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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

Net10

Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $40/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 1996

A subsidiary of pay-as-you-go giant TracFone Wireless, Net10 sells high-end phones like the iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4 and lower-end models like the Motorola Defy XT -- all at retail prices. But the bigger appeal is for owners of post-contract phones from the Big Four: Net10 supports both GSM and CDMA handsets, meaning it's not just AT&T and T-Mobile expats who can get in on the action, but also the Sprint and Verizon crowds.

Net10's GSM cards cost $6.99, while a CDMA access code will run you $14.99. After that, you can get an "unlimited" no-contract plan for $40 monthly, with high-speed data throttling back after you hit the 500MB mark. You can raise that cap to 2.5GB with the $50 plan, and Net10 will make it $45 if you sign up for autopay. That puts the service on par with the likes of Straight Talk, another TracFone company offering very similar rates.

Page Plus Cellular

Piggybacks on: Verizon Wireless
Starts at: $12/month for 250 voice minutes/250 texts/10MB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 1993

Owners of post-contract Verizon handsets have few third-party options. Technically, Page Plus Cellular is not one of them, even though the carrier taps Verizon's renowned CDMA network. Although some phones not purchased from Page Plus may work, according to the website, "we do not support them and their functionality may be limited." Translation: Look elsewhere, BYOD seekers.

Equally disappointing, the company sells only a few smartphones, all of them lower-end Android models. But if you have modest mobile needs, Page Plus offers some attractive no-contract service plans, including one for just $12 monthly. There's no cheaper way to run a smartphone on Verizon's network.

Republic Wireless

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $25/month for unlimited voice minutes/text, 5GB data
BYOD: No
In business since: 2011

Calls routed over cell towers cost money. Calls routed over Wi-Fi networks cost almost nothing. Republic sells smartphones that tap Wi-Fi whenever possible, switching to towers only when necessary.

Those phones -- the Motorola Moto G and Moto X -- can operate on Republic's Sprint-powered voice network for as little as $5 monthly, though if you want access to cellular data while you're out and about (i.e. away from Wi-Fi), you'll pay $25 for 3G or $40 for 4G. Just two issues: Call quality can be spotty, and at press time you couldn't send or receive short-code text messages (though Republic is working on both issues).

Solavei

Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $39/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2012

There's a hint of the pyramid scheme in Solavei's business plan, which encourages subscribers to "sponsor" friends and family members, and chops $5 off your monthly bill for each person you sign up. Wrangle enough people and you could actually end up making money.

Even without these incentivized referrals, Solavei offers competitive rates, including a $39 plan with a 500MB high-speed data allowance. You're encouraged to bring your own unlocked GSM handset, but the company also sells phones (including iPhones and the Google Nexus 5) via a third-party reseller. And speaking of reselling, Solavei would cost you absolutely nothing if you refer just eight paying customers. That's something any bargain-hunter would have to think seriously about.

Straight Talk

Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $30/month for 1,000 voice minutes/1,000 texts/30MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2009

Like Net10, another TracFone-owned enterprise, Straight Talk sells both phones and BYOD service. Also like Net10, Straight Talk supports both CDMA and GSM handsets, leveraging AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks to supply coverage for different models and different areas of the country.

So, what sets the two apart? Not much, except for plans: Straight Talk offers a bit more bang for the buck with its $45 rate, which includes unlimited everything (with data throttling once you hit 2.5GB). But iPhone users should check the fine print, as picture messaging can be tricky to configure and visual voicemail is flat-out not supported.

Ting

Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $9/month for 0 voice minutes/0 texts/100 MB data
BYOD: Yes
In business since: 2012

For owners of post-contract Sprint phones, Ting is perhaps the single most attractive option available. The service lets you choose from five different tiers each for minutes, messages and data. Thus, if you send a lot of texts but make few phone calls and use Wi-Fi at home and work, you might choose the Large plan for messaging but Small for minutes and Medium for data. An online calculator shows you exactly what you'll pay per month as you juggle your choices.

Only Ting offers this kind of rate-plan customization, and it's among a select few smaller carriers to support both tethering and mobile hotspots. A SIM card will run you $10, though you can also buy unlocked phones like the HTC One and Moto X. But in another example of how Ting seems earnest about saving you money, its Nexus 5 product page reads: "You're welcome to buy it from us for a full $95 more than the Google Play store sells it... But that's crazy talk!"



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