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How to save on mobile plans: Your guide to 16 no-contract carriers

By Rick Broida
April 24, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Ultra Mobile

Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $19/month for 1,000 voice minutes/unlimited texts/100MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2014

Along with H2O Wireless, Ultra Mobile is among the few carriers to bundle international calling and texting along with the usual menu of services. The $19 starter plan includes unlimited global texting and $1.25 of "call anywhere" credit, while the $29 plan adds 1,000 international minutes (which are good for calls to over 70 countries).

Ultra Mobile doesn't sell phones and its website does a poor job explaining the company's BYOD options. Basically, you pick the plan you want, then order a standard or micro SIM card ($9.95) for your unlocked GSM phone. But it's only deep within the site's FAQ pages that this latter aspect is mentioned. Also, Ultra's data allotments are capped, meaning once you hit your plan's limit, data gets turned off (rather than throttled) unless you buy more.

UppWireless

Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $15/month for unlimited phone minutes/texts, 1GB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2014

The $15 package offered by UppWireless seems a tantalizing deal. All you need is an unlocked GSM phone and the company's $9.95 SIM card, or one of the handful of Android phones available for purchase.

But there are catches. For starters, all calls and text messages rely on voice-over-IP apps (which leverage Wi-Fi when available). For iOS users, that means using the company's UppTalk app. Android users have it easier: UppTalk can utilize the stock Phone and Messaging apps, making for a more seamless switch.

Furthermore, as with Republic Wireless, UppTalk doesn't currently support short-code messaging, meaning you won't be able to get two-factor authentication messages, airline boarding passes and the like. And as of press time, you can't port your existing number.

Virgin Mobile

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $35/month for 300 voice minutes, unlimited texts/data
BYOD: No
In business since: 2001

You can't bring your own, but anyone shopping for a new smartphone would do well to consider Virgin Mobile, which offers a good mix of popular and exclusive models, most at discounted prices. At press time, for example, you could buy the iPhone 5c (16GB) for $314.99, versus $549 if purchased contract-free from Apple.

What's more, Virgin offers some of the most competitive plans around, starting at $35 monthly for unlimited messaging and data (or $30 if you sign up for autopay and use an iPhone). Just be sure to check the coverage map, as Virgin doesn't provide the same roaming blanket as Sprint proper, a potential problem if you live, work and/or travel in remote areas.

Zact Mobile

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $1.88/month for 0 voice minutes/0 texts/50MB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 2013

Created with families in mind, newcomer Zact borrows a page from the Ting playbook, offering customizable rate plans you can share with up to six users. But Zact offers far more granularity in choosing how many minutes, messages and megabytes you want per month, and will even issue an account credit if you don't use the full amount of your selected tiers.

However, you can't BYOD, and the company currently offers just two handsets: the Samsung Galaxy SIII ($389) and ZTE Awe ($89). Still, parents might appreciate Zact's kid-minded control options, which include curfews, restrictions and rewards. And those controls can be deployed from non-Zact phones running Android or iOS, so you can deploy the lower-end phones to the kids while keeping your premium model -- as long as you don't mind managing multiple carriers.

How the Big Four hope to woo you back

Given the sheer number of carriers now undercutting AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, it stands to reason the Big Four would have no choice but to lower their rates and rethink their contract requirements. Good news: It's happening. In fact, in recent months, they've fired back with some surprisingly competitive options -- though just make sure you read the fine print regarding overage charges, because if you exceed your monthly data allotment, you could be looking at an even bigger bill than before.

Here's a look at some of the latest incentives from the Big Four:

AT&T

In February, AT&T revamped its Mobile Share plans to include a particularly family-friendly option: $160 per month for four smartphones, with unlimited voice minutes and messaging, and 10GB of shared 4G data. That works out to $40 per month per family member; additional lines cost just $15 each (though you'll still be sharing that same 10GB). These options are available for new and existing customers alike, and can even be applied to non-contract phones purchased from AT&T Next (which promises a new smartphone every 12 to 18 months).

Sprint

The grammatically challenged Sprint "Framily" plan affords unlimited talk and text and 1GB of data to everyone in your group: friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, etc. The more folks you bring into your mini-collective, the lower everyone's monthly rate: $45 per line with three people, $35 with five, and as low as $25 if you rope in 7 to 10 customers -- all of whom can have separate bills. There's no contract required and, consequently, no termination fees if any or all subscribers want to jump ship.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile made headlines earlier this year by offering to pay the early-termination fee (ETF) when you switch from your current carrier. And just this month, the company introduced its Simple Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk and text and 500MB of 4G data -- with no data overages. Instead, your bandwidth is capped at 500MB, and you get an alert when you're nearing your limit. When that happens, you can buy another 500MB for the day ($5) or 1GB for the week ($10).

Verizon

Verizon's recently introduced More Everything plan lives up to its name: Subscribers get more bang for the buck, but the rates themselves haven't changed much. Instead, plans now include added perks like 25GB of cloud storage and unlimited international messaging. But a family of four will pay $40 per smartphone plus $100 for a shared 10GB data plan, though there are other options (6GB, 8GB, 12GB and 14GB) for lighter and heavier users. That's $100 more per month than AT&T's four-person plan.



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