Current best pre-paid cellular phone service?
June 3, 2006 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Current best offerings for pre-paid, no contract cell phones? Best per-minute price, best features, least daily/monthly fees, longest airtime credit lifetime?

I currently use the Cricket service out here in Phoenix, AZ, but I kind of hate the phone I have.

I pay approx $55 per month of unlimited local and long distance airtime.

The thing is, though, I don't really make all that many calls these days. Sure, it's nice having a fixed cost without any surprises, and never having to worry about how much it's going to cost. I can call until my battery dies, and again and again all day long and it'll cost me the same. But I don't think I'm even really using that many minutes. It's probably under 300 minutes a month, and it might even be less then 50-100 minutes.

The major drawbacks is that there's no roaming, no internet/web access, no data, no email. If I leave the limited metro-city service area, I either get no service or I have to go prepay into my account and pay 69 cents per minute to roam on other networks. That's pricy, though something I rarely do.

I've used Virgin Mobile, but that got expensive real quick. There's a daily use fee, upon which just placing the first call of any day cycle incurred something like $2-$2.50, and then it was something like 35 cents per minute thereafter.

While Boost Mobile looks like it had a ton of great features, it looks insanely expensive.

What's the scoop on the now dizzying array of prepaid airtime cell services?

Got any outright horror stories? Any good experiences?
posted by loquacious to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My partner and I have Cingular GoPhones. We got them after the last hurricane evacuation here. We liked the idea that if we were split up, we could call each other (or other Cingular customers, for that matter) for free. Calls outside the Cingular network are 10 cents a minute. There is also supposed to be a $1 daily fee, but it doesn't seem to be charged every day; I'm not sure why.

Caveat: I work from home and go out mainly on short errands. I have VERY few calls on this phone. Your mileage will vary depending on your usage and calling habits.

Fun part: I've used the web browser when I'm sitting in a doctor's waiting room, after I've exhausted the old magazines. To my middle-aged eyes, it's a curiosity more than a useful tool, but chacun a son gout.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:54 AM on June 3, 2006

I believe the best price for prepaid is to get a Tracfone perpaid cellular and to prepay for a year in advance. I don't remember how many minutes it works out to, but it's around $7/month. That's what we got my dad and he's very happy with it, as he doesn't use a lot of minutes.
posted by JamesMessick at 7:15 AM on June 3, 2006

If you go with Tracfone, definitely do a web search for discount codes or coupons. There are also referral discounts -- the one I saw the other day was whoever refers you gets 120 minutes free and so do you.

I have had a good experience with Tracfone in Chicago. But I wouldn't know whether to recommend them for Phoenix. Also, even with only 50-100 minutes, you may use it too much for it to be economical. Maybe not, though, once you figure in discounts.

In any case, here is an thread on Tracfone.
posted by veggieboy at 7:47 AM on June 3, 2006

I have Virgin Mobile - they ride the Sprint Wireless Network so coverage is pretty good. I pay 30 cents a day, plus a dime a minute. I think with VM you have to charge up $30 every 90 days. I use about $15 a month, so that is a non issue for me.
I've had it for about a year and I'm way happier than when i was paying Verizon $60 a month or 600 minutes a month that I never came close to using.
posted by COD at 7:57 AM on June 3, 2006

Seconding Virgin Mobile -- they may not be the cheapest, but they are very clear on what you're getting. Extras, like custom ringtones and IM, are available for those who want them.

Their network is good, and their customer service is awesome. Apparently the ability to sound like a Real World contestant is prized in their telephone service personnel. And I love it. It's utterly disarming. It's hard to maintain your righteous indignation about your phone problem when the rep says, "don't stress, baby, ima hook you up."
posted by Methylviolet at 9:22 AM on June 3, 2006

Why are you into the idea of a pre-paid? The reasons pre-paid phones are so much more expensive is because you're not committing to anything and because they don't tend to do the same level of a credit check on you... So you eat it, even on smaller quantities of minutes (especially?)

Tracfone is still coming out at around 30 cents a minute. If you're really not using that many minutes, T-Mobile has 300 minutes for $30/month, with unlimited weekends. And nationwide roaming/long-distance.

