Shopping for a Prepaid Mobile Plan

I’m a very light cell phone user, except occasionally when I travel. Currently I’m on the very bottom-of-the-barrel T-Mobile monthly plan that they don’t even offer any more. Only 60 minutes a month + weekends, and I very rarely even use that. Looking around it seemed I could save quite a bit of money by going to a prepaid plan. That wouldn’t cost me more than about $100 a year, roughly 20% of what I’m paying now. I was just going to switch my T-Mobile phone over, but apparently the roaming on their prepaid plans isn’t so good.

What are people recommending for prepaid phones these days? I need:

  1. Broad coverage across the USA
  2. Solid local coverage in New York
  3. Low per-minute costs, including outside my local area. $0.10 per minute is good.
  4. Low initial cost. The cheaper the better. (I don’t want to spend three figures or even in the mid-two figures for a new phone)
  5. International Roaming

I want

  • International Roaming
  • An unlocked phone
  • A triband GSM phone whose SIM card I can swap out in foreign countries

I do not need:

  • To keep my existing mobile number
  • Cameras, organizers, games, web browsing, etc. on the phone

Given those criteria, what’s my best option? Who do you recommend? Who should I avoid?

11 Responses to “Shopping for a Prepaid Mobile Plan”

  1. Doug Simpkinson Says:

    I liked Cingular when I was in the market for prepaid about 3 years ago, but the plan I’m on now they don’t offer anymore. They have Nationwide coverage with no roaming charges, and with one of their plans mobile-to-mobile calling (to other Cingular users) is cheaper, so I got my wife on the same plan and we save some money. Right now it looks like they have two plans, one that is always 25 cents/minute, and one that costs $1 on any day you use the phone plus 10 cents/minute. At least in the case of the $1/day, mobile-to-mobile is free.

    If you use it lightly, then you just have to add $25 every 90 days, which works out to $100/year as you mentioned. Even if you use it heavily but only on occasion, it’s still a good deal. One month I spent $50 on calls, but now I’m back to the average of $8 or so.

    I don’t think you’re going to get international roaming from anybody, so here’s what I would do in your situation:

    – Buy an unlocked GSM phone on ebay, if you are willing to get one that is a year or two old they are cheap, or unlock your current phone. For unlocking, try google, and also it appears that in Canada people advertise unlocking services.
    – Buy a prepaid SIM chip on ebay (example:
    ebay link
    ) – about $15.
    – Then you should just have to call Cingular to initialize your SIM. Choose either the “always 25 cents/minute” plan or the “pay $1 each day you use the phone, then 10 cents/minute” plan depending on your usage pattern.
    – When travelling out of the country, buy a SIM chip for some other service.

    This won’t let people easily call your normal number when you are out of the country, but throughout the country you will have normal service.

    The only other option I liked was Virgin Mobile, but they are on Sprint’s crappy CDMA or whatever non-GSM technology. Their rates were pretty cool last I saw, though: 25 cents/minute for the first 10 minutes, then 10 cents/minute after that on any given day (i.e. you have to go back to 25 cents/minute tomorrow.)

  2. Mark Murphy Says:

    I use Virgin Mobile. It certainly meets criteria 1-4; I don’t know about use outside of the USA. Virgin uses Sprint’s PCS network. A phone can be had for $40 or less.

    I use the “month2month” plan — if you let them automatically charge your credit card, you can pay as little as $15 every three months. You pay only for minutes used which are 25 cents for the first 10 minutes each day and then 10 cents after that.

    Virgin is marketed heavily towards kids, but it has worked well for me and my costs are well under $100 a year. Customer service has been good and should be able to answer your questions

  3. YAChris Says:

    I have Boost Mobile (in spite of not being the target audience :-). They had the best deal when I got them ($80 phone, it’s got a SIM so you *may* be able to get it to work overseas). $20 every three months. $0.20 a minute days, $0.10 a minute nights and weekends. If you get two (or know someone else with a Boost or Nextel phone) you can use the walkie-talkie for $1 a day, unlimited talk time for that day.

  4. YAChris Says:

    OH YEAH: I know you said you don’t need “Features!!!” but the Boost phone has a GPS built in, and a free-to-download turn-by-turn navigation program. It costs $1.25 per trip, but it’s great if you’re lost somewhere. “Ordinary” GPS stuff (current location and maps once you prepay for four trips) is free.

  5. cubiclegrrl Says:

    Virgin Mobile doesn’t work outside the USA, just FYI. (I didn’t remember to check for a signal as we crossed the Canadian border last summer, so I don’t know how far into Canada you can go before dropping the signal.

  6. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I went with TracFone. They give me free roaming across the country (which T-Mobile wouldn’t) and $99+tax bought me a reconditioned Motorola V170 phone and 470 minutes of airtime for a year. That’s about a $200 savings over the bottom-of-the-barrel. T-Mobile plan I had, which only gave me 60 minutes a month. While that adds up to 720 minutes a year, my usage patterns are very erratic (almost nothing for three months, then three hours the next) so the expiring T-Mobile minutes weren’t very useful to me. The Tracfone minutes last at least a year, and will rollover if I add another card in the next eleven months.

    For overseas use I’m just going to hang onto my unlocked T-Mobile phone, and look for a prepaid foreign SIM when I travel. No one in the U.S. seemed to offer a prepaid phone that I could roam with in foreign countries.

  7. dereck Says:

    Virgin Mobile is a good service, but it only works in USA. There are rumors it will work in UK someday, but it doesn’t currently. And I’ve not at all heard it will work in the EuroZone.

    I switched to Cingular pre-paid and it does work in Canada. It is GSM and a SIM switch should work.

  8. dereck Says:

    Oh – forgot. The _real_ thing about Cingular pre-paid I like is that Cingular-to-Cingular calls are 1 USD per day. That is the hookup fee per day. So I can talk with the wife on hers anywhere in the USA for $1 per day. Very nice when I’m traveling.

  9. Barbara Says:


    Another question…

    I’m travelling to the US next month. Can I buy a prepaid SIM to put in my Nokia N70?

    I still don’t understand how the service plans in the US work…


  10. Michael Says:

    You can buy a prepaid SIM for your N70 (I have the same phone by the way)!

    You can buy one by T-mobile or Cingular. A lot of them are available on ebay or you can wait until you get to the US, you’ll find one for sure!

    The thing about US SIM-only starter kits, is that they need activation, i.e. they do not contain the telephone number in the package so you have to “activate” them by calling customer service or through the internet so that you will get a local number in the area you will be using your phone.

    In the US you will be paying both for incoming and outgoing calls (usually the same price), and people calling you will only pay as if they were calling a fixed number, that’s why you have to activate your prepaid SIM with a local number to make sure that the people that call you the most will call you with local rates!

    That’s all

  11. Sidekick 4 Says:

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