Tracfone's prepaid cellular service is easy to get at www.tracfone.com, though it's not cheap.
Dec 13, 2003 (Updated Nov 20, 2005)
Tracfone is the largest vendor of prepaid cellular phone service and the first company offering national (US) "over the counter" and internet sales of prepaid cellular service that caught my attention. Their website www.tracfone.com offers several services for their customers, included cell phone and accessory sales, cellular "minutes" and service time sales, and cell phone activation and setup. Prepaid cell phones are typically more expensive on a $/minute basis than service contracts from conventional cell phone providers, but they can make sense for someone who only plans to use the phone a few times a month, and doesn't want to be locked into a contract.
How do Tracfones Work?
Tracfone is not a conventional cellular service provider like Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon. Instead ,Tracfone buys cellular time and service from providers all over the country, packages it up as blocks of time in the form of plastic Tracfone cards for retail sales, or as virtual Tracfone cards to be sold online. To use these minutes, youll also need to purchase a cellular phone from Tracfone, which is programmed to receive and track these minutes. Tracfone claims their service and coverage area to be all of the US. On their website Tracfone mentions: We use the nation's leading cellular providers to create a national footprint covering 99% of the U.S. population. This gives you service everywhere cellular service is available.
Buying a cell phone card from Tracfone buys two components of cellular phone service, (1) minutes that you can use talking on the phone, and (2) a fixed number of days that Tracfone will keep a phone active and a telephone number assigned to your phone. Tracfone Cards are available in 40 ($20), 100 ($30), 200 ($50), and 400 ($80) minute increments. (Tracfone card pricing and minutes change occasionally, check the website for the latest pricing.) Buying one of these cards also gets you 60 days of cellular service. If your minutes are not used up before the 60 day period expires, you can purchase another card and roll the minutes over to the new service period. If you let your prepaid service period expire, you will likely lose your phone number, and will need to reactivate your phone to get a new number. This has happened to me a couple of times, and each time I renewed my service I was able to roll over remaining minutes still on my cell phone to the new service period. Running out of minutes alone does not cause you to lose your number or deactivate your phone. In addition to being available at Tracfone.com, cards can be found discounted slightly at stores like Walmart, and many other stores at list price. Tracfone often includes a coupon booklet with their phones that get you an extra 20 or 30 minutes with each Tracfone card purchase, lessening your costs a bit more
Tracfone offers more attractive options for lite and heavy cell phone users, 150 minutes and 1 year of service for $90 for lite users, and 300 minutes, 1 year of service, and double minutes with each time purchase for $130.
Even though Ive never known who was really providing the phone service to my Tracfone, the service was good. I had complete coverage in the area where I live, the quality was fine, and the voice mail, caller id and other features worked as advertised. In some ways, Tracfone minutes work like those from other providers, including the ability to make "free" long distance calls from your calling area. On the other hand, weekend minutes cost as much as weekday minutes. Calls made from outside your calling area cost double minutes.
Purchasing and Activating a Tracfone Online
About 2 1/2 years ago, my daughter, then 13, received a Tracfone as a gift from her Aunt. This phone, an analog Tracfone branded Nokia 252, served her well for the past couple of years. Recently she mentioned several times that she wished she had a smaller cell phone with more features. When it came time to add more service days to her cell phone, I considered getting a new phone from my cellular provider, and adding her to my cell phone contract, but since she only uses 20 or 30 minutes a month, I also revisited my options at the Tracfone web site.
Determining your cell phone purchase options at the Tracfone website starts with clicking on the buy phone link on the main page, which takes you to form where you're asked to enter the zip code where the phone will be used. Tracfone then presents the phone options available for your area, typically only 2 or 3 models, a Nokia 5100 series model, the Motorola 120t, and occasionally another different model or a refurbished model at a special price. The models carried by Tracfone are the same as the entry level models offered by most cell phone providers. Tracfone often runs specials, free shipping, or $10 off a certain model.
As I shopped for this phone, I knew that I still owned a couple of 300 minute cards that I had purchased at clearance prices from Compusa a couple years ago, and my daughter's phone still had plenty of minutes, but no service time left. The 300 minute cards would provide plenty of minutes for my daughter, but unfortunately, each also only included 2 months of service time. I was hoping I could find a way to extend the "life" of those minutes past 2 months. Fortunately, one of the specials Tracfone was offering was a reduced price ($80) on the digital Motorola V120t cell phones with 12 months of service (though it only included 10 minutes of talk time). A Nokia 5100 series phone with 12 months of service was also available for $70. For me (still with existing minutes to use but no service time), this appeared to make sense, I would get a new digital phone with caller id, call waiting, voice mail, and several other features, much improved battery life over the old phone/old battery combination, a full year to use the cell phone minutes we already owned, and a booklet of coupons we could use to get bonus minutes if we bought more minutes.
Before ordering, I sent Tracfone a message via the "contact us" support form on Tracfone's website and asked them if I could transfer minutes from my old phone to the new model. Two days later I received a response that initially started with a canned response explaining that they don't take trade ins. A few sentences into the message the sender explained that if I had the old phone's serial number, I could call and get the minutes transferred. So...... I ordered the phone online using my credit card, and received it 4 days after ordering, opting for the $4.95 3 day Fedex shipping option over the $14.95 next day option. Tracfone also required me to pay sales tax.
The phone arrived packaged in a blister pack identical to the Tracfone packaging used in stores. One problem became apparent as I opened and activated the phone; it did not come with 12 months of service programmed in. I went ahead and activated the phone online, which involved the following steps:
1. Charging the phone, and recording the "electronic serial number" to be provided to Tracfone's website during activation.
