Americans have long been conditioned to believe that when they buy a cellphone, the next step is to pick a wireless plan from one of the big carriers: Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile. With their plans ranging from $60 to $200 a month for individuals and families, the price of a phone is soon eclipsed by the recurring service bills.
What if I told you that it no longer had to be this way?
Your phone bill could shrink to as little as $25 a month if you picked a wireless plan from a lesser-known service provider known as a discount carrier. The cheaper plans, based on my tests, offer sufficiently fast internet speeds and reliable phone service. It takes some courage and technological know-how to make the switch, but the potential savings outweigh the downsides.
On the surface, these budget carriers, which include Cricket Wireless, Straight Talk, Boost Mobile, Mint Mobile and Visible, lack a cool factor. They do not operate their own cell networks; instead, they lease wireless services from the big carriers and market them toward retirees. The no-frill plans often have trade-offs, including slower download speeds, since Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile subscribers have priority access to faster network performance.
Yet in the past few years, so much has changed that I can now confidently recommend discount phone plans for most people, including white-collar professionals and Instagram-obsessed youths. Here’s why:
Cellular networks have peaked. Newer 5G and 4G cell technology is so fast that even budget carriers can provide very fast download speeds — zippy enough to stream video, load maps and download apps — even if they are somewhat slower than what the Big Three provide.
The shift to hybrid work. Office workers who used to spend more time commuting and had to rely on their cellular network now have their commute time cut in half and are relying more on the Wi-Fi connection at their home or office cubicle for making video calls and sending messages. That means slower cellular performance on a budget carrier may be unnoticeable.
You can try a discount carrier without breaking up with your big carrier. The eSIM, the digital version of the SIM card that carries your phone number, is now common on many modern smartphones. It lets you immediately activate an extra phone line without needing to insert a physical SIM card, which makes experimenting with an off-brand wireless service easier and less intimidating.
Once you have converted to a discount phone plan, the savings add up quickly. A family of four buying new iPhones with a Cricket phone plan would spend $3,762 over two years, $1,311 less than they would spend with Verizon, according to an analysis by WalletHub, a personal finance research firm.
“The negative perception around budget plans is fading,” Cassandra Hoppe, an analyst for WalletHub, said. “Now they’re seen as a smart choice for everyone. People are realizing you can get a great phone plan without spending a fortune.”
To put discount phone carriers to the test, I activated three services — Visible, Cricket and Straight Talk — on an iPhone. In various locations in California, I ran speed tests, made phone calls and used apps like maps, YouTube and TikTok. For comparisons, I ran the same tests on my Verizon connection.
The discount carriers were, on average, up to 46 percent slower than my Verizon connection. That sounds like a lot, but in real-world tests, I didn’t notice a difference — my apps worked fine, and videos streamed smoothly.
Here’s how the setup and testing process went.
Buying and activating a discount phone plan
Consumers can sign up for discount phone plans by buying a physical SIM card from a website or retail store, though I recommend eSIM as the way. The digital SIM card saves time — and because you can install multiple eSIMs at the same time, you can try a discount carrier and compare it with the performance of your big carrier before deciding on a plan.
The steps for setting up an eSIM vary somewhat from carrier to carrier, but the process is fundamentally consistent: You buy a phone plan through a brand’s website or app and click a button or scan a bar code to activate the service.
Visible charged $25 a month for a plan that included unlimited data; Straight Talk charged $35 a month for a plan with 10 gigabytes of high-speed internet; and Cricket charged $40 — $10 to activate the eSIM and $30 for a monthly plan that included five gigabytes of data.
Visible, which is owned by Verizon, had the smoothest setup. Its mobile app let me buy a phone plan using Apple Pay and tap a few buttons to activate service. With Straight Talk and Cricket, I perused the websites to find their eSIM offerings. I ran into problems with Cricket, which emailed a broken web link to activate my plan; it took me about 20 minutes to find a tool on its website to manually activate my service.
My iPhone could hold up to eight eSIMs, so I installed all three plans and toggled among them for each test.
I drove to 10 locations, including hiking trails, shopping centers and wineries, in California. At each location, I used the Speedtest app to test each carrier’s internet speed, and I called my very patient wife and streamed video on apps like TikTok and YouTube.
Broadly speaking, the discount phone services performed fine. They were occasionally sluggish when loading videos on TikTok, but my Verizon connection had similar delays.
Based on the results measured with the Speedtest app, Cricket and Visible had comparable performances, with download speeds of 154 megabits per second, on average. Straight Talk delivered speeds of 279 megabits per second — similar to my Verizon connection, which delivered download speeds of 287 megabits per second.
What do those numbers mean? To stream video through apps like Netflix and Hulu, you need a minimum of 25 megabits per second, according to AT&T. So the budget carriers gave me more than enough speed to handle some of the most data-intensive tasks.
Taking the leap
Among the three discount carriers, my favorite was Visible because of its smooth setup process and consistent network performance. Visible was also more transparent with its billing in emailed receipts. Straight Talk never emailed me a receipt. I was turned off by Cricket’s clunky website and the $10 fee for activating an eSIM, which was not a charge the other two carriers required.
Angie Klein, president of the Verizon Value organization, which oversees Visible, said its budget plans were designed for tech-savvy customers who wanted a single line, and Verizon’s traditional wireless plans were a full-service experience with more perks. Straight Talk and Cricket did not respond to requests for comment.
On the whole, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all recommendation. As with the big carriers, cellular performance for each discount carrier will vary depending on the network’s coverage where you live and work.
But because eSIM technology makes it easy to switch to another network — and the discount phone plans are cheap — it would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to give a budget phone plan a try.
Last year, Robin Phillips, a 54-year-old Seattle resident who works in food distribution, broke up with Verizon to try Visible. He ran into hiccups. The wireless service initially would not activate, and the customer support agents, available only through a chat app, were unhelpful.
But he said he didn’t regret the switch. Visible’s service began working after a day, and he pays $25 a month, down from the $70 that he used to pay for a Verizon plan. His wife also converted.
“Is it worth it?” he said. “We’re saving about $1,000 a year. I’ll deal with the hassle for that.”