You can buy a year's worth of cell phone service in advance — but should you?

You can buy a year's worth of cell phone service in advance — but should you?
(Image credit: Fizkes / Shutterstock)

People looking for the best cell phone plans have discovered a trick long embraced by shoppers at Costco, Sam's Club or any one of a number of big box stores — sometimes, it pays to buy in bulk. Only in this case, people aren't buying an industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise or a palette stacked with canned beans — instead, they're buying up a year's supply of wireless coverage by paying for their cell phone service in advance. And phone carriers are only too happy to oblige them.

Typically, cell phone bills are a monthly affair. You use your wireless service, and at the end of the month a bill shows up telling you what you owe. Even with prepaid phone plans, where you pay for service ahead of time, the default approach is to go month-to-month with your bill paying.

But a growing number of wireless providers are giving their customers another option. Pay for your service well in advance — the most popular length of time is a year, but there are three- and six-month options, too — and you can enjoy a discounted rate that saves you money over the long haul. In exchange, the wireless carriers get a locked-in customer who's no threat to jump to a rival service for the next 12 months.

Does prepaying for a year of cell phone service make sense for your needs? To answer you question, you have to weigh whether the big upfront cost — and we are talking hundreds of dollars — justifies the savings over time. 

If you're debating whether paying for a year's worth of cell phone service in one fell swoop make sense, here's a closer look at what it entails, along with the pros and cons approach. We can also point you to some of the top options at carriers who offer these kinds of plans, which include some of the best unlimited data plans we've seen.

What's the advantage of paying for a full year of cell phone service in advance?

Pay for your smartphone service ahead of time, and you know exactly what your wireless costs are going to be over the next 12 months. Prices may rise on plans, but since you've locked in your rate, that won't affect you at all. (The reverse is also true: when carriers cut their rates, you're still tethered to your year-long plan, but that circumstance happens rather rarely.)

More important than locking in a rate is the discount you'll enjoy by preparing for a year. Phone carriers want the certainty of steady customers, so they're willing to give you a break on your monthly rate if it means keeping you around for a full year — especially since they're betting you'll stick around when your year commitment is fulfilled.

Here's a look at what kind of savings we're talking about on a monthly basis when you pay for a full year. To get the total amount saved, we take the discounted monthly rate you'd pay if your lump payment were spread out over 12 months and deduct it from the cost of what you'd be charged by going month to month with a carrier for a similarly sized plan.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 Plan sizeMonth-by-month rateFull year paymentTotal savings
Mint MobileUnlimited data$40/month ($480 total)$30/month ($360 total)$120
VisibleUnlimited data$45/month ($540 total)$32.91/month ($395 total)$145
AT&TUnlimited data$40/month ($480 total)$25/month ($300 total)$180
Ultra Mobile5GB$24/month ($288 total)$20/month ($240 total)$48
Boost MobileUnlimited data$40/month ($480 total)$25 ($300 total)$180

Two notes about the chart above: 1) Mint does offer month-to-month plans so the number in the month-by-month column reflects the monthly rate of its three-month option; and 2) AT&T's $300 annual unlimited plan doesn't have a monthly option, so we're comparing it to the least expensive unlimited data plan available through AT&T's prepaid service.

Those caveats aside, you can see what the savings are like when you commit to a full year of service — anywhere from $48 annually for a tiered data plan to $180 for unlimited data.

What's the disadvantage of paying for a full year of cell phone service in advance?

You're essentially locking yourself into a year-long commitment with a phone carrier

Paying upfront means exactly that — having enough money on hand to take care of a year's worth of cell phone service, even if it is at a discounted rate. If the $360 that Mint wants in advance for its unlimited plan is too much for your budget, then paying in advance is not going to suit your needs.

Even if you can afford the upfront payment, you're essentially locking yourself into a year-long commitment with a phone carrier. For some people, that won't matter, but if one of the appeals of prepaid plans to you is the ability to change wireless providers at will, you will be giving up that flexibility. 

There's a workaround to this, though. Mint lets customers try out the best Mint Mobile plans for three months at the lower annual rate before you have to commit to a full year to keep that low cost in place. You still have to pay for service upfront, but the $90 required for three months of unlimited data is certainly less than the $360 you'll need to pay for the full year.

Similarly, Visible, Ultra Mobile and Boost all have month-to-month versions of their plans, which you can use before deciding if you like the service enough to commit for a full year.

What should I consider before buying a full year of cell phone service in advance?

considering the best cell phone plans

(Image credit: EF Stock / Shutterstock)

The same considerations you would put into picking a wireless provider apply when deciding whether to commit to a phone carrier for a full year, only doubly so. After all, you don't want to lock yourself into a service that doesn't meet your needs.

First, confirm that the network coverage of a carrier is particularly strong where you live and work. If you're going with an MVNO — that's mobile virtual network operator — find out which network provides their service. Visible is owned and operated by Verizon, for example, while Mint and Ultra Mobile are both owned by T-Mobile. Boost uses a mix of AT&T and T-Mobile along with Dish's wireless network for its coverage.

Next, check to see if there are any perks that come with your annual plan besides a discounted rate. Ultra Mobile includes calling and texting to 90-plus countries, while the Visible Plus plan gives you one day of international coverage each month along with the ability to connect a smartwatch to your plan for free. AT&T's year-long plan includes 10GB of hotspot data each month.

