We Help You Decide: Emergency Only
Believe it or not, some people just don't yak on the phone. In fact, some people only have a phone in case of emergency. If you're one of those people, you're in luck. There are plenty of prepaid options out there that can fill your need without emptying your wallet.
What we're looking for here are providers that supply low-denomination cards that take 30 days or longer to expire. You're never going to find a cell provider that will let your $10 card last you forever, so we're looking for the best of what's available, not what's ideal overall. This also excludes providers that require minimum balances. These aren't ideal for this kind of situation.
Under $100 per year
(read the Boost Mobile review) Boost Mobile offers a low per-minute rate of 10 cents, so your emergency minutes won't cost much. Customers must refill their accounts every 90 days, so four times per year. With refills as low as $10, that might not be much of a problem. That can bring the cost as low as $40 per year, and with 400 minutes. This ranks among the best deals for infrequent users, dollar for dollar.
Boost also has a nationwide network, Nextel's iDEN. This is not considered as powerful as CDMA and GSM networks, but that shouldn't matter much for infrequent callers. The network spans most of the country, meaning you can make calls at most places. That, and the low upkeep cost, make Boost a good emergency-only choice.
(read the Page Plus review) Page Plus has introduced a number of new plans to fit the unlimited craze, but they still maintain their pay-as-you-go plans. All of their refills expire in 120 days, so customers can add the cheapest card, $10, three times a year, for a minimum charge of $30 per year. This puts Page Plus among the cheapest carriers for emergency-only service. That's 83 minutes in 120 days, probably adequate for emergency users. If not, there are still reasonably priced options.
Page Plus also has the advantage of using Verizon's nationwide network, which has grown since the company's acquisition of Alltel.
$100 per year: major carriers
(read the AT&T review) AT&T's traditional pay-as-you-go service is a bit expensive at 25 cents a minute, but since emergency users don't typically use many minutes, that's not as much of an issue. Like Alltel, the $100 refill from AT&T provides minutes for a year, which at 25 cents each comes out to 400 minutes. That's considerably less than Alltel, but again, it's a matter of merely having minutes, rather than having a lot.
For those who need less, the 25 dollar card expires in 90 days and provides 100 minutes. That's the same rate as the $100 card over a year, so it's nice for someone who doesn't want to commit for 365 days and doesn't mind refilling.
AT&T's primary advantage is in the network. While it's not as comprehensive as the postpaid coverage, the prepaid coverage still spans the country.
(read the Verizon Wireless review) For emergency-only users, Verizon's optimal plan matches that of AT&T. While Verizon's featured pay-as-you-go plans charge a daily access fee, they also have a 25 cents per minute deal which requires no daily fee. Also like AT&T, the $100 refill with Verizon lasts for one year. This means 25 cents per minute for 400 minutes. Combined with Verizon's nationwide network and it's not such a bad deal for emergency users.
(read the T-Mobile review) Like AT&T, T-Mobile has a $100 airtime card that does not expire for one year. The lower denomination cards expire in 90 days, making the $100 card a far more economical option. You get a deal on minutes for buying that card over the others, but it's unlikely that an infrequent user would consume 1,000 minutes per year. The phones start at $30, so you can get a decent deal on a functional phone. The nationwide coverage map also helps T-Mobile's case in this instance.
$100 per year: MVNOs and regional carriers
(read the Red Pocket Mobile review) Like many carriers, Red Pocket Mobile offers a $100 refill card that does not expire for one year. That is, then, the total cost of service per year for emergency services. The plan covers 1,000 minutes, which is plenty.
(read the Tracfone review) For those who can survive on 400 minutes per year, Tracfone has a good deal. That 400 minute card costs $100 and lasts a year, a rate of 25 cents per minute. This puts it on equal footing with AT&T. Tracfone also has nationwide coverage, to the offers really are on par. Some might prefer the brand name of AT&T, but for Tracfone's deal is exactly the same.
For an additional $25, customers can up that 400 minutes to 800, reducing the per-minute rate to around 16 cents. This can afford some leeway in call times. Like the 400 minute card, the 800 minute one lasts for one year.
Unlimited calling services
These services aren't ideal for emergency-only users, but provide more value than other carriers with high minimum yearly charges which provide few minutes.
(read the Cricket review) Prior to early 2009, Cricket was not a good choice for an emergency-only phone. Not only is it a regional network, and therefore doesn't work in all areas, but it worked on a monthly plan basis. These start at $30 per month, so the minimum charge would be $360 per year. Even then, the cheaper plans don't even allow for long distance calls.
Since then Cricket has introduced PAYGo, which costs $1, $2, or $3 per day, with varying features. However, long distance comes only with the $3 per day. Also, customers might be assessed a $3 fee even when they think they haven't used the phone -- such as when someone leaves a voicemail. Combined with Cricket's regional coverage, it still makes for a poor emergency-only choice.
(read the MetroPCS review) You can basically look at our critique of Cricket to assess MetroPCS, since they both offer unlimited talk plans. Metro is at a bit of a disadvantage here even, as they don't have the pay per day options of Cricket.
(read the Straight Talk review) Straight Talk only offers monthly plans, at $30 and $45, making it a poor choice for emergency only customers. The service is geared more towards heavy users.
High yearly minimums
(read the Consumer Cellular review) Consumer Cellular is geared more towards those who have regular, monthly calling habits, rather than infrequent users. They have six monthly plans, the cheapest of which is $10, and it comes with no minutes. They cost 25 cents each, which is up with the most expensive rates from AT&T and Verizon. It's best to avoid them unless you plan to talk frequently enough to justify their $20 per month plan, which features 250 minutes.
(read the Jitterbug review) Jitterbug, the cell phone service aimed at older consumers, features monthly plans ranging from 200 minutes to 1,000 minutes. This makes it unfit for emergency only callers. The minimum charge for the cheapest plan is $360, and there will likely be plenty of wasted minutes. While Jitterbug might offer services attractive to certain consumers, those who use the phone infrequently will find a better deal elsewhere.
(read the Net10 review) While Net10 has an attractive rate of 10 cents per minute, its appeal to emergency-only users isn't as great as Boost Mobile, or even Alltel. While the $100 card with Alltel expires in a year, it expires in half that time with Net10. That means a minimum $200 per year. Even the dedicated $200 card expires in a year, and the $400 card expires in two years. There's no way around that minimum charge.
Net10 does operate on a nationwide basis, which gives it a certain appeal. But at $200 per year, customers will find better emergency deals elsewhere.
(read the US Cellular review) US Cellular recently added pay per minute plans, but they don't fit the bill for an emergency-only user. There is a monthly access charge of either 6 or 10 dollars, and minutes expire at the end of each month. This would put charges far above those of other carriers. In addition, US Cellular is a regional carrier, so it might not work in all areas of the country.