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 TracFones 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.
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.
Devices: Tradionally TracFone has offered non-smartphones only. In Sept., 2013, TracFone introduced its first Android phones. In Nov, 2014, TracFone began allowing users to activate Verizon 3G phones.
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.
Tracfhone 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.
In June, 2012, TracFone made a change in the way their newest models charge for data and picture messaging.
For all phones released before June, 2012:
Data is charged at the rate of one minute of data use equals half a voice minute.
Picture messages cost one minute plus the cost of the data transfer which is typically another minute or two.
For newer phones like 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!
The effect of these changes is to make using the phone's built-in browser less expensive because you are only charged for data used not all the time the browser is open. But picture messaging and using apps that consume data is more expensive with the newer phones.
TracFone Android phones and Verizon phones activated on TracFone get triple talk, text and data, AKA "triple-triple". A 60 minute card provides 180 minutes, 180 texts and 180 MBs of data.
On all plans unused plan balances roll over if a top up is made before the expiration date. For example, if you start with a 60 minute top up and only use 30 minutes worth of calls, texts and data, and add another 60 minute top-up on the 89th day the 30 minute balance will roll over. giving you 90 minutes for the next 90 days. Rollover continues indefinitely as long as you top up before expiration.
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 car. TracFone doesn't support sending international text or picture messages.
Coverage: TracFone has the largest coverage footprint of all the USA prepaid operators. TracFones 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.
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.
The GSM TracFones 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 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. 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: TracFone now lets users activate some Verizon phones. There are a number of restrictions:
- The phone must be Verizion branded and must have been used on Verizon
- It must not be capable of supporting LTE data. That means that most eligible phones are at least three years old.
- The phone must not be financed, reported as lost or stolen or flagged for non-payment
- If the phone was originally sold for use on Verizon prepaid, it can't be activated on TracFone until after it has been used on Verizon Prepaid for at least six months.
TracFone's system rejects any phones that don't meet the requirements. It also rejects many that seem to be eligible but fail for unknown reasons. Check if a phone is eligible here. If your phone is deemed OK you will need to purchase a $6.99 Network Access Code and an airtime PIN to complete the activation process which you can do online or by calling 1-800-867-7183.
After activating a 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.
Payment Options: PIN cards or codes are available at convenience stores, supermarkets, chain drugstores and big box retailers like Target and at tracfone.com. PINs can be purchased at a discount from callingmart.com and other online retailers.
You can top up with a PIN using the Prepaid menu on your Tracfone. 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.
Fixing Service Disabled errors: If your TracFone 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.
Phone Sales and General Information Web Site: www.tracfone.com
TracFone Pros: best coverage, strong retail presence, can be a very good value for light to moderate usage provided you understand the options and use promotional codes or the value plans.
TracFone Cons: overly complex pricing structure.
Updated 22-Mar-2014: Added information about checking your balance on Android and BYOP phones and clearing Service Disabled errors.