If you have cellular service in the US, then there’s a good chance you’re on one of the big four carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. But what if I told you that you could save a significant amount of money without sacrificing coverage by switching to a smaller carrier with the same great service?
While the “big four” essentially run the show when it comes to mobile, they’re not the only game in town. In fact, there are dozens of alternative providers out there, most of which actually run on the exact same networks, for a smaller price! They’re called “MVNOs”, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, and they’re awesome.
How MVNOs Work
How exactly can they do this? An MNVO essentially “rents” access to another carrier’s network—sometimes even multiple carriers. In some cases, the host carrier actually owns the MVNO—for example, AT&T owns Cricket Wireless, Sprint owns Boost Mobile, and T-Mobile owns MetroPCS. In those circumstances, the MVNO is like the Old Navy to the host carrier’s Banana Republic—same owners, different audiences and costs.
Most of the of the time, the leasing (or owning) carrier saves money with the smaller MVNO by limiting its bandwidth. For example,AT&T limits Cricket Wireless’ network to 8Mbps on LTE and 4Mbps on HSPA. This helps them keep the costs low. For the customer, well, you’d be hard pressed to ever tell a difference in speed—but you certainly can in your wallet.
Speaking of your wallet, you’ll also find that MVNOs are structured differently when it comes to payment. Most of the plans offered by major carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, are post-paid. This means you generally make a commitment of some sort (either by financing a device through the carrier or signing a contract), then pay after you’ve used your service for the month. This way, if you go over your data allowance, you get hit with a higher bill. If you can’t afford that bill, well, you’re in trouble—you’re obligated to pay it.
The majority of the MVNOs, however, are pre-paid, which means you pay for your service before you actually use it. This essentially guarantees the carrier their money before you’re allowed to have service. This also means most don’t require a credit check before service is allowed.
So what happens when you reach your allotted data limit on a pre-paid carrier? Either your data will either be shut off completely or, more likely, your data speeds will simply be throttled to very, very slow speeds. Of course, you can always add more data to your plan for that month if you run out.
The Downsides of Using an MVNO
So we’ve covered the good stuff: MVNOs are way, way cheaper than a traditional plan. But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies here: there are a few small downsides.
As we already mentioned, you’ll likely see slower speeds MVNOs. This may seem like a deal breaker to some users, but most users would be hard-pressed to notice the difference. Most people don’t use your phone for anything that bandwidth-intensive. You probably use it to scroll through Facebook, check email, watch a few YouTube videos, or stream music. For all of those things, 8Mbps is a perfectly acceptable speed, and well worth the lower cost. For what it’s worth, there hasn’t been a time that I’ve personally noticed a difference between Cricket and AT&T during every day usage—I still do all the same things I used to, still with zero latency or lag.
Each individual MVNO may have other downsides or missing features. Some may not offer tethering/hotspot features; some will. Most won’t offer roaming capabilities (though I’ve yet to run into an area where I didn’t have coverage). Some may offer a very small selection of phones, while others will allow you to bring your own phone (which, to me, is a must-have feature). It’s all about researching the different carriers and finding the one with the features you want.
How to Buy a Phone for an MVNO
Speaking of bringing your own phone, that’s another downside—buying a phone for an MVNO is a bit more difficult than most of the big carriers.
Like the big four carriers, you can buy a phone directly from an MVNO carrier. Walk into their store, pick out a phone you want, and sign up for a plan. But their phone selection is usually limited to cheap, low-end devices, with maybe a few more popular phones like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy line. But if you have a specific phone you want to use that isn’t offered at the carrier’s store, you’ll want to look at a carrier that offers BYOD (bring your own device) features, then buy the phone directly from the manufacturer (Apple, Google, Samsung) or a retailer (like Amazon or Best Buy).
