How To Buy a Cell Phone Without Purchasing a Plan

Using No Contract, Pay As You Go, and Unlocked Cell Phones

For one reason or another, you need a new cell phone, and you don't want the hassle of the plan that goes with it. Maybe you dropped your phone into a can of paint. Maybe you left it on top of your car and it's somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike. Maybe, like many people, you had the pleasure of seeing your phone at the bottom of the toilet, and the dry-it-in-the-oven and then bury-it-in-a-bowl-of-rice-for-three-days trick didn't work. Maybe you're just sick and tired of overages and need a way to manage your finances without surprise charges at the end of the month, so you want to look at phones without contracts. Maybe you have credit problems, so you haven't been able to get the phone-plus-contract that comes from a traditional carrier and as a result you’d like to get a cheap no-contract cell phone.

If you're in the market for prepaid cell phone service—service without the ball and chain of a lengthy contract—this is a great time to try it. No-contract service has long been widely used in Europe. But in the U.S., prepaid phones (or using unlocked phones on a prepaid plan) have only lately begun to really take off, driven by increased competition and the downturn in the economy. Customers increasingly want to manage costs, and many suffering from dinged credit want to avoid the hassle of a credit check, so finding unlocked or cheap phones and no-contract deals is the way to go. Parents may also want to monitor their kids and limit their phone time, and many users are in the market for a simple emergency phone—and ones that are prepaid or pay-as-you-go are a good option.

The quality and choice available in unlocked cell phones that use prepaid (monthly plans with no contract) and pay-as-you-go (buy minutes as you need them) plans have never been better. Caveats will apply:

cell phones no plans

Unlimited data plans for prepaid cell phones are not as cheap or plentiful as talk-only or talk-and-text plans, and the phones for sale on some plans will be limited. But if you purchase unlocked ones without contracts, you can almost certainly save a lot of money if your main usage is—how old-fashioned—actually talking on the phone. Even if you are a heavy texter, you likely can find inexpensive phones without plans that will save you money. From purchasing no-contract or unlocked phones to using prepaid or pay-as-you-go services, these tips will help you buy a cell phone without a plan.

Understanding Phone Acronyms

Even if you just need a replacement, it's good to know a little bit about the way cell phones work (whether they are prepaid, pay-as-you-go or on a traditional plan) before you venture out and buy something without a plan. To better understand how you can use the no-contract ones that are for sale, let's play a little acronym scrabble—the cell phone world is riddled with jargon, and it's important to understand the basics.

There are essentially two types of networks: CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). GSM predominates internationally. In the U.S. the four major carriers are split. AT&T and T-Mobile operate GSM networks. Verizon and Sprint are CDMA networks.

A GSM cell phone contains something called a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card; the SIM card contains the identifying features of the phone. The SIM card is removable, and can be swapped in and out, which makes GSM networks inherently more flexible when it comes to operating unlocked cell phones. The way traditional postpaid service works is that the carrier subsidizes your phone—selling it to you for less than it costs—then locks you into a lengthy service plan, over the course of which they recoup the initial cost of the phone. You get the carrot (the cheap phone), then you get the stick for two years, because your "carrot" is locked to the carrier from which you bought it, and you have to pay a steep penalty to get out of your contract. Therefore, getting locked or unlocked phones without a plan may be more expensive at first, but it could save you money in the long run.

Buying Unlocked Cell Phones

The beauty of the SIM card, according to mobile expert Nicole Lee, a senior associate editor at CNET and co-host of CNET’s popular “Dialed In” podcast about the ever-shifting wireless phone landscape, is that, “For the GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, you can purchase any unlocked cell phone—usually at a very high price—and then just slip a prepaid SIM card into the phone, and you're good to go.” It’s much more complicated to unlock CDMA phones (they do not have a SIM card), so using cheap Verizon ones without a plan may be more difficult. What is an unlocked cell phone? They are phones that will work with any carrier. (Hence why they are so popular.)

The downside of buying these for prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans is that you pay the “real” cost of the phone upfront. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a cheap unlocked cell phone because you aren’t paying for a plan. You’re just paying for the unlocked phone and therefore it’ll be more expensive. However, there are ways to mitigate this. If you’re willing to make purchases online, there are a number of retailers selling used and refurbished unlocked cell phones. EBay is teeming with these sellers, some of them with excellent prices, and while you'll want to carefully review feedback, ratings and any guarantees, if you buy a cell phone without a service plan using PayPal or a credit card, it will afford you certain protections if there are issues. You'll want to read all the fine print, and ask any questions up front before you buy these and use them with prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans.

When shopping online, you can search by carrier if you know what service you want, by price if you're on a budget, or you can search for an unlocked cell phone to be used on any GSM network (with a new SIM card.) BestBuy, Amazon.com and Walmart (as well as other major retailers) also offer a variety of new and refurbished unlocked phones as well as ones with prepaid and pay-as-you-go plans. To buy these online, just search “unlocked cell phone.” If you're just in the market for a replacement for the one you soaked, smashed or lost, you can also search these three mega-sellers by carrier.

