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10 Times You Might Need a Burner Phone

They’re not just for people who are up to no good. (Really.)

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Perfectly legal and legitimate reasons

When you think of a burner phone, or a burner, as it’s sometimes called, do you picture an international spy contacting an associate using a flip phone and then tossing it into a dumpster in a deserted alley? Someone in witness protection furtively making a phone call to a loved one before smashing the phone with his heel and disappearing into the night? A member of a drug cartel texting the big boss in some far-flung country to let him know a drop has been made? While you’re not wrong, you might not realize that there are plenty of times when a burner phone can come in handy for ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Join us as we clear up any confusion about what burner phones actually are and those times when you really might need one. Then take a trip down memory lane to see what phones looked like the decade you were born.

Mature businessman using mobile phone, close up, side viewMaria Teijeiro/Getty Images

What, exactly, is a burner phone?

What we think of as burner phones are cheaply constructed (and therefore “disposable”) mobile phones that are available for inexpensive purchase virtually anywhere (convenience stores, drugstores, department stores, gas stations, etc.) and usable immediately—without entering into a contract or other legal obligation. Instead, the purchase of the phone includes the purchase of a predetermined number of minutes of usage. For example, you can buy a prepaid 4G LTE “burner phone” made by TracFone on Amazon today and have it delivered by tomorrow for under $20. Before you check out, you might also want to add these brilliant buys with practically perfect reviews to your cart.

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Why it’s called a burner phone

So-called burner phones have been around since the mid-1990s, when the first prepaid mobile phone was awarded a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The purpose was to help expand the market for mobile phones to people who, for whatever reason, including completely legitimate reasons such as having a bad credit rating, would not have been in a position to enter into a long-term contract with a wireless carrier.

At the time, the term was “prepaid cellular phone.” It wasn’t until the early aughts that “burner phone” entered into common usage. That was when the uber-popular TV show The Wire began depicting drug dealers purchasing prepaid, disposable cellular phones at bodegas and using them to avoid getting wiretapped. Haven’t seen The Wire? It’s definitely worth watching.

Black man texting with cell phone on sofaRoberto Westbrook/Getty Images

Privacy: It’s not just for criminals and spies

Even if you’ve never had reason to suspect you might be the target of wiretapping, what The Wire depicted about burner phones hinted at a bigger picture and a problem that’s arguably even more of an issue today. Technological advances are making it increasingly easier for the government to keep tabs on you—in fact, here are nine ways it could be happening right this very minute. “The FBI wants to backdoor your smartphone,” according to Lance Henderson, the author of Burners & Black Markets: How to Be Invisible. “So does the NSA.” If that’s of concern to you, it’s good to know that using a burner phone, instead of a smartphone, can help remove you from the government’s crosshairs, at least to the extent that when you use a burner phone:

  • No one can trace the phone or its purchase back to you
  • No one can trace back to you any phone or Internet activity conducted while using it
  • No one can find you via the phone’s GPS

For an extra level of privacy, you can also consider this Faraday bag from Silent Pocket. Why might you want one of these? A Faraday bag blocks your cell phone signal, making it impossible to find you via GPS. It’s also one of the clever anti-theft products that will protect your car from thieves.

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When you’re doing business online

So, when might you need a burner phone? Here’s one scenario: If you’re selling something online, or otherwise engaging in some form of temporary online business, you’ll need to brace yourself for a deluge of texts and phone calls. But you should also recognize that all the people behind those texts and phone calls will continue to have your digits long after your online business has come to a close. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can purchase a burner phone for use specifically in connection with the business you’re conducting online. The same is true for any situation in which you’re forced to give your phone number to people who will need it just the one time (such as if you’re looking for an apartment or planning a party). Here are some well-rated earbuds by MUNSKT to go with your burner phone, along with another 15 cell phone accessories you’ll use every day.