That means you’ll have to pay full price for that phone, which in some cases can seem very expensive (the iPhone 7, for example, costs $650 for the 32GB version). But this is the direction the entire cellphone industry is moving—carriers don’t subsidize phones like they used to with two-year contracts. In many cases, the manufacturer or retailer selling the phone will have a financing plan if you want to pay that cost over time. For example, Google and Apple both offering financing so customers can buy unlocked phones directly from them, where Amazon and Best Buy both have “store” credit cards that allow users to finance anything they buy.
(And, keep in mind, you’re still saving a ton of money in the long run by going with an MVNO, so it’s well worth it.)
RELATED: Can I Bring My iPhone to Another Carrier?
So how do you figure out which phones are compatible with your carrier? Well, you either have to know a little bit about phones, know someone who does, or be willing to do some research. Different carriers use different types of mobile technology—T-Mobile and AT&T both use GSM, where Verizon and Sprint are CDMA carriers, and phones aren’t always compatible with both.
In the old days, when you bought a phone directly from your carrier, you were guaranteed compatibility—but that isn’t necessarily true if you’re buying your phone separately and bringing it to your carrier. You can’t take a phone built for Verizon (a CDMA carrier) to Cricket Wireless (an AT&T-owned GSM carrier). Some phones may have support for both GSM and CDMA networks, but many don’t. You’ll have to research the phone you want to see which version you need.
RELATED: How to Unlock Your Cell Phone (So You Can Bring It to a New Carrier)
Furthermore, when you buy a phone from a traditional carrier, that phone is usually locked to that carrier, until either your contract is up or you pay off the phone. You can’t bring a carrier-locked phone to an MVNO, though—you’ll either need to get it unlocked by your old carrier, or buy a phone that comes unlocked. Apple sells carrier-unlocked iPhones, Google sells unlocked Pixel phones, and pretty much every manufacturer out there sells some sort of unlocked version of their popular phones. You can even get them at retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and Newegg.
Of course, it takes a bit of research to know exactly what you’re getting—sometimes the unlocked models are actually international phones and won’t necessarily always play well on US networks. So you’ll definitely need to do your research.
Our Favorite Alternate Cellphone Providers
Okay, now that we’ve covered what an MVNO is and what to expect when making the switch, let’s talk about some of your options. Keep in mind that we’re only going to talk about a handful of different providers here—this is not, by any means, a full list of all your options, but they are some of the best.
Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T, so it uses the same network, and any AT&T-compatible phone will work since it’s running on the same network. So what’s the difference between the two? Cricket limits its data speeds to 8Mbps, where AT&T has no limits on speed. Is this something you’ll actually notice? Hardly. After spending several years with AT&T, I made the switch to Cricket several months ago without so much as a hiccup. I literally can’t tell the difference between the two, no matter how hard I try.
That last statement applies to service only, of course, because my wallet can definitely tell a difference. Even though I’m on the same network with the same phones, my bill is significantly lower—$130 per month, including tax. On AT&T, the same setup was costing us roughly $100 more per month, and that’s without overages!
Unlike with AT&T where my entire family shared out of a 15GB data bucket, each line on Cricket has its own data. That way, when my son inevitably goes over his data limit (every month, I swear), I no long have to shell out $10 per gigabyte to cover his overage. Instead, he just has to deal with super slow data. That’s a huge win-win to me.
These savings are best when you have a few people on your plan, because they drop the price of each line by $10, with those funds stacking. It looks something like this:
- $50 for the first line (5GB)
- $40 for the second line (5GB)—Normally $50
- $30 for the third line (5GB)—Normally $50
- $10 for the fourth line (2.5GB)—Normally $40
- $0 for the fifth line (2.5GB)—Normally $40
Yeah, you’re reading that right: the fifth line is free. I pay nothing. Like I said, the savings here can be substantial.
If you don’t have multiple lines, Cricket also offers a $5 discount if you enroll in auto pay. It’s not as nice as the “Group Save Discount” highlighted above, and you won’t get that $5 discount if you take advantage of the group save discount, but it’s still a nice incentive, I suppose.
