Is a 'Burner Phone' for You? Compare 4 Cheap Prepaid Providers

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.

Provider Cheapest
Phone
Cheapest
Plan
Cheapest Unlimited
Talk and Text
Network Provider
(Coverage)
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

Plan Components.

Not surprisingly, each provider offers a different plan. Some with pay-as-you-go deals let you buy a set amount of minutes or data, although the minutes expire if they aren't used within a given period (anywhere from 30 to 365 days, depending on the number of minutes bought). Straight Talk, Cricket, and PayLo (see chart above) only offer service plans that include a set amount of minutes, texts, and data per month. You can't choose an extremely cheap option if you only need the phone for emergencies, and you'll pay extra for going over the chosen limit. Net10 offers a choice -- unlimited monthly plans or the option to pay for minutes as you go. Minutes are expensive, starting at 13.34 cents each, but Net10's monthly plans are comparable to other cheap providers.

Coverage.

Coverage with these cheap burner phones and associated plans relies on the networks of the larger carriers. PayLo runs through Virgin Mobile, which is owned by Sprint, so PayLo customers receive coverage from Sprint's cellphone towers. Similarly, Cricket is owned and run by AT&T. The other two MVNOs cited above buy coverage from all four of the big carriers. (Customers with GSM phones are covered by the AT&T or T-Mobile networks, while those with CDMA phones have coverage from Verizon or Sprint.)

Buyer Beware.

The four options highlighted here are some of the cheapest we found. These companies sell phones for $20 or less, with voice plans starting at $15. However, complaints about the outsourced customer service of some low-cost providers abound. At TracFone, a provider we decided to leave off the list, customer service can be so bad, according to reviews posted at CNET, that users award it an average of 1 star out of 5. Still, if you're strapped for cash or don't want to pay for more than you need, these providers offer low-cost phones and plans you can walk away from at any time.