I received a question from our reader, Marie about mobile phone service:
I was just wondering if you had any advice about cell phones and service on a budget. My husband and I have had Virgin Mobile flip phones forever and now need to get something with GPS and a phone for our 10 year old. She is just to many places at once and we need to get a hold of her. What do you recommend?
Our family is in the same boat — we’ve recently reached the golden age of parenting: Our oldest can stay home alone WITH HER SIBLINGS. Hallelujah and praise be to Dutch Bros. coffee huts. The only problem? We don’t have a home phone. Seeing as we don’t want to be total delinquents, we need to find a way to facilitate communication while we are out partying like 40-year old rock stars. (Also known as “going to Home Depot at 4:00 in the afternoon without kids for 23 minutes.” Seriously? It’s not 1986.)
So, I tasked my husband, Will with finding us and Marie’s family an affordable, basic mobile plan that will act as an old-school home phone and possibly a way for our older kids to go somewhere and still communicate with us. As always, Will delivered with a bit-o-tech education along with his recommendations:
Our family’s goal is to add a single line with BASIC service to include phone calls and texts. Data is not a concern because the kid can connect to WiFi. We can already add a line to our existing AT&T Family Share Plan for $15 per month so the goal is to find a plan cheaper than that.
My target price is $10 or less per month with the maximum awesome available. We will also be looking for a smartphone in hopes that it will play Dora the Explorer and the Asian woman who reviews Play-Doh products with the YouTube app at least seven hours per day while connected to WiFi.
Gone are the days of free phone with two year contract, so I’m looking at buying a phone and activating it on a service. I need to know which service we are going to use before I buy the phone because it must be built for the particular kind of cell service. There are two kinds:
GSM (AT&T/T-Mobile) where phones are easily unlocked and used on each other’s networks
CDMA (Sprint/Verizon) where phones are custom built for their network and are not easily used on any other service
There are a ton of small wireless companies, and they all use the networks of one of the four big companies noted. Most or all of these little services sell phones, and phones are also available on eBay and Amazon, Best Buy, Fry’s, etc. If you are going to use a GSM network, you can buy any “unlocked” phone and get it to work. However, your safest bet is always to buy a phone that is made for the specific network you will be using.
Companies to consider:
Virgin Mobile (uses Sprint network) — $6.98 for 20 minutes talk and 20 texts per month
This is through Virgin’s “Custom” plans available only at WalMart with three available phones priced at $59.99 to $129.99. With this service you choose your plan first and then use it. If you use more talk and/or text, there is a pre-assigned rate if enabled.
Ting (uses Sprint network) — $6 for an active phone with $0 charges until you use it. Then the charges are graduated based on how much of each service you use.
This is a service that you pay after you use. Whatever level you reached with your use, that is what you are charged for the pay period. Ting uses Sprint phones, and you can bring your own or shop for a Ting phone on their website. Prices for smartphones start under $50 and go all the way to the moon.
Republic Wireless (uses ALL WiFi networks and Sprint network) — $5 for unlimited talk, text, and data through WiFi only; $10 for unlimited talk, text (WiFi and cell), and data through WiFi.
Republic has special phones that seamlessly swap between WiFi and cell networks during calls. They have several options starting at $99 (get more info about the available phones here).
Our family’s experience:
Last fall I bought a brand new unlocked GSM smart phone off Amazon (made out of the lowest quality Chinese garbage) and activated it on our AT&T network. The phone cost $49 on Amazon and is worth about $2. You can download apps to it, but you can’t actually run the app because it cripples the frail phone. So the only thing the phone is good for is calls. It’s not even fast at texting. My $49 purchase from Amazon has value in that I can confidently recommend against you doing the same. See? I just saved you $50.
We ended up buying the $149 phone from Republic because it is twice as fast and twice as much of every technical feature. It is a Motorola Android smart phone, and it does everything fast. It does not freeze up or slow down. I LOVE it (read: Lucy (age 2) can watch a lady peel play dough off of miniature horses for four hours at a time on YouTube).
We bought the $5 per month WiFi-only service plan from Republic Wireless because we learned that 911 can be called from anywhere (with or without WiFi) so the kids don’t really need the ability to call outside of WiFi. The talk and text service through WiFi is perfect — no echo or delay like how Vonage used to be. I am now seriously considering getting rid of our AT&T service completely. I don’t think we need to be connected to the internet all day.
What tips do you have for finding an affordable cell plane for kids?
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