What's the cheapest cell phone plan?
August 14, 2006 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Finding a cell phone plan. 517 + cheap - $20/month or less.

I'm looking for a cell phone plan for a college student who has almost no money. I would be willing to pay for a phone for her that would be $20/month or less. This is for her safety and to ensure that I can get ahold of her easily.

Her zip code is 49224 and the area code is 517.

She would probably do some text messaging. Her phone calls would mostly be to people in her area code and some to people in other area codes. I would instruct her to try to keep her calls to a minimum outside of the freebie times. She does occasionally travel outside of her area code and would need to use the phone outside of her area.

I don't know if a pay-as-you-go would end up being more expensive than a plan. Aren't most pay-as-you-go plans rip offs? I have a used Sprint phone here that I think could be transferred over to her, I think. Sprint has a $30/month plan with 200 anytime minutes. I also have an older Nokia CDMA phone that I could give to her.

Any recommendations?
posted by k8t to Technology (15 answers total)
If she doesn't use it a lot, the Cingular prepaid plan can be cheap.

I just bought a $29.99 phone for my daughter. The plan has a $1.00 surcharge for any day that you use the phone, plus 10 cents a minute (free mobile to other Cingular users).

I figure at the rate she uses it, it'll be about a $15/month plan. Much more than that and it would make sense to get off the prepaid plan.

But you can't beat a thirty-dollar phone with no contract. It's a basic phone, but it's tiny.

This should hold her until Steve Jobs gets his act together with the Apple Phone!
posted by baltimore at 12:44 PM on August 14, 2006

Virgin Mobile's pay as you go plans are very inexpensive, and certain plans don't have day-to-day fees.
posted by JakeWalker at 12:45 PM on August 14, 2006

Yeah, I recommend Virgin Mobile. You can get a $20 phone with $20 of airtime, and you need only buy a minimum of $15 of airtime every three months.
posted by kindall at 12:53 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: What is $20 of airtime? How many cents per minute is it?
posted by k8t at 12:59 PM on August 14, 2006

Yep, Virgin's plans can be cheap. However, I was with them for several years and though I was quite pleased for most of that time, the last three or four months I was with them, I got hit with various bogus charges (i.e., being hit with the 250 minutes "top up" charge every 50 minutes) that they wouldn't ever fix, possibly because their entire customer service center appears to be staffed by jaw-droppingly stupid teenagers. So what should have been around $30/month turned into $60-70/month, no matter how many times I pointed out that they were charging me every 50 minutes instead of every 250. I finally had to call my bank to dispute the charges, and I switched to T-Mobile -- after which point, Virgin still tried to charge me for top-up minutes three times.
posted by scody at 1:02 PM on August 14, 2006

If you go with T-mobile and buy a $100 pre-paid card, it only costs 10 cents per minute. And unlike some pre-pay plans, the minutes won't expire for a year. Like almost everything else, it's cheaper $/min to buy in bulk, so avoid $15 pre-paid cards with T-mobile.
posted by spork at 1:13 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: But if Sprint gives a free phone with a $30 or $40/month plan that includes 200 minutes from 7am-7pm and free nights and weekends, isn't that a much better value?
posted by k8t at 1:24 PM on August 14, 2006

Cingular's minutes are the same way, spork. Expiration times relate to amounts purchased.

From the Cingular site:

Pay As You Go cards and account deposits are nontransferable and nonrefundable. Amounts deposited into your account expire as follows: cards less than $25, 30 days; cards $25 to $75, 90 days, $100 cards, 365 days. Unused account balance is forfeited upon expiration. If money is added to your account before the current balance expires, the existing balance will carry over to the new expiration date
posted by phearlez at 1:25 PM on August 14, 2006

As someone who went to Albion (ah, those were the days!), you need to take into consideration which services are going to be best supported. I can't say how much things have changed since I graduated, but there was like one tower in town, and service was kind of crappy.

I know that in 2004, Verizon was pretty good for my friends depending on where you lived (in Burns Apts, you had to go outside to get really good reception). It might behoove you to ask someone on-campus (i.e., admissions) if there's a service that seems to work better than others and go from there (if safety is a big consideration--a phone with spotty service won't do in an emergency...).
posted by monochromaticgirl at 1:31 PM on August 14, 2006

The prepaid plan that I had was obnoxious because it docked minutes when you listened to messages. I forget which service I used, though. And maybe it's different now.
posted by moonshine at 1:51 PM on August 14, 2006

I pay just under $10/mo. for my cell -- it's my payphone substitute. I mostly use it to text/email, arrange meeting up with friends, and call for cabs. I use my land line to chat.

