Hands-On with Consumer Cellular

Posted on August 20, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Mobile with 33 Comments

It’s the holy grail of wireless carriers: A service that resells bandwidth on one or more major carriers and does so at rock-bottom prices. And on that note, I’ve finally stumbled on an option that may meet the needs of many.

It’s called Consumer Cellular, and it offers voice, text, and data plans here in the U.S. for as little as $20 per month. (Plus a 5 percent savings over that if you’re an AARP member.) Better still, it offers the same pricing transparency as Google’s Project Fi, my current carrier, with no overage fees.

Are there any downsides? Perhaps, but it will depend on your needs.

Consumer Cellular resells T-Mobile, so if you can’t use that network, perhaps because your phone is incompatible or you’re outside a good area for T-Mobile, this option may be a non-starter. You can check its coverage area here.

Also, Consumer Cellular doesn’t offer much in the way of international usage: There are per-minute charges on phone calls, per-message charges on sent texts, and very expensive charges on data (per MB). Point being, if you’re used to the daily passes that major carriers offer, let alone the seamless international connectivity provided by Project Fi, this isn’t an alternative. So it’s back to the days of grazing around for an international SIM for you.

Which is fine: The vast majority of people who use cellular service in the U.S. either rarely or never need international access anyway. So this probably covers the needs of most people.

And the pricing, as I noted, is incredible.

I’ve been shopping around for an inexpensive alternative wireless carrier since last year. Prior to my move to Android—and to Google’s Project Fi as my only carrier—I maintained three phone lines at AT&T, one of which dated back to June 2007, when I bought the first iPhone and switched to that carrier from Verizon. This was expensive: I was paying about $130 a month for this luxury, and in the process of scaling back in 2017, I dropped that down to just one line, shaving my bill by about half.

But Project Fi is much cheaper still. It’s also transparent, and comes with no overage fees. Instead, I just pay for what I use: Calls and texts are unlimited and cost $20 per month. Data costs $10 per 1 GB, and is capped monthly at 6 GB. So my bill will never be more than $80 plus some fees. And it’s often much, much less, because Project Fi credits you back for unused data, too: My last four bills (before the international usage from my Sweden trip) were all between $27 and $42.

(I also access my Project Fi data via a data-only SIM at no additional cost. It’s amazing.)

But Consumer Cellular could be cheaper still. Its base service with data is just $20 per month before taxes/fees. This includes 250 minutes of calling per month (which I’ll never hit), unlimited texts, and 250 MB of data.

That might not seem like a lot of data, and it’s not. But there’s no penalty for choosing this low tier. If you use more than that, Consumer Cellular will simply bump you up to the next tier for that month only. And it will keep doing so as you use more and more data, with a cap at 18 GB.

“Our biggest plan offers 10 GB of data,” the firm explains. “Once you have exceeded the 10 GB maximum, you will be billed an additional $5 for each extra GB used. You may also experience slower data speeds after 10 GB of use.”

That may be an issue for power users, but it’s reasonable. And I’ve never used that much data, for the most part. (OK, we actually did use just over 10 GB on the recent trip to Sweden, but most of that was my son tethering off my connection. He’s not a good candidate for this service. Or for any non-unlimited plan, for that matter.)

So let’s compare what those four most recent Project Fi bills would look like on Consumer Cellular. Doing the math on the same usage, the costs come out like so:

June 2018 – 1.5 GB of data used
Project Fi: $40.88
Consumer Cellular: $35

May 2018 – 2.2 GB of data used
Project Fi: $27.45
Consumer Cellular: $35

April 2018 – 0.9 GB of data used
Project Fi: $34.51
Consumer Cellular: $25

March 2018 – 1.6 GB of data used
Project Fi: $41.88
Consumer Cellular: $35

(Note: If those Project Fi amounts don’t make sense to you, remember that each bill includes a credit from the previous month for the amount of data not used under a particular tier.)

In each case, Consumer Cellular is less: Over those four months alone, I could have saved over $28. Plus, I could have used any phone I wanted: Project Fi is limited to a small list of compatible devices, which is part of the reason I’ve been stuck on the Pixel 2 XL.

That said, Project Fi has some advantages over Consumer Cellular.

Like Consumer Cellular, Project Fi can use the T-Mobile network, but it actually smart-switches between different wireless networks, and will always choose the one with the best reception. Here in the U.S., Project Fi uses T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular. And I’ve had consistently high speeds at home and abroad.

There are no extra fees for using data internationally, which is huge for me. If that $28 in savings were spread out across a year, they would amount to less than $90 in savings overall. In using Project Fi internationally just on this most recent trip, I’ve absolutely already eaten up those savings, especially since I’d have to find and then pay for an international SIM and some data plan. And I still have about 10 more days of international travel coming this year.

