The cost of monthly cell phone service is dropping. The change for your wallet is the best since the last big wave of discounting began 15 years ago. Plans and services are morphing in many different directions at once. That makes saving money more complicated and requires you to decide what compromises you are willing to live with to save money.
Find the best deal on no-contract mobile and cell service
Cell phone service can now be divided into 3 types: The Big Four, discounters, and innovators.
The "Big Four" Mobile providers
- Sprint has an amazing offer right now. Beginning Dec. 5, Sprint is rolling out the Cut Your Bill in Half event. They'll provide unlimited talk and text and match your data for half the cost you're currently paying AT&T or Verizon. Here's how to take advantage of the offer:
1. Visit Sprint.com/HalfPrice to upload a copy of your current bill.
2. Bring a copy of your latest bill and all of the phones on your Verizon or AT&T account to turn in to your Sprint store.
3. A Sprint representative will select the service plan that most closely matches the data allowance in your current monthly rate plan.
4. Get your new phone either by leasing, doing installment billing, or paying full retail price for the device.
Meanwhile, Sprint has a sub-brand called Boost Mobile that offers the same service, the same towers, the same everything at a lower price. Like the other Big 4 sub-brands, you get unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 2.5 GB of data for $35 a month. No contract!
- T-Mobile changed the market for the Big Four with its Uncarrier strategy. Now they've expanded their family plan to support up to 10 people.
You sign up no contract and pay a real price for a phone. When it comes to service, the first line is $50 per month. The second line is $30 per month. Lines 3 through 10 are $10 per month. Each line comes with unlimited talk, text, and 2.5 GB of data through 2015.
Here's a bonus: T-Mobile will pay termination fees for you if you leave any contract carrier and come to them. And all Simple Choice plans include unlimited calling to and from the U.S. to any number, including mobile phones, in Mexico and Canada. That's 3 countries for the price of 1!
Meanwhile, T-Mobile has cut prices on its sub-brand called GoSmartMobile.com. For $25 a month, GoSmartMobile customers get unlimited talk and text and unlimited Facebook at 4G speeds. At $35 a month, you get unlimited talk, text, Facebook, and 500 MBs of data a month. And for $40 a month, you get all that and 3 GBs of data in total, which would meet the needs of the vast majority of smartphone users.
- AT&T has suffered the most lost customers to T-Mobile, as both companies use the same technology called GSM, and T-Mobile is paying termination fees for you if you leave any contract carrier and come to them.
Feeling the heat from T-Mobile, AT&T has now instituted a big price cut as well for families. The first two lines cost $130 per month. Not great. However, each additional line is $15 per month. For 5 lines you pay $175 per month or $35 per line. That includes unlimited talk and text for all lines and 10 gigs of data to share among the lines.
Meanwhile, AT&T also has a new discount brand of cell service now that they've bought Cricket. The pricing starts at $35 a month and goes up to $55 a month depending on how much data you use.
- Verizon has just announced a rate cut for Edge customers. What they used to charge $110 for will now be discounted to $60 a month. That includes unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data.
While this certainly isn't the best deal for single individuals, it's worth noting because Verizon has historically been reluctant to discount. If you're looking for the best and cheapest deal for individuals with unlimited everything, check out this $25 a month option from a smaller player in the wireless world.
The latest news from Verizon is that they've announced a discount sub-brand called Total Wireless. The standard offer is unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 2.5 GB of data for $35 a month. No contract!
As with most discounts, you have to ask for these to get them; if you don't ask, you don't get! And if you're intent on staying with any of the Big 4, take a look at WhistleOut.com. The site makes it easy for you to find the best plan to meet your needs with a free comparison shopping tool.
- Straight Talk
Straight Talk charges around $45 per month for unlimited talk and text with 3 to 5GB of data a month. All are non-contract and all buy blocks of time on the networks of the Big Four. Straight Talk is the largest and has service on all 4.
- Boost Mobile
Boost also offers 2GB of data on 4G LTE phones for $30/month, or 3.6GB of 4G LTE service for $35 per month (for 6 months) with unlimited talk and text. This introductory rate increases to $50/month after 6 months. At that time, you are eligible to earn remaining Shrinking Payment milestones (potentially reducing payment to $40/month after max milestones earned).
- Virgin Mobile USA
Virgin is teaming up with Walmart to offer a contract-free data-sharing wireless plan called "Data Done Right." The plans will start at $30 per line. But the real clincher, I think, is $65 total for 2 lines of unlimited talk/text and 4 GB data. It's a better deal than Straight Talk for 2 people. The "Data Done Right" sharing plan looks like its limited to only 4 phones so far: the HTC Desire 510 ($99), LG Tribute ($79), the Samsung Galaxy Core Prime ($129) and the LG Volt ($149). More devices should be available by the end of next month, according to a USA TODAY article.
With any of the discounters, the phone you buy or bring determines whose network you will be on.
- Republic Wireless is my favorite. It's the best deal in America. All plans going forward will be $10 a month for talk and text and you'll pay $7.50 for a base of 500 MB data. So that's $17.50. But here's the thing: Republic is designed to be used on wifi. So whatever data of the 500 MB you don't use at the end of a billing period, you will receive a refund. In their beta test of this model, the average user paid $14 and change per month. That's a great price! As for the phone, you buy a very good Android called the Moto X for $299 or a decent phone called the Moto G for $149. Then you use the phone like any other, except most of the time you are on wi-fi instead of cellular. Thus the savings. (My review of Republic Wireless.)
- Scratch Wireless offers a free plan that is hard to wrap your mind around. You buy a Motorola Photon Q for $269. It is a dated midrange Android. You have unlimited everything anywhere there is wi-fi, and get unlimited free texting everywhere including on cellular. If you want talk and data on the go, you can pay a daily or monthly fee. Scratch is counting on the fact that most of the time we are somewhere where there is free wi-fi.
- Freedom Pop offers a freemium service. You buy any of a variety of Androids with prices all over the place (starting at around $99) and get 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 1/2 Gigabyte of data per month for free. There are a variety of paid options including unlimited talk and text for $10.99 per month, and $20 a month for unlimited talk and text with 1 GB of high-speed data. And finally, you can now use the iPhone on Freedom Pop. See their website for details. One word of caution: Call quality on FreedomPop is severly lacking. While the coverage seems fine, the call quality is just mediocre at best. It's a definite work in progress. But the data works very well, just as promised.
- RingPlus has a free plan supported by ringback tones. You get 200 voice minutes, 50 text messages, and 10 MB of LTE data for free. Ads play on outbound voice calls after dialing but before the other party picks up. That's how they pay for this free service. There are no ads associated with texting and data. You can use your existing Sprint phone on the RingPlus network.
There will be many more new innovators to come. Look around and take your time before you choose. And NEVER sign a 2-year contract again!