I use Cingular GoPhone Pay As You Go. It costs $25+tax every 90 days (that's 100 min. @ $0.25/min). Text msgs are $0.05/ea. The other plan is $0.10/min +$1 every day you access it, and unlimited free calls to other Cingular customers. But I don't use it enough to use that plan.

Anyway, when people hear "$0.25/min" they are shocked at how much $$$ that is. But I look at it as the same idea of buying one of something at a convenience store vs. a pallet of something warehouse club. Yes, I'm paying a lot more per minute, but I don't want to tie up my money in phone minutes. I don't talk that much and I don't need that much.

(And, yes it docks minutes to listen to messages. But if I don't know the caller, I let it go to voice mail and check it for free from a land line later.)
posted by limeswirltart at 2:25 PM on August 14, 2006

Quick Question. I have a Cingular GoPhone. Are there any plans that allow me to not have to pay that $1 every day of use? I intend to use it often, say 5 days a week, but for only 2-3 minutes per use. So that $1 charge would add up very fast! Phearlez said that they have $100 cards. How many minutes would I get for such a card?
posted by LoopyG at 4:19 PM on August 14, 2006

Some more info about Virgin Mobile*

In their most basic/fewest strings plan, voice minutes cost .25/minute for the first 10 minutes of use/day. After the first 10 minutes (which can be in either all one call or across several calls), the cost drops to .10/minute. VirginMobile offers a bunch of other optional plans where the cost/minute drops based on how much money you agree to pay them every month.

Text messages cost .05, incoming and outgoing. As with voice calling, there's a few optional add-on plans which allows for bulk rates on text messaging (the cheapest of which is $1.99 for 50 text messages/month).

You can check/retrieve your voice mail from any land line without any loss of purchased minutes.

To keep your phone working, you pay into your account every 90 days or if your balance drops below $5, whichever comes first. You can set up text message, email, or voice mail (to any phone number) reminders that your account needs "topping up."

If you add $90 at one time, you don't have to top up again for one year or until your balance drops below $5, whichever comes first.

Account credit can be purchased at most groceries, convenience stores and big box stores like Target and Walmart or online via the VirginMobile website (using paypal or a credit card). The retail offerings look like gift cards, in numerical values ranging from $20 to $100. A few times a year, Target has sales on VirginMobile top up cards, it's usually something like $15 for a card that normally goes for $20. The top up cards are not taxed in CA, your state may vary.

If you sign up for automatic top up at their website, you get a $5 one-time credit to your account. You can select the quantity/frequency of credit infusion into your account, the minimum is $15/90 days for auto top ups.

Purchased time never expires in an active account, once you purchase it, it sits in your account until you use it.

If you forget to top up before 90 days is up, your account will no longer receive/send calls, but will continue to collect voice mail (which you can't access until you top up). You don't lose your phone number until your account has been inactive for 150 days.

VirginMobile uses Sprint's cell network but doesn't have a roaming agreement, so if you stray out of range of Sprint's coverage, your VM phone will not get a signal at all.

*I've been a customer for the past 5 years, my house sits in the boondocks far outside of all carriers' coverage and as I telecommute, I got tired of paying Sprint ~$40 for the 15-20 minutes of cell calls I make a month. At my current rate of talkiness, my cell phone costs are, at most, $5/month.
posted by jamaro at 5:49 PM on August 14, 2006

Best answer: Prepaid plans aren't worth it if you're using your phone more than once or twice a week, and if she's a college student, she will. Check MyRatePlan for a $30/month contract that includes a free phone and 200 minutes. You'd end up paying about $35-40/month with taxes and occasional text messages. I know you may be worried about overages, but trust me, the rules and regulations and miscellaneous fees that are involved with pay-as-you-go plans are as big a risk as an overage. Also you'd be helping her start to establish a credit history if the contract was in her name and she paid the bill on time.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:22 AM on August 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you're going to go with a traditional cell-phone plan, then T-Mobile's gonna give you the most for your money. For that same $30 a month you'd be paying for 200 minutes, you could get 300 anytime minutes (plus unlimited weekends) for the same price from T-Mobile. For $40 a month they'll give you 600 anytime minutes plus free evenings and weekends, or else 1000 anytime minutes. They also have decent customer service for a phone company -- once they paid for an overlimit fee on my credit card because they'd mishandled my request to change my billing to a different card.

Still, I think it'd be good for her to learn that there are very few phone calls that can't wait until she gets home. There are apparently plenty of people who never learn this.
posted by kindall at 2:45 PM on August 15, 2006

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