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Prepaid Operator Profile: TracFone

This is one of Prepaid Phone News' series of comprehensive US prepaid 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.
Pay As You Go
Price Validity Minutes
$9.99* 30 days 30
$19.99 90 days 60
$29.99 90 days 120
$39.99 90 days 200
$99.99 365 days 400
$159.99* 365 days 1000
$199.99* 365 days 1500
Monthly Value Plans*
Price Minutes
$9.99 50
$19.99 125
$29.99 200

Family Value Plan*
Price Minutes
First Phone$9.99 50
Add'l Phones $5.99 40
* only available online 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 GuyPrePaid.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

Customer Service:
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.

28 comments:

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  1. I am thrilled to think of the amount of money I have saved by using Tracfone. A lot of my friends have contract phones and they seem to pay a hang of a lot out everymonth. With me, I can go as low as $20 for three months and I get 60minutes of time. Tracfone has been real value for money for me

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  2. I have to agree these savings are the best things out there. I was nervous at first about getting prepaid phones for me and my family... but they have turned out totally exactly perfect. Plus the costs...... I cannot believe the savings.

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  3. Talk about savings. Did you know that with Tracfone you can get triple minutes for life. For every minute that you purchase you actually get three. There is no catch just purchase the LG500 and you will see. I cannot believe how much money I am saving with this offer

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Where did you find a TMFL LG 500G? The one's on Trac's site are DMFL.

      Delete
  4. Does anyone know if Tracfone is going to ever get a real smartfone(the current ones are a box of rocks)? They don't ever tell you when a new phone is coming out, but I think they will lose customers if they don't enter the 21st century soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tracfone is just one of the brands used by America Movil in the US. It's targeted at talk and text users. Running a smartphone, which needs to a constant data connection on Tracfones 1/2 a voice minute for every connected minute data rate would be prohibitively expensive.

      I wouldn't be surprised if someday Tracfone gets smartphones and smartphone friendly data plans but for now NET10 and Straight Talk are America Movil's smartphone brands.

      Delete
  5. I don't need a smart phone. I have a laptop to do all my fancy stuff on. My phone is here for me to communicate by voice and occassionally I send a text. I am still using my Samsung 155 and have absolutely no desire to change to something smarter.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Benjamin I think that you meant the LG800.
    The LG500 comes with double minutes (i know cos I have one) It is the LG800 that I have seen promoted with triple minutes which has caught my interes

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  7. Is there still the $45 unlimited plan that I used to hear so much about?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There's is but it's from Straight Talk not TracFone. Same company, America Movil owns both brands.

      Delete
  8. I have the Straighttalk $45 unlimited plan and actually wasn't aware that it was the same company - can I use my straighttalk card in a Tracfone?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unfortunately you can't, Tracfones are locked to the SIM they came with.

      Delete
  9. I purchased the LG800 from Tracfone and I could not be happier. Besides being a really fantastic phone, it comes with triple minutes, so eat your hearts out all you doble minuters!!!

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  10. I have used a Tracfone for over a year and it's worked well for me. I haven't ever had any problems with reception and I have the double minutes plan. Because I don't work outside the home, I only use it when I'm out....basically for emergencies. I realize that if you break it down by minutes, they aren't cheap, but I don't have a contract and if I don't want to use up my time, I just tell the person I'll call them back later. For me, it's worked great. I would love to have a smart phone, but don't want a contract so will just wait for Tracfone to enter the 21st Century...may be waiting a very long time.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Have you taken a look at the LG800 touch phone from Tracfone. It isn't a smart phone but it almost is and is very bright indeed. What I like about it as well, is that it comes with triple minutes for life, which has really brought my costs down. I don't have the Samsung 455, but apparently this is also a good phone to have

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  12. straight talk have good coverage like the tracfone the phone i what is samsung sch-r455c it is cdma phone dose it work off verizon

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the R455C runs on the Verizon network.

      Delete
  13. Hi Yeswap,
    If I were to purchase a Triple Minutes for Life Tracfone, activate it, and then purchase a $200/1500 min refill card, how many minutes would I get, 4500 or 1500? Also, if I were to purchase a triple minutes for life Tracfone that comes with minutes already, would those minutes also be tripled?

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A 1500 minute one year card would be good for 4500 minutes on a triple minutes phone.

      The triple minute phones from HSN, ShopCellDeals etc that are advertised as coming with 1200 minutes come with the equivalent of a 400 minute card which gives 1200 minutes when tripled.

      Delete
  14. The theory of Tracfone service is great. And when it works, it suits the need. However their customer service is HORRIBLE. I guess you get good and bad with it.

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  15. Relationship between AT&T and Tracfone; interesting background story in Fierce Wireless: http://www.fiercewireless.com/story/att-sells-part-its-stake-tracfone-owner-am-rica-m-vil-564m/2013-06-06?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

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  16. "TracFone offers a large selection..." Really?! I guess you have a different definition than I about large. I think their selection is horrible.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I hope they included the ability to toggle data usage on/off for apps so that you don't use up all your data inadvertently. This was a big reason why many android straight talk phones were not allowed on the $30 1000 minutes/1000 texts plan to use phone minutes as data.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All Android phones allow the user to disable data use.

      No smartphones have ever been available for the $30 plan.

      Delete
  18. "If you register at tracfone.com you can also check balance and airtime online."

    This is actually not true. It will tell you your service end date, but not your balance. I wish I had known this before I bought the phone...

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  19. The check balance feature only works on the android phones. If you select a feature phone and "Check balance," you will get the message "check your phone for remaining minutes."

    ReplyDelete
  20. I have a droid x2 on tracfone byop text woks fine, email works fine.MMS will not work after sending MMS says service not activated on network.Can't receive MMS either. Been talking with Tracfone for several weeks with no solution any suggestions on how to fix this.I did get on MMS to go through don't know why it did unable to send anymore.

    ReplyDelete
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