsidized smartphone. According to CitizensUtilitiesBoard.org, typical usage is less than 750MB per month, but many users can go well over that amount per month, particularly with heavier media consumption like streaming music or video.
Friends and Family Options
It is common for major cell phone companies to provide free mobile-to-mobile minutes to customers on the same network. You'll need fewer anytime minutes if more of your contacts are also using the same carrier. Similarly, if you have multiple people in your family who will be using cell phones, the cheapest option could be to put everyone on the same family cell phone plan. Generally, you'll have lower activation fees and you will typically pay less per month for additional phones on the same plan.
Making an Informed Decision
To be sure that you are making the best choice for your situation, the best thing you can do is fully assess your exact needs in terms of minutes, texting, data, long distance and other needed features. Compare plans on a per-minute basis (or per-megabyte in the case of data). Then, consider the bonuses and features that are included with the offered plan, like mobile-to-mobile, international text messages, and so on. This will allow you to more accurately determine the best deals out there for your particular needs.