Choosing the Best Prepaid Plan
Prepaid plans offer many of the conveniences of traditional monthly plans but instead of paying at the end of the month based on your usage, you pay upfront for a certain allotment of minutes, text messages, data, and other features.
One type of plan isn’t inherently better than the other, but how can you know you’re picking the best prepaid plan available in your area?
Here are the answers to popular questions that will help you determine if a prepaid plan is right for you and get your search for the perfect plan off to a solid start.
1. How Do Prepaid Plans Work?
Most prepaid plans fall under one of two types:
Pay-as-you-go service typically involves purchasing credits that are applied to your account.
Every time you use your phone, it uses some credits. How many credits often depends on how you used your phone. Calling, texting, and data use often use differing amounts of credits.
Once you run out of credits, you’ll find features restricted until you add more credits. This could mean you’re unable to place calls, send texts, browse the web, or use any of the service-related features on your phone.
Bundles work much like traditional monthly plans, providing you with an allotment of minutes, text messages, data, and other features each month.
However, instead of paying at the end of the month you’ll pay in advance.
Also unlike monthly plan providers, most prepaid providers restrict features instead of charging overage fees should you go over your bundle allotment.
2. Do I Need a Credit Check to Get Pre-Pay Cell Phone Service?
Most prepaid plans require no deposits or credit checks. You buy a phone (or bring your own) and choose a plan or a top-up amount that works for you and you’re good to go.
This makes prepaid plans ideal for those who are watching their credit, trying to get phone service with bad credit, or who want to avoid deposits often associated with signing up for a postpaid phone plan.
However, lower upfront costs for service come with a significant trade-off. In most cases, you won’t find discounts on phones that go with prepaid plans. Also, phone selection at many prepaid service providers is often lacking.
If you’re looking for the latest top-tier phones with affordable payments, a monthly service plan might be a better fit -- even with the deposit or credit check.
3. Can I Switch Prepaid Service Providers?
Flexibility to switch services when you want is another popular reason to choose a prepaid provider. Since you pay in advance, you don’t have to worry about contracts or early termination fees.
Want to choose a different service provider? Just finish using your credits or monthly bundle plan and don’t top-off or pay for another month.
The one exception to this is payment plans for devices.
While most prepaid providers don’t offer phone financing, if you have a financed device through your service provider, you might find that you need to pay off the balance in full upon cancellation or continue to make payments after switching.
4. Aren’t Prepaid Plans More Expensive?
In some cases, yes. However, prepaid plans are getting more competitive all the time.
If you’re a heavy data user or you want the latest high-end phones, prepaid plans will cost you more than a monthly plan.
However, if you’re a casual phone user, don’t mind using lower or mid-tier phones, or already own a perfectly good unlocked phone, prepaid plans can be as affordable -- if not cheaper -- than monthly plans.
Credit-based prepaid plans often run more than those with an allotment of minutes, text message, and data. So bundle plans are often the way to go unless you rarely use your phone. They offer a good balance of savings and flexibility as long as you use most of your allotment each month.
5. Do Prepaid Providers Offer the Same Level of Service?
This will depend on the type of service you’re talking about.
In terms of the best service coverage, many prepaid providers offer the same coverage as the bigger networks. This is because most lease network coverage from -- or are owned by -- one of them.
However, customer support options between providers vary.
Some will only offer support through email, tickets, or phone, while others offer the same convenient access to support you’d find at a bigger carrier.
If customer support options are important to you, be sure to check with the carrier before signing up to avoid any surprises.
6. Do Prepaid Plans Have the Same Features as Postpaid Plans?
While some prepaid plans are very basic, most work just like a standard monthly plan.
You can surf the web or download apps using 3G or 4G data, text with friends, place calls, and more. They also offer similar calling features, such as voicemail, conference calling, call waiting, and call forwarding.
Most will even allow tethering using your monthly allotment or pay-as-you-go credits.
Roaming support is the major exception here.
Support for international travel is often hit or miss from prepaid providers.
You’ll want to check our carrier reviews to see if they allow roaming and fees you can expect.
However, if you have an unlocked phone that is compatible with the networks at your destination, nothing stops you from picking up a local prepaid SIM when you arrive and swapping them out until you return.
7. Can I Bring My Own Phone to a Prepaid Plan?
In most cases, yes. This will depend more on the network frequencies your phone supports and if the phone is unlocked than if the carrier will allow you to bring your phone as nearly all providers are happy to let you use your own.
Finding out if your phone is compatible with a specific service provider is easy.
Our carrier summaries also outline which services let you bring your own device to help narrow down potential options quickly.
8. What’s the Best Prepaid Plan Available?
This answer will depend on your needs.
Our round-up of the best prepaid plans highlights multiple options based on how you use your phone.
You can also use the comparison tool above to compare plans across a range of factors -- including pricing, features, and carrier -- and avoid the hassle of jumping between tabs and filtering through confusing marketing hype.
9. Which Prepaid Service Provider is Best?
Your experience with a particular service provider will depend on your location, phones, how you use your phone, the plan you choose, and a variety of other considerations.
One provider isn’t always better than the other.
So how can you know what to expect?
Our carrier reviews summarize what major reviewers and community members have to say about each service provider.
You can also ask any local family members or friends. If they love their provider and it works well for them, there’s a good chance you’ll have a good experience too.
Prepaid plans offer an interesting alternative to postpaid monthly plans.
Whether you’re looking for peace of mind against overage fees, an affordable option for light use, or freedom from contracts and early termination fees, prepaid plans offer enough options to suit most needs.
For more information on choosing a carrier and finding the ideal plan for your needs and budget, be sure to check out our cell plan buyer’s guide. You can also ask any questions you might have over at our Q&A forums.