I frequently start my articles by talking about “way back when”, or “back in the day”, or any other generic phrases that refer to the earlier days of mobile. I'm a big fan of context, so the same is true for the subject I’m writing about today: postpaid and prepaid phone plans. Recently I switched from postpaid to prepaid, and although I had my doubts about the impending experience, I can confidently say that it was probably one of the best decisions I made for myself in the past year.
Now for the context. My very first cell phone was a flip phone on a prepaid plan. At 14, I couldn’t sign up for a postpaid plan of my own, and my parents had no intention of owning cell phones at the time. To 14-year-old me, this was a major bummer for two big reasons: One, I couldn’t get a “cheap” phone and two, I couldn’t get a cool phone. I had no idea that the reason phones were so cheap through postpaid plans was because you ultimately ended up paying more for the device by signing complicated contracts with undisclosed surcharges, but that didn’t matter to me then. All I knew was that if I wanted a phone, it was going to be expensive and my phone wasn’t going to be very cool.
As it turned out, the most expensive thing about my phone wasn’t even its initial $79.99 price tag; it was the plan itself. It was a terrible plan. I got something around 300 minutes a month, no nights and weekends (a thing back then), $0.25 per text message and no data (not that it was exactly usable back then anyway) for $30 a month. I was always running out of minutes before my month was over. It was awful, but I had my phone and that’s what was important.
A few years later I would have my first postpaid plan. Me in that Sprint store was like a kid in a candy store. There were endless possibilities. In the end, I settled on the Sanyo Katana II. It was the poor man’s RAZR, but I didn’t care. It was better and cheaper than anything I had owned before, and my plan was amazing compared to the prepaid plans I tried in prior years.
I stuck with postpaid from that point on. The better plans and phones were reasons enough for me to pay a little more every month and commit myself to one carrier and phone for a couple of years. As time went on, though, the benefits of postpaid compared to prepaid became less apparent as prepaid options began to offer better terms in what feels like rapid progression.
Prepaid carriers had (and often still do) primarily carried low-end, oftentimes no-name smartphones. Eventually, better options like the previous year’s flagships started showing up. Maybe it wasn’t top-of-the-line anymore, but most flagships are set to last for a good two or three years before people started looking for an upgrade. Most of the time they would have a significant discount as well, even in brand new condition. And then, suddenly, the iPhone became an option; sometimes just the previous year’s model, or even the model from two years ago, but the main thing was that the iPhone was an option on prepaid carriers.
And then we get to today. While there are still limitations on what prepaid carriers offer directly, you can frequently find current generation flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, iPhone 8, and even the iPhone X straight from prepaid carriers. What’s better is that you’re no longer necessarily limited to whatever prepaid carriers have in stock either, as many of them allow you – and even encourage you - to bring your own device, which sometimes has special promotions just because you do. Virgin Mobile recently had a promotion where new customers could bring their own iPhone and get 12 months for $1, which is a pretty sweet deal.
I took Virgin Mobile up on their initial $1 for 12 months of service promotion, which involved buying a new iPhone from either their website or an Apple Store. I’m still partaking in that promotion, which has been great on its own, but what surprised me more was the service I get (I just happen to live in an area now that gets great Sprint service, whereas before I didn’t and I’m sure that has a lot to do with it – even nearly-free service is no good if you get no signal) and I’ve had really good customer service experiences the two times I’ve needed to contact them with a question.
What’s better is that even when my 12 months are up, $50 for unlimited everything is still a pretty great deal in my opinion. I purchased my phone outright so there are no installment plans, and no weird surcharges tacked on, either. I will say that T-Mobile has done a great job by being all-inclusive with their pricing, but not all major carriers follow that mantra yet. Prepaid carriers, on the other hand, typically do. Some even do better, like Google’s Project Fi, which refunds money for unused data, or Ting, who specializes in having customers pay only for what they use.
There was a time where postpaid carriers had far better options than what prepaid offered, but those days are long gone. Now, prepaid carriers are a force to reckon with, and are certainly worth considering if one is in the market to change providers. The biggest problem is figuring out which one gives you the best bang for your buck.