cell phone for infrequent user?
April 2, 2016 9:59 AM   Subscribe

hello. I and my son are on a Verizon family plan. We use our smart phones heavily. My husband, however, has never had a cell phone and is a resistant user. I'd like to be able to contact him from time to time. For example, a couple of days ago it would have been really nice to have been able to find him in the crowd where Ben and Jerry were speaking in Union Square (I am in New York City).

I'm looking at Tracfone. I could buy him a really cheap phone and he could put $20 in or something. What I read is that, per the minute, Tracfone is actually expensive. But if I got him a cheap phone at Verizon the cheapest fee per month to put him on my family plan is around $10 with a million taxes and so it would cost around $120 or more per year for him to use very few minutes.

I also hear there are other services like Tracfone but I would like a recommendation. A simple phone -- he doesn't even need to text, though he might -- no data plan -- maybe using about 20 minutes a month, maximum.

One other thing: the reason I went to Verizon was that there is excellent coverage and reception (my son lived upstate at the time and Verizon was the only company that had consistent service). What is Tracfone using for its "towers" and is there any other similar service that would have good reception? no international use or anything like that is necessary.
posted by DMelanogaster to Technology (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
AT&T has GoPhone, which lets you pay by the minute or by the day. Not sure about the cost vs. Tracfone, but likely to be more reliable service.
posted by praemunire at 10:09 AM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was last using a pay-as-you-go phone, you had to renew minutes every month or so, sieves if he wasn't using $20 of minutes a month, he'd be paying $20/ month to keep the phone activated. Check the fine print before you decide that type of plan is actually cheaper than just adding him to yours. Also, would he carry the phone and keep it charged and turned on if he did have it?
posted by Kriesa at 10:14 AM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Got my dad a Tracfone, he just takes it when he goes hunting in the woods. His Tracfone uses Verizon cell phone towers in our area. I get him the "annual card" that stays active for 365 days and comes with different promotional minutes at the time - right now it is for 400 minutes at $99 for whole year. You can add minutes if you need to at anytime, but with the annual card you don't have to worry about it expiring.
posted by just asking at 10:15 AM on April 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

PagesPlus may be a good choice for you. It's Verizon-compatible, so you get the network you know you can trust. And if you happen to have an old Verizon phone lying around, you should be able to reactivate it on their network, saving the cost of new hardware.

They sell an $80 refill that's good for a year -- it's 2000 minutes, which is probably much more than he'd use, but the once-a-year refill puts the cost per month at a very attractive level. And should he discover the value of having a cell, adding his phone back onto your plan is easy.
posted by peakcomm at 10:45 AM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ting is pretty good for things like this. Their baseline for a single phone is $6/mo. If he uses under 100 minutes, it'd be $9 for that month.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:52 AM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

TracFone Wireless operates as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), holding agreements with the United States' largest wireless network operators to provide service using their networks, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile US, Sprint Corporation, and U.S. Cellular.

I like Tracfone because it is one of the few services where most renewal cards are 90 days rather than 30 days and the minutes rollover. Some phones come with like 20 minutes plus ten days. When I bought my first Tracfone, I got it at Kmart and I still had a military ID, so I got 10% off. If you have a Target Red Card, you can get a phone or renewal cards at Target for 5% off. I also got one of my phone's at a grocery store with some kind of substantial coupon.

So, there are multiple ways to cut the cost of Tracfone. I think it is the cheapest low use phone I could find at the time that I got my first one. There may be other cheaper options these days, but it is a fairly major carrier and I have not seen anything I like better from any of the big names. I did research this a few months ago and some of the niche operators had weird quirks, such as requiring unusual proprietary equipment or whatever.

Freedom Pop is supposedly completely free. $0 for 200 minutes per month. Here is an article with more details.
posted by Michele in California at 11:32 AM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

My dad goes and does an insane amount of research on this at least yearly and always ends up sticking with TracFone. The only situation where this didn't work for him was when he visited Europe on vacation.

