Where should i get a prepaid phone plan?
November 3, 2011 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Of the numerous prepaid phone plans around, which one sucks the least?

I have decided to go with a pay-as-you go plan to avoid contracts and deposits. I'm a little overwhelmed. Everyone has them, none of them seem particularly mind-blowing for better or worse.

I’m going to need a smart phone, and I’d like one that works most places I’ll end up going- including northern Minnesota and Green Bay Wisconsin (where some of the plans only seem to have voice and text service available).

Anyone with experience with these plans I’d be happy to hear it. The good, the bad and the ugly—and any surprises (didn’t work in Toledo? Weird extra charges for leaving Bemidji?)
posted by Blisterlips to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
VIRGIN MOBILE! You can get an LG smartphone ($150) with unlimited data and text for $29.99 a month. They're also piggybacking on either the Sprint or T-Mobile networks, so you'll have good coverage.
posted by 200burritos at 10:04 AM on November 3, 2011

In contrast to the wording of your question, in my experience prepaid service sucks no more than any old cell phone service. I'm on virgin mobile right now, because I got grandfathered in at $25/month with 300 minutes and unlimited text/data. I've also considered metroPCS (not so good for your circumstances), simple mobile (I believe this one is an MVNO on t-mobile, and thus GSM, while most seem to be on Sprint at this point), boost, and the various prepaid (and often pricier) options directly from t-mobile, verizon, and at&t. Depending on service, and your usage (limite data? how many minutes?) and the coverage/reputation of carriers where you go, I'd suggest you look into those.

Virgin Mobile's customer service isn't fantastic, but it's often competent, and if you know what you're doing, you shouldn't need to talk to them much anyways. I find the service to be as good as any sprint service (so not as amazing as, say, Verizon but it'll do). Everything works as it should.
posted by R a c h e l at 10:05 AM on November 3, 2011

We attempted to get a pay-as-you-go for my mom a few years back (in Madison) and went with Virgin. My now-husband had had good experiences with them in Iowa, and had kept that service for several years. I think we went with it because it had decent phones and had by far the easiest access to pick up extra minutes -- places like Target, Walgreens, etc. that she might actually go.

The "attempted" part was her own fault :P
posted by Madamina at 10:11 AM on November 3, 2011

I am happy with Virgin Mobile in the Bay Area, but Virgin Mobile's reception might not be great in some more remote places. They use the Sprint cell towers but don't have the roaming privileges that Sprint customers do. Just FYI.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:15 AM on November 3, 2011

I've been happy with Virgin Mobile for about 18 months now. For new customers, they start at $35/month AFAIK (with 300 minutes, unlimited text/data). That used to be $25, which was a phenomenal deal, but it's still quite good. I'm on the 1200 minutes plan now.

I only ever needed customer service once, early on, when they charged me $5 for a texting package or something (even though I had unlimited). I emailed them, they apologized a few days later and credited me far too much ($30, maybe?), so that worked out fine.

I buy my top-ups online from a site that doesn't charge sales tax. This means that I actually pay $40 for my $40 service, unlike on a postpaid carrier where you might pay 20% above the advertised price (in taxes, pass-through fees, and worse). If you want, you can register a credit card and do autopay, which is easier and only costs a few percent more, depending on your state.

I'll second what needs more cowbell says - the rural coverage on Sprint's "native" network is not great, and nowhere as good as Verizon. Check their map first, I've found it to be accurate. If you're off their map, I believe Straight Talk (the Walmart one) uses Verizon's prepaid network, which is almost as good as their postpaid network, but I can't vouch for anything about that service.

I've never had any notable problems with outages or poor quality of service in the right areas of the map. Don't go to Montana, though. :)
posted by pinespree at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2011

virgin mobile. the $45 plan gets u 1200 mins/unlimited data/texting/web...thats like 45 min/day...if u need more $60 gets u unlimited everything.
i just signed up for metropcs' 4g service on sunday (with the lg esteem 'superphone') and switched back to virgin yesterday...their 4g is not noticably better than virgin's 3g and their 1g is soooo much slower...also call quality on metro is the suck. also...soooooo much unremoveable crapware and ALL of it asking for my personal info...just plain creepy. virgin is very good about giving you a clean android experience. there's a couple of pre-installed apps, but nothing bothersome (i actually like the free radio station on virgin mobile live)...the worst on metro was the wifi-finder app...can't remove it, can't shut it off, drains half your battery looking for wifi hotspots even when you are ON ONE...(it's like that horrible date where he barely looks at you because he's so busy checking out the other ladies...gah)
-as for phones, i'd get either the optimus v or optimus slider (same phone with keyboard)...my experience with budget big-screen phones: not enough battery...i routinely get 4 days with my optimus (you do have to tweak all your settings though...auto-sync to OFF...otherwise it will drain your battery checking your email over and over again)...with the esteem? 4 HOURS...buh-bye. (a shame tho...very nice screen) i hear this is pretty much the same problem with the motorola triumph on VM...but seems to be tru of all the high-end big-screen superphones; bad battery life...if you want to carry around a charger and extra batteries...i don't.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2011

