Cheap Cell Phones and Providers: A Review
Shaving money off any bill is sweet, but shaving money off your phone bill is somehow a little sweeter. Being able to stick it to the big guys and ditch your $100-a-month service has to feel great.
A lot of Americans are doing just that as they look for ways to save money on their phone bills. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average wireless phone bill in the U.S. fell 13 percent between 2009 and 2015.
Most people are used to paying upward of $500, thinking they’re getting a device that’s superior in quality and performance to cheaper options. In an attempt to find cheaper cell phones and cheaper service, I explored three alternatives for providers and devices. This is what I found.
Cell Phone Providers
This comparison uses a 5GB data plan as its baseline, as that’s what I subscribe to now.
1. Cricket Wireless
You’ve probably heard of Cricket Wireless if you watch TV. It runs lots of commercials, which seems to have paid off. Cricket says that since being acquired by AT&T in 2014, its subscriber base has more than doubled, reaching over 9 million in April.
A 5GB plan with unlimited calls and texts costs $40 per month regularly. However, it costs $35 per month with auto-pay, in which the service is automatically deducted from your credit card or bank account every month.
Cricket leases the rights to use AT&T’s cell tower network as the backbone for its service. This means that subscribers get most of the same benefits as an AT&T postpaid (contract) customer. However, it does throttle (or limit) its data download speed to 8 Mbps. This means watching high-quality video or downloading files may not be as fast as it would be with other carriers.
Compared with AT&T’s normal LTE download speeds, which are upward of 25 Mbps, 8 Mbps may seem like a big cut. But it’s good enough for the majority of users’ needs. Most of the time, I didn’t have any real complaints when I was using Cricket.
Cricket also sells subsidized phones online and in its brick-and-mortar stores.
This means that you’ll find devices here that are comparatively cheaper than if you purchased them from their respective manufacturer websites or competing carriers.
For example, right now the Samsung Galaxy S9 is only $499 when you purchase it online and transfer your number. The retail price of this phone directly from Samsung is $719.99.
If you choose not to transfer your number, you pay a higher, but still slightly discounted, price of $699.99. It also offers several phones for less than $50, or even free, when you transfer your number from another carrier.
2. Mint Mobile
Mint Mobile, which was launched in 2016, uses the T-Mobile network. It differs from most other no-contract carriers in that you can’t purchase pay-as-you-go service. Mint restricts service to blocks of three, six, or 12 months.
However, bulk buying means bulk pricing. Three months of 5GB data plus unlimited calling and texting costs $60, or $20 a month, right now. However, this is just introductory pricing.
After those first three months, your plan will go up to $90, or $30 a month. This is the normal rate on Mint’s 12-month plan. So if you decide you like the service after three months, it makes sense to go ahead and renew for a full year. That way, you can lock in that $20-a-month rate.
Mint sells phones online, and the cheapest option available is the $79 CoolPad Canvas LTE. This isn’t a bad entry-level phone. However, if you dive deeper and look at its performance as measured by a commonly used benchmarking tool, it’s dwarfed by that of the now 5-year-old iPhone 5S.
The AnTuTu benchmarking tool measures a set of criteria for each device and assigns a score based on how it performs. The CoolPad scored 30,757 in this test, while the iPhone 5S scored 61,000. While these benchmarks are a great way to compare the performance of phones on paper, they aren’t always an accurate indicator of experience.
If the CoolPad’s $79 price tag with Mint still seems a little high for you, the best option may be to bring your own phone.
With Mint, a SIM kit is included when you purchase a plan. This way, you don’t have to worry about paying an extra $5 or $10 for a SIM card like you would with some other no-contract carriers. (A SIM card is an essential part of setting yourself up with any new service. It’s a chip that you insert into your phone that allows it to connect to whichever carrier you like.)
3. Republic Wireless
Republic Wireless has undergone some changes through the years. I signed up when it was in its first non-beta iteration in 2013. At the time, I paid $25 a month for unlimited texting, calling, and 5GB of 3G data. I had the Moto G1, and it was a great phone. Its only drawback was that I was limited to 3G data. The faster and more robust LTE (long-term evolution) data was deployed in my area, so I wanted to take advantage of it.
Republic is now in its third iteration and has changed things up a bit since its launch. A 5GB data plan with unlimited calling and texting costs $40 a month. This is slightly higher than the other carriers we’ve explored, but for a good reason.
Republic Wireless offers a unique feature: its patented Adaptive Coverage technology. This keeps your phone’s primary features running over both cellular and Wi-Fi, regardless of coverage or signal. This is especially useful in areas where you have little cell coverage, but still need to make calls and send texts. Republic Wireless runs off T-Mobile and Sprint networks.
