Personal Finance

MVNOs—The Cheapest Cellphone Plans You've Never Heard Of

Don't know what MVNOs are? They're just about the best cheap cellphone plans on the market right now

Can you imagine leaving the house without your cellphone? Neither can the 95% of Americans who now own a handheld device and will happily spend an average of 3.5 hours a day staring into one—even when they go to the bathroom. But with how much screen time we log in, cheap cellphone plans can be hard to come by. In fact, annual spending for cellular phone services increased by 58.4% per consumer from 2007 to 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they've since continued to rise every year.

While most of us are tethered to our smartphones and a major carrier plan that seems to cost more every year, there might be a smarter alternative. Steven Eck was one of those customers who made the switch. Eck paid about $85 a month for unlimited talk, text and 5GB of data on an AT&T post-paid plan. He now uses Straight Talk—a multinetwork mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service—and pays $45 a month for unlimited talk, text and 10GB of data, saving him about $480 a year. "What prompted me to make the switch was realizing I could save a lot over a year's time," he said. "I also had noticed that little by little, my AT&T plan was going up every couple of months by itself."

Never heard of an MVNO carrier? You're probably not alone. But if you're looking to save money on your cellphone bill, here's your chance to learn about the best MVNO plans being offered right now and whether there's one that's right for you.

What is an MVNO?

Before you can determine whether an MVNO plan is for you, you'll want to understand what they are and how they work. An MVNO is a wireless service provider that uses the network of one of the Big Four carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile) to provide cellular service to their customers. Because MVNOs don't typically have their own network infrastructures, like cell towers, they're able to pass down savings in the form of cheaper cellphone plans.

"MVNOs don't have a wireless network infrastructure of their own, so they buy access to the MNO networks—like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint—at wholesale rates, then offer services to consumers through their own brand and plans," said Tina Chang, editorial director at cellphone plan comparison site WhistleOut.com. "MVNOs… generally offer lower-cost plans compared to the MNOs, but with the same network quality."

And while these MVNO plans aren't exactly household names, they are anything but fly-by-night companies. In many cases, MVNOs are either wholly or partly owned by one of the Big Four carriers. "This is a marketing technique for targeting different types of customers," said Brandon Ackroyd, founder of TigerMobiles.com, a cellphone comparison platform. "For instance, Metro is a subsidiary of T-Mobile trying to target younger and more price-conscious consumers who historically viewed prepaid as a lesser form of service." Why traditional MNOs would offer tiered pricing is a matter of reaching more customers, said Ackroyd: "Lower prices can be offered on a sub-brand without cannibalizing the revenues made on the primary brand."

The pros and cons of MVNOs

If you're halfway sold on MVNOs, there are plenty of upsides to making the switch. But there are other considerations to factor into your decision-making.

Pros

  • Generally cheaper than tradition MNO plans
  • Use the same networks as the Big Four providers
  • There are plans for practically every budget
  • No credit checks are required

Cons

  • Data speeds may be slower because customers on MNOs get preference
  • Fewer phone purchase options
  • No bells and whistles on plan features
  • No brick-and-mortar stores for customer service issues

How MVNOs work

Most MVNOs work strictly with prepaid phone options. This means you need to buy your phone outright at full price or own your current phone, which you bring with you to your new MVNO plan. MNO carriers, on the other hand, offer installment and leasing options along with prepaid plans. Once you've picked an MVNO plan, you would typically order a SIM card, choose your cellphone plan online, then activate the card to get started.

If you plan on keeping your current phone and it isn't compatible across the different networks, it's worth considering an MVNO plan under your current provider. "The great thing is that most of the newer phones now are compatible across all carriers, as long as they are unlocked, which makes switching easier than ever," Chang said.

How MVNOs can offer cheap cellphone plans

If you're looking for the cheapest cellphone plans out there, you'll likely find your solution on an MVNO network. "If we take a look at unlimited plans only, MVNO plans are priced around $50 a month," said Chang. "The only plan offered by any of the MNOs that is also $50 a month is AT&T's prepaid plan (or plans discounted for military or seniors). Otherwise, you're looking at anywhere from $60 a month to $95 a month for unlimited plans from MNOs."

MVNOs get even cheaper if you're in search of a limited-data plan. "Plans start from as little as $20 a month, with a good selection of plans for $30 a month or less," she said. "MNO plans start at $40 a month."