2. Selecting a 4 digit PIN number for my account
3. Going online and start the activation process, starting with entering the zip code and serial number. You'll have the phone turned on at this point.
4. You'll then be asked to provide personal information and be asked to enter a bunch of digits, 15-20 at a time, into the phone. If you've purchased any phone cards, you'll also be able to program those into the phone with the same process. After you finish entering the codes into the phone properly, the phone is programmed for your area and the minutes are loaded into the phone. Anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours later (only a few minutes in my case) the phone is then connected whichever cellular service Tracfone has subcontracted from in your area. You can use the cell phone before this happens, but you'll be assessed double minutes for any calls made, ie"roaming" charges. (You phone display notes when you are in an area where roaming charges apply.) This is also how you can tell your phone is set up properly, as the "roaming" warning disappears when your account is completely set up. Though Tracfone prefers you activate your phone online, and gives you 10 extra minutes for doing so, you can also activate your phone via a telephone call.
To address the missing 12 months of service, I called Tracfone's toll free service number, and after negotiating my way through a convoluted phone message tree, finally reached a live person. The first person I talked to tried to convince me that I was mistaken about 12 months service being included with my phone, telling me 12 months meant the phone would "work" for 12 months. I then directed him to the link that described the phone I purchased, and he agreed, sending me to another rep who took my information, then added the 12 months of service to my daughter's phone. This same representative also moved the remaining minutes from the old 252 cell phone to the new Motorola phone I just purchased.
Other Comments on Shopping at Tracfone.com
The selection of phones at Tracfone.com is pitiful, generally only 2 or 3 models. I assume this keeps support and inventory costs down. The site generally offers models from Nokia and Motorola. A good overview of each phone is presented, but to get detailed information, you might want to go to the manufacturers web site. A wide selection of accessories is available for each phone, but the prices are on the high side ($10-$15 for leather cases, $20 for a travel charger, etc).
Buying Time and Redeeming a Cell Phone Card
Tracfone sells cell phone time on their website in blocks of 40, 100, 200, and 400 minutes, which include 2 months of service. The one year service options mentioned above are also available online. Pricing is rarely discounted, though special offers of extra minutes are sometimes available. Payment is is by credit card only (no Paypal, money orders, etc). Once you pay, youll be able to immediately program the time into your cell phone by following the redeem time option on the web site.
If youve purchased a cell phone card at a retail store, you can go online and redeem those minutes online. This is done by entering your phones serial number and PIN code from the back of the card into a dialog menu on the website. You then are asked to program that time into your phone by several long series of seemingly random digits as instructed by the website. Once you finish, the new minutes are immediately available and displayed in the remaining minutes shown your phones. Redeeming time takes 3-5 minutes, depending on how fast/careful you are punching in numbers.
Purchasing, Shipping, and Customer Service
The purchasing process is clean and simple. Tracfone offers only two shipping options, Fedex 3 day, and Fedex next day air. I chose the 3 day option, and my item was shipped and delivered within 4 days. Having ordered a Motorola V120 with 12 months of service, I was disappointed to receive a phone without 12 months of service, and more disappointed that the first person I spoke to tried to talk me out of it. Eventually I was able to get everything straightened out. This is not the first time Ive had to push Tracfones service to give me what I was owed. Two years ago I purchase 5 Tracfone cards at Compusa at clearance prices. The first card I used worked fine. The second card, which I used a year later, did not work. Calling Tracfone, I learned that Tracfone had disabled that line of cards (my guess is for security reasons). They would not send me new cards until I had mailed in the old ones, at my cost. During this negotiation and mail exchange, my Tracfone service expired and we lost our cell phone number. I eventually got new cards, but was also forced to reactivate the phone with a new number. Based on my experience, Id say Tracfone does provide service for their phones, but sometimes Tracfone makes errors, and users have to go the extra mile to get the mistakes corrected.
Points to Remember about www.tracfone.com
1. Tracfone sells a very limited line of cell phones which work only with Tracfones prepaid service.
2. No contracts, set up fees, credit checks, etc are required for Tracfone service.
3. If you intend to use a cell phone a lot, say 100 minutes a month, youll likely save money off getting a contract from local cell phone provider, as youll be spending at least $20-$30/month for service. One Tracfone scenario might be to purchase a phone, one of the $150 cards that include 300 minutes of service and double minutes on additional purchases and a 200 and a 400 minute card. Youd have 1500 minutes of service (300 minutes with the 1 year card, 600 minutes of additional service, plus 600 double minutes) for a total cost of about $280. Throw in $50 for one of the phones, and youll have paid $330 for 12 months service getting about 125 minutes of talk time/month, for a net cost of $27.50/month. You possibly can do a bit better than this taking advantage of discounts and other special offers, but these costs are in the ball park. A lite cell phone user who only spends 10-15 minutes a month on emergency calls could get a phone, 1 year of service and 300 minutes for under $150, a net cost of about $13/month, not cheap, but cheaper than rates Ive seen from companies like Sprint or T-Mobile, whose plans suit heavier phone users.
4. Tracfone almost always has some sort of special running on their website. Check there before making a store purchase of one of their phones or Tracfone cards.
5. Since Tracfone entered this market, almost every other cell phone provider has started selling similar plans, often with a more interesting selection of phones. Tracfones service is indistinguishable from the service from other companies, they do eventually offer decent support, and the phones and Tracfone cards are widely available. If you think a prepaid cell phone fits your needs, purchasing a phone and service from www.tracfone.com is an option you should consider.
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