When it comes to coverage, Cricket has you…well, covered. It’s owned by AT&T, so you get the exact same coverage as its parent company. Hard to beat it, really.
Note: At the time of writing, Cricket is offering 8GB for the price of 5GB for a limited time, which is reflected in the screenshots.
Ting is an interesting provider, because it basically combines old school and new school thinking: instead of offering unlimited talk and text, you select how much of each you plan on using, à la carte. Data naturally works the same way (as it does with all carriers), but the result is the same across the board: the less you use, the more you save. After all, if you only talk on the phone for a total of 17 minutes every month, why pay more for unlimited?
The thing is, Ting is really only a good deal if you don’t use much of anything. Here’s a little breakdown, using a similar scenario as mine from above:
- 5 Lines
- 1000 minutes (shared)
- 2000 text messages (shared)
- 15GB data (shared)
- = $206 a month (or $41.20 per line)
As you can see, Ting isn’t really the best choice if you have a big family that wants to use a lot of data. But let’s see how that plays out for a single person who may not use many minutes, texts, or data:
- 1 Line
- 500 minutes
- 1000 text messages
- 2GB data
- = $40 a month
See? Much better, and at least somewhat realistic, depending on the person. Fortunately, Ting has a good calculator that lets you play around with the numbers to see if it’s a viable option for you and your family.
Ting is equally as interesting when it comes to coverage. Ting uses both CDMA—provided by Sprint—and GSM—provided by T-Mobile—to offer its customers a choice between the two. Unfortunately, you can’t seamlessly switch between the two on one device, so you’ll have to choose which network—Sprint’s or T-Mobile’s—you want to use for your plan.
Sptint and T-Mobile don’t have coverage quite as good as Verizon or AT&T, so you’ll see that Ting’s GSM map is a little more sparse:
And its CDMA map isn’t much better:
In addition, the speeds can vary greatly depending on which network you’re on and where you’re at. From what I can tell, Ting doesn’t cap its data in any way, so the company’s FAQ lists typical theoretical speeds for each network type. In other words: your mileage may vary. Sometimes dramatically.
Basically, this is definitely one of those things you’re going to want to research if you travel a lot—if you stay home basically all the time and you’re in a covered area, Ting may work out well for you. If you like to get out and about, however, you could be left without coverage fairly often or have to deal with ultra-slow connection speeds.
Project Fi is Google’s take on wireless service, and is slightly similar to Ting in thinking: why pay for what you don’t need? Unlike Ting, it offers unlimited talk and text (which also includes international coverage), but it allows users to pick how much data they actually need.
But here’s the really crazy part: if you don’t use all of your data, Fi actually gives you money back for the unused data. There is no rollover of unused data like with some major carriers, but you also don’t lose money on data you don’t use.
Google has also placed heavy reliance upon Wi-Fi connections to keep data costs down. Basically, Fi will automatically watch for and connect to known, trusted Wi-Fi networks, then encrypt your data using a Google VPN. Sound familiar? That’s because the Wi-Fi Assistant feature now available on Nexus and Pixel phones started its life as a Project Fi feature.
Google also keeps Fi ridiculously simple in terms of plan setup The Basic Plan (which is required and includes talk and text) is $20 for the first line, $15 for each line thereafter, and you pay $10 per gigabyte you use. That’s it.
That makes it really easy to figure out how much you’ll spend. Again, let’s look at my plan:
- 5 Lines: $80 for the basic plan
- 20GB of data: $200
- = $280
Now, that’s pretty expensive—more than double what I’m currently paying for Cricket—the saving grace here, however, is that I’ll get money back for unused data. So it depends on how much you end up actually using.
Again, let’s look at this for a single user. You’ll find that it’s much more manageable:
- 1 Line: $20 for the basic plan
- 3GB of data: $30
- = $50
Now, you’ve got a full-featured plan for $50, with money back for whatever you don’t use. That’s not a bad deal at all.
