Comparison of Lowest-Cost Smartphone Service Plans: Android & iPhone

Starting at $22 per Month for Unlimited Android or iPhone Service (Updated May 2014)

         
Andriod service plans
Android Service Plan Comparison

iPhone Service Plans
iPhone Service Plan Comparison

         

Mobile Service Bargain of the Week: Unlimited talk, text, and 1 GB data for $25 per month from Sprint, prepaid and no contract. Get together with six other family members, relatives, co-workers, or friends, then enroll in a Sprint "framily" plan as a group of seven at $25 per month per line. (Read the fine print. Activation fee of $36 per line applies.) Can't get that many people together? Go to craiglist.org or Google "framily codes" and find an existing framily to join. Accounts are billed separately. You don't even need to know the framily host or reside in the same state. All you need to join is the 11-character framily code and the last four digits of the host phone number. Or consider T-Mobile's similar Family Plan starting at $22 per month (see below).

Mobile Service Bargain of Last Week: Unlimited talk, text, and data for $22 per month from T-Mobile, prepaid and no contract. Get together with four other family members, relatives, co-workers, or friends, then enroll in a T-Mobile family plan as a family of five for $110 per month. That's $22 per line per month. Each line comes with unlimited talk, text, and data, with up to 1 GB 4G data, throttled to a lower speed after that for the rest of the month. What if one "family member" drops out? Then you'll have a family of four for $100 per month or $25 per line, still a great bargain. Unlike the Sprint framily plan, all family members must be billed together. For individuals, they have the Simple Starter Plan, $40 per month for unlimited talk and text, and 500 MB of 4G data.


Smartphone Bargain of Previous Week: The LG Optimus F3 4G LTE from Virgin Mobile is $100 (no-contract full price) direct from Virgin Mobile, or for $80 from Best Buy. This is an Android 4.1.2 phone with a 4-inch touch screen, fast dual-core processor, 5 MP camera with LED flash, and front-facing camera. Reviews are available at PC Magazine. and CNET. The service is $35 per month for unlimited texting and web, and 300 minutes of talk. If you need 1200 minutes, it's $45 per month. These are no-contract plans -- upgrade or downgrade your service, or quit any time, without penalty. (The same phone is available from T-Mobile for $120 refurbished.)

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LG Optimus F3 Virgin Mobile
  LG Optimus F3


How to Shop for a Smartphone

The largest cost of smartphone ownership is not the phone itself, but the mobile carrier service. The cost of the phone is usually between $150 and $600, but the cost of service for two years is usually between $700 and $4,000. If you're trying to save money, you should shop for the service first, then find a phone that you want that works with that service.

There are two way to buy a smartphone:
  • Pay the full retail price of the phone, then get monthly service at a lower cost. At any time, you can stop the service, change carriers or plans, or get a new phone without penalty.

  • Get the phone for free or at a reduced price and sign up for a 2-year contract at a higher monthly rate. Your monthly subscription cost helps pay for the phone over the 2-year term. If you want to get a new phone or cancel the contract early, you'll need to pay a hefty cancellation fee.
In the long run, the lower-cost option is to pay the full price of the phone and then subscribe to a no-contact prepaid plan. For a slightly higher up-front cost, you save on the service costs and have the flexibility to switch plans or quit at any time.

If you choose a 2-year contract, at the end of two years, it's a good idea to sign up for another two-year term and get a new free or reduced-cost phone, or cancel the service entirely and buy a new phone and get new service. Otherwise, you'll continue paying a higher rate to subsidize the cost of your phone, even though you've already paid for it in full.

Among the most popular smartphone systems are Android and Apple iPhone. Although both are good, Android is usually the lower-cost option, at $800 to $1,500 for two years of service and phone using a no-contract plan, depending on your choice of phone and service plan. If you choose iPhone, you can pay full price for the phone (starting at $300 for an iPhone 4) and get service from Virgin Mobile at $30 to $50 per month, or you can get an iPhone 5c for $100 or an iPhone 5s for $200 with an expensive 2-year service contract, having a total 2-year cost of $1,500 to $3,000 or more.

Android Service Plans
iPhone Service Plans
Check Service Quality


Android Service Plans

Android prepaid, no-contract service plans range from $22 to $50 per month, and smartphones cost from about $100 to $600. The following table shows the costs for no-contract service plans with various carriers.