One drawback of Republic Wireless is that unique software algorithms limit you to a specific list of phones, and its service isn’t compatible with Apple iPhones. If you’re a diehard Apple fan, Republic Wireless probably isn’t your cup of tea.
Compatible devices include those from the Google Pixel and Nexus lineup, as well as many phones from Samsung and Motorola, which are all very established manufacturers known for producing great quality devices. If you don’t mind going with Android, and you don’t have the best reception where you live, Republic Wireless might be for you.
Finding Cheap Cell Phones
All the carriers above allow you to use your own phone. In other words, you don’t have to buy one directly from them. This is often the best option if you want to save the maximum amount of money when setting up a new line, as you’re open to a plethora of devices, both new and used. This way, you can pick the exact phone you want without compromising.
I’ve chosen three cheap cell phones that I believe are some of the best options if you’re looking to get started without throwing a ton of cash out the window.
1. iPhone 5S
The iPhone 5S was launched in 2013. Five years later, it’s still officially supported by Apple and is slated to run iOS 12, which is expected to be launched later this month. It’s missing some modern features, like contactless payments through Apple Pay, the faster AC Wi-Fi standard, and 4K video recording. However, those features aren’t often found on similar-priced new phones anyway.
YouTuber Royal Tech’s review highlights the pros and cons of using an iPhone 5S in 2018, but it leaves out iOS 12 performance. People who use this phone on the iOS 12 beta report that it breathes new life into this aging phone, according to CNET, bringing back some of the performance that iOS 11 took away.
It’s safe to say that the iPhone 5S has at least another year or two of life left in it before it’s time to go in another direction.
It still performs well, especially for the price. You can easily find a carrier-unlocked 16 GB iPhone 5S in good condition for $75 on eBay with free shipping. However, it might be a little smarter to go with the 32 GB option. This is often available for just $10 to $15 more. Sites like eBay may also be a good option for finding deals on laptops.
2. Blu R1 HD 2018
Blu is a lesser-known phone designer based in Doral, Florida. It specializes in budget devices that are factory-unlocked, meaning you can use them with any carrier. Prices range from as low as $49 to as much as $349.
The Blu R1 HD 2018 is the latest iteration of one of the lower-end devices it launched two years ago. It packs specifications that are great for this price tier, and at $79.99 on Amazon, it seems to be a steal.
One drawback I can see with this device is what you’d expect when buying a phone from a lesser-known designer: accessory support. Finding compatible cases and screen protectors for a phone, especially a newer one, from a small designer might be a challenge.
If you love to accessorize, this may not be the device for you. Blu, however, is generous when it comes to accessories. This phone is no exception. The box includes a set of earphones, a silicone case, and a screen protector to get you up and running in no time.
3. Moto E4
Motorola, whose phones now go by the “Moto” moniker, has been around for a long time. The Moto E4, as the name suggests, is the fourth generation of its budget-minded Moto E family.
It comes factory unlocked, so you can take it to any carrier, and though it’s the most expensive device in this list, coming in at $129.99 on Amazon, it’s certainly worth the extra money.
Motorola is known for quick updates, so this phone is sure to see Android’s latest iteration, version 8.0 Oreo, at some point. It also is the only one of the three that is compatible with Republic Wireless.
It’s available in two colors: black and gold. And since it’s from a bigger manufacturer and a popular budget choice, finding accessories shouldn’t be a problem.
The only drawback I can see is that it doesn’t use the newer, more robust USB Type C charging connector. Micro-USB connectors have a reputation for being fragile, so be sure to stock up on cables. You’ll thank me later.
So What’s the Best Cell Phone/Provider Combo?
My perfect combo from this list of cheap cell phones and carriers would be Mint Mobile and the iPhone 5S. I love how cheap Mint’s service is and that it doesn’t cap your data speeds. I also love not having to worry about paying a phone bill for up to a year.
Meanwhile, the iPhone 5S has a lot of life left in it, and it still performs well. I like its camera quality, easy-to-use interface and software, and cheap accessories.
A Wide Variety of Cheap Cell Phones and Plans
Overall, it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of affordable wireless plans or cheap cell phones on the market. Whether you use Android or iOS, or you live somewhere where you get better coverage on AT&T than T-Mobile, there are options.
You’re no longer obligated to spend hundreds of dollars on phones and service to get a quality experience. That’s something I’ve experienced firsthand. If you want to shave a few hundred dollars off of your phone bill and throw it into savings, there are easy ways to do it. And as competition in the market increases, it will get even easier.