Prepaid cell phone in the US?
October 19, 2010 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a prepaid phone in the US.

I'm friends with a foreign exchange student who's studying here in the US, and he doesn't have a phone. I'd like to get him one, but I don't know how prepaid phones work.

I'd like something cheap. A candybar phone with a monochrome screen is fine; he'll only have it until March or April. (If it supports Japanese characters, that's a plus, but I doubt that's likely.) If it's a GSM phone, I could get it back from him afterwards and keep it as a backup, which would be a neat bonus.

I want a setup where he can go to a Walmart, buy a card, and put minutes on the phone that way. No bills, no monthly payments, etc. Texting would be nice, but I'd want it to just pull money from the phone's balance each time.

If there's any way to do data on a pre-paid plan, I'd love to hear about it, but I don't exactly want to spring for a smartphone.

I'm on AT&T, so I'm wondering if their prepaid phones have free mobile-to-mobile minutes like monthly plans do.

Finally, this is in Phoenix, so coverage between carriers isn't that much of an issue, I don't think. (I'm wary of a carrier like Virgin Mobile for this reason, though.)

Thanks, MeFi!
posted by reductiondesign to Technology (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What you're talking about going to Walmart is exactly what you're looking for. I think they run around $35-$55, depending. Mostly Motorola "moto" candy bar phones.. The other option is to find someone selling/getting rid of a T-Mobile or sim-compatible unlocked phone for less than $20 and get a t-mobile pay-as-you-go plan.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:01 AM on October 19, 2010

T-Mobile has a $20 Nokia candybar available. I've seen them at Walgreens. T-mobile has pretty much the same rates as other prepaid carriers and you can buy refill cards at lots of places. Or, go to a t-mobile store.
posted by GuyZero at 10:10 AM on October 19, 2010

I used Virgin for years and was very happy with it. Pre-paid plans work exactly like you say. Virgin runs on Sprint's network by the way. Virgin didn't want to invest in setting up a nationwide network. Sprint did that, but doesn't have enough customers to fill its capacity and leases parts of it.
posted by oreofuchi at 11:10 AM on October 19, 2010

I use TracFone here in the stix and while I want to stick hot needles in my eyes whenever I talk to customer service, it's pretty foolproof when I don't have to talk to customer service.

To not need to talk to customer service:
- only use the phone for the purpose for which it was intended, ie: buy it ($9.99 is the cheapest phone I've seen), get an airtime card (60 min up to 450 min, add a double minutes card to double minutes on every airtime card thereafter) and do initial setup (the only time you may have to talk to a CSR).
- don't ever let it run out of time (you get 90 days per airtime card, unless you buy a 1 year card)
- don't ever try to port a number (takes a week, no service til it's done)
- when you're done with the phone, just recycle it (every time they update their network, all the phones that go out of service become obsolete and can't be reprogrammed. they'll have to send you a new phone or sim and you'll have to spend, seriously, hours on the phone punching numbers into it)

TracFone runs on ATT & TMobile networks IIRC, so you almost always have coverage. It costs 1/3 min to send txts. Don't try to send picture message - you'll be waiting til Christmas.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:25 PM on October 19, 2010

Virgin Mobile's $25/mo plan is pretty compelling if data is at all a priority.

T-mobile's sort of spotty down here in Tucson (my house is in a near-dead zone). You might want to check their coverage map.

PagePlus (they use Verizon's network) was recommended by another mefi user, the coverage is superior, and the rates are even lower (from 10c - 4c). I bought a used LG VX-6000 and activation off of ebay for ~$25, but you can buy new phones for slightly more.

For many/most prepaid plans you can also pay for airtime on the carrier's website, at a discount from callingmart, and frequently from the phone itself.
posted by unmake at 7:01 AM on October 21, 2010

« Older My dog just died and I need some answers (lengthy)...   |   Help me do my own wage garnishing! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.