Best prepaid cell phone option for emergencies-only phone?
July 16, 2013 8:49 AM   Subscribe

What's the best prepaid cell phone option for an emergencies-only phone?

I almost never use my cell phone. I really only carry it for emergencies, and if I make a dozen calls a year, I'd be surprised.

I currently have prepaid pay-as-you-go with Virgin. It's been fine - but I use the phone so rarely that I've hit the balance limit on the phone, to the point where I can't use it because every time it tries to top up (every 2 or 3 months) I hit the maximum limit, the top-up fails, and service gets cut off.

If possible, I'd like to

* keep my current number (nice, but not essential)
* have an auto-renewal feature so it automatically does whatever's necessary to continue the service
* avoid problems caused by not using the phone enough
* pay as little as possible for the service; I don't mind high per-call rates because I so rarely use it

I'm currently paying something minimal like $15 every three months, which is great. I'd love to find something similar that doesn't have a problem with me never actually calling anyone.

I don't text or use the web on my phone.

I don't mind buying a new phone if it makes sense.

I would greatly appreciate specific, detailed info about switching; I know nothing about prepaid cell plans other than the one I have.

Bonus question: does anyone know what happens to my existing Virgin balance if I cancel my account with them? I'm going to ask them, too, of course, but I often get conflicting answers from Virgin support folks.

Thank you!
posted by kristi to Technology (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Page Plus pay as you go seems like it should work. It looks like their minutes don't roll over, and you could do the $10 for 100 minutes for 120 days option.

I successfully ported a Virgin Mobile number to Page Plus in 2009 (although I had an issue with texts not going through that took a while and some persistence to resolve.)

Another bonus is that they use the Verizon network's towers, which means good reception over a broad range.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:56 AM on July 16, 2013

I would highly recommend Ting. $6/month to have the phone, and you only pay for what you use, so on months that you don't use it at all, $6. If you use up to 100 minutes it's $9 ($6 for device, $3 for minutes).

Their customer service is AMAZING, and you can get used devices or bring your own (not sure about virgin, but it does run on the sprint network).

It'd come to $18 every 3 months (plus whatever taxes, which are minimal), but you wouldn't have to worry about service stopping.

I *do* have a referral link since I am a subscriber, but that's not why I'm recommending them. (if you want the referral link, memail me. I can also give more info)
posted by HermitDog at 8:56 AM on July 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've purchased TracFone phones for my teenage boys, because they've been prone to losing them and they've only used them for us to call them home from a friend's house, get picked up from a practice, or the like. Phones themselves are quite inexpensive, minutes can be transferred from a lost phone to a new one if you've registered it online. The best deal for me seemed to be to pre-pay for about a year, which I think got it down into the $10 a month range (maybe a bit less) for a bucket of maybe 300 minutes (or a text message costs one minute).

Not sure what major company they're using for the actual network, but it's one of the big ones like AT&T or Verizon - coverage is not a problem.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:28 AM on July 16, 2013

Seconding TracFone, since you can buy extra service days when adding airtime.

If you added the smallest amount of minutes possible (30 for $9.99) and then bought the extra 365 days for $49.99, you would average to $4.99 a month. You can always add more minutes at any time if you need more.

The simplest phone can be had for $3.99 at TigerDirect. You can also find them at any big department store. Porting phone numbers with them has been very easy in my experience.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:32 AM on July 16, 2013

seconding $6/mo will keep your line on. While you CAN port your phone number over from virgin, you can't bring the phone itself (you can bring a sprint phone to them) Also seconding that their customer service is amazing...I would just call them first because:
1) VM customer service sucks.
2) any moneyyou have already given them you might as well kiss will NEVER get it back. trust me they suck.
3) they will do nothing but give you the runaround when you try to leave. (6SIX hour screaming match trying to get my account number so I could port my number...SIX HOURS! still did not get from them....ting took care of it for them first, save yourself the headache)
posted by sexyrobot at 9:34 AM on July 16, 2013

i've been with Page Plus for a few years. Minutes do carry over with the Standard plan, but I'm not aware of any maximum limit that would cause problems. Use any old secondhand Verizon phone. You can buy new phones directly from PP, but you can't use a brand-new Verizon phone purchased elsewhere; if you don't buy the phone directly from PP, then it has to have already been activated with Verizon at some point in its history. I have no idea why, but that's what they told me.

Like n.m.c. wrote, the least you can spend is $10 every 120 days, i.e. about $2.50 per month.
posted by jon1270 at 10:56 AM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Platinum Tel, just like Virgin, except it's $10 every 3 months instead of $15. They now have a "bring your own phone" option - I'm not sure if it works on CDMA phones or just GSM (I'll be finding out soon, when I switch phones), so you might be able to keep your phone and number. They're a Sprint reseller just like Virgin, but with better prices and plans. And unlike with Virgin, you can use your prepaid minutes for data as well as for voice.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2013

Real emergencies, or personal emergencies? If you mean real emergencies, my understanding is that any cell phone will allow you to call 911 whether it has a service plan associated with it or not (U.S. answer). You would want to double-check my facts before going planless. However, this is why shelters for the abused and such are often in search of old phones. And carrier coverage limitation of course apply, as would be the case even if you had a service plan.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:30 PM on July 16, 2013

agree with JoeZydeco-- prepay Tracfone for 365 days, with minimal minutes. Tracfone has always been fully adequate for my needs, OK coverage and customer service.

Some of Tracfone's models have "Double minutes for life." The face value of your minutes is doubled on purchase. If you don't pay more than $20 for a phone, this feature will pay for itself.

Register the IMEI on the tracfone website, then select "ADD AIRTIME." choose the lowest number of minutes, either 30 minutes for $10 or 60 minutes for $20. Add to cart/click next. On the second screen, you will see radio buttons that allow you to either add airtime or service days. Select 365 days for $50.
The 365 days is more expensive as a "front page" option.
posted by ohshenandoah at 4:44 PM on July 16, 2013

I should add that PagePlus does not auto-renew on the standard plan; you'll have to do that. They will send a text message alerting you when it's time, but that won't help if the phone is generally turned off and sitting in your glovebox or something; in a case like that you'll just have to write it on your calendar.
posted by jon1270 at 4:51 PM on July 16, 2013

If I were going to buy an emergency only phone (like real disaster emergency), I'd buy a SpareOne ( It takes a SIM card and runs on a AA battery. Any cell phone can call 911 without a service plan. The phone itself is more expensive, but over a few years, the average cost per month difference is negligible.
posted by reddot at 4:38 AM on July 17, 2013

Response by poster: These are all great answers, everyone - thank you.

I'm not sure which way I'm going to go yet, but this has been really helpful in narrowing down my options. I'm especially grateful for the comments about Ting's customer service - I don't actually think of customer service as being that important (since I use the service so rarely and deal with customer service so rarely), but for some reason that's kind of swaying me.

posted by kristi at 9:47 AM on July 18, 2013

« Older I have had an intermittent toothache for the last...   |   Looking for some kind of California/Nevada resort... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.