Consumerist Advice Needed: American Cell Phone Plans

John Brownlee here, yet again slipping out of The Consumerist royal ‘we’ to the chagrin of that credit-garnering overlord, Joel Johnson.

As mentioned at one point or another, I am a native Bostonian living in Ireland. When I moved here, mobile phones were still not particularly popular among the subset of un-Gawker-like bumpkins that formed my social circle. And I hated them anyway — it seems like cellular phones in America at that time existed solely so some business-suit jackass on the MBTA could call up his friends and have a loud, labored conversation with the party on the other end about the novelty of him holding a conversation on a cellular phone. While I was still living in the States, I swore to myself that I would never be so pathetic that I couldn’t afford to miss a phone call. Then I moved abroad and discovered that the inherent tardiness of the Irish meant that, without a mobile, I would spend on average a couple of hours sitting at a pub, gnawing off my arm in frustration, as I waited for friends to show up for dates and appointments. I bought a mobile the next day.

The point? I don’t know much about American cellular phone plans.

But recently, my mother came over to visit me in Ireland. She had a stroke a few months ago (my father and I like to call her “Strokey”, although my father may be calling her that less in playful response to her cerebral hemorrhaging and more for bedroom talents of which I remain blissfully unaware) and she’s gallavanting about Europe on her own, so I bought her a cheap mobile phone on a Pay-As-You-Go plan in case of emergency. The way these phones work is this: you buy a phone for maybe
100. It comes with a certain amount of credit, which you can use to make phone calls. When you run out of credit, you go to the local convenient store and buy a card that gives you more. You only pay for outgoing calls: all incoming calls are free for twelve months since your last top-up. Credit lasts indefinitely, as long as it takes you to use it.

This is perfect for someone like my mother, who doesn’t really have a lot of people to call on a mobile, but would like one in case of emergency. But as far as I know, this pricing model for cellular phones doesn’t exist in the States. Or does it? That’s what I want to know — my mother would really like a cellular phone, but just for emergencies. She doesn’t want to be locked in to a monthly bill, paying for minutes and options she won’t use. So the European pricing model makes a great deal of sense for her. Does any provider have anything similar in the States? If you could give me some advice in the comments section, I’d greatly appreciate it.


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  1. glitterpig says:

    I’ve been using Virgin Mobile’s pay-as-you-go for about three years now, been very happy with it. You do have to top up at least $20 every three months to keep the service active, but I don’t know of any other plan that works out to be

  2. fizzer fits says:

    Ah, me heart stutters with a bit of jealousy; I did a three year stint in Dublin working at various places but moved back to the U.S. a couple of years ago to enter the academic work force (guess what? It sucks just as much as business!). I really do miss the life over there.

    Long story short you’re not going to get any pay-as-you-go options in the U.S. that match Western Europe.

    Still, the U.S. section of Virgin Mobile ( gets pretty darn close. You can pick up their cheapest phone (monocrome Nokia) for about 20-30 USD after rebates at Bestbuy. Their rates are a little confusing but are by far the best value, and the credit you lob into it takes longer to time out.

    There is also ‘Tracphone’ which a friend says works well, but it looks to be more expensive.

    I don’t know if you have access to the great and mysterious Gawker database, but if you have my e-mail address associated with this account drop me a line and tell me where you are in IE; I can be like ‘OMFGWTFLOLINTERNET’ and triangulate where our paths may have crossed.

  3. mcj says:

    Actually, Virgin Mobile only makes you do $15 every 3 months now. I haven’t run across any other service that works out to $5/month just to have basic service that you rarely use.

  4. Orinda says:

    There are several pay-as-you-go cell services in the U.S., both independent services and services offered by the big contract carriers (T-Mobile, Virgin, etc). One way to start researching a good service for your mother would be to have her visit a convenience store, Target, or Wal-Mart near where she lives and look for the racks of re-upping cards. Whichever companies are selling cards through local outlets probably offer service to the area. With that preliminary information, you’re ready to comparison-shop on the Web.

    I use the Tracfone service and have been quite satisfied with it. It does not replicate the European services you describe–for example, I have to pay for both incoming and outgoing calls–and I suspect it’s not the cheapest of the non-contract services. But Tracfone offers good national coverage and I’ve found the service to be reliable. I pay around $100 a year for a phone that handily meets my (very modest) talk time, voice mail, and SMS needs.

  5. The Comedian says:

    You can get your Virgin mobile minimum down from $20 every three months to just $15 every three months if you sign up online for the “Auto Top Up.” The catch is that the $15 auto top up amount kicks in every night that your balance is under a preset limit, usually $5.00 or $10.00.

