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Best Cheap Phone Plans: Affordable Alternatives to Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile

You have options beyond the Big Three carriers.

As inflation continues to rise across the US, you may be on the hunt for ways to save some cash. And while most people can't afford to give up a cell phone, you may be able to get a better value by switching to a more budget-friendly carrier. 

There are plenty of ways to do just that in 2022, from prepaid carriers such as Mint Mobile to cable companies' mobile endeavors like Comcast's Xfinity Mobile and Charter's Spectrum Mobile. All of them could be cheaper than an unlimited plan from AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile. 

While there are dozens of options out there, I've listed a few for you to consider, as well as some other ways to save on your bill. This space can quickly get unwieldy so, as with some of CNET's other wireless carrier coverage, I'll focus on options for a single line and for those looking for four lines. 

Cricket, Mint Mobile, Boost Mobile, Metro By T-Mobile, Tracfone and Google Fi logos on phones.
Sarah Tew/CNET
Now playing: Watch this: Best Budget Phone Plans in 2022 (and the Fine Print)

Read more: Best Prepaid Phone Plans

Know your area and which carrier runs on which networks

To get the best deal, you need to make sure you have the coverage that you need. Cutting costs won't help if it means the service won't work. 

The complex geographic variables across the US make it hard for us to give a blanket recommendation of any one carrier. T-Mobile's service in New York may be excellent, but if you're in rural Iowa, Verizon could be more reliable. 

While your mileage may vary, the good news is that these networks are growing and improving all the time, particularly as the three major players race to blanket the US with 5G. It's quite possible that, a decade ago, you left a network complaining about its sparse service, but now it's been beefed up because of that race to acquire customers.

If you know any friends or family in your area that already use the carrier you're considering, ask about their experience. You could also go to a carrier's store and see if they offer any free ways to try out the service before switching over, such as T-Mobile's Test Drive. Using Visible's similar program, you can try out its parent company Verizon's network.

Read more: Best Unlimited Plans From Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile

When it comes to prepaid carriers and mobile options from cable companies you should also check to see which network they are using. Mint Mobile, for instance, runs on T-Mobile's service, while Comcast's Xfinity Mobile and Charter's Spectrum Mobile use Verizon. In these cases, downloading either of the two apps above could be a quick and easy way to try out T-Mobile or Verizon's coverage in your area before you switch. 

We have a list of a few of the major alternative providers and which networks they run on broken down here. Now, onto the picks. 

Single lines with unlimited data

Sarah Tew/CNET

Boost Mobile has added an unlimited plan that offers unlimited talk, text and data to new users for $25 per month with taxes and fees included. Unlike Mint Mobile's 12-month plan, our previous pick in this slot, Boost's plan isn't tied to 12-month increments. You do, however, need to be a new Boost customer to get the offer. 

The plan includes 5G access and 30GB per month of high-speed data (if you blow through that your data will slow until your next billing month starts). Hotspot is included as well, with that data pulling from your high-speed allotment. One thing worth noting: You need to set up automatic payments to get the $25-per-month rate. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Verizon's Visible has recently restructured its unlimited plans, dropping the price for its base offering from $40 per month, per line to $30. In doing so it also tweaked some of the features perhaps most notably removing access to Verizon's fastest Ultra Wideband 5G network (for that you'll need to pay $45 per month for the Visible Plus plan). The carrier also removed its Party Pay family plan-like option that allowed for rates as low as $25 per month. 

But if you don't need the fastest speeds and want to be on Verizon's network, it's hard to beat this price. You still get unlimited hotspot (capped at max 5 Mbps speeds) and unlimited talk, text and data in the US. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ryan Reynolds' phone company has made a name for itself with its quirky advertising, but it also has one of the better offers for unlimited data that we've seen. For 12 months, you can get unlimited talk, text and data for $30 per month per line. Running on T-Mobile's networks, you get 35GB of high-speed data on 5G and 4G LTE per month, though if you do blow through that before your 30-day period resets, your speeds will slow to "3G speeds." 

There's also 5GB of high-speed hotspot data and free international calls to Mexico and Canada.

Family plans with unlimited data

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google's cell phone service recently got a pricing revamp that makes it a much more appealing alternative to major providers. For a family of four, you can now get its Simply Unlimited plan for $80 per month ($20 per month, per line) which includes not only unlimited talk, text and data but also 5GB of mobile hotspot. There also is free roaming in Canada and Mexico, though taxes and fees are not included in the sticker price. 