The main downside of Fi is that it’s only available for a select few Android phones: currently, only the Google Pixel, Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 5X are supported.
When it comes to coverage, Fi uses a Ting-like approach and offers access to multiple networks. Instead of offering you the choice between two networks, though, Fi combines T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular’s networks into one mega network, switching seamlessly between the three. You don’t have to pick which network you want, as Fi will do all the heavy lifting for you. That’s also why it’s only available on select devices: they were specifically designed to support Fi’s SIM card and network configuration. You can read more about that in Fi’s FAQ.
Republic Wireless is very similar to Project Fi in that it also relies heavily upon Wi-Fi in order to keep data costs down. Unlike Fi, however, it doesn’t encrypt your data or use VPN to keep it safe—if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network, it’s up to you to pay attention to the data you’re transmitting.
Republic also keeps the plans simple: each line is individual, and there are no family plans. It really doesn’t get any less complicated than that. Let’s reference my plan again:
- 3 Lines with unlimited talk/text and 4GB data: $135 ($45 each)
- 2 Lines with unlimited talk/text and 2GB data: $60 ($30 each)
- = $195
That’s a pretty average deal if you ask me—still cheaper than what you’ll get with most of the major carriers, but not as good as you can get with some of the others. Again, however, let’s break this down for a singular user:
- 1 Line with unlimited talk/text and 4GB of data: $45
- …that’s it.
I do love how simple Republic Wireless keeps its plans. This might be the way to go if you’re around Wi-Fi often and don’t want to spend a lot on data.
Also like Fi, Republic is only available for specific Android devices—sorry iPhone users, this isn’t the network for you. The good news is that the device selection is a little broader on Republic, and the company also offers financing should you decide to pick up the phone directly through them.
As far as coverage is concerned, Republic works on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks. Still, coverage seems to be hit and miss—especially in the mid-west. I’d definitely so my research if I was considering Republic.
Other Noteworthy Options
While Cricket, Ting, Project Fi, and Republic are all some of the best options around, they’re not the only MVNOs out there. There are a slew of other carriers to choose from, and if you’re looking to make the switch, you’ll definitely want to spend some time doing the proper research. While each one has downsides, it’s all about finding the downsides that don’t matter as much to you.
If you’re looking to branch out from this list, I recommend checking out Straight Talk (owned by TracFone), which works a lot like Cricket but offer access to any of the four of the major carriers’ networks (so you choose which one you want—it’s not like Fi, which switches between them all). Still, its coverage is excellent and prices are very reasonable. The biggest downside here is that, like so many others, Straight Talk doesn’t offer family plans—everyone is on their own. That means no discounts for stacking lines, which is what makes carriers like Cricket so affordable. Net10 is a sister company to Straight Talk, but just offers access to T-Mobile or AT&T’s networks. Otherwise it’s the same.
If you’re in a good T-Mobile coverage area, it would also make sense to take a closer look at T-Mobile’s Pre-Paid service. It offers identical coverage and speeds to its post-paid sister, has access to family plans, and it does all of it at very reasonable prices. You could go with Straight Talk or Net10’s T-Mobile service if you want, but why not go directly to the source if it’s going to save you the same amount of money? Again, research will be needed there—everyone’s situation and needs are different, so do yourself a service and spend the needed time to compare all your options! Sites like Prepaid Finder allows you to search and compare plans from all the major MVNOs, which should help you narrow down your choices.
As you can see here, there are a lot of ways to save money on your monthly bill, as long as you’re willing to do a bit more research up front. With prices as low as half of what you may be currently paying, there’s no real reason not to at least explore some of the options out there—you’ll ultimately end up with service that’s just as good as what you’re currently using, and have a slightly fatter wallet at the end of it all.
Image Credits: Carl Lender/Flickr, John Karakatsanis/Flickr
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