It's nice to not have to deal with "roaming," and just know that when I get off the plane, it's the same plan. (Except for my trip to Taiwan, natch. That was still the same plan, but, you know, $1.20 a minute.)

Plus, they give out phones and such. I've been pretty happy with them, but I got in on a plan that gives me 1500 minutes for $50 a month, so I may be a bit biased.

Then, if you even go over that 300, you only end up getting hit with a 35 or 40 cent/minute charge, which is about where pre-paid's end up anyway, right?

Am I missing something?
posted by disillusioned at 9:35 AM on June 3, 2006

disillusioned: some people prefer prepaid phones because of privacy concerns. Other people have enough red flags in their credit histories to prevent them from getting any other kind of cellphone.

Disclaimers: these are not the only reasons one might prefer a prepaid phone. I'm not familiar with either loquacious' attitude toward personal privacy or his credit history.
posted by box at 9:41 AM on June 3, 2006

I really like T-Mobile's plan. I'm not a frequent cellphone user and it's perfect for me.

You buy dollar-denomination cards (or credit over the phone or online) and the minutes last 90 days if you don't use them up. If you haven't used up all your minutes by the expiration, and don't buy another card, you lose the remaining minutes (and your account, but you may be able to reactivate). But if you do buy another card, even a cheap one, the minutes roll over so you lose nothing.

After you've bought $100 worth, and you could just do that the first time, your account goes permanently Gold Status. Now any bought minutes don't expire for a year, which might as well be never, even for rare cell users like me.

If you buy a small denomination card (or equivalent by phone or online) you get crappy rates. Like, a $10 card gets you 30 whenever minutes (30c/min). A $50 card gets you 400 minutes, or 12.5c/min. The higher denomination you buy, the better rate you get. Once in Gold Status, you always get more minutes per buck than the above. In Gold Status, a $100 purchase gets you 1000 minutes, thus 10c/min, which is the best you can get, I think. With a year to use them, that's the smart buy in my opinion. See here for more detail

There are no daily fees. No fees period that I can think of.

T-mobile is obviously a GSM network, and so you're going to get less coverage than CDMA, but if you're in an urban area or corridor between urban areas, you're fine and probably won't notice any difference. Check here for specific coverage in your street, city, region. Interestingly, there appears to be a distinction between ToGo coverage and regular coverage, not sure to what degree, but ToGo is less. As one example of this, I believe they have a roaming deal with Cingular in order to get roaming on the 850MHz band (which T-Mobile doesn't have themselves), which travels farther than the higher frequencies, thus allowing a lot more coverage in less urban areas... but you don't get it if you're a prepaid customer. No soup for you. You do get roaming, just not that particular kind.

On that note, i'm not sure whether this is prepaid or postpaid (assuming post) but here's one guy's specific tests from 2004 with T-mo and Cingular phones from NW Arizona to Phoenix, just to give you an idea of general GSM coverage performance in your area and nearby. I'm sure there are oodles of other firsthand accounts online.

I'm a little confused about advanced features. I don't use it for anything but voice and the rare text msg. The phones on their web page list features like web, IM, email, etc. but the FAQ says only the Sidekick II does data on the ToGo plan at this point (and at $1/day). Go explore.

Note that only certain phones are listed on their ToGo page, but the FAQ says any T-Mobile phone can go on that plan. And really, since it's GSM, I'm thinking you could buy the lamest $40 ToGo phone at Target, pluck out the SIM card, and put it in whatever fancy GSM phone you want, though you may still be limited in terms of features based on being a ToGo customer (see Sidekick note above), but that's where I run out of knowledge.

Here is their FAQ.

posted by kookoobirdz at 9:58 AM on June 3, 2006

Response by poster: Why are you into the idea of a pre-paid?

Bad credit, mostly. I had the misfortune of having two phones stolen from me during completely financially un-ideal moments.

Also, the idea is to get my monthly bill down to $20-30 or so, and then switch to skype for my home calls.