According to Ackroyd, MVNOs are able to offer cheaper rates for a few main reasons:

  • They aren't paying to maintain their own network.
  • They're generally spending less on marketing, physical store presence and customer service support.
  • Some of the perks you get with the MNOs—for example, music streaming—often aren't included with an MVNO.
  • It's a marketing decision. When an MVNO is owned by an MNO, they offer lower prices to target different types of customers without taking customers away from the primary brand.

The best MVNO plans on the market

Below, our MVNO list outlines each service to help you find an option that best fits your needs.

AT&T MVNO

Cricket Wireless

Price: Starts at $25 a month for talk and text with no data access and goes up to $60 a month (or $55 a month with auto pay) for unlimited talk and text with 4G LTE data. Discounts are provided for more lines, with four lines of unlimited data topping out at $100 a month.

Device: Visit Cricket's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Unlimited data with speeds up to 3 Mbps starts at $55 a month ($50 a month with auto pay) and goes up to $60 a month ($55 a month with auto pay) for unlimited data with 4G LTE speeds and other add-ons for Cricket.

Best for: Multiple line bundle discounts make Cricket Wireless a cheap cellphone plan option for families with kids or teenagers.

Note: Download and streaming speeds max out for certain data plans, and Cricket may temporarily slow data speeds during times of network congestion.

FreeUP Mobile

Price: FreeUP's base plan is free with 250 minutes, 250 text messages and 100 MB of 4G LTE data. For $10 a month, you can get unlimited talk and text and 200MB of 4G LTE data.

Device: Visit FreeUP's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: The unlimited plan is $20 a month for unlimited talk and text and at least 1GB of data.

Best for: FreeUP's zero-cost option is best for ultra-low users who rarely need their phones.

Note: FreeUP operates purely online for everything, including billing and customer service.

Verizon MVNO

Page Plus Cellular

Price: Plans start at just $12 a month ($10 a month with auto pay) for 500 minutes, 500 text/picture messages and 100 MB of data and go up to $55 a month for unlimited talk, text and 4G LTE data.

Device: Visit Page Plus Cellular's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: The $55 a month plan offers unlimited talk, text and 4G LTE data.

Best for: Page Plus Cellular's super-cheap $12 a month plan is great for people who don't use their cellphones a lot.

Note: Coverage varies, and at 2G speeds, the functionality of some data applications like streaming audio or video may be affected.

Sprint MVNO

Tello Price: If you plan on using your phone for emergencies only, Tello offers an option with no data and 100 minutes with free texts for as low as $5 a month, or 10GB of data and unlimited minutes with free text will run you $39 a month.

Device: Visit Tello's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: The 4G LTE unlimited data usage option throttles you down to 2G once you use up your plan's allotted data usage.

Best for: Tello's super-cheap phone options are great for beginners (like a young child who uses a phone for emergency purposes).

Note: "Unlimited" data options with Tello actually lower your data speeds after you hit a certain limit.

Virgin Mobile

Price: A $35 a month plan gets you 5GB of 4G LTE data and unlimited talk and text, while $60 a month will get you unlimited talk and text and unlimited 4G LTE data.

Device: Visit Virgin Mobile's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: For $60 a month, you'll get unlimited talk and text and unlimited 4G LTE data.

Best for: Travelers who love staying at Virgin hotels, as users of this plan receive additional discounts there in addition to a 0.25% student loan refinance rate discount with SoFi, among other benefits.

Boost Mobile

Price: A $35 a month plan gets you 5GB of 4G LTE data and unlimited talk and text, while $60 a month will get you unlimited talk and text and unlimited 4G LTE data.

Device: Visit Boost Mobile's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: For $80 a month, you will get unlimited gigabytes, HD streaming and a 50GB mobile hot spot.

Best for: Boost Mobile also offers great family plan options.

Ting

Price: You don't pick from a plan, per se. Instead, your usage is pooled and shared across all your devices. You use what you need and pay accordingly at the end of your billing cycle. For example, one line with 500 minutes of talk, up to 1,000 texts and 2GB of data costs an estimated $50 a month.

Device: Visit Ting's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: With Ting, you pay for what you use.

Best for: Ting is good for people who don't want to pick from one particular plan option.

Note: At Ting, going over your allotted data can really cost you. For example, when you use more than 2GB of data on that particular plan, you'll pay $20 plus $10 for each additional gigabyte used. Ting also offers savings and rates calculators at its site to help consumers compare cellphone plan pricing.

