Pay-as-You-Go cell phones
January 27, 2004 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have experience with those cell phones that have a certain number of minutes - you buy them without a separate account, and once you use up the minutes you're done. (I tried to search on this but the terms are all part of ordinary cell phone descriptions.)

Is it a good deal? Is there some hidden catch? Someone said they'd checked it out, but the minutes had to be used up in a given time span, like a month. I want to just have a cell phone for emergencies and don't want to pay on an ongoing basis. Anybody else come up with a way to do this?
posted by soyjoy to Technology (13 answers total)
The word you're looking for is "prepaid". Deals vary widely, but most do expire after a certain period of time. A month would be an especially bad deal, though.

In the US, at least, even a phone with no minutes or contract has to be allowed to call 911, so you're covered for true emergencies.
posted by majick at 11:09 AM on January 27, 2004

"Prepaid" is the search term you're looking for. I have a prepaid cell-phone. It does have an expiration date, but the expiration date is extended each time I buy additional minutes, and the old minutes I have don't expire themselves as long as the phone is kept active.

I used to have a conventional cell phone contract, but at some point I realized that $20/month wasn't really that good of a deal when I used it for no more than 10 minutes each month. The prepaid cell phone doesn't have that great of a per-minute rate (I think it works out something like $0.30/minute for me), but for a person who uses their cell phone hardly at all, it's better than a contract.

All that being said, if by "emergency" you really only mean life-and-death emergencies and nothing else, I think most localities require cell phone companies to connect 911 calls even when they're coming from a phone without an active contract.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2004

Not only are the minutes really expensive, but you can't buy them over the phone with a credit card (at least on t-mobile in the US). So if you run out of minutes, you have to go back to the cell phone store for more.
posted by jeb at 11:27 AM on January 27, 2004

I use TracFone (ugly website, but I'm otherwise satisfied with them) and can purchase additional minutes online.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:31 AM on January 27, 2004

We've got two. The different providers have different plans. We use AT&T's, to my knowledge the best out there. AT&T's minutes last 45 days, but if you add more, it's like DA said. They can be bought in blocks of $10, $25, $50, $75 $100 & $200, the $75+ units drop your per minute charges around 0.12.

Minutes are available everywhere, even 7-11, or by credit card over the phone or Web, but the best deals are found on the 'Bay, and they can drop your $/minute under $0.10. You buy a big block, then freshen it up for the rest of the year with $10 top-ups.

So our phones, despite their primary users being female and one a teenager (ducks and covers) each costs us under $25/month, period. Works for us.
posted by mojohand at 11:36 AM on January 27, 2004

Response by poster: "Prepaid." Duh. Thanks, all. This is very helpful.

For the record, no, I didn't mean to limit "emergencies" to 911-style; I was using the word very colloquially. I just meant having a phone in the glove compartment so if something interferes with a planned rendezvous of one sort or another I can (PULL OVER AND) call.
posted by soyjoy at 11:40 AM on January 27, 2004

I have one of these prepaid phones (or pay-as-you-go as we call them in the UK). I don't know if you have Orange phones in the USA but they do some great deals on prepaids. The one I'm on allows me to send five free texts a day for a year for £20 and included £5 talk time. I've had the phone for about 6 months and I still haven't used up that £5 and the talk time never expires. Prepaid is an excellent option for those who use their mobile only rarely IMHO.
posted by squealy at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2004

A few months ago, I switched to pre-paid. My investigation turned up Virgin Mobile as the best deal for me. Minutes are pricey - 25 cents a minute for the first 10 minutes you use in any given day, 10 cents a minute after that - but the expiration is a bit longer - 90 days, and minutes are renewed whenever you add time to the account. You can set up the account to automatically charge to your credit card every time your minutes get low, at a given time interval, or use relatively simple menus on the phone itself to add time. Or log into your account on the website and add time there.

And no, I'm not on commission.
posted by ferociouskitty at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2004

I have had my tracfone for over a year, and been quite satisfied with it. When I first got the phone, my mom sent me one of their cards that adds 150 minutes and extends your minutes-expiration date for a whole year. A year later, I bought one of the same dealies via credit card from their website (it costs $94.99 according to their site).

It's nice to not have to worry about my minutes going stale.
posted by beth at 12:57 PM on January 27, 2004

If you're going to go with pre-paid, and you want the phone for 'emergencies', it's a good idea to shop around for one that offers free voicemail.
posted by hot soup girl at 4:32 AM on January 28, 2004

Another vote for tracphone, as my wife and I have one. We rarely use the phone but it does come in useful if we were to get into an accident or if I forget what size diapers to get at the store.
posted by jasonspaceman at 5:25 AM on January 28, 2004

Fwiw, tracfone does come with voicemail. No extra charge for it, but you do use up minutes when you check it.
posted by beth at 7:36 AM on January 28, 2004

We had a cingular prepaid, and now that the battery died on it, I got a verizon prepaid (marketed as "freeup" in their feeble attempt to appeal to youth). You can buy any of their phones for prepaid, it's just that you don't get those really cheap or free phone deals, since the provider isn't getting the money back by your monthly payments.

The phone is for my daughter, and her only use is supposed to be to call us to let us know where she's going to after school. If she talks more than that, she has to pay for the extra minutes. It's no hassle (you can update minutes over the phone or the internet), no contract, and a lot cheaper, given our limited use scenario.

It's true that you have to use the minutes within a 2 month window (I think it was 3 months for the cingular), but as noted above, the old minutes get pooled back in with the new minutes when you charge them up (at least that's the way it was with cingular - we haven't had to charge up again with the verizon).

Minutes are 35 cents during regular hours, and 15 cents nights and weekends. Voice messages (it comes bundled with the phone) count against your minutes total. So, they are expensive, but if she calls us to talk for 2 minutes, a $20 refill will go a long way.
posted by jasper411 at 9:55 AM on January 28, 2004

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