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Where to go for cheap phone service when your free year of Sprint is up

The gravy train is pulling into the station. Smaller carriers aren't free, but plans start as low as ... well, you probably wouldn't believe me.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Once upon a time, Sprint offered a pretty amazing deal: One year of unlimited phone service for free. All you had to do was bring a compatible phone and port your number from another carrier.

Of course, all good things must come to an end: Back in April, Sprint replaced the free-year offer with Unlimited Kickstart, which costs $25 per month -- a reasonable rate, to be sure, but that's only for newcomers activating a new line of service. 

Read more: The best phones of 2019

So, what happens when you get to the end of your 12 free months? Do you have to continue on with Sprint at the full $60-per-month rate?

Thankfully, no: There are cheaper options, many of them much cheaper than what you'd pay any of the Big Four carriers for a single line of service.

To find them, start by using this tool. Just choose "BYOP (Sprint Network)", then select how much data you need (or think you need -- the average user consumes around 5GB per month). 

Keep in mind, though, that you might not be limited to Sprint-powered carriers (such as Ting, Tello and TextNow). If your phone is unlocked and supports GSM networks, you can expand your search to include carriers such as Metro, Mint Mobile and US Mobile.

The rock-bottom cheapest carriers

OK, let's get down to brass tacks: You can't get free service anymore, but you can get pretty cheap service. Tello, for example, recently lowered prices across the board. A plan with 100 voice minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB of high-speed data costs just $7 per month.

Bump up to, say, 300 voice minutes and 4GB of data and you'll pay just $17. If you're looking for rock-bottom pricing, Tello is definitely a good place to start.

Likewise, newcomer Hello Mobile also offers dirt-cheap plans: $10 per month with 1GB of high-speed data, $15 for 2GB, $17.50 for 3GB, and so on.

If your phone can indeed "hop the fence" (meaning it supports networks other than Sprint's), check out Mint Mobile. The company offers some very competitive rates when you prepay for 3, 6 or 12 months at a time.

For example, a 3-month plan with unlimited calls and texts and 3GB of high-speed data costs $45 -- an amortized rate of $15 per month. Stretch that out to 12 months and you'll prepay $180, which, again, works out to $15 monthly.

Now, if you're thoroughly spoiled by Sprint's unlimited-data plan, what's the cheapest alternative? Hello Mobile has one of the best deals I've seen: Unlimited everything (including high-speed data) for $25 per month. And thanks to a current promotion, you get one month free when you pay for your first month.

None of these options are free, but they're certainly cheaper than paying $50 to $60 per month to a Big Four carrier.

If you're approaching the end of your gratis year of Sprint, where do you think you'll go next?

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