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Advice on Buying a Pre-Paid Cell Phone

Global Immersions - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Having a cell phone when you’re traveling abroad can be very helpful; you never know when you could need it! We strongly suggest all of our younger visitors in homestay have an emergency phone for safety purposes.  

In many foreign countries, cheap, disposable phones can be bought at corner stores, along with “pre-paid” minutes. The same is true in the United States, but there are many more options and “hidden” fees. Here is a quick overview of how buying a pay-as-you go cell phone without a contract may not be as easy as you think:


Many stores, including places like Staples, Wal-Mart and CVS, will sell you no more than two phones at a time due to new regulations regarding disposable cell phones. If you’re part of a large group you should call ahead to make sure they have enough phones, and expect that each person will have to buy their own phone.

For disposable phones with “no contract” many carriers offer “pre-paid” minutes. This means, for example, when you buy your phone you’ll spend an additional $25 for minutes to use on your phone. Be careful, you never know how many “minutes” $25 will last you. A major carrier charges .35 cents per minute, and then .20 cents per text, so that $25 won’t last long! Other carriers offer a set number of minutes, say 300 for $25, and then each minute you use your phone will deduct from that original 300 minutes. If you have a smart phone, you also have to find out how much the carrier will charge you for internet use. This feature is called “data” and it is important to consider how much “data use” costs when you buy your phone.  

What happens if you go over your “pre-paid” minutes? With some carriers the phone will just stop working until you add more minutes to it. With others, your phone will continue to work, but the carrier will charge the credit card you bought the phone with and might add on fees for going over your “minutes”. It is important to keep track of how many minutes you have left on your phone. Often you can do this by dialing a number the carrier provided you with, or by logging into an account online.  

So your trip is over and you’re heading home. What to do with your phone? Some carriers will buy it back from you for a fraction of what you paid, then refurbish it and sell it as a used phone. Others won’t give you money if you return your phone, but will take it so they can donate it to an organization in need of cell phones, such as domestic abuse centers. Whatever you do, don’t throw your phone in the trash. The battery, if not disposed of correctly, can cause pollution as it deteriorates.

Here is some advice to our homestay visitors - be careful when you buy a phone. Think about how often you’ll be using it, and for what purpose. If you text a lot, get unlimited texting. If you don’t have a smart phone, then don’t get data. And remember, read all the fine print! 

If you have any helpful tips regarding cell phones without a contract in the U.S, let us know!

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