But Project Fi can also be paused on the fly, another advantage. And that means you stop paying for the service until you enable it again. So I could keep both Project Fi and Consumer Cellular, and only pay for the former when I’m traveling. That is a compelling option. A very compelling option.

I just received the Consumer Cellular SIM over the weekend, and I chose a local number instead of porting over my existing number (which dates back to 2007 and that first iPhone). I’m currently using it in the OnePlus 6, but could easily move it over to the Pixel 2 XL, as that phone supports an eSIM (which I’m using for Project Fi) and a normal SIM tray. Indeed, the OnePlus 6 has a dual SIM tray, so I could use both the Consumer Cellular SIM and my Project Fi data SIM in that phone instead. It’s nice to have options like this.

So far, the service works fine and there were no configuration issues. Indeed, there was no configuration at all: Unlike with Mint Mobile, formerly called Mint SIM, which also resells T-Mobile, I didn’t need to make any weird changes to certain options for features to work. Even the mobile hotspot works fine. Using Fast.com over cellular at home, my Consumer Cellular-based OnePlus 6 hit 27 Mbps, compared to 31 Mbps on the Project Fi-based Pixel 2 XL. Very comparable.

Will I switch? I’m not sure yet, but I can see doing so. At the very least, I’ll keep this Consumer Cellular account going on the second phone for a few months and see how the two networks compare over time. I will almost certainly test using both networks on the same device(s) as well.

 

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Comments (33)

33 responses to “Hands-On with Consumer Cellular”

  1. JerryH

    That first typo got me. It sounded like you were using AT&T for a long time, then it said your first line was from June of 2017 (just a year ago). That had me wondering until I read "first iPhone". Oh, not 2017 like you typed but 2007 like you meant. I don't know why things like that always yank me out of the article. Sort of like when I am watching a TV show or movie and spot a continuity error - it takes me right out of the experience for a few moments.

  2. chrisrut

    Two weeks back I needed to go to the far Northwestern-most corner of the continental US - Neah Bay, WA. There's no cell service up there, so the locals said... But local lore notwithstanding, my phone managed to hit a cell tower on the other side of the Straights of Juan de Fuca - aka Canada - which kicked in my AT&T auto-international plan, and I got dinged $10 bucks - for a single text received... Doh!


    Really wanting to switch to Project Fi before going to EU in a few weeks - but soooo don't want a Pixel 2 with the Pixel 3 so close :-(

  3. navy890

    I needed a flip phone for work. Consumer Cellular had best deal. I love the doro 626 i have. Easy to use and loads of extras.

  4. paull90

    I agree, the cost of these US services are staggering.


    In the UK I pay £14 per month (including taxes) for unlimited calls and texts and 12GB of data on a 12 month sim only plan. So that is approx $18 per month.


    Also I can use my package in most major countries including the US at no extra cost.


    It seems the land of the free is very expensive.

  5. MikeCerm

    Paul, you should check out Cricket Wireless. $30/month gets you 2GB of high-speed data, and they will throttle you down to 128 Kbps if you go over your allotted amount (but it's technically unlimited. If you never go over 2GB, you won't have a problem. If you go over, you'll still have no trouble with emails or normal web pages, though video and music streaming would involve a lot of buffering. Based on your usage, you would save money on Cricket, and only one month would you have run into throttling. (Obviously they offer other plans that include more high-speed data.)

  6. KingPCGeek

    And here Paul is demonstrating his new Consumer Cellular phone with the 5% AARP discount. He is making reservations for the 4:00 early bird dinner.

  7. Daekar

    How do you manage to burn so little data? My God, I go through 5X to 10X that easily in a month without trying, and sometimes more.

  8. Tunrip

    Oh my goodness, I always assumed things like this were cheaper in the US and we were overpaying here in the UK. I'm shocked to hear the cost of these SIM-only plans though!

    • offTheRecord

      In reply to Tunrip:


      Yeah, in general, I've found cellular service in the U.S. to be much more expensive than comparable plans in individual European countries -- especially, with the abundance of prepaid plans in Europe. Not sure why exactly that is, but I do know that there are some significant differences in the way cellular service developed in the U.S. vs in Europe and that's no doubt a factor in the pricing disparity.


      It's all relative, too. Compared to what I pay in, say, Germany or the UK (which now includes basically all of the EU with the new roaming law), $20/month is expensive. However, if you've been paying $50/month in the U.S., $20 seems like an incredible bargain.

  9. JKBMedia

    I have been a very happy Consumer Cellular customer for more than 10 years. Two positives for me are flexibility in the choice of features and reliability of their service.

  10. red.radar

    Ting?


    The biggest issue I have with the MVNOs has been the lack of VoLTE. My wife really enjoys the better voice quality and most of these prepaid carriers don't support that feature.. 1st world problem...