Prepaid Mobile Carrier
Cost
Talk
Text
Web
T-Mobile Prepaid Pay by the Day 2G
$2 / day used
Unlimited
Unlimited Unlimited
T-Mobile Prepaid Pay by the Day 4G
$3 / day used
Unlimited
Unlimited Unlimited
T-Mobile Prepaid Monthly 4G
$30 / month  
 100 min
Unlimited Unlimited
Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk
$35 / month  
 300 min
Unlimited
Unlimited
MetroPCS 4G LTE Plan 250MB $40 / month   Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
T-Mobile Simple Starter Plan $40 / month    Unlimited
Unlimited
500 MB
Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk $45 / month  
1200 min
Unlimited
Unlimited
Straight Talk (TracFone/WalMart) $45 / 30 days
Unlimited
Unlimited
Unlimited
T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan*
Net10 Unlimited Nationwide
AT&T GoPhone Unlimited Plan
MetroPCS 4G LTE Plan 4GB
$50 / month  
Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

*T-Mobile family plans offer a lower monthly cost per line: $40 each for a family of two, $30 each for a family of three, $25 each for a family of four, or $22 each for a family of five. You and your friends can form your own "family" and share the savings. Each line comes with 500 MB of high-speed data per month, after which the speed is reduced for the rest of the month; you can purchase more high-speed data if you need it.

Sprint offers a similar "framily" (friends and family) plan, starting at $55 per month and decreasing by $5 for each additional member, down to $25 per month per line for a group of 7 to 10. Can't get that many people together? Go to craiglist.org and find an existing framily to join.

If you only need Web access occasionally, then a $2 per day unlimited plan might be the most economical. Use your regular no-contract mobile phone most of the time for talk and text, and bring out your smartphone only on the days that you need it.

If you choose a plan with unlimited Web access but limited talk and text, you can use Web apps (for example, Skype to talk and Google Voice to text) without consuming your talk/text usage limit.

If you choose a plan with generous talk and text limits but limited Web access, you can use WiFi where available (home, work, Starbucks, etc.) without consuming your Web limit. A Web limit of 30 MB will support about 1,500 1-page email messages at 20K per message, or about 300 web page views at 100K per page. Streaming audio or video (for example, using Pandora or YouTube) uses about 1 or 2 MB per minute. Skype voice calling (without video or screen sharing) uses about 1/4 MB per minute.

If you want totally unlimited service (talk, text, and Web), the lowest-cost provider is MetroPCS at $40 per month ($35 per user in their Family Plan) or Straight Talk at $45 per 30-day service period. Otherwise, you can choose any of several providers that offer unlimited service for $50 per month. 



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iPhone Service Plans

The Apple iPhone is a good product, but you need to pay a lot for the phone or get an expensive 2-year service contract. The lowest-cost option is to pay full price for the phone and use Virgin Mobile or T-Mobile as your service provider, which costs about $1,000 for the phone with two years of service. Otherwise, the 2-year cost for the phone and service is $1,500 at the very least, and typically more than $2,000, depending on the phone and service plan you choose.

To see Apple's comparison chart for iPhone contract-plan service providers, go to Apple's Buy iPhone page and click "View rate plans". The following table shows several of the available prepaid and contract plans.

iPhone Mobile Carrier
iPhone 5s
iPhone 5c iPhone 4s
Service Cost
Talk
Text
Web
Virgin Mobile $440*
$360*
$280*
  $30* / month   300 min Unlimited Unlimited
Virgin Mobile
$440*
$360*
$280*
  $40* / month 1200 min
Unlimited
Unlimited
T-Mobile $649** $550** $450**   $40** / month Unlimited Unlimited 500 MB
Straight Talk
$650  
$550  
$450  
$45 / 30 days
Unlimited
Unlimited
Unlimited
Virgin Mobile
$440*
$360*
$280*
  $50* / monthUnlimited
Unlimited
Unlimited
T-Mobile
$649**
$550**
$450**   $50** / monthUnlimited
Unlimited
Unlimited
AT&T
$199
$99
$0   $60 / month
   450 min
0 300 MB
Verizon
$199
$99
$0   $60 / month
   450 min
0
300 MB
Sprint
$199 $99
$0   $80 / month
   450 min
Unlimited
Unlimited
Verizon $199
$99
$0
  $80 / month Unlimited
Unlimited
300 MB
Sprint
$199 $99
$0 $100 / month
   900 min
Unlimited
Unlimited
Sprint
$199 $99
$0 $110 / month
Unlimited
Unlimited
Unlimited
AT&T
$199 $99
$0 $110 / month
900 min
Unlimited
  3 GB
Verizon
$199 $99
$0
$140 / month
Unlimited
Unlimited 10 GB

