Can I save money by switching to a no-contract cell provider?

cell-phone-boothEach week or so, our Dear Penny column investigates the answers to reader questions about saving money in Brooklyn. Send your stumpers to [email protected].

On purely economical terms, yes, make the switch. The idea behind no-contract providers is that they offer unlimited talk, text and web for one flat monthly fee. Metro PCS ($40), Cricket ($40) and Sprint’s offshoot, Boost Mobile ($50), are three of the big names, and they constitute a real savings over both alternatives: pay-as-you-go phones, which have added charges for basic services; or annual contracts, with their hefty monthly fees. But the money’s not the whole deal in the contract/no-contract debate. A few equally important issues, like service area and phone quality, also should play a role in your decision.

Getting back to the economics briefly, the pay-as-you-go route usually rings in at $1 a day, plus $0.10 a minute and even more for features like texting and the Web. Over a month, if you’re even a semi-frequent caller/texter/browser, the charges add up fast. That’s a $30 base, plus extras, compared to the $40 to $50 cover-all of the no-contract devices. And as for the industry leaders and their annually-contracted plans, the price tag jumps to $70 or higher to even approach a  similar range and level of service.

Now to service-area, or lack thereof.  Within the designated coverage areas, the consensus among no-contract users has been, “It’s fine” (coverage maps here: Cricket, Metro PCS, Boost Mobile). Going outside a given company’s market means facing the nightmare of cell-speak: roaming.  Your options? Relinquish the ability to use your phone in the coverage gaps that are many medium and small-sized towns, or buy roaming minutes.  Cricket’s roaming packages come out to less than Metro PCS’s charge-by-minute offer. But Boost Mobile is the real answer, with a plan at just over $50 with “no roaming charges, no hidden fees, no contracts or credit checks.”

That said, most major cities (including Brooklyn) are covered.  The more users that switch to these contract-free unlimited companies, the more profit they make and the better the coverage will become.  If you don’t venture beyond Brooklyn, or even if you’re like me and bounce between Brooklyn and another major Northeast city, the service should be constant. It does reach much of the country, and it was made even stronger by a recent Cricket/Metro PCS agreement to share network airways. The reliability just might suffer, the smaller your current town is.

A few additional fees can sneak in with no-contract service. There’s the average $15 activation fee and, most importantly, the cost of a compatible phone.  A range of  phones out there do accept the no-contract services, including the highest-end, highest-tech devices, but those will set you back appropriately. If you really are doing this to save, there are plenty of (slightly inferior) cheap and free compatible devices with all the capabilities you need.

In some cases, you can keep your current phone by having it flashed, which means reprogramming the internal software and adding the needed files to make it compatible with your new no-contract carrier. But that might fall beyond your technological aptitude (it’s certainly beyond mine).  So for us, Metro PCS offers the service in stores for $40, while Cricket requires an outside merchant to handle the flash process.  Unfortunately, those ever-proprietary iPhones are made unflashable, for tech-related reasons I won’t even begin to go into here.

In the end, if you’re not one to venture outside of the big cities too often, and you’re willing to absorb a couple of one-time costs,  the no-contract providers look like a good deal. The forums speak favorably, and the coverage should continue to improve with rumors of a Cricket and Metro PCS merger.


  1. The major carriers’ pay as you go plans are a rip-off. You can get the same service with Tracfone or Net10 for .10/min (.03/txt) or lower without paying that $1 daily fee. I’ve been using Tracfone for about a year and have had no service problems unless I’m really in the middle of nowhere (which is a problem with other carriers anyway). I can’t think of a reason why anyone would use those $1/day+ plans.

  2. Roberta

    I have used Virgin Mobile for many years and it doesn’t cost nearly as much as the numbers you cite. You only need to put $15 into the phone every 3 months. If you spend $20, you get a minute pack of 200 minutes good for a month; $30 gets you 400 minutes and $50 gets you 1000 minutes. As long as you buy another minute pack before the 30th day, the minutes roll over. And that’s it–no other charges. Texting has similar little plans. Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint network.
    Oh, and you can buy a phone for $10, up to $120 for a phone with a keyboard.

  3. Great tips! Especially from the readers. unfortunately, I’m dedicated to my iPhone. Anyone know how to “unlock” one? I know its supposed to void the warranty, but the 12 month applecare that came with it is about to expire anyway.

Leave a Reply