prepaid plans are just what they sound like: You buy a phone, and then buy service (in set amounts of minutes or dollars) as
you need it. You don't need a bank account at all; you can buy refill cards at
grocery, convenience, drug and discount stores, or you can use your credit or
bank card to add refills over the phone or Internet. Refills do expire, so
you'll have to top off from time to time to keep your account active, even if
you haven't used all of your minutes.
prepaid phone plans can be more convenient, because you can add a set amount every month. You can have this monthly
fee automatically deducted from a credit card or bank account if you like, but
you don't have to, and there's still no contract or commitment -- you can quit
anytime by simply not refilling for the next month.
choice of phone depends on two elements: how you use your phone and what the
prepaid cell phone carrier offers. Some carriers have only basic phones, while others
offer a selection of smartphones; even fewer carry Apple's iPhone.
Wide coverage. Nationwide networks, such as T-Mobile and AT&T,
still may have areas with patchy cell phone coverage. Regional carriers offer
even more limited coverage, which will be enough if you plan on making calls
only within that area.
Know Before You Go
minute usage. If you're a frequent
cell phone user, you might save money by choosing a prepaid plan that allows
unlimited calls, texts and data for a set monthly fee.
Ask friends and
who live and work in your neighborhood can tell you how frequently they
experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls, especially if they frequent
the same areas. Once you gauge satisfaction, check carriers' websites for
promotions, shop their retail stores and call them to see where you can get the
such as CellReception.com and DeadCellZones.com. CellReception.com
lets you search for service and cell towers by zip code. You can also read subscriber
comments for specific areas, down to particular cross streets in your
neighborhood. DeadCellZones.com has a complaint database and a listing of dead
spots in metropolitan areas.
non-voice features. Text messaging,
mobile web, picture messaging, music, games, etc., are usually not free
(although they may be included in an unlimited monthly prepaid plan), and fees
can add up fast as people use these features more often. For example, text
message rates can range from 3 to 50 cents each.
If you travel
frequently, be sure to choose a wireless carrier that lets prepaid customers
roam (make calls that aren't on their own networks) without additional charge. Most prepaid wireless carriers let you make calls
when you're outside their area, but a few charge roaming fees, which may become
an issue in rural areas.
Tactics and Strategies
Look for deals and rebates. Carriers offer deals and rebates on phones and special offers on their websites
and in stores, so it is always a good idea to check with individual carriers.
Check the terms, since no two plans are
alike. Some require monthly or daily usage fees, and minutes expire after a
certain period of time, from 30 to 365 days. Minutes may have different prices
at different times of the day, and many plans let you roll over minutes by
adding funds before existing minutes expire.
Some prepaid wireless plans charge higher
per-minute rates but include free night or weekend minutes. Other carriers offer unlimited calls between you and another subscriber using
the same carrier. Verizon's 10-cent pay-as-you-go plan, for example, has a $1
access charge on days you make calls, but all calls to other Verizon
subscribers are free.
Read the fine print on unlimited prepaid
plans. Some, like Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk Unlimited (*Est. $55 per month),
really do include unlimited calling, messaging and data with no hidden fees.
But T-Mobile's Unlimited plan (*Est. $50 per month and up) imposes limits on
data usage (web surfing, etc.).
Nationwide long-distance calls may be
prepaid plans don't charge anything extra for nationwide long distance,
roaming, voice mail or caller ID. However, many do charge extra for data
access, international long distance, text, picture and video messages (although
unlimited prepaid plans often include this) as well as games, music or
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