Virgin Mobile Logo* Virgin Mobile iPhones: You make a full (unsubsidized) payment for the phone up front. In return for a higher up-front cost, you get a lower ongoing cost and a no-obligation contract. You'll earn back the additional up-front cost in less than a year. iPhones are priced especially low. All plans include 2.5 GB per month of high-speed data, including 4G speeds where available. After that, access speeds are reduced for the rest of the month. You can change plans or quit any time. The Virgin Mobile service costs shown in the table include a $5/month discount for AutoPay setup. (This discount is only available for the iPhone, not Android.)

** T-Mobile iPhones and plan costs: You make an initial down payment (starting at $0, depending on phone) and make additional monthly payments for two years, and you pay for the service separately: $50 per month for unlimited service. Family plans offer a lower monthly cost per line: $40 each for a family of two, $30 each for a family of three, $25 each for a family of four, or $22 each for a family of five. You and your friends can form your own "family" and share the savings. Each line comes with 500 MB of high-speed data per month, after which the speed is reduced for the rest of the month; you can purchase more high-speed data if you need it. They also offer the Simple Starter Plan, $40 per month for unlimited talk and text, and 500 MB of 4G data. You can change plans or quit any time, but you must finish paying for the phone immediately if you quit.

Sprint offers a similar "framily" (friends and family) plan, starting at $55 per month and decreasing by $5 for each additional member, down to $25 per month per line for a group of 7 to 10. Can't get that many people together? Go to craiglist.org and find an existing framily to join.

Among the plans that subsidize the cost of the phone (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint), you pay more for the service. You can pay as little as $199 for the iPhone 5 or $99 for the iPhone 4S, but then the lowest cost for service is the $60/month plan from AT&T and Verizon, which offers 450 minutes of talk, no texting, and 300 MB of Web access. The 200 MB limit is good for about 10,000 email messages at 20K per message, or about 2,000 web page views at 100K per page. Streaming audio or video uses about 1 or 2 MB per minute. You can use Web apps such as Skype and Google Voice together with WiFi, where available, to call and text without consuming your usage limits. For typical usage patterns, the lowest-cost provider is Sprint, with plans starting at $80/month. Sprint also offers the lowest-cost unlimited service (talk, text, and Web) for $110/month.

January 2014 news: Consumer Reports ranks best smartphones

The January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine cover story, The Complete Smart-phone shopping guide (How to navigate the maze & save money) offers the following articles: The real cost of phones and plans, How much data and voice to buy, Carrier Ratings map, Phone-feature guide, Phone Ratings, 7 ways to save, Phone security tips, and How to sell your old phone. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 received the highest rating as a smartphone, but it was closely followed by models from LG, HTC, Apple, Motorola, and others. For details, pick up a copy of the magazine at a news stand or your local library, or read the article online (paid subscription required).

October 2013 news: Apple threatened by growth of prepaid smartphone plans

By Troy Wolverton, San Jose Mercury News, October 2, 2013

In a shift that could become a big threat to Apple, U.S. consumers are increasingly signing up for a type of wireless service plan popular around the world that's traditionally not been in favor here -- prepaid accounts.

Prepaid plans typically allow consumers to purchase services in advance in bite-sized chunks -- whether by the minute, the megabyte or the month -- and allow them to cancel at any time. In contrast, the standard plans offered by the big carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, generally require users to sign up for pricey two-year service agreements.

Although prepaid accounts still represent less than a quarter of all wireless service plans in the United States, they're gaining ground rapidly. Half of all new wireless accounts added between 2008 and last year were prepaid ones. Read whole article

April 2013 Update: T-Mobile acquires MetroPCS

T-Mobile has just announced it is acquiring MetroPCS. Read about it at eWeek and Slate News & Politics. The combination of T-Mobile and MetroPCS might mean lower costs for consumers, better service, and more competition for Verizon and AT&T.

March 2013 Update: T-Mobile finally adds the iPhone

T-Mobile has just announced that they are offering the iPhone for sale for use in their network starting April 12, 2013. The cost of the iPhone 5 will be $100 down plus $20 per month for 24 months, for a total cost of $580. Also available will be the iPhone 4S for $70 down plus $20 per month ($550) and the iPhone 4 for $15 down plus $15 per month ($375). T-Mobile service starts at $50 per month, which includes unlimited talk, text, and web, with 4G speed for the first 500 MB. Plans with more 4G speed are also available (2 GB for $60 per month, or unlimited for $70 per month). These are no-contract plans; you can change plans or quit at any time, although you must finish paying for the phone. Orders for the iPhone will be accepted starting April 5, 2013.

