There are so many different pre-paid, contract-free wireless carriers in America that you could try a new one every month for a whole year.
That would be a terrible idea, though, when when you consider that most offer the same thing: unlimited talk and text and a bucket of data, priced significantly lower than the big carriers.
There’s not much distinguishing StraightTalk from Cricket Wireless from Net10 in pricing or coverage, for instance. (They all charge $40 to $45 for 3GB of data, and they all run on AT&T ’s network.)
Read more: Kill the Wireless Contract! Buy Your Own Phone
But like diamonds in the rough, there are some unique networks that are shaking things up. They’re forcing us to think about the one thing the biggest carriers don’t want us to: When it comes to cellular data, can we pay for only what we need? Here’s a lineup of five of the most disruptive carriers:
With Ting, you pay only for what you use—the minutes you spend on the phone, the texts you send and the data you consume. You can view and manage your usage through the website.
But Ting—which operates on T-Mobile and Sprint ’s networks—isn’t for heavy data users. The company says its average user only spends $23 a month. Think about how much those people would be overspending at the big carriers!
Republic Wireless, on the other hand, wants you to use as much data as you want. To help lower costs, it prioritizes Wi-Fi networks over cell towers. For $25 a month, it offers unlimited talk, text and data, and when Wi-Fi isn’t available, it will fall back onto Sprint’s network. The catch: With that basic plan, when you’re on cellular, you only get 3G data. (You can pay more to get the faster 4G LTE when you’re out and about.)
Republic works to make the Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff seamless during phone calls and even Web surfing, but it needs special technology to do it. That means you cannot bring your own phone. Instead, it offers four Motorola phones, including the Moto X, on its website.
Freewheel is another pre-paid carrier attempting a Wi-Fi model, though unlike Republic it does not have a cellular component. If you’re away from Wi-Fi networks, there will be no phone calls, texts or Web surfing. T-Mobile has offered variations on Wi-Fi callingfor nearly a decade.
FreedomPop takes that idea of combining Wi-Fi and cellular to a whole new level. It says its service is completely free.
Yes, free. How the heck is that possible? Well, here’s what you get for free: 500MB of 4G/3G data, 200 voice minutes and 500 text messages.
The company is betting that you’ll need a bit more than that and go up to one of the basic low cost plans. But even then they are cheap—$20 for unlimited talk, text and 3G data! And much like Republic, the company will route that activity over a Wi-Fi network if it can. When it can’t, it also uses Sprint’s 3G and 4G networks.
GoSmart is very much like the regular pre-paid options but it gets an honorable mention because all of its plans, even the $35 option with 2.5GB of data on T-Mobile’s network, includes unlimited Facebook access. This is the Facebook phone you’ve always wanted.
It’s not all about data, though—at least not for people who turn to Consumer Cellular. This no-contract carrier focuses on the older audience, interested in just calls, texting and only very basic data needs. For just $20 a month you get 200 minutes, 1,000 text messages and 100MB of data on AT&T’s network. For the same $20, you can also get a talk-only plan with 600 minutes. AARP members get a 5 percent discount.