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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

Boost Mobile

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $55/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts/data
BYOD: Limited
In business since: 2000

Boost is one of the oldest and largest no-contract carriers, a Sprint-owned service renowned for its "shrinking" service plans: You start out paying $55 per month, then your rate drops $5 every six months. Once you hit the 18-month mark, the plan "bottoms out" at $40 -- a pretty solid deal for 4G service, but too bad it takes 1.5 years to get there.

With the exception of the iPhone 5s and phablet-sized Boost Max -- arguably its flagship models -- Boost sells mostly mid-range phones. Although you can bring your own device, the service currently supports only a smattering of Sprint phones, all of them old and/or low-end models. Given that other Sprint-owned MVNOs (notably Virgin Mobile) offer a broader and better selection of phones and lower monthly rates out of the gate, Boost seems like it could use one.

Consumer Cellular

Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $12.50/month for 0 voice minutes/100 texts/10MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 1995

Popular with the AARP crowd, Consumer Cellular takes a decidedly senior-friendly approach to phones and service plans. Phone choices are limited (but include desirable models like the iPhone 5s and Motorola Moto G), and plan options are available to suit nearly any budget. The company also offers free SIM cards (in all sizes) for use with any AT&T-compatible unlocked phone.

Consumer Cellular's voice plans start at $10 monthly (a keep-your-service-active charge that includes no voice minutes); since data options start at $2.50, the minimum price for a data-only plan is $12 monthly. And although there's no mention of data speeds anywhere on the company's site, a rep confirmed that 4G-capable phones will get 4G service.

Consequently, this could be an attractive option for users who spend most of their time connected to Wi-Fi, or simply don't make a lot of calls.

Cricket

Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $50/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 2.5GB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 1999

One of the older players in the low-cost carrier game, Cricket Wireless is in the final stages of merging with one of the newest: Aio Wireless. That will help keep Cricket competitive in at least one area: BYOD, which Aio offers but Cricket currently does not. Hopefully, Aio will also bring its broader selection of phones to Cricket's anemic mix, which consists of a smattering of Android and low-end (non-smart) phone models. Plus, Cricket's plans start at $50 monthly, while Aio has a $40 cost-of-entry plan ($35 if you use auto-pay). Sounds like just the right infusion of new blood this older carrier needs.

FreedomPop

Piggybacks on: Clearwire, Sprint
Starts at: $0/month for 200 voice minutes/500 texts/500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2011

FreedomPop's claim to fame: Free service. Whether you bring your own phone or buy a refurbished HTC EVO 4G or Samsung Galaxy SII ($109 and $159, respectively), you'll get a monthly stipend of sorts: 200 voice minutes, 500 text messages and 500MB of data. If you hit those caps, extra data runs 2.5 cents per megabyte and a penny per voice minute or text message -- competitive rates all around. There are also monthly and annual plans for users who want unlimited calling and messaging, though data remains capped at 500MB.

But FreedomPop's website borders on user-hostile, providing no information about phones, plans or coverage unless you first enter a ZIP code and email address. Even then, it's extremely difficult to browse the available options. And where I live in metro Detroit, there's no coverage, meaning FreedomPop has yet to expand beyond Sprint's Clearwire WiMax network -- at least for phone service. It's available in only about 18 major metropolises.

Thus, for the moment, FreedomPop's promise of free service is mired under the weight of vague options and services, and limited availability.

Giv Mobile

Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $40/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 250MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2013

Hate the idea of paying $40 to $50 per month to a greedy, faceless corporation? You might feel a little better knowing some of that money is going to a good cause. Giv Mobile donates 8% of your plan payment to one of your choice of charities, including the American Red Cross, Alzheimer's Association and United Way.

Giv's phone selection leaves much to be desired (they're mostly outdated Android models), but for $5 you can buy a mini/micro SIM for use with any unlocked GSM phone. From there you choose either the $40 or $50 Everything plan, both of which offer unlimited calls and messaging but just 250MB or 2GB of high-speed data, respectively, after which you are throttled back to lower speeds. Other carriers give you a bit more bang for the buck, but only Giv gives back.

H2O Wireless

Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $30/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2005

Although H2O Wireless sells the unlocked iPhone 5 (at full price) and a smattering of lower-end Android handsets, the company caters primarily to the BYOD crowd, offering service for any unlocked GSM iPhone or Android phone.

The $30 plan is good for 500MB of data, plus unlimited calls and messaging; it includes free international texting (100 outgoing, unlimited incoming) and a $5 international calling credit. At the $40 level you get 1GB of data and $20 toward international calls, making this an attractive choice for overseas travelers and users with overseas friends and family.



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