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Best prepaid phone plans in 2021

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon aren't your only options.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

There are plenty of phone plans available in the US. While most Americans subscribe to services directly from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon, a number of smaller providers can get you solid service for a cheaper rate. Whereas the main carriers now focus primarily on unlimited plans, these smaller carriers still offer a variety of plans with set allotments of data. 

There are a ton of providers, but for the purposes of this story I'm going to focus on just a few: Boost Mobile, Cricket, Mint, Google Fi, Tracfone, Metro by T-Mobile, Verizon Prepaid and AT&T Prepaid. Since these carriers have so many different plan options, I'm also going to focus on the best options for under 5GB of data, under 10GB of data and unlimited plans

Read more: Cheap phone plans compared

What exactly is prepaid? 

When it comes to phone plans there are two main types of ways to pay: postpaid, where you pay at the end of the month, and prepaid, where you buy service before you use your phone. The advertisements you see for AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are almost always for postpaid plans while the plans and carriers we're focusing on here are all prepaid options. 

You're buying the data and access in advance of using it. Prepaid providers let you purchase in various increments -- 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, six months or even a full year -- with prices varying depending on how long you're willing to commit to. 

In this story, I'm comparing single-year plans. 

Read more: How to buy a new iPhone or Android Phone in 2021

Know your area

As I noted when covering the best unlimited plans, to get the most out of your deal you need to make sure you have the coverage you need. This makes it hard to give a blanket recommendation of any one carrier: T-Mobile's service in New York may be excellent, but if you're in rural Iowa, Verizon is more reliable. 

Prepaid providers almost always use someone else's service. Before you sign up for one, it's worth checking what the underlying network is. Each offers some version of 5G and I've broken this all down here, but to recap: 

Read more: Best phones under $500

If you have any friends or family in your area that already use the prepaid carrier you're considering, ask about their experience. You could also go to a major carrier's store and see if it offers any free ways to try out the service before switching over, such as T-Mobile's Test Drive

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Boost Mobile will use a combination of AT&T, T-Mobile and its own network. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Know the promos

With the holidays approaching, prepaid carriers are getting into the deals spirit. Boost Mobile is running a promo that lets you get three lines with unlimited talk, text and data for $90 per month ($30 per line) after "your first payment of $100."

Mint Mobile is offering a Black Friday and holiday sale through Jan. 7 that gives new customers an extra three months of service with the purchase of any three-month plan. This includes its unlimited plan, so you can prepay and get six months of unlimited data for one line for $90 (the equivalent of paying $15 a month). 

Best unlimited value: Mint Mobile 12-month plan

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Ryan Reynolds' cell phone company has made a name for itself with its quirky advertising, but it also has one of the strongest offers we've seen. For 12 months, you can get unlimited talk, text and data for $30 per month. Running on T-Mobile's networks, you get 35GB of high-speed data on 5G and 4G LTE per month, though if you do blow through that before your 30-day period resets, your speeds will slow to a brutally slow 128Kbps or potentially even 64Kbps. There also is 5GB of high-speed hotspot data. 

Normally $30 a month, with that promotion mentioned above, you'd get six months of service for $90 and then the next six months for $180. At $270 for the year, that breaks down to $22.50 a month for unlimited data, which is a hard price to beat, especially for less than three lines. 

Other options: As with all plans, the value will change depending on your specific needs and if that particular network works well in your area. If you only need three lines, Boost Mobile has that promotion we mentioned, with 35GB of high-speed data per line. After that point, your speeds "will be reduced for the remainder of the month." 

Google Fi has an unlimited plan that runs $30 per line per month with three or more lines, as does Cricket. Whereas Google Fi is the same $30 a line no matter how many lines you have, on Cricket this deal gets a bit better if you have four or five lines. as the price per line would drop to $25 per line per month ($100 a month for four lines, $125 for five lines). 

Neither Google Fi nor Cricket offers mobile hotspot data with these plans. Cricket says it "may temporarily slow data speeds if the network is busy" while Google says it will slow data if you exceed 22GB in a month. 

