Hopefully this overview of the best prepaid cell phone plans will help you drastically lower your bill and ditch two-year contracts. There are a lot of other benefits to using prepaid cell phone plans: they run on the same 4G networks as the big carriers, you won't be charged lots of extra taxes and fees, and since there aren't any contracts you can change your phone or cancel your plan at any time.
There are a ton of smaller/regional prepaid carriers out there, but I'm going to focus on nationwide plans that offer the best value for typical smartphone users. Also look at our post on the top smartphone plans available to see how the best prepaid cell phone plans compare to contract plans. Please add in the comments if I missed one of the best prepaid cell phone plans.
The best prepaid cell phone plans
*These plans give you unlimited data capped at 2G speeds after you exceed your monthly allotment of 4G data.
All of the best prepaid cell phone plans require you to buy a full-priced phone from them or bring your own phone. For example, a new iPhone retails for $650 but you could buy an older unlocked phone or used phone for much less (just make sure what radio technology/frequencies and SIM card sizes your carrier of choice supports - standard, micro, or nano). Even after paying $650 for a phone you'll save money with these plans compared to a contract plan from Verizon or AT&T with a $99 - $199 phone.
Best prepaid cell phone plans: free and low-cost
Freedom Pop is a provider of free internet service, and now free cell plans. You'll have to buy a phone from them and their selection is limited, but does include last-generation iPhones and Android phones.
Republic Wireless has a very interesting model, where your phone calls and data usage are offloaded to wifi whenever possible. They also have plans without cellular data for $5-$10. Currently Republic only works with the Motorola Moto X and Moto G. Check out their plans and phones.
Ting is another plan with an interesting, and potentially very low-cost, model. You don't pick a plan, rather your voice minutes, texts, and data usage are tallied up at the end of the month and you're charged accordingly. This may be a great deal for people who don't call and text much but want a good chunk of data (or vice versa). Ting runs on Sprint's network.
The T-Mobile plan is only available from Walmart and is one of the best prepaid cell phone plans you can get if you just want a lot of data and T-Mobile has good coverage in your area. I've used this plan before and got 50Mbps on LTE and 10Mbps on HSPA with a Nexus 5.
The new postpaid T-Mobile plans also essentially operate like a prepaid plan. They may not seem like a great deal compared to the other plans here, but they have lots of extras included: music streaming doesn't count against data caps, free international texting and 2G data, and essentially free financing. They also have an unlimited plan, but it costs $20 more than MetroPCS (which also runs on T-Mobile).
Best value for typical smartphone users: Virgin Mobile vs Cricket vs Straight Talk
Virgin Mobile's plans are a phenomenal deal, but only if you get good Sprint coverage. They also offer periodic discounts on iPhones of $100 or more. This is one of the least expensive and best prepaid cell phone plans out there for an iPhone user that doesn't need a ton of voice minutes. Check out all the latest phones from Virgin Mobile.
Cricket and Straight Talk both operate on AT&T's 4G LTE network, which has much better coverage than Sprint or T-Mobile in most areas. Straight Talk's $45 plan offers more data and costs $5 less than the mid-tier Cricket plan, but Cricket offers group discounts. Either of these plans offer a good balance of value and coverage. Buy Straight Talk SIM cards and service plans at Walmart.com or in store. AT&T also offers their own prepaid plans, but they aren't nearly as good a value as Straight Talk or Cricket.
If you need unlimited data: MetroPCS vs T-Mobile
MetroPCS plans don't stand out from the best prepaid cell phone plans at first glance, but they are the only prepaid carrier to offer a truly unlimited data plan, and at a very reasonable price. The phone selection isn't great, but you can bring your own device and pop in a SIM card. T-Mobile also offers an unlimited data plan, but for $20 more than MetroPCS.
Best prepaid cell phone plans with best possible coverage: Verizon
Verizon prepaid plans now support LTE, but start at $50 with just 500MB of data. Verizon has the best LTE coverage, but you'll have to pay to get it.
Some other plans to consider: Net10 vs Boost Mobile vs Solavei
Here are a few more options to consider if one of the best prepaid cell phone plans isn't what you're looking for. These plans are generally a bit more expensive to the options above though.
Net10 is very similar to Straight Talk, but costs $5 more. They have 4G plans that run on the AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon networks. They have a good selection of iPhones and slightly older Androids.
Boost Mobile is another popular prepaid plan that runs on Sprint's network and offers unlimited calling and good prices on new iPhones. However, they are priced a little higher than Virgin Mobile. Shop Boost Mobile Prepaid Phones.
Solavie plans run on T-Mobile's network and for $50 you get 4GB of high-speed data and unlimited calling/texting. You can also earn money by referring people to them.