  11. skramer49

    I live in central New Jersey and switched to Consumer Cellular from AT&T almost a year ago. Extremely reliable. Very cost effective. Extremely satisfied.

  12. dspereira

    The beauty of being in Europe is that you can use your own plan data and call minutes while in roaming to other European country part of EU trade.

  13. BillBecker

    I've used Consumer Cellular since Jan 2014 and have been super pleased with both their service and the customer support. With the AARP discount (not that much!), I pay $43/month for TWO lines, 250 minutes, unlimited texts and 1 GB of data. The amazing thing is that the data started at 250 Mb/month, was bumped to 500 Mb/month after a year or so and is now 1 Gb/month with no increase in cost!


    One correction to your excellent article, - according to Wikipedia, Consumer Cellular uses both AT&T and T-Mobile wireless service.

    • earlkarp

      In reply to BillBecker:

      I too have been a Consumer Cellular (CC) user for a number of years and have nothing but good things to say about the company and their support. As Bill stated, CC does use both AT&T and T-Mobile networks. My family plan has four phones on which we share the voice and data. Three of our phones use the AT&T network and one of them uses T-Mobile. In preparation for an International trip CC support informed me that to use our phones Internationally we would need T-Mobile SIM cards and that they would swap them out at no cost. I opted to leave the one phone on T-Mobile and had it as a "just in case". The International rates are a little steep, but we typically do not travel Internationally so this was acceptable. As a safe guard they will automatically shutdown service after $50 worth of international charges are incurred.

    • arrowd

      In reply to BillBecker:

      As noted, CC uses both AT&T and T-Mobile. My wife got an iPhone through CC and it came with a T-Mobile SIM; I brought my own Galaxy and received an AT&T SIM. When my wife had persistent connection issues, CC sent a replacement AT&T SIM for her phone. I have only great things to say about CC's pricing, customer service and overall product.

  14. RoHo

    Wife and I have been on CC for several years now without any problems. We are very low users of data/txt/min so we have the min plan. We pay $32/m for 2 lines. I think we are on ATT sim. I can't find a better deal and their customer service is the best I have ever received from any company period. I highly recommend CC.

  15. eschekman

    Living i China I'm using: China Mobile + Skype. For about 20 dollar a month i have:


    • 400 minutes voice calls to land- and mobile lines in Europe
    • 1 telephone number in China with unlimited access
    • 60 min to other numbers in China
    • 8 GB data at 50 Mbits (that's for 1 line; at home I have 95 Mbits for 4 devices)



  16. wright_is

    It still seems expensive, compared to Europe. I can get a flat rate voice, flat rate text and a couple of GB of data for the base price with 250 minutes and 250MB data! The carriers in the US are really taking you guys for a ride! :-O

  17. snow.steve22

    Please also know that CC resells AT&T (depending only on the flavor of the SIM you order/buy.)


    Also note that left-over hardware and SIMs are available at Sears stores which are closing for substantial discounts. Mainly this will be feature phones but may also include a few older smart phones.


    It's also incredibly convenient to grab that needed something in the remaining Sears stores and in Target. It's saved my bacon more than once when I needed a SIM in a hurry. Their customer service is first-rate.

  18. kevin_heskett

    So am I really just that out of the norm? My family of 4 uses on average 25-35 gigs a month of 40gig plan. We have 2 phones 3 iPads and 2 surfaces on the plan. We are always in the go. Or is it a generational thing of how I use data?

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to Kevin_Heskett:

      I'm not sure how to classify this. Obviously some people/families just use an astonishing amount of cell data.

      • Daekar

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        I'm guessing it has a lot to do with the quality of your wifi network and land-line connection. Our wifi is spotty and our connection is slower than our LTE connections thanks to the vagaries of rural internet and no-competition markets. For my wife and I, YouTube, NetFlix, Spotify, and anything else comes in over LTE. We upload our photos to Google Photos and OneDrive over LTE. I sync music files down to my phone over LTE. If our phones are on WiFi, there is a problem with the cell tower.

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to Kevin_Heskett:

      Our three-person plan goes through 25-30GB per month and we’re all in our 40’s. I imagine that working from home means Paul and his wife consume a little less cellular data than they would otherwise.

  19. faustxd9

    Paul, just be careful to read the Project Fi terms, from what I read in the FAQs you can only pause the service for a few months (I believe 2-3) unless you are military.


    I was looking at them for a cheap overseas phone until I read that. I have sort of a similar use case as you with approximateley yearly extended trips overseas. I am trying to find a cheaper cell phone provider that uses either the Verizon or AT&T infrastructure (just want that reliability for business trips) that also allows for some sort of "cheaper" overseas package. Most of them usually don't offer any of those additions last time I looked (specifically Cricket) unless they are using Tmobile.

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