Mobile carriers may be coming out with increasingly flexible options, but you could be surprised by how much money you can save by moving your wireless plan over to a no-contract Mobile Virtual Network Operator, called an “MVNO.”
It’s particularly worth exploring the possibility of dropping your existing postpaid major carrier contract at renewal if you’re an occasional user; travel overseas for long periods; use an unlocked phone anyway; or own a high-end, paid-for smartphone in good condition.
An MVNO doesn’t own its spectrum; rather, it leases the radio network from one of the big operators like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon. Like a discounter can do in the retail environment, the MVNO buys in bulk at wholesale prices and then sells chunks to you.
There are also MVNO lookalikes that are marketing exercises owned by the major networks.
MVNOs are prepaid offerings, flexible to your usage changes, and they let you pay as you go.
In some cases your existing phone can be used. In all cases you can take your number with you — called “porting.”
Whereas the major wireless carriers offer new, subsidized handsets to their customers — and keep you tied into a contract to recoup the subsidy — MVNOs and lookalikes offer new and used phones that are generally unsubsidized and therefore more expensive up front.
The advantage, however, is that the MVNO doesn’t have to tie you to a long contract.
Create a Web-based sign-in for your existing wireless mobile phone account.
Tip: If you receive a paper bill, the online account-setup address will often be listed on the bill.
Identify the end-of-contract date on your existing plan.
Tip: The end-of-contract date is often a few months after the network has offered you a discounted new phone.
Identify your current voice minutes, text messages and data usage from the “My Bill,” “Account,” “Services” or similarly named part of the website.
Your usage may have changed from the contract inception — less voice and more data, for example. You may be surprised what you find. Lots of roll-over minutes means you’re paying for more than you need.
Tip: Texting apps like WhatsApp Messenger use the data element of your phone, not Messaging, often called “SMS” or “Texts.” Communicating via social networks uses data too.
Compare what you’ve been using over time with what you’re paying for. This will give you a picture of where you can save.
Browse the MVNO and MVNO-lookalike prepay offerings. Deals change frequently and include pay-as-you-go and no-contract monthly plans priced in tiers.
Here are some networks you should check out along with notable features:
GSM Technology (SIM Cards)
- AT&T network: AT&T-owned Aio Wireless — limited areas right now, but promising simple pricing; AirVoice — unlimited talk, text and 1 GB Web for US$55 a month; AT&T Go Phone; Black Wireless — $30 unlimited talk and text with some free international; H2O Wireless — $100 data stick and then 1 GB of data for $50 each month; Red Pocket — 250 minutes talk and 500 texts for $19.99 a month; Straight Talk — from Walmart for both GSM and CDMA with unlimited minutes and data for $45 a month plus 4G with a bring-your-own T-Mobile device.
- T-Mobile network: GoSmart Mobile, Ready SIM, SIMple Mobile, T-Mobile, Ultra Mobile. The T-Mobile network offerings can be a little cheaper than those on AT&T’s, but T-Mobile doesn’t have the equivalent rural coverage. Check the network-coverage maps on the websites in question if that might be important to you.
CDMA Technology (No SIM Cards)
- Verizon network: Page Plus — unlimited talk and 2 GB of Verizon data for $55 a month. Verizon has reasonable rural data coverage in remote areas of the West; Verizon Prepay — LTE hotspot for $99 and then 3 GB of LTE data for $60 a month.
- Sprint network: Boost — Sprint-owned, $50 a month for unlimited talk, text and Web; Cricket — Sprint LTE roaming likely later this year; EcoMobile — reuse an old Sprint device; Kajeet — for kids, starting at $4.95 a month; Republic — cheap WiFi hybrid calling; Ting — will credit you for unused minutes and data; Total Call Mobile — good for international; Virgin Mobile — Sprint-owned and $35 a month for minutes and some 4G data, including LTE.
Tip: A few of these MVNOs have both CDMA and GSM offerings.
Check what some of these MVNOs don’t offer compared with the major carriers. You may be trading cost for features you need.
MVNO downsides can include limited roaming; no data roaming; no unlimited data; low-end handsets; lack of LTE 4G data speeds; and being forced to buy a handset from the MVNO rather than bringing your own.
Determine the equipment that you will be using. One way to save money is to use an existing device. GSM phones like those from AT&T can be unlocked by contacting the wireless carrier at the end of the contract and requesting the unlock code.
Some CDMA phones, like those from Sprint, can be re-used on some Sprint-compatible networks.
Tip: Insert the new SIM card given to you by the new wireless carrier into the existing GSM phone and you will be prompted to enter the unlock code. CDMA phones require registering at the MVNO’s website.
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