Paying $50 or more for a single cell phone line seems normal. At least, it’s normal if you stick to the major cell phone carriers such as Sprint, Verizon or US Cellular. But what about the cheap $20-30 cell phone plans offered by names that you might not recognize? With a lot of these, we’re talking unlimited talk and text, and included data. Have you given these much thought? Do you dare give them a try? Or is $20/month for a smart phone plan too good to be true… especially from a company you’ve never heard of?
Chances are, if you haven’t heard of the cell phone company but they still are somehow offering nationwide coverage at rock bottom prices, we’re talking about a mobile virtual network operator, or an MVNO. They’re called virtual network operators because they don’t actually own a physical cell network. They don’t own any towers or any other connections. They typically don’t own any physical retail branches either. Instead, they rent network service from the big cell phone carriers and resell it to their customers. In most cases, all their business and customer service is conducted remotely via internet and phone. By maintaining little or no infrastructure of their own, they are able to resell cell service for significantly cheaper than major companies.
MVNOs Excel at Offering No-Frills Service at Rock Bottom Prices
MVNOs are great at offering you cell service at rock bottom (and straight forward) prices with few extra frills. Since they still use the major cell networks, you really do get just as good service on an MVNO as you would on a major carrier. I have had phone service exclusively with MVNOs for 3 years, and have not been disappointed.
Because of their rock bottom prices, MVNOs typically don’t offer discounted phones, so you’re paying full retail for your phones. If you’re buying a top of the line, late-model phone such as the latest iPhone or Galaxy, you might be in for some serious sticker shock. Some MVNOs do offer payment or savings plans to spread the cost of a phone out, but these plans won’t save you any money, and may cost you a little more.
MVNOs’ Customer Service is a Mixed Bag
If you’re used to being taken care of in a brick and mortar retail store, online or over-the-phone customer service may take some getting used to. Ideally, you’ll never need to contact customer service. However, even simply setting up your plan and buying your phone often has to be done over the internet. The handful of MVNO phones that are sold in brick and mortar stores are sold in big box stores that don’t officially represent the MVNO.
When it comes to the customer service from one MVNO to another, customer satisfaction is all over the board. Some MVNOs, such as Consumer Cellular, Ting and Republic Wireless are known for their great customer service and regularly score higher than even traditional carriers in publications such as Consumer Reports. Other carriers, however, are notorious for long waiting times and/or outsourcing their customer service abroad.
A Note on Coverage
If you do a lot of travelling, including into more rural areas, finding an MVNO that operates on a good network is a must. US Cellular and Verizon’s networks by far have more coverage in more places. While the other networks do just fine around cities and on interstates, these two also have fairly spotless coverage in most rural areas. If you are happy with your current coverage, find an MVNO and phone that operates on the same network. For a complete list of who’s on who’s network, check out this list.
Note, however, that while some MVNOs operate on multiple networks, your phone will only operate on a single network, depending on what phone/SIM card you have. Google Fi (aka Project Fi) is the only exception. Their phones will automatically switch between three networks (including US Cellular’s), finding the network with the best signal.
The problem is, MVNOs don’t clearly mark which network their phones operate on. For example, Net10 operates on all the major networks, but the only indication of what network a particular phone will operate on is a tiny code on the corner of the packaging. A phone that operates on Verizon’s network, for instance, would have the letters CDMA-V. Some MVNOs don’t indicate network at all.
We found this out the hard way. We first started with Net10 and were under the impression that all Net10 phones ran on Verizon’s network. This was super important, since our house was only covered by Verizon and US Cellular. So we picked the cheapest phone available. When we first tried it at our house, there was no signal! It turned out that we had randomly selected a phone that had ‘CDMA-S’ (Sprint) on the corner of the box. To avoid this kind of confusion, you may want to stick to an MVNO that operates on only one network.
Finding the Right Fit for You
MVNOs all offer a different menu of plans and options, so there’s no ‘right’ choice for everyone. Consider how much you use your cell phone and what your coverage needs are.
Nationwide Coverage and Lots of Usage
Total Wireless operates exclusively on Verizon’s network, so there’s no chance you’ll get stuck with T-Mobile Coverage. Especially compared to other MVNOs on Verizon’s network, Total Wirless delivers a phenomenal bang for buck. All their plans come with unlimited talk and text, starting at $25/month with no data. Their single line data plan is $35/month for 5GB. Family plans add roughly $25 per line, and of course come with higher data allowances. Extra data costs $10/3 GB.
Nationwide (and International!) Coverage and Moderate Data Usage
As mentioned above, Google Fi operates on 3 networks, always switching to the best available network. Like Total Wirless, Google Fi also offers unlimited talk and text on all their plans. However, Google Fi takes more of an a-la-carte method to their family and data pricing. The first line on the plan is $20, with every additional line adding $15. Each gig costs and additional $10. Basically, if you use 2 GB or more per person, the math works out in the favor of Total Wireless. If you use less, Google Fi is cheaper.
If you often travel internationally, Google Fi is a clear winner, since your phone will continue to work in 135 countries with no plan change. Data still costs the same $10/month, while calls will incur a per-minute charge, depending on the country you’re calling from.
Google Fi’s biggest downside is its limited phone options. You get to pick from the Pixel ($649), Nexus 6P ($399), or Nexus 5X ($249). Don’t get me wrong- these are great phones and you definitely get what you pay for. But if you’re used to buying low-end phones for under $100 (or under $50!), Google Fi’s phones might hit your wallet hard. And if you’re used to iPhones, it may be too humiliating to stoop to lowly Android.
Sprint Coverage and Moderate Data Usage
If you’re not quite as picky about your coverage, Republic Wireless is almost identical to Google Fi, but runs on Sprint’s network and costs $5-10/month less than Google Fi across the board. To be clear, even though Sprint’s network isn’t quite as extensive as Verizon or US Cellular, it’s not bad either. And Sprint seems dedicated to growing it’s network. Republic Wireless also has a much wider selection of phones, although still no iPhones.
Low Usage, No Data
If you don’t use any data, either because you limit your data usage to wi-fi or because you still have a flip phone (a-la 2003), Total Wireless is still a great option if you use 1000 minutes or more per month, or if you just like knowing that you have unlimited talk and text. However, if you don’t use your phone as much, Page Plus (smart phones only) and Puppy Wireless (you may need to bring your own phone) both offer flat rate plans or per minute plans for less than $20/month on Verizon’s network. If you’re not as picky about coverage, you might find a better deal on Consumer Cellular or Ting.
No Fit? Shop Around.
I’ve listed some of the MVNOs that I think give a good bang for buck and have a good reputation, but there are dozens of other ones. If none of the ones I mentioned are a good fit, there could well be another one out there. And if there’s one in particular you like that I forgot to mention, let us know!
While I do strive to only write accurate information and dispense valuable advice, I am not a licensed financial adviser. All information is based solely on my personal experience and personal research and should be treated as such. Find out more.