He definitely recommends the annual card. He admits that getting a bargain is something he really enjoys; this makes him enjoy the TracFone more than is, strictly speaking, entirely sane.
posted by SMPA at 12:10 PM on April 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I did the math once, and, at $20 per quarter, the super cheapskate option is $80 per year. (Assuming you use fewer minutes than the annual card, etc.) There are also frequently promo codes available to give extra minutes for the same amount spent or whatever.

I bought the annual card plus a double minute card with my first phone. I did that because I was expecting to be really broke and it meant no phone bill at all for actually about 14 months with whatever days came with the phone and possibly some promo code. I think AT&T also offered an option to pay a whole year in advance. Everything else had a very short 30 day leash, which was worse than having a contract because if you are one day late, you lose your phone number. Thus, very NOT cash-flow-problem friendly. With a contract, it takes a few days after the due date before they cut your service. So, I absolutely did not want something with a very hard 30 day renewal requirement at that time and I still do not. To me, that is a bigger pain point than cost per se.

The other thing is that Tracfone was, and probably still is, the only one that tells you your remaining minute balance and remaining days of service on the screen any time you turn it on. It is extremely convenient.
posted by Michele in California at 12:30 PM on April 2, 2016

I'm an infrequent cell phone user as well. I gave one person my cell number for emergencies and ignore all other random calls. Instant blacklist. It's heaven!

I had Ting for about 6 months and it was fine, but I switched to Republic Wireless because they have an option that allows you to add data to your plan on the fly. That comes in handy if I get lost and need to use google maps. My plan costs me $11.99 per month; $10.00 flat rate and $1.99 in taxes. Not as cheap as Ting, but I like having the option of adding data when I need it.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:33 PM on April 2, 2016

I have never done it, but you can buy airtime from your phone on a Tracfone and $20/quarter is $80/year for a Tracfone (less if you are getting discounts of some kind), which is a lot less than $11.99/month (that is nearly $144/year). I think you do need to pay taxes on that $80, so it would be a little more than that, but not much.

Just an FYI.
posted by Michele in California at 12:48 PM on April 2, 2016

I can't add to anything above vis-a-vis carriers, but one thing you'll have to work on is making sure that he gets some good habits with the phone, as far as charging it, keeping it on, and listening for the ring, and of course discriminating among calls that should be answered and those not.

If you've never carried a phone, or if you only carried one for making emergency calls and never using it otherwise (as was the case with my mother), then you've got to learn all the phone habits most people developed years ago. My dad had to remind my mother to keep her phone charged, and, once cell phones got cheap enough for common use rather than occasional use, to remind her to keep it on so others could call her, and so on. She's not unfamiliar with dealing with electronic devices and computers; she was just unfamiliar with keeping one on her person all the time.

Your dad will have to keep an eye on his minutes/account in addition to learning to watch the phone's charge and such. It's not going to take a long time, but it's a habit that must be established.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:40 PM on April 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

You can't find Lycamobile's pay as you go on their website. To use it you get a Lycamobile SIM card. You can find their SIM cards for a penny. Then you charge the SIM card and then you've got minutes that last forever and no monthly plan. If you get a feature phone, then batteries can go for weeks between charges.
posted by rdr at 1:43 PM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a lot like your husband, in that I rarely use my cell phone, and really only have one so I can use it when accompanying other people in a large/crowded area (like your Union Square example) and for emergencies.

Anyway, I use a cheap non-smart T-Mobile phone with their pay-as-you-go service. You can get 30 minutes (or 30 texts) for $3 a month. If you go over, you can buy extra minutes for 0.10 a minute.

You can get a $10 card which will last for 90 days. If you have at least $3 balance in your account, it'll auto-renew every month for another 30 minutes/texts until you run out. So you only need to renew once every three months.

I spend about $40 a year.

I can't comment on the signal via t-mobile in your area, alas.
posted by anthy at 8:01 PM on April 2, 2016

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