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What is the best pay-as-you-go cell phone service?

Updated on March 22, 2011

Options to Fit Your Calling Needs

Pay as you go cell phone services started in Europe a number of years ago and providers were slow to introduce them to the U.S. market.

Virgin Mobile and Cricket are two of the better know providers which offer only pay as you go while some of the other major companies also offer this along with their regular service. There other providers as well.

With the services mentioned above you have to buy a phone and register with the vendor.

You can then either use a credit card to buy time on line or register a credit card (at least you can with Virgin Mobile) and purchase (or top up as they say) additional minutes using your cell phone. You can also purchase the provider's pre-paid phone cards from many retail outlets and load them into your phone using the keys on your phone.

My Experience With Pay as You Go Cell Phone Service

All of these services require you to add time at periodic intervals (or lose the service and remaining minutes) as well as allowing you to add additional minutes as needed. Under the plan I had with Alltel a number of years ago, the minutes were only good for a month and automatically expired regardless of whether you added additional time or not. With Virgin Mobile all unused minutes remain active so long as you add at least $10 worth of minutes every 90 days.

I have used Virgin Mobile for the past four years and only gave it up a few weeks ago when I decided that, due to my increasing use of my cell phone, it no longer made economic sense. Under the plan I had, I paid twenty-five cents a minute (or fraction thereof) for every call I made or received. Text messaging, which I never used, cost ten cents per message. They had a couple of other plans which were less expensive per minute but required more frequent or larger top-ups.

Rather than paying to continually build up my bank of minutes which I knew I wouldn't be using, I felt it was cheaper to simply pay twenty-five cents per minute. Besides, I enjoyed the look on people's faces when the discussion turned to cell phone plans and they debated which double or triple digit cost plan was best and I chimed in with a comment about how my bill averaged $6 (it later grew to $10) per month. Obviously my calls were few and short and my number treated like a state secret with only my boss (my employer requires that I carry a cell phone so that I can be reached when out of the office on business), my wife and my children having access to the number.

I was very happy with the service. The last time I checked, Virgin Mobile used Sprint's network (they basically brought time on the network and resold it to their customers) so I rarely had a problem making or receiving calls at home or anywhere I traveled in the U.S. (it didn't work in some remote areas, when hiking in the mountains or when I traveled more than a few miles south of the border into Mexico, but such incidents were rare and it was even rarer that I had a need for a cell phone at those times). There were no roaming or long distance charges so the cost of a call was the same no matter where I was in the U.S. The service will not work outside the U.S. as I learned when my daughter, who also had Virgin Mobile service, took a trip to Europe and was unable to use her phone there.

Problems were Minor

As I said previously, this type of service is great if you are not a heavy cell phone user. I did have the service for my wife to use in emergencies (she never used it otherwise) and ended up just watching minutes build up on her phone. A couple of times I carried hers and my phone and used hers just to use up some of the minutes we had paid for. Unfortunately, about a year ago, I neglected to note on my calendar the next date I had to add minutes. As a result her service was canceled and I lost about $60 worth of accumulated minutes. When I switched services a few weeks ago, I took a new number rather than moving the Virgin Mobile number to my new phone and have kept my old account and phone for my wife to use. Since losing the minutes the last time I have learned that, while long distance calls are limited to the U.S., calls to the 1-800 numbers that accompany the phone cards you can buy to make inexpensive overseas calls count as domestic, not international, calls as the international portion is through the service offering the card. While it makes no sense to use the phone for regular domestic long distance since we can make those free with the VOIP service on our regular phone, she can now burn off the minutes when they build up by using cell phone to call the long distance phone card service we use to call her parents in Europe. I know we will be paying twenty-five cents a minute for what should be a free 800 call but, hey, at least we will have the satisfaction of being able to use the minutes.

The only other problem I encountered was when my daughter also switched to the new plan I had signed up with and tried to keep her Virgin Mobile number. It took about a month to complete that process during which she could make calls on the new service but all incoming calls ended up going to the old Virgin Mobile account where the callers were informed they had reached an inactive number (of course, we had canceled it).

Disposable Phones

Although I am only familiar with these services through reading Nelson DeMille novels and watching the Jason Bourne movie series (Bourne Identity, Bourne Conspiracy, Bourne Ultimatum), there is another option and that is the so called disposable cell phones.

These phones come preloaded with minutes. I assume you can reload them using phone cards that can be purchased at many retail outlets. The minutes are probably relatively expensive and I suspect that the two main advantages are convenience and privacy. If you have a temporary need for a cell phone - yours is being repaired, you are traveling and forgot to bring your phone, etc. a pre-paid phone can be a solution. Also, since there is no registration required and since it can probably be reloaded with minutes from a phone card purchased at a convenience or other store with cash, there is no link connecting you with that phone number. For most people this is not necessary but if you are on the run, like Matt Damon's character in the Jason Bourne movie series, it can provide you with telephone service while keeping Big Brother at bay.


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    • Judith Pauley profile image

      Judith Pauley 6 years ago

      Don't forget to mention the new reports about the dangers for brain cancer and the ways to tes and protect yourself and your love ones. Check out my article on protection

    • profile image

      KLeichester 7 years ago

      I shall keep that in mind. Thank you!

    • Sally Dillon profile image

      Sally Dillon 7 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      I really like Net10. You get a free phone. If you lose your phone they easily recover your minutes and your phone number and move them to a new phone. It ends up being a better deal than they advertise because they keep giving you extra free minutes when you add minutes. So it is much less than 10 cents a minutes with the free minutes they give.

    • profile image

      Lucy G 7 years ago

      In the UK the pay as you go service is very good but there is a lack of good phones.

    • profile image

      Haima 7 years ago

      That will be good,I have think a lot after reading it

    • secretagent profile image

      secretagent 8 years ago

      You might want to point out that there are pay as you go services (you start with an account balance, and for every minute you talk, that balance decreases) and no contract services (you pay a monthly bill for a certain level of service, and pay every month). Most providers offer a choice to cater to a wider variety of cell phone consumer.

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    • profile image

      FreeCellPhones 8 years ago

      Walmart just announced their own cell phone plans. The best is $45 a month and includes unlimited minutes plus unlimited text and 30 mb of internet use.

    • profile image

      Mr. Mentor 8 years ago


      Other than the comments section's reference to when comments were written, there is NO reference (what-so-ever) as to when this article was written. Therefore, its timeliness is questionable - at best. Now days (2009), there are several pay-as-you-go plans out with no daily charge and 10 cents a minute. Several carriers such as Cricket Wireless have plans with unlimited talk for a fixed daily charge. After $100 invested (for 1,000 minutes) the folks at Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile, domestically) offer those minutes for 1 year before expiring. It pays to do one's homework up front prior to writing an article that may be obsolete in months if not weeks.

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      thanks! I may need one of these soon.

    • jw east profile image

      Louis 10 years ago from US

      Cheers Chuck. This is a very informative article.