Tracfone does not offer a traditional unlimited data plan. Verizon and AT&T's prepaid options start at $50 a month with automatic payments ($65 without). Verizon's deal also needs you to commit to 10 or more months. 

Best unlimited with perks and for 4 or more lines: Metro's top unlimited plan

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Cricket and Metro also offer perks with their top unlimited plans -- in the case of Cricket you get a subscription to HBO Max with Ads while Metro offers a subscription to Amazon Prime and 100GB of Google One storage. But those prices are higher per line if you were only looking for one, two or three lines. 

If you're looking for four or more lines, the top Metro unlimited plan could be worth considering. A promotion has that down to $30 a month per line, so if that's your budget you may want to look at that deal, as for the same price per line you may as well get the perks like Amazon Prime and Google One alongside the service. 

Anything less than four lines, however, and it is a lot pricier than Mint. One phone line with this top unlimited plan runs $60 a month, two lines is $90 a month and three lines are $120. 

Best for under 10GB of data: Mint Mobile

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Sarah Tew/CNET

When it comes to data under 10GB, Mint once again has the best value if T-Mobile's network is solid in your area. Whereas Metro and Cricket charge $40 per month for one line and Boost has a $35 plan for 10GB of data, Mint beats them all on price. 

Getting 10GB of 4G LTE/5G monthly data is $20 at Mint, and if you do that "buy three months, get three months" promotion you'll end up with six months of service for $60, or $10 per line per month. Even after that promotion ends it is hard to beat $20 per month. For a year, that's $180 for 10GB of data per month, or what becomes $15 a month. 

Other options: Google Fi has a "bill protection" feature designed to refund you for data you don't use, but with a maximum monthly charge of $80 per month for one line and 6GB of data and unlimited talk/text I think you're better off looking elsewhere instead of having to calculate how much data you're using. 

AT&T has an 8GB per month plan that runs $25 a month if you prepay the $300 for a full year. 

Tracfone doesn't have a 10GB plan but has two other options directly above and below it. The first is an 8GB-per-month plan that runs $35 per month if you enable autorefill, or $40 per month regularly. While it's a little more than 10GB, the provider does have a 12GB-per-month plan for one year that runs $199. 

The perk with the AT&T and Tracfone plans is that any unused data carries over to the next month. For the latter, if you're looking for a prepaid provider on Verizon it's hard to top what amounts to a monthly rate of $16.58. 

Best for under 5GB of data: Boost Mobile's 1GB plan

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It was almost a clean sweep when it comes to value from Mint. At $15 per month for 4GB of data its deal beats out Boost Mobile's offer of $15 for 2GB of data and Cricket's $30-per-month rate for the same amount of data. Tracfone has a 3GB data plan but that runs $25 when on autorefill ($30 without). 

Boost on Thursday, however, introduced a new $100 deal that offers 1GB of data per month for a full year for new customers. That breaks down to $8.33 per month. If you don't have Boost, find yourself largely on Wi-Fi and price is the biggest driver for you this is the go-to pick if looking for a new service.

If you need a little more data, Mint is the way to go. Once factoring in the company's holiday deal, it's $45 for the first six months so a full year would run $135. That's $11.25 per line. 

Verizon Prepaid has a 5GB plan that it lists as running $25 per month so long as you're willing to commit to at least 10 months, but the math here can be tricky. The plan is normally $40 per month but that price will drop to $35 per month starting in the second month assuming you have automatic payments enabled. It will then fall to $30 per month if you keep the service for three months, before dropping another $5 down to $25 if you stick with the carrier past the ninth month.

T-Mobile has a T-Mobile Connect deal that is $25 per month for 5.5GB of data (with an extra 500MB of data added to your plan every year).

As we said at the top, the best deal is the one that works best for you. But when it comes to price, assuming T-Mobile's network works well in your area it's hard to top the prices Mint charges.