I once had an issue with virgin mobile where I changed my plan right after I'd paid for a new month, and they charged me for it immediately rather than switching it over at the end of the month, effectively charging me twice for one months' service. They eventually fixed it for me when I called them, but it was super annoying at the time because it caused me to overdraft and incur a couple hundred dollars worth of fines (waived, after more phone calls).

(Actually, though, all these positive testimonials are making me reconsider them. That data plan does sound good...)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2011

oh, and @pinespree...one weird thing about virgin...their website adds on sales tax for topping up...but they don't actually charge for it, and you don't have to pay it...it's bizarre.
for example: (on website) $45+sales tax=$48.37, how much do you want to pay? (me) $45.00
(phone, via text, 5 mins later) you have added $45.00 to your account, congratulations! you are now service! yay!
posted by sexyrobot at 10:45 AM on November 3, 2011

I’d like one that works most places I’ll end up going- including northern Minnesota and Green Bay Wisconsin

From personal experience, if you're driving between the two areas, even Verizon isn't going to work in places. Look closely at the coverage map if constant access is important.
posted by desjardins at 10:53 AM on November 3, 2011

nthing Virgin, but with the caveat about reception and the lack of CDMA roaming: for some road trips that take us out of the coverage area, we've resorted to a basic backup GSM phone with some prepaid credit. Looking at the coverage map, you should be okay for Green Bay, but there's a northern frontier in Minnesota running along Hwy 2 between Duluth and Grand Forks, so anything off the highway or further north is going to be problematic.
posted by holgate at 11:26 AM on November 3, 2011

I use Page Plus, which is on the Verizon network so I get good coverage in remote areas. If coverage is a priority for you I recommend Page Plus. I have the Talk and Text 1200 plan, which has 1200 minutes, 2000 texts, and 300 MB of data per month for just under $30. This isn't a lot of data if you surf on your phone all the time away from WiFi networks. Personally I'm near WiFi almost always and only use the data when I'm traveling, and I seldom use more than a small fraction of the total per month.

Their customer service sucks, you have to be willing to DIY and troubleshoot things.
posted by medusa at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was able to take over my son's account on Tracphone, so I have service through 2020, at least. You have to buy minutes and connectivity. They don't have the coolest phones, but it's been an easy way to have a home phone that doesn't leave the house.
posted by theora55 at 2:53 PM on November 3, 2011

I once was in Northern Minneosta and couldn't get a signal on my Virgin phone. Fellow next to me was talking on his phone, so when he finished I asked him which carrier he had. "Verizon" he answered. I looked at the coverage maps, saw how much more area Verizon covered, and switched to the Verizon network, using Page Plus. I've been happy ever since. (Compare plans on Verizon and Page Plus, see which one you like best. When viewing coverage maps online, be sure you select the type of connection you want: voice, data, etc.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:39 PM on November 3, 2011

Just a note, the Page Plus 1200 Talk n Text plan that medusa mentions actually comes 1,200 voice minutes, 3,000 texts and 100MB of data, with extra data charged at $0.10/MB. Virgin Mobile is a better deal if you need data but as others have pointed out their coverage is not as good in rural areas.
posted by ChrisHartley at 6:11 PM on November 3, 2011

It's going to depend a lot on coverage. I've used T-mobile $.10/min, Boost iDen in the past. I'm currently switching from Virgin's $25 to T-Mobile's new $30 100min Unlimited text/ 4G data (throttled after 5GB). The speed on T-mobile's data is SO much better than Virgin, and the phone selection is much more broad. Coverage on each can be spotty but seems to work where I need. I may go over 100 min now and then, but overage is just .10/min.
posted by hey you over in the corner at 7:09 PM on November 3, 2011

I do not recommend trying to use Virgin, which piggybacks on Tmobile and Sprint, in Bemidji. I have AT&T so would advise you to avoid anyone who piggybacks off their network (I live in Grand Forks and can barely get a signal here with AT&T--I get none if I venture the littlest bit off of I-94 or I-29 into rural areas).

In sum, for your geographic areas I would recommend Verizon and whoever uses Verizon networks. I looked quickly, but there doesn't seem to be too many small time (no Boost, no Cricket, etc) carriers running off Verizon's networks, sorry.
posted by librarylis at 9:48 PM on November 3, 2011

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