News about the T-Mobile announcement is available from PC Magazine, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Forbes. An analysis and comparison of the iPhone 5 cost from T-Mobile and competitors is available at PC Magazine and the Washington Post.

January 2013 Update: T-Mobile subscribers offered iPhone service in 14 metropolitan areas

T-Mobile has just begun offering iPhone service in 14 U.S. metropolitan areas, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. T-Mobile doesn't offer the iPhone for sale yet, so you need to get an unlocked phone from Apple or an off-contract iPhone from a competing provider. T-Mobile provides a Micro SIM card with the service. You can read about it at CNET.


2012: Virgin Mobile USA Offers $30 per Month iPhone Unlimited Data Service Plan

Virgin Mobile USA iPhone plansVirgin Mobile gets iPhone for $549, $30 per month
By Peter Svensson | Associated Press -- Thursday, June 7, 2012 
2012 Associated Press, all rights reserved


NEW YORK (AP) -- Virgin Mobile USA, one of Sprint's brands for prepaid, no-contract phone service, said Thursday it will start selling the iPhone on June 29, charging $549 for a basic model. The high price of the phone comes with an upside: service will start at $30 per month. That means the phone, plus two years of service, will cost $1,269, excluding taxes. That's nearly $800 less than a subscriber would pay for the same phone, an iPhone 4 with 8 gigabytes of memory, if buying it under the Sprint Nextel Corp. brand. Sprint charges $100 for the phone and $80 per month for service, excluding taxes.

Virgin Mobile's cheapest plan cost $35 per month, with a $5 discount possible for buyers who set up automatic monthly payment with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. It provides 300 minutes of calling per month and unlimited texting. Data usage is also "unlimited," but is slowed drastically after the customer has used 2.5 gigabytes since the start of the billing cycle. iPhones with "Sprint" service have true unlimited data.

News Update: November 22, 2012: iPhone prices lowered by $200

Now $450 (down from $650) for an iPhone 4S with 16 GB memory or $350 (down from $550) for an iPhone 4 with 8 GB of memory. See Virgin Mobile USA iPhone page for details. Note: iPhone 5 not yet available with this service.

The news article says it all. Virgin Mobile USA is offering iPhone service at costs that are competitive with Android plans. You pay the full retail cost of the phone and then pay a very reasonable $30 per month for a no-contract plan that includes 300 minutes of calling, unlimited texting, and unlimited data. Access speed is reduced for the rest of the month after 2.5 GB of data usage, which is a generous allowance. Change plans or quit at any time with no penalty. Your costs for two years of usage are $450 for the phone and $720 for the service, a total of $1,270.

The $30 per month rate includes a $5 per month discount for those who sign up for Auto Pay. The discount is only available to iPhone customers, and it could be a temporary offer. In the past, when Virgin Mobile raised their rates, existing customers were "grandfathered" and allowed to keep their low rate indefinitely, as long as they don't change their plan. The present offer could be an opportunity to "lock in" a low rate for a long time.



Service Quality -- Check Root Metrics

As you shop for a mobile service provider, you should check the quality of wireless coverage in the areas where you plan to use your phone, such as your home, work, school, and travel areas. One good place to check is at www.rootmetrics.com. Go to the Root Metrics website and click "Check Coverage." Enter your location, then choose the carriers you are considering. A color-coded map shows the signal quality in that area. You can choose to display signal quality alone (for making calls), data speeds alone (for smartphone web access), or both quality metrics combined.

The following examples show the coverage in the Silicon Valley, California for four popular providers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint (which is the network used by Virgin Mobile), and Verizon. Coverage in your area could be different, so check your particular location to get relevant results.

AT&T wireless coverage map, Silicon Valley
AT&T Coverage Quality Map

T-Mobile wireless coverage map, Silicon Valley
T-Mobile Coverage Quality Map

Sprint, Virgin Mobile wireless coverage map, Silicon Valley
Sprint (Virgin Mobile) Coverage Quality Map

Verizon wireless coverage map, Silicon Valley
Verizon Coverage Quality Map




This web page is about saving money on smartphone service plans. If you're interested in voice calling only, see Lowest-Cost Cell Phone Service Plans.


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