mobile operator profiles. I will be posting new profiles frequently, starting with the best known carriers. Eventually these posts will cover all the major US mobile operators that offer prepaid plans as well as the MVNOs that offer a good value.
Overview: TracFone, NET10, Straight Talk, Simple Mobile and SafeLink are all owned by Mexico based América Móvil, the fourth largest mobile operator in the world. Interesting trivia: according to Forbes, the world's richest man is América Móvil's founder and CEO, Carlos Slim.
TracFone, NET10, Straight Talk and SafeLink combined had 23 million subscribers at the end Q3, 2013, making América Móvil the largest US prepaid mobile operator
TracFone is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), it does not have a network of it's own but buys service from other operators which is re-sells.
The main networks TracFone uses are T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon in the 50 states and Claro in Puerto Rico. Each TracFone has one of the four as its home network which it uses whenever possible. Where service on the home network is not available TracFone feature phones will roam at no extra charge on other networks, including about 30 small regional operators that TracFone has agreements with. See How to Tell Which Network (AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon) a TracFone, NET10 or Straight Talk Phone Uses for more about TracFone's network options. TracFone Android phones and BYOP devices use either the AT&T or Verizon network and do not roam.
Technology: AT&T, T-Mobile and Claro based TracFones use GSM on the 850 and 1900 Mhz bands with GPRS (2G), Edge (2.5G) and HSPA (3G) data support. TracFones on the Verizon network use CDMA on the 850 and 1900 Mhz bands with 1xRTT (2.5G) and EVDO (3G) data support. LTE data is available with Android phones and BYOP devices on the AT&T and Verizon networks.
Devices: Originally TracFone offered only non-smartphones. In Sept., 2013, TracFone introduced its first Android phones. In Nov, 2014, TracFone began allowing users to activate Verizon 3G phones. Currently TracFone allow the activation of GSM and Verizon phones including LTE capable models. Verizom phones on TracFone use the Verizon network, GSM phones use AT&T.
Plans and Prcing: TracFone's pricing structure is very complicated and confusing with rates ranging from awful to very good depending on the plan, refill denomination, model of phone and if a bonus code code is used.
TracFone offers pay as you go, monthly and family value plans. The value plans renew themselves automatically each month using your bank account or credit or debit card and are only available at tracfone.com.
Value plan members can purchase minute bundles (50 minutes for $10 or 100 minutes for $20) if they run out before the month ends.
TracFone feature phones can be single, double or triple minute phones. Single minutes phones give you the face value in minutes of the top up card used. DMFL (Double Minutes for Life) and TMFL (Triple Minutes for Minutes for Life) phones give you two or three times as many minutes. So a 60 minute top-up card gives 60 minutes on a single minutes phone, 120 minutes on DMFL phone and 180 minutes on a TMFL phone. DMFL and TMFL phones get doubled or tripled minutes on Value plans too.
Text messages are charged at a rate of 0.3/minutes per text on feature phones.
Feature phone data and MMS picture messaging is billed various ways, all of them rather expensive.
- Old phones, released before June 2012: Data is charged at half a voice minute per minute of data use which is counted from the moment the browser or data using app is closed until it is closed. Picture messages cost one minute plus the cost of the data transfer which is typically another minute or two.
- Phones released between June, 2012 and Feburary, 2014 including the Samsung S390G, Samsung S425G and LG 840G: Data is charged at the rate of 1.5 voice minutes per KB of data. Picture messages cost one minute plus the cost of the data transfer which is typically another eight or nine minutes!
- Phones released since March, 2014, including the LG 305C and LG 306G: Data is charged at the rate of 0.5 voice minutes per KB of data. Picture messages cost one minute plus the cost of the data transfer which is typically another two or three minutes.
You can check your TracFone's data rate by entering *#106 on the code entry screen which can be reached by pressing Menu>Prepaid>Code Entry Mode.
BW=ACT R=1.5 means 1.5 minutes per KB
BW=ACT R=1.5 means 0.5 minutes per KB
BW=T R= 0.50 means 0.5 minutes per minute of data use
- 1000 texts for $10
- 300 MB for $10
- 750 MB for $20
- 2 GB for $30
- 4 GB for $50
Bonus codes TracFone always has some bonus codes that will give you extra minutes when topping up. Some of these can be very good. There's currently one that gives you an extra 60 minutes when adding a 60 minute top up. You can find lists of current codes on TracFone specialist sites like Prepaid Phone Guy, PrePaid.com and Turk Forums (log-in required). Bonus code minutes are NOT doubled or tripped on DMFL, TMFL or triple-triple phones. There are sometimes bonus codes that give you extra minutes when enrolling in a value plan. However, once you are using a value plan you can no longer use bonus codes. Bonus codes do not work on Android or BYOP TracFones.
International Rates: TracFone users can make calls to 60 counties including Canada, Mexico, China and most Western European countries for the same price as a domestic all. To make an international call you first dial 1-800-706-3839. You will then prompted to select your language and then to dial 011 plus the country code and number. (For Canada, do not dial 011). It is not possible to call other countries besides the 60 supported ones except by using a 3rd party international calling card. TracFone doesn't support sending international text or picture messages.