If you love your smartphone capabilities but prefer the peace of mind of getting a prepaid phone from the provider you plan to use, don’t worry. “There are actually plenty of good smartphones that are available prepaid,” says Nicole Lee, “The LG Optimus V for Virgin Mobile is a great entry level smartphone, as is the Samsung Intercept. You can even get a Droid cell phone from a Verizon prepaid account.”

After you buy a cell phone without a contract, you’ll undoubtedly want to use it—but without a traditional post-paid plan. Before shopping phones and a no-contract carrier, you’ll want to choose the best service.

Check Your Coverage

Before you purchase phones without a contract and choose a no-contract carrier, research what providers will offer you the best coverage. There are a lot of user-generated resources for checking reception. Www.cellreception.com, signalmap.com and rootmetrics.com all offer input from actual users subscribed to plans in your neighborhood. They will tell you where the dead spots are, what the bars are—details you won’t necessarily get from the carrier itself, although all four carriers also offer coverage maps on their Web sites. When you purchase a phone, you can forgo the contract and choose from one of many carriers.

Once you have an idea which carriers offer the best coverage in your area, you can begin looking at an individual plan. Even though you bought a no-contract phone, almost all prepaid plans in the U.S. run on one of the four major networks—Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile.

While the carriers themselves are increasingly offering their own phones with a prepaid and pay-as-you-go service, most no-contract companies are known as MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators). The “Virtual” tag means that these operators do not have their own infrastructure; they simply resell airtime on another carrier's network. MVNOs tend to target their no-contract plans to specific demographics—the young and the hip (Boost), the light user (Page Plus), the frugal (TracFone, NET10 or Smart Talk), smartphone users (VirginMobile), the green market (Credo, Earth Tones), or parents buying phones for their kids (Kajeet).

Some providers that offer plans to go along with prepaid phones are much better known than others, and they offer an increasing array of bells and whistles. “Virgin Mobile has been a leader in the prepaid phone space for a long time now, and I don't think that will change any time soon,” says Nicole Lee. She comments that locked and unlocked phones that are prepaid are becoming more popular. “I think you'll see more and more smartphones head to prepaid phone carriers. For example, MetroPCS recently introduced the Samsung Galaxy Indulge, which is a very competitive Android smartphone. It's also the first carrier—ahead of even Verizon—to introduce a 4G LTE network. MetroPCS seems to be small and nimble enough to deploy their networks quickly. As for pitfalls, you sometimes have to pay more for data or messaging if you're on certain prepaid plans. Carriers are getting more competitive on this front though, like Virgin and Boost both offering very good monthly plans.” If you buy a phone without a plan, you have a plethora of carriers from which to choose, so take your time finding the plan with the best coverage and price.

Selected No-Contract Service Providers

When you buy a cell phone without service, you’ll still need to choose a provider. If you plan to buy one without a plan here are some of the no-contract providers you can use to operate your phone.

  • VirginMobile
    VirginMobile, on the Sprint network, is a savvy company that has marketed itself shrewdly to Millennials. If you buy a phone and decide to operate it with VirginMobile's popular “Beyond Talk” plans, you’ll get unlimited text, data, e-mail and web paired with buckets of talk time (300 or 1200 minutes) for $25-$40. There is an unlimited no-contract plan (talk, text and data) for $60 a month. If you and your family are using a Blackberry, you will pay a $10 monthly premium on top of that. Virgin also offers “payLo” pay-as-you-go plans in a variety of options. If you want to use a phone without a plan, this is one of the better available prepaid deals, especially if you're in a good Sprint coverage area.
  • BoostMobile
    Boost Mobile, another high-profile MVNO, offers a variety of phones including several Blackberrys and smartphones. Boost is unique in that it runs on both the Sprint network and the i-Den network. I-Den is neither a fish nor fowl network—a legacy from Sprint's merger with Nextel. It will be phased out over the next couple of years, but in the meantime it is known for slow web browsing speeds. The upside is that i-Den phones can also use the built-in push-to-talk service. If you do heavy web browsing, avoid i-Den and opt for a CDMA phone if you go with Boost. Boost’s “shrinkage” plan allows you to reduce your rates by paying on time. If you buy a new phone without a contract, or want to use unlocked cells, you may want to look into Boost's marquee service. It offers $50/month for unlimited talk, text and web. In theory, after 18 months of on-time payments, the cost would shrink to $35/month for the same service (dropping by $5 every 6 months). Boost offers other cheap options and rates for phones that are prepaid or pay-as-you-go as well.
  • NET10, TracFone and StraightTalk