I like the Cricket service, mostly, but I don't really need the unlimited airtime, and I don't like the no data/web/sms-to-email policy. It's extremely limiting in this day and age.
posted by loquacious at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2006

We have Tracfone, Cingular, and T Mobile prepaid in our house right now. Tracfone has the best coverage, though kind of costly. I had a good deal with Cingular, but it's going away next year as they switch from TDMA to GSM. My newest phone is T Mobile. I got a honkin' good deal on the phone a few months back, and the coverage up here is decent. They're also starting to offer roaming, and incoming text messages (and email-to-text) are free. Finally once you put $100 in minutes into the phone, any refill is good for a year after purchase.

You might want to check out the prepaid discussion over at Howard Forums.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2006

..and I should add that if you have an unlocked tri- or quad-band GSM phone you can use it on T Mobile or Cingular in the States, and with various carriers across the pond. Prepaid SIMs for these phones can be found on Ebay. As I understand phones for both Tracfone and Verizon are proprietary for those carriers.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:50 AM on June 3, 2006

Net10 (which is related somehow to TracFone - not sure how).

It's .10/min nationwide, all of the time. No hidden fees, no daily access charges, no roaming fees, just .10/min, straight up. Not sure about SMS fees, since I don't use it.

The minimum you can get away with paying is $15/month ($30 card lasts 60 days). You can get a year for $150 (1500 minutes), which comes out to $12.50/month. Minutes even roll over if you re-up before your card expires.

Honestly, I got tired of paying a $40 monthly bill for a phone that I rarely used, so I switched to prepaid about a year and a half ago.

I originally signed up for Cincinnati Bell's i-wireless (which sucks beyond belief). Limited calling areas, peak minutes cost more than off-peak, etc.

I did a lot more research before switching and my decision was between TracFone and Net10. The others (Virgin, T-Mobile, Go-Phone) all seemed to have some kind of hidden gotchas or some other way that they jack you (daily access fees, cards that expire too quickly, etc).

I switched to Net10 last year and am very pleased with the service. Good reception, nationwide coverage, decent (but boring) phones. I got the Motorola V171 and it works pretty well.

It is my understanding that both Net10 and TracFone use the Cingular and T-Mobile GSM network.

Do yourself a favor and don't buy the cheapest phone they have. Avoid the Nokia 1100 at all costs.
posted by hawkman at 11:44 AM on June 3, 2006

I use the cingular plan.
Yes, it has a lame $1/use day access charge, but for me it works out ok.

I buy the $100 card, which doesn't expire for a year.

However, my usage is probably not normal.
Most of the time, the phone sits on the desk at home.
I only use it when I go on vacation or am away for the weekend.
With this usage pattern, the $1/use day isn't that big a deal, since I tend to use it heavily on that day, then not use it again for a month or more.
With the $100 card, I don't worry about minutes expiring since they last 365 days.
There appears to be no roaming so long as you stay within Cingular, which I've not mananged to go out of yet.

SMS is $.05/message and GPRS is $.01/sec.
posted by madajb at 2:31 PM on June 3, 2006

Why are you into the idea of a pre-paid?
For me, it's because I can spend approx. $10/month and get all the value I need.
I have no need to pay $30+taxes for something I use at most once a week.
If a carrier offered a $10/month plan, I'd probably be interested, but most seem to want $30 minimum.
posted by madajb at 2:35 PM on June 3, 2006

I had TracFone for several years, and have actually recommended it in AskMe threads in the past. I no longer recommend them, and I am no longer a customer.

While the price is still good, their customer service is absolute crap. As long as you never have any problems, I guess TracFone might be OK. If you ever have an issue that you want to talk to someone about (I was unable to get to my voice mail while roaming), forget it--they were completely unhelpful. After about eight to ten calls to their customer service over the course of a week (from the phone in my hotel room, which cost an arm and a leg of course, because they were having me punch in all kinds of codes into the TracFone, so I couldn't be talking on it while I was entering the codes, and the codes didn't change anything at all) I gave up and switched providers.

That was back in March, when I actually managed to get through to their customer service. When I was having other problems in early December I couldn't even get through to anyone, despite trying several times at various times of the day.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:02 AM on June 5, 2006

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