Coverage: TracFone has the largest coverage footprint of all the USA prepaid operators. TracFone feature phones can use over 30 US operators. The coverage with TracFone CDMA non-smartphone models that use Verizon is the best but the GSM coverage on phones that use AT&T or T-Mobile as their home network is almost as good. See Coverage Maps For All Prepaid Carriers to compare coverage. Android and BYOP phones use either the Verizon or AT&T networks with no roaming.
How to Buy: TracFones are available from tracfone.com and at major retailers including Target, Best Buy Walmart and Costco. Basic models can be purchased at supermarkets, convenience stores and chain drugstores.
TracFone branded GSM feature phones use SIM cards. However TracFone SIMs are locked to the phone they were sold with and can not be used in any other phones including other TracFones. The phones themselves are virtually impossible to unlock and can not be used on any other service.
How to Activate: The best way to activate a TracFone branded phone is by going to tracfone.com, clicking Activate phone and following the instructions. That's the best way because you get 20 minutes free by activating online (TracFone branded feature phones only). If you don't have a PC with Internet service you can also activate by calling 1-800-867-7183 from any phone except the one you are trying to activate. However, you only get 10 starter minutes instead of 20 when activating over the phone.
Bring You Own Phone Activation: TracFone now lets users activate unlocked and AT&T locked GSM phones and Verizon phones. You can check if a Verizon phone is eligible here. If your phone is deemed OK you will need to purchase a $6.99 Network Access Code for 3G phones or a BYOP 4G LTE Kit for GSM phones along with an airtime PIN.
To activate a GSM phone, you need a $6.99 BYOP 4G LTE Kit and an airtime PIN'
One you have the activation kit and airtime PIN, complete the BYOP activation process online or by calling 1-800-867-7183.
After activating a 3G Verizon based phone online or by calling, TracFone will tell you to dial *22890 on the mobile phone to complete the activation. If that doesn't work try dialing *228 and choosing option 1 when prompted. GSM and Verizon LTE phones should activate automatically when the phone is turned on with a TRacFone SIM in it.
To move your TracFone account from one TracFone branded phone to another, choose the "Transfer my number and service from one TracFone to another" option on the TracFone website's Activate Phone page.
To move your TracFone account from one Verizon 3G BYOP phone to another BYOP phone, use the TracFone BYOP page. After entering and validating your new phone's MEID choose the "I want to upgrade my active Bring Your Own CDMA Phone to another Bring Your Own CDMA Phone" You do not need a Network Access Code to swap between one BYOP phone and another.
To move your TracFone account for one GSM BYOP device to another, simply transfer the SIM form the old to the new phone.
Added information about checking your balance on Android and BYOP phones and clearing Service Disabled errors.
You can top up with a PIN using the Prepaid menu on Tracfone feature phones. You can also top up with a PIN or a credit or debit card at tracfone.com or by calling 1-800-867-7183. If you have a promotion code don't forget to use it when you are topping up. If you forget, TracFone can usually apply a code if you call within 24 hours on adding airtime.
Account Management: Your airtime balance and expiration date are displayed every time you turn on a TracFone feature phone. You can check your balance and expiration date at any time using the Prepaid menu on TracFone non-smartphones. If you register at tracfone.com you can also check your plan expiration online for all phones and your balance for Android and BYOP phones.
You can also check balance and expiration for Android and BYOP phones by going to www.fastactportal.com/static/balance with the phone's browser or a PC and entering your phone number. Registration is not required. There's also a TracFone Android app that lets you check balance and expiration and refill using a PIN code. TracFone AT&T smartphone and BYOP can check their minutes, texts and data balances by dialing *777*1#
Fixing Service Disabled errors: If your TracFone feature phone is displaying "Service Disabled" click here, enter your phone's serial number and choose the "prepaid disabled" option
Free information services calls
911 - Emergency services
Phone support: 1-800-867-7183 is the official TracFone support number. Use this number to access the automated service for adding top-ups 24/7. You can also reach a customer support representative at this number from 8 AM to 10:45 PM Eastern Time 7 days a week . Calls are handled by off shore call centers. Wait times are usually short and the representatives courteous. However they often appear to be following a script and seem unfamiliar with the details of TracFone devices and services.
An alternative is TracFone's "Executive Resolutions Dept." Miami based call center at 1-305-715-6500. It's available Monday – Friday from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM EST.
The Executive Resolutions representatives are more knowledgeable and better equipped to resolve complex issues. I recommend always calling 1-305-715-6500 for things like no service and billing issues, PINs that don't work, porting your number from another carrier and switching phones while keeping your balance.
Support via Facebook: TracFone has a FaceBook Support Page that lets you submit a trouble ticket or live chat with a support representative.
TracFone on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube
Phone Sales and General Information Web Site: www.tracfone.com
TracFone Pros: best coverage, strong retail presence, BYOP, lowest pay as you go data rates of any operato.
TracFone Cons: complex pricing structure, customer support is not trained and equipped to deal with the systems complexities.
Updated 23-July-2015: Data Add-On prices lowered.