Google Fi runs on T-Mobile and US Cellular's networks and its service includes 5G access, though we should note that iPhones running on Google Fi can't use 5G.

Sarah Tew/CNET

US Mobile, which runs on either T-Mobile or Verizon's respective networks, costs $80 per month ($20 per line) for four lines on its Unlimited Basic option. For that price, you get 30GB of high-speed data, including 5G, but no perks like international roaming or hotspots. Like Fi, taxes and fees are not included in the sticker price. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T's prepaid brand has a decent deal if you're looking for four lines: $25 a month for unlimited talk, text and data. A single line is $55 a month, but Cricket gives a solid discount if you're willing to add more lines to the account. 

Unlike Visible, however, this is a traditional-style family plan where one person pays for all the lines, so you may want to do this with people you know and can rely on to pay on time. While it's nearly identical in price, Visible's plan includes unlimited hotspot data, giving it the edge over Cricket. Like Visible, Cricket includes taxes in the price. 

Cricket's T-Mobile rival Metro has a similar four lines for $100 a month unlimited deal, but you need to buy the plan in-store and switch providers to get the deal. 

Best for no or limited data

Rick Broida/CNET

If you're looking for service for a backup phone that's rarely used, TextNow has a free plan. Running on T-Mobile's network, the service offers free unlimited talk and unlimited texting, though ads are placed in its app which you use to call and text people. There isn't any data included with this option and removing the ads without adding data would run you $10 a month. If you want to watch YouTube, FaceTime, or surf the web make sure to connect to Wi-Fi. 

Text messages are also done through the company's TextNow app, not through iMessage or WhatsApp which makes sense as those services require data. 

Getting 1GB of high-speed mobile data starts at $9 a month, with the company throttling you down to "2G speeds" if you use that up before your billing cycle resets. If you are largely on Wi-Fi, this could be a good option. 2GB runs $16 a month, with the company offering up to 5GB of high-speed data for $28 a month. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

US Mobile has a good option for 5GB of data for $15 a month, which beats comparably priced offers from Mint ($15 a month for 4GB of data), Boost Mobile ($15 for 2GB of data) and others. 

Boost, however, has a $100 deal for new customers that offers 1GB of data per month for a full year. That breaks down to $8.33 a month. Boost offers service on AT&T and T-Mobile's networks today, though parent company Dish is in the process of building out its own wireless network. 

If you don't have Boost, largely use Wi-Fi (but still want some data) and price is the biggest driver for you, then this is the go-to pick for a new service.

Frequently asked questions

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about cable companies?

Xfinity Mobile, Spectrum Mobile and Optimum Mobile could be options, depending on where you live. Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile each use Verizon's network while Optimum uses T-Mobile. 

To get these deals you need to have an internet package from the respective provider. As for the value, expect that to vary. Xfinity recently matched Spectrum's plans with unlimited talk/text/data at either provider now running $45 a month for a single line. At both cable companies that rate drops to $30 per line, per month for two or more lines (so two lines run $60 per month, four lines are $120 monthly). 

If you have more than four lines, each additional line at Xfinity is $20 per line, per month (additional lines at Spectrum are $30 per line, per month).  

Optimum Mobile is in a similar boat, with a single line running $45 a month and four lines running $30 per line, per month. 

But these prices require you to have home service from these providers. If you cancel your cable service expect the bill to jump. 

If you cut the cord and ditch Xfinity's home services, each mobile line will cost an additional $25 per month, per line. For a family of four, that will jack your monthly bill from $120 a month to $220. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about carrier discounts?

If you want to stick with a major carrier such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, one easy way to save is to take advantage of its discounts. All of the carriers offer additional discounts that you could be eligible for, depending on your employer, military status, student status or age.

First responders, military members, veterans, nurses and teachers can get discounts on every major carrier. Verizon has discounts for students, while T-Mobile's Work perk could knock $10 a month off a Magenta Max plan. AT&T offers a similar program for its Unlimited Elite and Premium plans that it calls Signature and recently rolled out a new promotion for teachers that offers 25% off its latest unlimited plans.

If you're 55 or older, you may also be eligible for a discounted plan: T-Mobile offers discounted plans nationwide for as low as $55 a month for two lines, and Verizon and AT&T offer similar options -- but only for Florida residents.

We've also rounded up the best plans at the Big Three.