TracFone and its sister brands NET10 and Straight Talk, do not have their own networks. They're Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) that buy wholesale minutes, texts and data from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and over a dozen smaller regional networks. Straight Talk and Net10 also have smartphones that run on the Sprint, Verizon and AT&T networks. Each phone has a home network that's either AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint or Verizon. TracFone, Straight Talk and NET10 phones will favor their home network and refuse to roam in an area where the home network claims to have coverage. So if you have a phone whose home network is T-Mobile and you are in an area where T-Mobile has spotty coverage, the phone will refuse to roam on AT&T even if AT&T has a better signal. The Sprint based phones don't roam at all.
Which network a given TracFone, NET10 or Straight Talk phone is homed on depends on the market it's sold in. TracFone companies seem to prefer selling T-Mobile or Sprint homed phones, followed by Verizon with AT&T as a last resort. I suspect this is because they get the best deals from T-Mobile Sprint and the worst from AT&T.
What's most cost effective for TracFone is not always what's best for you as the end user. Here's how to tell which network a given TracFone is homed on and how to get a phone that will give you the best coverage in the areas where you live, work and play.
Start by determining which of the three networks will give you the best coverage. If you have a TracFone, NET10 or Straight Talk phone that works well see below for how to find out what network it uses. Ask friends with prepaid phones what network they are using and how well it works. Look at the Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile prepaid coverage maps to see each carrier's native coverage area (ignore areas labeled as "roaming" or "partner").
Once you know what home network you want, here's how to determine which phones work on that network.
The NET10 and Straight Talk iPhone 4, 4S and 5 and BlackBerry Curve use the Verizon network.
The NET10 and Straight Talk iPhone 5C and 5S use the AT&T network.
With most America Movil Android phones you can tell which operator they use by model name or number. Here's a list of the America Movil Android phones by network operator:
- AT&T: LG L35G Optimus Logic, LG Optimus Extreme, LG Optimus Ultimate, Samsung S730G Galaxy Discover, Samsung Galaxy S II, ZTE Illustra, ZTE Merit, ZTE Solar, ZTE Whirl
- Verizon: Huawei Ascend Plus, Huawei Ascend Y, M865C, Huawei Glory, LG Optimus Dynamic L38C, LG Optimus Showtime, LG Optimus Zip L75C, Samsung Galaxy Centura, Samsung Galaxy Proclaim S720C, Samsung Galaxy S Showcase S950C, Samsung Galaxy S III S398C, UNIMAX MAXBravo, ZTE Majesty, ZTE Savvy, ZTE Valet
- Sprint: Samsung S735C Galaxy Discover, Samsung Galaxy Precedent, Samsung Galaxy S III S398L, Samsung Galaxy S4, LG Optimus Black, LG Optimus Q, LG Optimus Quest, LG Optimus Net, Huawei Ascend II, Motorola Defy XT
- T-Mobile: Huawei Inspira, Samsung Galaxy S4, ZTE Midnight
There are also two Samsung Galaxy S III models S398L on Sprint and S398C (also called STSAS968CWTPWP) on Verizon.
The Sprint and Verizon smartphones do not roam. The AT&T based Android phones have limited roaming on regional GSM carriers and T-Mobile.
Non-smartphones with model numbers ending in "C" like the LG 501C and LG 220C all use CDMA technology and are homed on Verizon. The LG 3280 is also a CDMA/Verizon phone. These phone's home network is Verizon but they will roam on other CDMA networks like US Cellular in areas where Verizon doesn't have coverage. These phones do not have SIM cards and are incompatible with GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile.
Non-smartphones with model numbers ending in G along with the Huawei Inspira Android phone and the Huawei W1 Windows Phone are GSM phones that are homed on either AT&T or T-Mobile.
The Motorola V176, V170 and C139 and LG225 are also GSM phones that can be on either T-Mobile or AT&T.
To tell if a GSM phone is homed on T-Mobile or AT&T:
If you are buying the phone in a store look for the product number on the box under the barcode. If it ends in P4, R4 or P4P, like TFLG800GTMP4P it's AT&T. If it ends in P5, R5 or P5P like TFLG800GTMP5 it's T-Mobile.
Most Tracfone, NET10 and Straight Talk phones also have a network code on the box. It's usually in the lower left corner on the front of the box. These codes are: CDMA-S = Sprint, CDMA-V = Verizon, GSM-A = AT&T, GSM-T = T-Mobile.
If you already have the phone, find the SIM ID in the Prepaid menu. The first six numbers of the ID determine the carrier: 890126 = T-Mobile, 890141 = AT&T
Or look at the SIM itself. AT&T Tracfone SIMs have a code on them ending in C4, like TF64SIMC4. If the SIM has a code ending in T5, like TFSIMT5, it's for T-Mobile.
If you are ordering a phone online from one of the TracFone companies, after you enter you zip code look at the page URL for a string of characters beginning with &market=. The 4-6 characters after the "=" are the TracFone Market codes. Decode them as follows:
GSM4 = AT&T
GSM4SPR = AT&T or Sprint (Net10/Straight Talk Only)
GSM5 = T-Mobile
GSM5AT = T-Mobile or AT&T
GSM5SPR = T-Mobile or Sprint (Net10/Straight Talk Only)
CO = Verizon
COGSM4 = Verizon or AT&T
COGSM5 = Verizon or T-Mobile
COSPR = Verizon or Sprint (Net10/Straight Talk Only)
For example, the URL; http://www.tracfone-orders.com/bpdirect/tracfone/Start.do?action=view&market=GSM5AT&aid=&vid=&vc=&sahcid=&com=&zip=94132&locale=en&siteType=TR&gotoPhonelist=true&AID=
Contains "&market=GSM5AT" so its a market in which both T-Mobile and AT&T will work. TracFone almost always sells T-Mobile phones in GSM5AT or COGSM5 markets.
If your zipcode gives you a T-Mobile market and you know AT&T works better for you then use a GSM4 zipcode like 65046 or 76825 when prompted to enter your zip on the TracFone site. Also, GSM TracFones sold by walmart.com have always had AT&T SIMs
To order Verizon CDMA phones use the 73949 zipcode.
Be sure to change the zip code back to yours in the address field on the shopping cart page. Regardless of what market a phone was sold for you will get a number local to wherever you activate the phone.
Before using a different zipcode to get the phone or network you want be sure to check the Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile coverage map to verify that the phone's home operator has coverage where you will be activating the phone. Phones will not activate in an area where their home operator doesn't have coverage.
Updated Dec 14, 2013: T-Mobile version of the Huawei Inspira