Activating a prepaid phone without phone or internet
January 8, 2015 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Made the mistake of leaving the house yesterday on a long road trip without my regular cell phone. Then I made the mistake of buying a TracFone from a WalMart, thinking I could activate it without - a phone. Because - I didn't have a phone. Which was why I needed a phone.

There is of course an option to get online and activate, and fortunately I had a laptop and could get to a wifi hotspot. Unfortunately, TracFone's website is a nightmare, and I'll spare you the details from there.

But it got me wondering - is there a phone available from discount stores like WalMart or their ilk which allows you to buy it, unbox it, and apply a prepaid minutes card to it, and get it working without another phone or internet access?

Because trust me, there are no pay phone anymore. I have empirically verified this.
posted by randomkeystrike to Technology (13 answers total)
Hmm. Well, I'm in Canada, so not sure if this applies to you, but (and this was quite a few years ago now) I did buy a burner from 7-Eleven once. It came loaded with, I believe, $10 worth of prepaid minutes. I was able to add more minutes right away and had it working before I left the store, as I recall.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 3:12 PM on January 8, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks - do you remember the brand?
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:12 PM on January 8, 2015

Yes, it was a really low budget but entirely functional Nokia. This was just before the era of smartphones, I believe.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 3:14 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some CVSs sell prepaid T-Mobile Nokias. They're grab and go, and pretty decent for dumbphones. They're usually by the photo counter.
posted by topoisomerase at 3:21 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Go to a store and ask to use their phone. Bribe them with five bucks if they have reservations.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:31 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm pretty sure that you can call tracfone with your tracfone to add minutes. They sell phones so that you can do this. This is their business model.

(I've done this with a different company's burner phone before)
posted by oceanjesse at 3:33 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

The phone I used was sold at Harris Teeter. That's all I remember.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2015

If you buy a prepaid phone at Best Buy they do the setup for you. I've done this with ATT/GoPhone.
posted by bleep at 3:53 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: oceanjesse - TracFone's instructions said to call from a different phone, and the phone's display said the SIM was not activated. I was under a LOT of stress yesterday, and running on <4>

Another possible lost opportunity - I probably coulda/shoulda asked the WalMart where I bought it to use their phone. I might have had a bit of leverage there, especially since I possibly could have raised the issue of a refund (having said that, I found yesterday, in another part of this caper where I tried to use someone's phone, that trying to borrow a store's phone is pretty difficult. I'll avoid the editorializing about human nature and just say - I also gathered empirical evidence on this.

However, as a data point, I was telling a friend of mine who's a LEO about this idea of how you can't use the phone you just bought because you need a phone to activate it, and he said this is a primary way of tracing the "lineage" of criminal's burner phones. Not saying it's a reason the phone companies do this; just a feature they take advantage of.

It also occurred to me that if I'd bought the phone at an electronics store like Best Buy I would have had a better chance of getting help. Just didn't think I'd need it.

I'm presently dealing with the existential dilemma that I still have my son's former TracFone (it's the phone that TracFone sent the minutes to instead of the one I had in my hand) and if I keep it in the car for future emergencies I can just buy a card. Really hate to give them any more money, but if you google complaints about cell companies they're all in a race for the bottom.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:47 PM on January 8, 2015

I think you are overthinking "hey there mister or missus clerk, can I use your phone for a second?"
posted by oceanjesse at 6:17 PM on January 8, 2015

Best answer: Go to any Walmart, to their electronics/communications dept., explain the situation, and they may not only let you use their phone, but might be bored enough to make the call for you (they have access to "special" numbers for most phone companies).
Worked the photo lab at one for a while. The electronics people are usually pretty good types.
posted by landis at 8:56 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had one of these years ago. I think I activated it by calling on a payphone. There aren't many of those around, but they do still exist. Or, if you're in a hotel wherever you are, you can use that phone.
posted by Because at 11:59 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Last beanplating before I call it a day. :-)

that should say "running on less than 4 hours sleep." I opened a bracket and Meta thought I was starting a code expression.

Yeah, I get that I coulda/shoulda tried to get the store to help me. Like I said, 4 hours sleep. Thanks for the inside knowledge on Walmart, landis.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:52 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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