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Pre-paid cellphone plans growing in popularity and your options go beyond Sprint, AT&T and Verizon

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Competition is building in the cellphone industry, but the big three carriers are not your only option. Third party carriers are offering service that some consumers say will cut your phone bill in half. However, you need to read the fine print or you may end up with extra charges.

"People have been paying bills for $125. They are crazy. For $45, you can get endless everything you need," Raymond Carusone said.

Carusone uses Straight Talk. It's marketed by Walmart, but you can purchase the service online without ever stepping foot in the big box retailer.

"Walmart does a great job, but I don't know if they specialize in phones. I wouldn't put too much investment in it even though it sounds like a good deal," cellphone user Tim Shropshire said, who will stick with his $70 monthly bill.

Pre-paid plans for unlimited talk, text, and data are also offered by AT&T , T-Mobile , Verizon and Boost Mobile , which uses the Sprint network. Its plans are $50 a month.

You really need to read the fine print though, because there are often data limits.

- AT&T requires a data plan if you're using the unlimited talk, text and data plan with a smartphone. AT&T charges $25 for 1 GB of data, $15 for 200 MB, and $5 for 50 MB.

- T-Mobile's unlimited $50 plan works for 100MB of data at speeds up to 4G.

- Verizon's unlimited $50 plan includes unlimited mobile web. However, the fee does not cover full web browsing.

- Boost Mobile's unlimited plan includes up to 2.5 GB of data. Straight Talk doesn't give a straight answer about its so-called unlimited data.

In the 39 pages of Terms and Conditions, the company said, "Straight Talk reserves the right to limit or reduce data throughput speeds or the amount of data transferred, and to deny or terminate Service, without notice, to anyone Straight Talk believes is using the Straight Talk Unlimited Talk, Text, and Mobile Web Access Plan in any manner prohibited above or whose usage, in Straight Talk's sole discretion, adversely impacts the Carrier's network or customer service levels."

There are complaints from users on message boards that you should stay under 2 GB of data.

We tried to get a straight answer from the company, but nobody returned our calls. We also asked Walmart for clarification since the company sells Straight Talk, but we have not received an explanation.

Pre-paid Plan Phone Selection

While you'll save lots with a pre-paid plan, there is a universal drawback. Phone selection is limited, but getting better.

The networks all sell the phones and Straight Talk gives you another option. You can use your own phone if it's unlocked, meaning not tied to a specific network.

"It needs to be an unlocked phone or an old AT&T or T-Mobile phone. They'll happily send you the little SIM card to stick in the back of the phone," said Christopher Bues, Kent State University information technology manager.

There is a fee of $14.95 for the SIM card which basically makes the phone work.

Bues said you can find unlocked phones online. He recommends reputable resellers on Amazon or eBay. Just check the reviews from other customers. When you buy a phone this way, typically there is not a warranty.

However, Google is now selling phones directly to consumers. They are unlocked and come with a warranty.

Finding The Best Plan

There are many options in the cellular world, so you don't have to feel stuck with a traditional contract or hefty monthly fee.

Websites like Bill Shrink and My Rate Plan help you sort through all the different plans, and figure out if you're paying too much now and would benefit from another rate plan.

Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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