    All three of these widely available plans for prepaid phones are owned by Latin American mobile giant America Movil. All of these providers are backed by the marketing muscle of Walmart. Each aims at a different segment of the market, with Straight Talk geared toward the heavier user. None of the three plans for pay-as-you-go or prepaid phones are known for their customer service. NET10 offers a straightforward plan of ten cents a minute for pay-as-you-go phones. Both TracFone and NET10 offer low-end and cheap phones with no contract (starting at 19.99). The NET10 plan, while certainly not the cheapest out there, is simplicity itself. At 10 cents a minute to talk, with no contracts, credit checks, monthly fees, security deposits, activation or deactivation charges, or age restrictions, it’s definitely a simple plan. TracFone offers a wider array of choices, but neither is geared to the high end or heavy user. TracFone does, however, offer international calling to many locations. If you opt to go with TracFone, be sure to buy a Double Minutes for Life (DMFL) card for your phone to further reduce your cost. (Some TracFone no-plan phones come with DMFL already included.) Make sure you have Double Minutes before buying minutes.

    Straight Talk has more sophisticated phones for sale, with two basic no-contract monthly plans. There is a $30 monthly plan that includes 1,000 minutes of talk time, 1,000 texts, 30 MB of data (for web browsing and e-mail) and unlimited 411 calls. Up a notch is the $45 a month plan, which includes unlimited talk, text, data and 411. You must buy the correct phones for your prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan. While these ones without contracts aren't cheap, they include 30 days of service, and Straight Talk offers a better selection than either TracFone or NET10.

    If you decide to use one of these companies, know that all three of them provide ample online and brick-and-mortar opportunities to add airtime, but none is known for particularly good customer service. Coverage tends to be excellent, since the parent company leases airtime from several major carriers.

  • Page Plus Cellular
    When you buy mobile phones and plan to use them with Page Plus, expect a variety of economical options; however, their phones and plans are skimpy on features for heavy data users. Nonetheless, it could be a great option if you plan to use your phone sparingly. If you’re looking at locked and unlocked ones for sale with all the bells and whistles, this may not be the plan you want to use. The cost of airtime varies from 4 to 10 cents a minute, depending on the size of the card you buy (more minutes = lower rate). Dealers tend to be smaller Mom and Pop vendors, not big box stores. Most Page Plus plans require you to renew your card every 120 days (four months), but a recently announced annual voice-only plan offers once a year convenience to reduce the dreaded "refill anxiety" users tend to suffer. You can purchase a cell phone without a service plan, but for 80 bucks plus the cost of your phone, you can get a year of service—which is a fairly cheap plan. It also appears that many Verizon phones not specifically authorized or sold by Page Plus will work on the network, although performance is not guaranteed. Since it is on the Verizon network, if you buy cell phones to use with Page Plus, they must be by CDMA.
  • MetroPCS
    Dallas-based MetroPCS is a regional or “pocket” provider with fairly good coverage in the eastern half of the United States—it is the 5th largest carrier in the country. MetroPCS is unusual in that its phones run on its own CDMA network (it’s not an MVNO); the MetroPCS Web site claims U.S. coverage is at 90% so if you buy a phone to use with MetroPCS you’ll most likely get coverage. MetroPCS recently added SnoopDogg as a spokesman, and they're serious about expanding their share of the market—they just announced the launch of 4G LTE service, beating out bigger competitors. MetroPCS has what it calls MetroFLASH—a cheap $30 service, which allows users to bring their existing compatible CDMA phones to its network, thus providing another option for using locked and unlocked phones with no contract. (Not all of the unlocked ones will work with their prepaid and pay-as-you-go plans—a dropdown on the front page allows you to check which ones will work with their service). MetroPCS also offers some for sale with no-contract plans. There are unlimited flat-rate no-contract plans, with Blackberry and LTE 4G options topping the price list at $60 a month. They also have pay-as-you-go cell phones for sale. Walmart also offers “by-the-minute” MetroPCS cards within the coverage area that will let you use phones with no plan. (By-the-minute cards are not available for smartphones.) Reviews have been mixed for the just-announced 4G LTE service.

Boutique Plans

Another way to get a cell phone with no plan is to look outside of the mainstream at the interesting boutique no-contract plans.

