­With its prepaid cell phone plans, Verizon offers the Motorola Razr.

Image courtesy of Verizon

Prepaid Cell Phone Providers

Prepaid cell phone providers can be classified as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) or traditional wireless carriers. The MVNOs focus on the prepaid phone business, leasing space on traditional carriers' networks rather than having their own. Among well-known MVNOs are Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile (a Sprint subsidiary), TracFone (a subsidiary of American Móvil, a Latin American wireless provider) and AllTel Wireless.

Here are some strengths for each of these prepaid cell phone providers, based on reviews and surveys by consumer experts:

Virgin Mobile -- Feature-rich plans with competitive pricing. Ranked highest in J.D. Powers' 2007 survey of wireless prepaid customer satisfaction, scoring particularly well in service cost, account management, initial activation and service plan options. Readers Choice award from PC Magazine (2007) for highest ratings among prepaid carriers based on impressive plans.

Boost Mobile -- Targeted at youthful users; strong on in-demand features like push-to-talk (PTT) walkie-talkie capabilities and a camera phone with MP3 player and video recorders. Reduced-rate evening and weekend calling. It was ranked second highest in J.D. Powers' 2007 survey of wireless prepaid customer satisfaction.

TracFone -- Simple pricing and easy to use; inexpensive phones, carry-over minutes, screen view of number of remaining minutes. Recommended by WirelessGuide.org for infrequent users like emergency users and seniors.

Alltel Wireless -- Monthly or per-day plans may be a deal for frequent talkers; phones include Motorola Razr and Kyocera Slider Remix. Some plans offer unlimited text messaging and unlimited nights and weekends.

Traditional cell phone providers have done business mainly through long-term monthly contracts with customers. However, they also are stepping up and sweetening prepaid offerings to get a piece of this growing market. Traditional providers with prepaid offerings include AT&T (formerly Cingular), T-Mobile and Verizon. Here are some strengths for each, again based on surveys and reviews.

AT&T GoPhone -- Large national network and flexibility of two plan types; Motorola Razr offered; reduced-rate or unlimited nights and weekends with some plans. Ranked above industry average in J.D. Powers' 2007 survey of wireless prepaid customer satisfaction.

T-Mobile To Go -- Sidekick (with camera and keyboard) and Motorola Razr phones, plus a wide array of phone features, including free incoming text and picture messaging and competitive pricing. Ranked above industry average in J.D. Powers' 2007 survey of wireless prepaid customer satisfaction. Highest rating from PrepaidReviews.com (2008).

Verizon INpulse -- Same good quality and customer service as the traditional plans; large selection of phones including keyboard-equipped LG and Motorola Razr; unlimited calling at night and to other Verizon phones. Readers Choice award from PC Magazine (2007) for highest ratings among prepaid carriers based on superior call quality. Rated best for frequent talkers, based on low minute rate, by WirelessGuide.org.

Maybe you'd like to use a prepaid cell phone for calls to or from other countries. Go to the next page to learn more about international prepaid cell phones.