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Get cell service on the cheap when you buy it in bulk

If you're willing to prepay, Mint SIM offers extremely competitive plans.

Mint SIM

What's the best deal on cell service? Recently I gave the nod to Cricket, which can comfortably accommodate a family of five for just $100 per month.

That works out to $20 per person -- but if you want service for one, you'll pay at least $35 per month. That's still a great deal, but there's a better one: Mint SIM.

Around this time last year, the Ultra Mobile spinoff debuted with a unique proposition: Prepay for up to a year's worth of service to get ultra-low rates. For example, you could score an unlimited plan with 2GB of 4G LTE data for one year for $250 -- the equivalent of $20.88 monthly.

Earlier this week, the company made some changes to its pricing models, including lower rates for more data and a 3-month trial for as low as $45.

Breaking down the math

It works like this: You choose one of three available plans, then decide how many months you want to prepay: 3, 6 or 12. The more you pay upfront, the lower the rate.

For example, 6 months of the 5GB plan would cost you $144 (equivalent to $24 per month), while 12 months would run $240 (equivalent to $20 a month). Let me pause right there to note that the aforementioned $35 per month Cricket plan nets you 4GB of data. Here you're getting 25 percent more for $11-15 less per month, depending on the duration you choose.

Mint SIM now offers some of the most affordable plans anywhere -- provided you're willing to prepay. 

Mint SIM

The real standout plan, however, is 10GB of data for 12 months, which costs $300 (equivalent to $25 per month). I don't know another carrier that gives you anywhere near that much data for that price.

The catch, of course, is that you have to be willing to pay that big chunk of cash in advance. Fortunately, the carrier's new trial offer gives you the 12-month rate for a 3-month subscription: You can get 2GB, 5GB or 10GB of data for $45, $60 or $75, without having to commit to a full year. There's also a new 7-day money-back guarantee.

Mint SIM compatibility and compromises

To use the service, all you need is an unlocked, GSM-compatible phone. The company will send you a SIM card you can pop in to activate your plan.  

What kind of coverage can you expect? Mint SIM is a T-Mobile MVNO, but make sure to check the former's coverage map before switching: For whatever reason, service isn't as widely available as with T-Mo proper. Much of Montana and Wyoming, for example, have no coverage at all. 

What's more, Mint SIM is a web-only service, meaning there's no storefront you can visit to ask questions or get help. There's toll-free phone support, but it's not 24/7 -- and not available at all on Sundays.

On the feature front, there's good news and bad: All plans include mobile hotspot (which Cricket's lower-tier plans don't offer), but not visual voicemail. You have the option of using Wi-Fi for calls and text messages, but only on select Android phones. All Mint SIM accounts support international roaming (for calls and texts), but you'll have to pay extra for it.

Perhaps the most important consideration is that while there's no contract, per se, once you pay for your subscription, you can't get a refund if you decide to move to another carrier. The "penalty" is forfeiting whatever time is left on your subscription.

Should you switch?

Assuming coverage is good in your area, you don't care about visual voicemail and you can afford to pay a potentially large lump sum in advance, Mint SIM is tough to beat. Personally I like the idea of making a single payment and not seeing another carrier charge for an entire year. 

On the other hand, because I'm paying for five users, that would be five large lump sums -- quite a bit harder to swallow. Mint SIM offers no family plans; it's definitely aiming at individual users.

If you're already one of them, hit the comments and let your fellow readers know what you like or don't like about the service.

Update, August 2, 2017: This article was originally published on August 11, 2016, and has since been updated.