Perhaps a loved one visiting the country for a while needs a phone, or you're not quite ready to give your teenager a smartphone for Christmas. Whatever the reason, you're looking for a cheap, no-strings-attached mobile phone that can make and receive calls and possibly send text messages -- in other words, a burner phone.
What's a Burner?Admittedly, that's the more dramatic name given to inexpensive prepaid phones. Sometimes referred to as "burners" and popularized in shows such as The Wire, they can be used for a short time and then thrown away; the point being that it's hard to tap or trace them. While we're not advocating their use for illegal activities (in fact, your location and identity can still be pinpointed even with a burner), burner phones and cheap service plans are just the thing for short-term use.
In the past we've discussed mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. These are third-party cellphone service providers that buy minutes, text message units, and data in bulk from the large carriers and resell them to consumers at discounted rates. This business model steers clear of major infrastructure costs and focuses on providing low-cost service to customers. Many cheap phones that you see behind the counter at the local pharmacy and supermarket rely on this type of provider.
That said, not all MVNOs give you the same options. Some require that you buy a phone from the provider or choose from a short list of compatible phones. Some are also designed for, and marketed to, users who want the latest smartphone without the high monthly expense of a two-year contract.
Comparing the Cheapest Options.We researched the cheapest options out there and whittled down the list of burner-phone plan providers to Cricket, PayLo, Net10, and Straight Talk.
Talk and Text
|Cricket||$20||$25 for unlimited talk and text||$25 (or $35 auto-pay plan with 1 GB data)||AT&T|
|PayLo||$7.50||$20 for 400 minutes||$40 (includes 50 MB data)||Sprint|
|Net10||$20||$15 for 200 minutes||$35 (or $40 with unlimited data)||Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile|
|Straight Talk||$10 (free with purchase of a $45 service card)||$30 for 1,500 minutes (includes 100 MB data)||$45 (includes 3 GB data)||Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile|