Five cheap carrier alternatives for your unlocked smartphone

Five cheap carrier alternatives for your unlocked smartphone

Have you finally reached the end of that oppressive (and expensive) two-year contract with your mobile phone carrier? Time to start shopping for cheaper alternatives.

It’s a common misconception that you have to stick with the same service provider after your contract expires. But there’s a very good chance you can indeed shop around, as a number of upstart prepaid carriers now offer similar (and in some cases better) service for considerably less money.

I’ll use myself as an example — or, rather, my daughter. She has a hand-me-down iPhone 4 that’s currently part of our AT&T Family Plan. But her phone is out of contract, so we’re under no obligation to stick with AT&T. (My wife and I will be out of contract as well come October, so this will be a great chance to test the waters with another, cheaper, service.)
Below I’ve rounded up five low-cost phone carriers that will let you BYOP: Bring Your Own Phone. Not all of them support all models from all carriers, but at least you’ll get an idea for some of the available options.

Just make sure to do your homework before making a switch. You may need to go through the process of unlocking your phone, which some carriers now prohibit, and the coverage and features available to you on the new carrier may not match what you’re getting now. (For example, if you’re an iPhone user, you may lose out on visual-voicemail by switching to Straight Talk.)

Boost Mobile/Virgin Mobile
Do you own a Sprint-powered smartphone? If so, the company’s new Bring Your Own Sprint Device program may help it find a home at Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile, Sprint subsidiaries that offer considerably lower monthly rates. Virgin, for example, has plans starting at $35, while Boost offers “shrinking” monthly payments for customers who pay their bills on time. You’ll probably need to visit a local retailer to see what options you have.

One of the more interesting players on the scene, Solavei lets you bring any unlocked GSM phone (that is, one that has a SIM card, meaning from AT&T or T-Mobile) and get unlimited service for $49 per month. And there’s a social (okay, pyramid-scheme) aspect to it as well: If you sign up other paying customers, you can lower or even eliminate your bill.

Straight Talk
Sold exclusively through Walmart, Straight Talk works like Solavei in that you can purchase an inexpensive SIM card to use with your existing GSM phone, then pay $45 monthly for unlimited talk, text, and data. But make sure to read the fine print, as some users have run into apparent contract violations for innocuous things like downloading apps and streaming music. The good news is that if Straight Talk proves problematic at all, it’s not like you’re under contract; you can just give them the boot.

Do you send a lot of text messages but make very few phone calls? Or use a lot of data but rarely do any messaging? Check out Ting, which gives you granular control over your minutes, megabytes, and text messages. In other words, you choose your desired amounts per month, and your plan pricing gets adjusted accordingly. You can bring your own Sprint phone, including a smattering of LTE models.

It’s worth noting that if you’re in the market for a new phone, many of these carriers sell them— including such popular models as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy SIII. You pay a premium for the hardware, but the lower monthly rates means you save money over the long term.

If you’ve already made the switch to one of these providers, hit the comments and let me know how it worked out.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.


Rick Broida has spent the last 25 years writing about technology in all its forms. A self-proclaimed cheapskate, he authors an eponymous blog for CNET. He is also a contributor to CNET's iPhone Atlas and Ehow Tech. Broida's book credits include the best-selling "How to Do Everything with Your Palm Handheld" and the more recent "The Cheapskate Rules: 21 Easy Money-Saving Tech Secrets."

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