  • Red Pocket
    Red Pocket operates on the AT&T network. The no-contract phones for sale operate on per minute rates. Its per minute charges are not cheap—the best rate is a $100 card that buys 1,000 minutes of airtime (10 cents a minute). But a Red Pocket no-contract plan may be a find for consumers with family or friends in Asia. Phone calls from the U.S. to Canada, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and three cities in Mexico—Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara—are billed at normal airtime rates, which is a pretty cheap option if you’re making a lot of international calls. (TracFone also offers a good range of international calling.) Cheap international rates are available to several other countries as well, and Red Pocket offers customer service operators who speak English, Spanish, Filipino, Mandarin and Cantonese. While they offer discount cell phones with no contract,they are simple, older models. They do support texting in both English and Chinese, however. Red Pocket phones and plans are talk and text only—there is no data plan.
  • Kajeet
    Kajeet operates on the Sprint network and specializes in cell phones without plans for kids—which really means that it specializes in marketing kids' phones to parents. One of the main selling features of Kajeet is the suite of parental controls. They can be scheduled to be usable only at certain times, selected Web sites can be blocked entirely, and other features can be monitored as well. Of course, you will have to actually set these features up, which sounds a little bit exhausting, but if you’re a parent and you are willing to put in the effort, this may be the best option for your kid(s). Kajeet phones also offer a “locate” feature, so that if your kid has his or her phone, you'll always know where he or she is. Kajeet is by no means cheap and offers a range of deals with no-contract plans ranging up to a steep “unlimited” plan for $50/month. For people looking for a no-contract unlimited phone, check out Kajeet.
  • Cricket/Leap
    Cricket and Leap are both regional MVNOs operating on the Sprint network with CDMA phones. Cricket often offers cheap and even phones without plans. Although it’s usually a lower-end one included with some of the packages, it’s still free. Android and Blackberry prepaid plans offer flexibility and a range of not-too-bad prices ($35-$55 month). However, Cricket's limited footprint and roaming charges may cause some users to choose other providers.

If you’re looking for the best buy, this is just the tip of the prepaid iceberg—the sector is constantly evolving. You may choose to buy a cell phone without a contract from one of the many other providers out there (Common Cents, PlatinumTel, U.S. Cellular, Alltel, among others). Three of the major carriers also offer their own options for phones without contracts, where prices for plans and phones have been dropping steadily. You may be able to use your unlocked phone with these plans as well. T-Mobile offers prepaid plans ranging from $15/month, as well as pay-as-you-go ones, which start as low as $10 for 90 days and 30 minutes of talk. At thirty cents a minute, that isn't cheap, but if you’re getting a phone to use just for emergencies, it may be enough. Verizon and AT&T also offer no-contract plans, while Sprint directs users with unlocked phones to its MVNO partners Boost, VirginMobile and Common Cents. You have plenty of options from which to choose.

Whether you choose to buy pay-as-you-go phones online, prepaid plans, unlocked phones, or get a phone directly from your provider, one of these service providers can offer you a plan instead of a contract to go with your no-contract cell phone.

Tips, Tricks and Warnings:

If you want to use unlocked Blackberrys on a no-contract plan, you should put in a call to the customer service of the company you've chosen. Blackberrys can be problematic in the prepaid sector because they need the Blackberry Internet Server (BIS) to operate optimally for data. Be sure the cell phone plan you choose offers full functionality. When you get an unlocked Blackberry, be sure to ask specifically if you will be able to access the BIS server. Crackberry.com offers user forums where you can find out in advance what type of service you may get from a prepaid carrier using your existing Blackberry.

The Howard Forums are a great resource for users looking to operate and purchase unlocked phones with no plan. The forum provides extensive information from users of almost every available prepaid plan. If you're wondering, for example, which Verizon phones will work on Page Plus, they are listed in detail along with warnings about ones that won’t work. If you want to connect with people who actually use the phone service you're considering, they're all here. For the tech-savvy, “hofo” offers insider tips and tricks for buying no-contract phones for sale as well as how to operate them. The site discusses other services as well. If you have a question about unlocked phones, prepaid plans, or another topic and can’t get through to customer service—or can’t seem to get a straight answer if you do—someone can almost certainly answer it here (if it hasn’t already been answered).

If you need a phone to use for international travel, get a cheap unlocked GSM one. In many places in Europe it's possible to buy a SIM card and swap it into your phone for temporary overseas use. When you buy these online or elsewhere, look for either a tri-band or a quad-band (aka “world” phone) since international phones operate on different frequencies than U.S. ones.

If you just want a cheap, emergency cell phone in case your car breaks down or your cabin in the woods catches on fire, remember that any phone—even one that is not activated—can dial 911, as long as it is charged and there is some kind of coverage available. (Please don’t test this on that old flip phone in your clutter drawer unless you have a real emergency—it works.)

Almost all of these services will allow you to port your old number over (although it's not always easy) to a new phone and plan, but you can’t do that unless your old number is active—so if you want to keep your number, start your new service before canceling your old.

Now you know how to find a no-contract cell phone. There are many options for purchasing one without a plan. If you’ve decided on a provider and want to find the best deals with no-contract plans, do a quick search for coupons, codes and specials to find phones on sale. Check out fatwallet, couponcode, couponshare or techbargains before signing up with the provider. Many of these carriers offer specials and freebies in addition to their regular discounts so that you can find what you're looking for. Double check that your chosen provider can be used to operate your cell phone.

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