    Disclaimer: I’m not a Virgin mobile user, employee, affiliate, flack, and/or customer. I learned the above info doing research on prepaid cell phones for my in-laws.

  6. SubFuze says:

    You’ll never get free incoming in the states without signing up for a Post-paid plan because of the way the pricing structure works over here (ie- the originating caller doesn’t pay extra for calling a mobile like they do in Europe). T-Mobile has a pretty good pre-paid plan if she lives in or near a big city (their rural coverage isn’t as good as some providers): if you put $100 on, the credit will last for a full year.

  7. Amy Alkon says:

    The pay-as-you-go model is just great. I’m in Paris at the moment, using my Orange Mobicarte phone. The only problem is, the amount of time that can pass between usages keeps shrinking and shrinking. Do they tell you this? Mais, non. I was here in July, when it was still 9 months before the SIM card would expire. Well, in August it became six. They have my email address and all sorts of paperwork, but never bothered to get in touch with me. My phone expired Feb 4; I got here Feb 9. Merde! Another 30 eu down the drain, plus another $35 for new business cards with my new mobile number from Staples. That said, it’s pretty fab having a phone I can fill for 10 eu when I’m in France, in case I’m late or something. Because calls are expensive, I tend not to chat on it. My best friend in the USA is pretty happy with the Virgin pay-as-you go model.

  8. AcidReign says:

    …..My wife does something like this via Cingular. She has to buy 30 minutes every three months to keep the service active. We figured out once that her cell phone was costing her about $14 a month on the average. Cingular minutes roll over, and she’s now got over 500 minutes, last I heard. And the minutes work pretty much anywhere in the US!

    …..I’m with the bumpkins. A pool table and a case of Guinness, and we’re good to go! I have to carry a Nextel radio at work, and the thing rings constantly! When I get off work, I’m free, FREE, FREEEEEEE!!!! I love being able to leave the house, and NO ONE CAN CALL ME!

    …..Happiness is not having to talk on the phone. Leave a message, and say what you want. Not “call me.”

  9. Brian Gee says:

    I wish the American cellular networks were more useful. I’d love to have a pay-as-you-go plan for my sidekick, as I use maybe 70 minutes a month of calls. I mainly use it for data.

    I rarely answer incoming calls unless its someone I want to talk to. There’s never a call that I can’t miss. If its important, email me.

    I check my voicemail whenever the casette tape icon (btw, tape icon? wtf?) starts to annoy me. It makes it really easy, since all the messages are so old they don’t matter anymore (like “call me” ever matters…), so its just 7 7 7 7 7 until it hangs up. If it really was important, they’ll call back.

    My phone never bothers me. Its for my convenience to call others without having to get to a phone.

  10. MikeD says:

    I’ll chime in on the Virgin Mobile plan, which my own mother uses. It suits someone who doesn’t rack up a lot of airtime and doesn’t want a two-year committment.

  11. Andy Lee says:

    Here’s another vote for Virgin Mobile as a frugal choice for light usage. My only complaint is that the low-end phone I bought a couple of years ago is a piece of crap. Some buttons don’t work properly, the charger has to be seated just so in the power outlet, and the screen UI is atrocious. Technology has surely improved since I bought it, so maybe it’s time to invest in a new (still low-end but less crappy) phone.

    Thanks, by the way, to The Comedian for posting the “Auto Top-Up” tip. I just activated it and saved myself a little change.

  12. drsmith says:

    I have a tracfone, and it works out to about 40 cents/minute if you buy the 250 unit(minute) card and you get service for a year. With a promotional code, you can get the price/minute down a bit further because you get 40+ additional units over the base 250. At the end of the year, if you buy another card, the previous minutes roll over to the new service period. At my useage rate, I’ll never have to worry about needing airtime. Service has been great so far, but then again, I’ve only had it about a month.

    So virgin mobile (frome the above comments) costs about $60/yr while tracfone costs about $100/year. Verizon’s basic non-prepay service plans would cost about $480/year.

    I don’t know of any plan that has free incoming calls.

  13. joelja says:

    If you bank $100 in tmobiles prepaid phone service, the minutes don’t time out for a year. that $100 also gets you 2k minutes.

    The nokia 6010 which is their cheapest phone ($49) doesn’t totally suck as phones’s go though at that price it defines basic.

  14. joelja says:

    actually 1k minutes on tmobile, sorry.