You don't need to have a monthly contract to get an iPhone these days, but which carrier should you bring your phone to?
Taking your iPhone to a pre-paid plan can save you quite a bit of cash and if you live in the United States, there are quite a few options these days. Whether you're a talker, texter or web surfer, there's something to be had for everyone when it comes to moving to a prepaid plan. Some may require tweaking a few settings to get things like picture messaging fully up and running, but if you need to save some cash or just don't fancy signing contracts, pre-paid is a great option.
Let's take a closer look at some options across all the major iPhone compatible pre-paid carriers in the United States.
Check for coverage
The most important aspect of choosing a carrier, prepaid or not, is whether or not there's good coverage in your area. We'd suggest checking coverage maps for each respective carrier so you can eliminate ones that are sub-par or non-existent where you spend most of your time. That'll ultimately make the decision a lot easier.
- T-Mobile Coverage Map - Link
- Straight Talk Coverage Map - Link
- H2O Coverage Map - Link
- Virgin Mobile Coverage Map - Link
- Boost Mobile Coverage Map - Link
- Cricket Coverage Map - Link
- Net 10 Coverage Map - Link
Once you've decided which carriers actually have good coverage in your area and which ones you can immediately rule out, you can start looking at what plans are actually available to you.
AT&T offers pre-paid cellular service under the GoPhone branding, and you can now bring your own phone to the network. The entry-level plan starts at $30 a month and includes no high-speed data. You pay $5 per 100MB and get unlimited talk and text. The $45 plan comes with 2GB of data, and the unused data can be rolled over to the next month. The $60 plan comes with 5GB of rollover data, and offers unlimited talk and text in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Signing up for Auto Refill will save you $5 a month on the higher plans, but the option is not available for the $30 plan.
Boost Mobile is a CDMA carrier that utilizes Sprint's network. The carrier offers a number of different data options for customers, with pricing starting as low as $30 when you sign up for auto-refill. With the base plan, you get 2GB of LTE data each month and with on-time payments you can grow that up to 5GB per month at the same price.
The next step up would be $45 a month for 5GB which can grow to 8GB, and the $60 plan gives you unlimited LTE data. All of the plans include unlimited talk and text, as well as the ability to use your phone as a hotspot, and unlimited music streaming without using your monthly data allotment.
Cricket is small, but well-known, carrier that offers a few different options to get you started with a decent amount of data at a low cost. The Basic Plan offers 2.5GB of data for $40. The Smart Plan jumps up to $50 with 5GB of data included and the Pro Plan is $60 for 10GB of data. With any of these plans, you can save $5 a month by signing up for Auto Pay.
All of the plans include unlimited talk and text, and both the Smart and Pro plans come with unlimited international texting as well as unlimited calls and texts to and from Mexico and Canada. The more lines you add, the more you can save with Cricket's Group Save Discounts.
H2O is a smaller carrier that offers a bunch of options for those looking to have a pre-paid phone. Pricing starts at just $30 for unlimited talk and text with a meer 500MB of data. For an extra $10 you bump up to 1GB of data, while $50 a month gets you 2GB and $60 earns you 3GB of data.
Compared to the other carriers, H2O offers less data for the money, but depending where you live it may offer the best service in comparison to the others.
Net 10 offers the most options for pre-paid plans, with plans ranging from $35 to $80 depending on your needs. The basic set of plans offer unlimited talk and text, with data starting at 500MB. At $40 you jump up to 1.5GB of data, while $60 gets you 7GB and $75 nets you 10GB. The carrier also offers a number of plans that allow you to earn points towards an upgrade.
For these plans, you need 18 points to get a $300 credit towards an upgraded phone. Pricing for these plans start at $60 with 5GB and 100 minutes of international calling included and you earn one point each month with your payment. $10 more a month will get you the same data with 200 minutes of international calling and 1.5 points with the payment. The $80 plan gives 300 minutes of international calling and 3 months towards an update, so you can earn that credit in just 6 months.
Straight Talk is a GSM MVNO that piggybacks on AT&T's network to provide great coverage at an affordable cost. Plans start at just $30 a month with 1500 minutes and 100MB of data, which likely won't meet the needs of most. For an extra $15, you jump up to unlimited talk and text and 5GB of high-speed data. For the data hungry, Straight Talk offers a $55 plan that has 10GB of data included with it.
With Straight Talk you can pay for 30 days, 3 months, 6 months or even a full year at once. For some this is a great advantage, as you just pay once and then know your phone will work for the year.
T-Mobile has grown in popularity since it ditched contracts, but the company offers pre-paid plans that are quite a steal as well. Recently, the carrier doubled the included data in its plans without doubling the monthly cost. With T-Mobile, your monthly cost will start at $40, which gets you 3GB of high-speed data. $10 more a month will get you up to 5GB, while at $60 a month you jump up to 10GB.
Each plan includes unlimited talk and text, as well as a number of other great features. Some of those include unlimited music streaming, data maximizer to optimize your video streams, and smartphone equity to get your next phone at the best price. You can add on Mexico and Canada calling bundles, as well as international calling bundles if you need. T-Mobile also offers some plans exclusively through Walmart, netting you 5GB of data, with 100 minutes and unlimited texts.
Unlike other carriers, T-Mobile also offers a Pay as you go option which lets you pay for talk, text and data daily. For those traveling into the U.S. for a short period of time, this may work out well.
Virgin Mobile is another MVNO that operates on Sprint's network. With Virgin Mobile you have a number of options depending on how much data you use each month, and pricing starts at $30 a month. For the base tier you get 500MB of data, which isn't a whole lot. Paying $10 more a month will get you 4GB of data, and the $50 plan bumps that up to 6GB.
If these plans don't have enough data, you can opt to add some bundles to your plan. An extra GB will run you $5 for the month, or 2GB for $10. Like Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile also offers unlimited talk and text with all of their plans, and you have the unlimited music streaming that doesn't eat up your data for the month.
Buying an unlocked iPhone
There are a number of places that you can grab an unlocked iPhone from these days. Apple is now offering its own financing plan, so if you want to buy the latest and greatest right from Apple, you can now stretch the payments over 24 months. If you don't need the latest, and are looking to save a few bucks on the phone, there are a few other places to shop for a phone.
Online sites such as eBay, Amazon and Swappa allow you to shop used phones, and find something that better meets your budget needs. Most pre-paid carriers offer the option to purchase an iPhone from them, but most will require you to pay the full cost of the phone upfront.
The bottom line
When it comes to choosing a prepaid carrier, all of the above have their advantages and disadvantages. For the most part, T-Mobile and Straight Talk will have the best nationwide coverage. Cricket, H2O, and Virgin have spottier coverage but if it's strong in the areas you'll spend the most time, it doesn't mean you should rule it out if money is an issue.
Net 10 also has its advantages since they own spectrum on both GSM and CDMA. This means they can take advantage of both networks which gives them pretty good coverage nationwide as well. Considering the price points they offer, it's worth a hard look if they have options available in your area.
If you're looking to get the most bang for your buck with the best coverage, we'd recommend T-Mobile. Not only are their plans reasonable, there are international options to be had as well. T-Mobile offers some Walmart-exclusive plans as well, which offer an even better value for you to take advantage of.
If you use your iPhone with prepaid, what carrier do you use and which ones would you recommend?