TracFone: U.S. Prepaid Cellular Service

by JL Beeken on 10-08-2009

TracfoneA little journey south of the border the other day introduced me to TracFone.

I had a flat-tire. I had just passed a road sign that told me I was halfway to my destination. So, I was in the middle of somewhere and heading off in either direction would have been the same except, apparently, I wasn’t going anywhere at all.

It was a curious situation to find myself in on a glorious Fall day. Surrounded by trees, not a building or driveway in sight. I pulled over to a narrow shoulder and stopped just short of falling into a deep ditch. The trunk was full of luggage, the spare was under it and I’d neglected to check its air pressure before I left. I suddenly felt very tired. I haven’t changed a tire in about 30 years. The last time I tried, someone had put the wheel nuts on with a pneumatic wrench and, clearly, I had grown too old for wheel nuts. My mind continued wandering vaguely over distant memories.

It wasn’t like any old flat-tire I’ve ever experienced, like from running over a nail on a farm road. Nope, the side of the tire blew apart. Not surprising when I checked my records later that night to find out I was still running the original tires on a 12-year old car. I keep meticulous logs of car maintenance but do I ever read the logs? Nope.

I put up my hand weakly to a car that had slowed down to pass me; the driver thought I was waving, smiled broadly and kept going. Soon after, a small truck pulled in behind and the driver asked if I needed a hand. Yes, please, I said. Now, here was a man who travels prepared. A small air compressor and a TracFone.

What’s a TracFone I asked? Last time I looked into cell phones, it was going to cost around $900/year because I needed two phones and two contracts, one for Canada and one for the U.S. Most of my driving territory was outside the signal range, anyway, at that time. And it wasn’t in the budget so I decided to leave my future to fate.

While I was on his TracFone to AAA, finding out that nothing within a 100 mile radius was open on Sunday, he changed the tire. Then he followed me 50 miles up the road to a main intersection at an average speed of 20 mph, due to zig-zagging on and off the shoulder every few minutes to let another car go by. When I thanked him, he said every man likes to save damsels in distress and slay dragons and, since there’s no dragons anymore, that leaves the damsels. Very lucky for us damsels.

So, what’s a TracFone? If you live in the U.S. you may already know. I live in the Canadian mountains and I knew nothing. I bought one of my own the next day. It cost $15 and I got 150 days of service time with 70 minutes for another $20. I saw the ‘word’ international on the package and thought that meant I could use it in Canada too, but I can’t. International means you can call just about anywhere in the world from the U.S.

$15 for a phone that has text-messaging, caller id, call waiting, an alarm clock, stop watch, calculator, a phone book and various ring-tones. $20 for some air service and minutes whenever I travel. A very small price for some peace of mind. It would have taken 2 hours to get a AAA tow-truck up to where I was. Sometimes it’s just nice to call some-one who can get your mind straight when you’re feeling stunned by circumstances.

TracFone is a prepaid cellular service. They offer nationwide coverage, with their signals carried on the towers of over 30 major carriers around the U.S. TracFone can be purchased in a variety of styles ranging in price from $10-$50. I got mine at a drugstore and there was only one choice. If you order from their website there’s at least a dozen, depending on the zip code you enter.

Air service and minutes can be purchased as you please, either separate from the phone or in a bundle when you purchase the phone. The minutes can be purchased in various denominations, directly from your phone, at their website, or in a variety of offline locations. There are no complicated contracts involved. You’re always in control of what you spend. You buy a phone and you buy time for it as you need it. I’m a fan for life. I will never travel in the U.S. again without my TracFone.

This one’s for you, Daniel C., road-side warrior, rescuer of damsels.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Miriam Robbins Midkiff 10-08-2009 at 4:08 PM

My family has been using TracFones for five years now. We love them! My son and I paid to have double minutes and my husband, who doesn’t use his much, has the $5 rollover plan to save his minutes if he doesn’t use them before his time expires. We also get coupon calendars sent to us by TracFone every year and can use those for even better deals!

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JL 10-08-2009 at 4:13 PM

Where the H have I been for the last five years?

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Miriam Robbins Midkiff 10-08-2009 at 4:21 PM

Mmmm…Canada? Maybe they haven’t been available there until recently.

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JL 10-08-2009 at 4:30 PM

Nope, TracFones are not in Canada. This is strictly a U.S. thing. But my landlady was telling me she has one that works in Canada and it’s a similar thing where you buy a phone and then buy minutes as you need them. Still two phones, but not $900/yr when I only leave home about twice!

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TheQ47 10-09-2009 at 6:28 AM

Not sure if this is exactly the same thing, but for years (and I mean probably 10 or more) here in Ireland, we’ve had pre-paid mobile/cell phones. You buy the phone and pay in advance for your minutes, SMS, MMS, Etc. Most privately owned phones here (i.e., non-business ones) are pre-paid.

They offer nationwide and international coverage, but *are* tied to a particular operator. This is OK in Ireland, however, as each of the 5 (I think) operators in Ireland have around 95% coverage or higher, that’s not an issue.

Is this what you’re talking about, or am I missing something?

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JL 10-09-2009 at 9:45 AM

When I checked into it a few years ago, I was told that I would have to purchase two phones and two contracts, one for the U.S. and one for Canada. There were, and still are, particular operators that offer contracts and coverage in different areas. Buying a phone ties you to an annual contract. Or you can sign up for 2 or 3 years at a discounted rate. It is ‘prepaid’ in that sense.

With TracFone there are no contracts. You buy a phone and you buy prepaid minutes in smaller increments as it suits you. Their coverage is taken from the major players. That’s a business deal beyond my ken.

Apparently, there now also exists something similar in Canada, so I’ll have to look into it.

To me, and I bet to others as well, it’s very attractive to buy occasional phone time, as needed, rather than have an ongoing contract, at an exorbitant price, that’s mostly wasted.

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Les Beans 8-07-2010 at 3:57 PM

I have a Tracphone as a second phone for my buisness and get bars with that when my other phone says no service! The cheapo Tracphone has doubler minutes and is an amazing value!

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JL 8-07-2010 at 4:16 PM

I think one reason Tracfone does so well is that it uses towers from a variety of other services, instead of just one which might be the cause of the problem with your other phone. I use my Tracfone when I’m in the U.S. once or twice a year, so I only pay around $20 to have access for the duration of my trip. Just in case I need a phone while driving through the boonies. Pretty cheap insurance!

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