Burner Phone (Prepaid Phone)

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What is a Burner Phone (Prepaid Phone)?

A burner phone is a low-cost mobile phone that requires the user to pay in advance for call minutes and SMS messages. In retail sales, this type of phone is referred to as a “prepaid phone.” Prepaid phones do not require the purchaser to sign a contract with a telecommunications provider.

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Years ago, it was possible to go into a store and pay cash for a prepaid phone without providing any identification. This is how prepaid phones originally came to be associated with illicit activities. The label “burner” implied that the phone would be burned (disposed of) after use to protect the criminal’s anonymity.

Over time, the burner phone definition has evolved, and now the term is often used colloquially to describe an inexpensive basic mobile phone that is used for a specific purpose and can easily be replaced if it is lost, damaged, or stolen. The term may also refer to a virtual phone number that can be used to make free phone calls over the Internet.

What is a Burner Phone (Prepaid Phone)?

Key Takeaways

  • The term “burner phone” originally referred to a mobile phone that would be discarded after use to protect the owner’s identity.
  • Burner phones were initially associated with illicit activities.
  • The burner phone meaning has evolved over time in response to changing legislation and use cases.
  • Today, the connotation of a burner phone has more to do with price point and short-term use than anonymity.
  • Some countries still allow cash purchases for prepaid phones without identification, but it’s becoming less common.

How Burner Phones Work

The way burner phones work can vary depending on the type of phone, the carrier, and the country where you purchase the phone.

In some countries, prepaid cell phones have to be packaged with a SIM card that provides cell service and manages the phone’s prepaid balance. When the balance is used up, the phone’s owner can either discard the phone or top-up (replenish) the prepaid balance and continue using the phone.

In other countries, you may be allowed to purchase a phone and prepaid SIM card separately. This option allows you to purchase a new or unlocked used phone and choose any carrier that supports the phone’s network technology (GSM or CDMA).

Activating the phone after purchase can also vary depending on the carrier and the country where the phone is purchased. In some cases, you may simply need to insert the SIM card and turn on the phone. In other cases, you may need to make a phone call or register the phone online.

Why Use a Burner Phone

Burner phones are ideal for individuals who want to keep their identity private in countries that don’t regulate prepaid phone purchases.

Inexpensive prepaid phones are also useful for situations when the phone is only going to be used for a specific purpose or is intended for short-term use.

When You Might Want to Use a Burner Phone

In movies and on TV, burner phones are often used by criminals and illicit lovers who don’t want to leave a digital trail. In real life, burner phones have an increasing number of more innocent use cases.

You may want to use a burner phone if you’d like to:

  • Avoid roaming charges when traveling.
  • Have a backup for your primary phone.
  • Separate business and personal phone calls.
  • Manage multiple social media or dating profiles.
  • Provide someone else with a cell phone.
  • Avoid sharing your primary phone number.
  • Dedicate a phone number for one specific purpose.

Burner Phones vs. Prepaid Phones & Smartphones

All burner phones are prepaid phones, but not every prepaid phone is cheap enough for the average person to feel comfortable using it only a few times.

Most burner phones have minimal features to keep the cost down. They can be used to make/receive phone calls and send/receive T9 text messages. More expensive prepaid phones often have additional features that can also be found on smartphones.

In general, the more expensive the prepaid phone, the more features it will have and the less likely it will be used as a burner phone.

Burner PhonePrepaid PhoneSmartphone

Contract: No contract

Cost: Lowest cost

Features: Basic (Calling, texting)

Internet Access: None

Activation: May not require ID in some countries

Replacement: Easy to replace

Contract: No contract

Cost: Varies (Generally affordable)

Features: Varies (Basic to advanced)

Internet Access: Varies

Activation: May require minimal personal info depending on phone features

Replacement: Varies (User preference)

Contract: Usually requires contract

Cost: More expensive

Features: Advanced  (Apps, camera, GPS, etc.)

Internet Access: Full Internet access

Activation: Will require personal information during setup

Replacement: Must be replaced/upgraded periodically

Burner Phone Security

In situations where you might be at risk of having your phone compromised or tracked, burner phones can provide an added layer of security by disrupting surveillance continuity.

Combining burner phone use with other security measures like encryption and strong passwords can enhance your privacy even more.

It should be noted, however, that basic burner phone models don’t have biometric security features or use personal identification number (PIN) locks. If the phone is lost or stolen, anyone who finds it can easily access its contents. Consider using a password manager to encrypt and store your passwords. This will protect them from unauthorized access in the event the phone is compromised.

Burner Phone Pros and Cons

Burner phones offer advantages in terms of cost and privacy, but they have limitations when it comes to functionality.

Pros

  • Low cost
  • No long-term contract required
  • Simple to activate and use
  • Easy to purchase
  • Can be activated anonymously in some countries

Cons

  • Limited features
  • If lost or stolen, can easily be compromised
  • Phone location be tracked through cell tower triangulation
  • Law enforcement can intercept calls and text messages in some countries
  • Contributes to electronic waste

Burner Phone Alternatives

If you’ve thought about using a burner phone for privacy reasons but you live in a country that requires a valid ID to purchase a prepaid phone, here are two popular alternatives:

  1. Use an encrypted messaging app like Signal or Telegram.
  2. Use a virtual phone number acquired through an app like Google Voice, Burner, or Hushed.

The Bottom Line

Burner phones were originally associated with criminals and cheaters, but today the term is used colloquially to describe any prepaid mobile phone that is used for a specific purpose and can easily be replaced if lost, damaged, or stolen.

You can’t go into a store and buy a burner phone. If you are wondering how to get a burner phone, or you want to know how much a burner phone costs, a quick web search for “burner phone” will return information about prepaid phones. The cheapest ones typically cost around $20.

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Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor
Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.