If you're signing up for an unlimited plan, find out just how unlimited it actually is. Most carriers put a cap on how much data you can use each month and will slow down your speeds if you go over it. AT&T's plan promises 16GB of high-speed data, for example, while the unlimited plan at Mint Mobile has a 40GB ceiling.

What phone carriers should I consider if I'm looking to pay for a full year of phone service?

We're constantly reviewing different plan options, including the best cheap cell phone plans. These are the annual phone plans that stand out from our research.

1. Mint Mobile: Best annual plan overall

Mint Mobile specializes in plans where you prepay for a full year — in fact, that's the only way to get Mint's best option on plans ranging from 5GB ($15/month) to unlimited data ($30/month). For your first three months of service, Mint will charge you a discounted rate; after that, you would need to sign up for a full year to keep that low rate. (You also have the option of three- and six-month plans, though those options will cost you more on a per-month basis.)

As of this writing, Mint is running a promotion where all of its plans are $15/month for the first three months of service, giving you the chance to try out its unlimited option for just $45 upfront.

Mint Mobile | Unlimited plan | $30/month ($360/year)

Mint Mobile | Unlimited plan | $30/month ($360/year)
Mint Mobile's best plan is its unlimited data plan, which lets you use 40GB of high-speed data each month on T-Mobile's network. In addition, you get 10GB of hotspot data. Mint lets you try its service for three months at a discounted price before requiring you to sign up for a full year to enjoy its best rate.

2. Visible: Best perks

There are just two plans at Visible, both of which feature unlimited data. You may be tempted by the cheaper $25/month plan, though the savings for prepaying for a full year of service aren't substantial — just $25 over the course of 12 months.

The Visible Plus plan may be more expensive at $45/month, but paying annually saves you $145. You also get better perks including access to Verizon's faster 5G ultra wideband network — regular plans only see regular 5G coverage — along with smartwatch service and a free day of international coverage should you travel.

Visible | Visible Plus plan | $45/month ($395/year)

Visible | Visible Plus plan | $45/month ($395/year)
If you can swing the big upfront payment, you can lower the per-month cost of a Visible Plus plan by about $13 dollars. That adds up to big savings over the course of a full year. Visible Plus also comes with the better perks of Visible's two plans, including faster 5G service.

3. AT&T: Best major carrier annual plan

Among the major carriers, AT&T has the best annual plan option through its prepaid service. Pay $300 up front, and you get 12 months of unlimited data, which works out to $25/month. To put that number in perspective, AT&T's postpaid Unlimited Starter plan costs $65.99/month so you can save yourself $40 each month by prepaying.

AT&T | Unlimited + 10GB hotspot | $25/month ($300/year)

AT&T | Unlimited + 10GB hotspot | $25/month ($300/year)
This AT&T prepaid plan is only available if you pay for the full year in advance, but if you do, you'll get the carrier's best rate for unlimited data. You do have a low data cap to contend with — AT&T will slow your speeds if you use more than 16GB in a month — but you get 10GB of hotspot data, 5G coverage, and unlimited texting to more than 230 countries.

4. Ultra Mobile: Best for international calls

Ultra lets you pay for plans in monthly, three-month, six-month or annual lumps, but it's the one-time annual payment that brings you the biggest savings. The cheapest plan is a $15/month talk and text plan that comes with 250MB of data, but you can also pick from 3GB, 5GB, 10GB, 15GB and unlimited data plans.

We're focusing on the 5GB plan as it's a good mix of data and price. We also like that Ultra Mobile includes free calling and texting to 90-plus countries with its plans, which is appealing if you have friends and family living overseas.

As of this writing, Ultra is running a promotion where the best discounts are actually on its three-month plans if you find a full-year commitment — and the larger upfront payment — to be an impediment.

Ultra Mobile | 5GB plan | $24/month ($240/year)

Ultra Mobile | 5GB plan | $24/month ($240/year)
Sign up for a year of Ultra Mobile's 5GB plan, and your $240 upfront payment will save you $48 over what you'd spend on a monthly plan for a full year. Mobile hotspot data is included with Ultra Mobile's plan, and you can call and text 90-plus countries at no extra charge.

5. Boost Mobile: Impressive savings

Boost Mobile has a $40 monthly unlimited plan that features 12GB of hotspot data and a 35GB cap on high-speed data use. (In other words, your speeds slow down after you hit that limit.) Make an upfront payment of $300, and you can save $180 over what you would have spent going month-to-month.

Previously a Sprint MVNO, Boost Mobile is now owned by Dish and uses that company's network along with the networks of AT&T and T-Mobile to provide coverage.

Boost Mobile | Unlimited plan | $40/month ($300/year)

Boost Mobile | Unlimited plan | $40/month ($300/year)
The savings can be pretty substantial at Boost Mobile if you prepay for a full year of the company's unlimited data plan. That's a $300 upfront charge, but it saves you $180 off the $40/monthly unlimited plan while lowering your monthly cost to $25.

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Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.

  • wallyman
    I have Mint and they will let you pay quarterly for the annual plan at the same rate as if you paid for a whole year. The $15/ month 5gb plan is $45 every 3 months indefinitely