Republic Wireless Price: Plans start at $15 a month for unlimited talk and text and $5 per gigabyte of high-speed 4G LTE cell data. Device: Visit Republic Wireless's website for information on compatible devices. Unlimited data option: With Republic Wireless, you pay per gigabyte used. Note: Keep in mind that any of these options work off the Sprint network, which is the weakest out of the four MNOs, said Chang.

FreedomPop

Price: FreedomPop plans start at $19.99 a month with unlimited talk, text and 1GB of data. There is also a free monthly service for people who pick smaller plans.

Device: Visit FreedomPop's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: There is no unlimited data plan.

Best for: People who can do without an unlimited data plan.

T-Mobile MVNO

MetroPCS

Price: MetroPCS plans start at $30 a month for 2GB of high-speed data per line and go up to $60 a month for unlimited high-speed data access with 15GB of hot spot data, 100GB of Google One service and an Amazon Prime membership.

Device: Visit MetroPCS's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Unlimited high-speed data plans start at $50 a month at MetroPCS.

Best for: MetroPCS plans are similar to traditional cellphone service plans, so this might be good for people who want to dip their toe into the MVNO options before jumping right in.

Note: Coverage is limited and certain restrictions apply.

Mint Mobile

Price: Mint Mobile offers three-month introductory plans starting at $15 a month for 2GB of 4G LTE service (the regular price is $23 a month) on up to $25 a month for 10GB of 4G LTE service (at a regular price of $38 a month). They also offer six-month and 12-month plan options. All plans include unlimited talk and text.

Device: Visit Mint Mobile's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Unlimited data is available on all Mint Mobile plans, but at lower speeds once you hit the amount you pay for per month.

Best for: The three-, six- and 12-month plan options at Mint Mobile are an easy way to test out MVNO options as well.

Note: Coverage is limited and certain restrictions apply.

Multinetwork MVNOs

Google Fi

Price: Google Fi (run by Google) starts at $20 for unlimited talk and text (plus $15 for each additional person) and $10 for each gigabyte of data used until 6GB, at which point Google Fi's bill protection caps your bill and data is free for the rest of the month.

Device: Visit Google Fi's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Yes for all, with stipulations.

Best for: Google Fi's unlimited, free data use after 6GB is good for people who are constantly using data on their phone.

Note: Google Fi's data slows after you use more than 15GB in a month. Also, if you purchase a phone designed specifically for Fi, it will automatically keep you on the best signal by shifting between three mobile 4G LTE networks and automatically connecting to secure Wi-Fi hot spots.

Red Pocket Mobile

Price: At Red Pocket Mobile, plans start at $10 for 30 days for 500 minutes, 500 texts and 500MB of LTE Data. For $60 per 30 days, you'll get unlimited talk and text and 12GB of LTE data, with unlimited data up to 2G speeds thereafter.

Device: Visit Red Pocket Mobile's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Yes for all, with stipulations.

Note: Red Pocket Mobile also offers free international calls to 70+ countries. You can add on a global calling card to your Straight Talk Wireless plan for only $10.

Straight Talk Wireless

Price: Straight Talk plans start at $30 a month for unlimited texts, 1,500 minutes of talk and 100MB of data and go up to $60 a month for unlimited talk and text and unlimited data with the first 15GB at high speeds, then at 2G after.

Device: Visit Straight Talk Wireless's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Yes for all, with stipulations

Tracfone

Price: With Tracfone, smartphone plans start at $50 for 30 days of service with 200 minutes of talk, 500 texts and 500MB of data. On the other end, $125 will get you 365 service days with 1,500 minutes of talk, 1,500 texts and 1.5GB of data.

Device: Visit Tracfone's website for information on compatible devices.

Unlimited data option: Yes for all, with stipulations.

Best for: Tracfone's cheapest option is best for people who use data on their phone sparingly or are mostly connected to Wi-Fi sources. For example, Lorraine Wolfe and her husband both work from their Wisconsin home. After switching to Tracfone, she now pays $5 to $6 a month for service, plus $10 twice a year for an extra 1GB of data, when they had been paying $80+ a month.

Cheryl Lock

Cheryl Lock is a writer who specializes in personal finance topics relating to parenting, real estate and travel, among others. Her work has appeared online at Money, USA Today and Forbes, as well as in national publications like Parents, Woman's Day and Family Circle.