Friday, August 05, 2005

The cheapest cell phone service

Let's say that you are looking to find the least expensive cell phone service in America. For example, say you want to have a cell phone strictly for "emergency purposes", so you aren't going to use it much if at all on a month to month basis. Or let's say that you want to have a phone that you do not plan to use very much -- say 20 or 30 minutes a month.

I've looked around, and as best I can tell I think that Virgin Mobile is the cheapest way to go. Virgin has a pay-as-you-go cell phone service. Here's how it works:
  1. You have to buy a phone from Virgin. The cheapest one you can get right now is a Nokia phone available at Wal-Mart (or the Virgin site) for $39.

  2. You have to buy a "top-up card" to put minutes on the phone (or you can use a credit card through the web site). The cheapest top-up card is $20, and you must top-up every 90 days even if you don't use the phone.

  3. If you use the phone, you pay 25 cents per minute for the first 10 minutes every day, and then 10 cents per minute after that. There are no long-distance or roaming fees with Virgin.
For a zero-usage phone, you will be paying $20 every 90 days to keep your number active. If you use the phone for 20 minutes a month at the rate of a minute or two every other day, you'll pay 25 cents a minute, so you will actually use the $20 that you put on the phone. In other words, whether you use the phone for 0 minutes per month or 20 minutes per month, it costs the same.

If you assume that the phone lasts 24 months, and it costs $39, you are paying $1.63 per month for the phone. $20 divided by 3 months works out to $6.67 per month. So that means that it costs $8.30 per month for cell phone coverage using Virgin.

My question is this: Does anyone know of a less expensive way to get low-usage cell phone service in the United States?

I believe any cell phone can dial 911, even without an active service plan. If that is indeed true, all you need for an emergency plan is a phone - no service plan required.
In Canada I know all deactivated cells are still able to call 911.

Marshall, it is funny because I came up with the same conslusion with Virgin up here. It is definitely cheaper if you are a low usage customer.

However my provider has me locked in indefinitely because of discontinued plan that I refuse to drop because it is pretty sweet.
Marshall, I run the website so I get these types of questions all the time (it's a cell phone news/review site).

I set my mom up with 7Eleven's SpeakOut service. It's a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) just like Virgin Mobile USA. The difference is that minutes on SpeakOut last for one year, so you don't have to re-up every three months if you didn't use it.

Minutes are a flat $.20/minute. My mom doesn't make any long calls, so the Virgin plan isn't ideal. For her use cycle it is very very cheap. I think she's only had to buy airtime.

After rebate I think the phone cost about the same as Virgin's (and it also came with something like $10 in airtime).

I use T Mobile To Go (prepaid) and my cost is similar to what you quoted. I also think the awareness of hours caused by having to recharge the phone curbs excessive usage.

They also let you keep your minutes for a year.
My uses and says it is the cheapest she found. The math is all to confusing for me :)
I have a feeling when you say "emergency" you mean "calling the wife" rather than "calling 911". There's "911 phones" that dial only 911 like this. For "calling the wife" 20 minutes a month, virgin sounds cheapest.
I know another way. It is extremely cheap.

When you want to make a call, use a fixed line phone. Or beter, use a pay phone (yep, they exists. Really, they do. It's no joke.). Or even better: borrow a phone of one of your co-worker.

If you don't have a co-worker, then why don't you wait until you get home? Since when does the world depend on you, making a call within 3 minutes?

Really love your work, marshall! Keep it up! We need more people like you! You know, the people that tell the truth!

Technology is a thrill, you know. I really live for it!

Check out STI Mobile at $0.12 per minute fixed with no expiration and runs on the Sprint PCS network, same as virgin mobile. I recently switched from Virgin mobile and am very satisfied. There's a lot of discussion over at if you're curious.

Really enjoying your blogs -- I was in your CSC102 class (Think Pascal on theold macs) back in the day at NCSU. Glad to see that things have gone well for you.

- Charles
I have a brand new phone and pay $20/month for 60 mins/month.

I would use one of the cheaper options if there was some way to use my existing phone and not have to buy yet another one.

Anyone know how to do this?
Rock on!

A friend of mine was losing his phone (his ex-gf was reposesing it as she was paying for it), so remembering this article, we went and picked one up for him. When he was signing up, it has an auto-top-off setting that will fill up your minutes at a minimum rate of $15 every 90 days instead of $20. Of course, this requires a credit card and a little more information about who you are.

Seeing this as a great deal, my current plan was expired, and because I couldn't get a cheap battery for my recently deceased phone, I switched over myself. Since I'm not a big talker, my $15 every 3 months is perfect and should save me $300 a year.
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I think everyone in the us should boycott portable phones for one week. In the US we are in a capitolistic society and are getting totally ripped off by all these carriers by paying for "minutes". In Japan, it does not work that way. There, you buy a phone, select a monthly service, and that's that. It's about a $35 USD equivelent. You answer the phone, you dial the phone, flat rate no suprises and no ripping off because you "went over".None of this weekday, evening, nightime, weekend, portable to portable. Yeah were "going over" allright. We're getting rolled, and I'm not talking about Cingular Mins. We get charged for minutes for one reason only: Because they can bill us for them and we pay it. These US carriers would not get a single subscriber if they were in Japan. They would get laughed right out of business. Only one time AT&T had a special for unlimited time and I am so glad I jumped on it. Suince they have dissolved; several carriers have "subbed" and been the provider of my plan. They have tried everything for me to change plans. Even offered 6 months free unlimited one time (almost got me on that one too). If you ever see a pure and true unlimited plan, do not hesitate. Jump on it. eventually the rates will lower. Right now I pay $99 per month (same as I started) But I can call up the time in China and leave my phone connected for a few days if I want. My bill is always the same. about $112. bucks Yours should be too! Boycot Minutes for a week. Demand reasonable flat rates !!!! Southern California
Yeah Boycott!
The $15 deal/90 days, mentioned above, from Virgin is the best I've found, and that's what I have.
unlimited voice and text $35 to $40 per month no contract first month free I also have a wireless broadband card from them $40 a month unlimited 3g broadband
AT&T to go phone sells $100.00 reload card that lasts one year. for many that would be a good deal
why is there never a mention of net10 where it's 10cent a minute all the time? that's all it is - after you pay for your phone. their sister company, tracfone, is about 30 cents a minute.
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that nice from you that you can sharing with us this useful information. i will looking for the cheapest cell phone service. and i will be aware about the virgin mobile.
Well, that was so cool. Anyone really looks for a cheap one and you can really save money by this cellphone service. Anyway, this I enjoyed reading this post. Looking forward for your next post.

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well i have been with Boost mobile since they started here in Georgia--I absolutely love it!! 50.00 a month unlimited EVERYTHING--Calling-texting-walkie talkie-web-and i dont have a problem with dropped calls--also-now-my plan dropped to 45.00 a mth b/c i paid on time 6 mths-in 6 more mths it will go to 40 then in 6 mths i go to 35.00 mth--never to go up again!!!! I absolutely LOVE IT!! They have plans for everybody-my husband does pay as you go-10 cents a min for calls--can't beat it! go to and check it out for yourself-
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