Stressed and frustrated businesswoman working on laptop till late at workd3sign/Getty Images

When you’re dating

Of course, dating requires us to open ourselves up to others. But can we slow things down just long enough to consider what it means to give your phone number to strangers? For one thing, you can’t know for sure who this person is or who they might decide to give your phone number to. And your number, when plugged into a reverse phone look-up engine, may reveal a lot more information about you than you intended to reveal (e.g., your address and the names of family members) to a stranger. The solution is obvious: a burner phone that you designate solely for use in those very early days of getting to know someone. Try this Total Wireless LG Journey 4G. You should also learn how to spot dating scams, which happen to be up 40 percent in 2020.

Middle Aged Women working from home in office whilst also looking after her young daugther.Belinda Howell/Getty Images

When you want to separate your professional and personal lives

If you’re lucky enough to have been provided a phone by your employer, there’s nevertheless a downside, which is that it was provided by your employer for work purposes. You can’t actually expect privacy on your work phone, and that can be super inconvenient if you happen to be quietly looking for another job or working a side hustle. Even if those things aren’t an issue for you, your professional phone can sometimes feel…invasive. That’s where a burner phone comes in—to separate the professional from the personal without having to enter into a separate contract with a carrier. Another bonus? After you’ve called it a day, you can set your work phone to “do not disturb” without missing any social calls or texts.

The same can hold true for your computer, and in fact, here are 16 things you should never do on a work-issued computer. Instead, you might want to buy a budget-priced Samsung Chromebook for all your personal stuff.

Businessman Texting At The WindowTodor Tsvetkov/Getty Images

When you want to communicate anonymously

Caller ID seemed like a fantastic idea when it first came out. Imagine, we all thought, knowing who was calling before you picked up and said hello?! Fast-forward a few decades, and virtually every communication you initiate automatically identifies you by either your name or your phone number. But what if you want to leave an anonymous comment on a public forum and signing up to do so requires you to provide a phone number? Or what if you’d like to send a text anonymously without resorting to one of these hacks? Or perhaps, for whatever reason, you’d just like to call someone for once without them answering the phone, “Hello, [your name].” Well, hello, burner phone. And hello, adjustable stand from OMOTON, which will make your burner phone (or any other phone) even easier to use.

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When you need a time-out from technology

Smartphones with all sorts of bells and whistles can be awesome, useful, and fun…except when we start noticing we can’t do anything without having our phone in hand. Here are 21 signs of cell phone addiction you should be aware of. If you think it’s time to take a brief technology break, then subbing in a low-tech, well-priced burner phone like this prepaid Alcatel flip phone could help wean you, even if only temporarily.

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When you need to save money

Burner phones have always been, and continue to be, an affordable option for mobile communications. A contract with a cell phone carrier isn’t exactly inexpensive, and on top of that, your cell phone carrier might be overcharging you. So, when your current contract is up, consider switching to a burner phone, which you pay for only as you need it—and, of course, is a lot cheaper than a new iPhone. This budget-minded burner phone from BLU will get the job done.

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When it’s time to get your kiddo a phone

Should your kid have a cell phone? That’s something only you can decide, but when it is time to give in and get your kiddo a phone, consider a burner phone. It’s not indestructible, but it’s disposable. And because it’s prepaid, you’re setting limits on screen time right off the bat. Here’s an adorable race-car-style burner phone.

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When you need to give a phone to a caregiver

When you have a caregiver watching over your kids or an elderly family member, you should have a way to reach that caregiver every time you need to. A burner phone is a relatively inexpensive way to ensure that, since you’re providing access to a phone that doesn’t eat into your caregiver’s own data plan but also doesn’t encourage your caregiver to use the phone excessively. Although this UNIWA burner phone is meant for seniors, its large keyboard makes it easy for anyone to use.

Worried teenage boy with head in hand studying at homeMaskot/Getty Images

When you realize you need backup

Whether you’re considering ditching your landline or you already have, you need to think about what would happen if your cell phone were out of juice and you needed to call 911. Or, instead of thinking about that (because…ugh), you could get yourself a burner phone to keep on hand as a spare. Just remember to keep it charged. Here is the best way to charge any device so the battery will last longer. And here is a mobile charging device from Ankur that you can keep around for emergencies. Next, here’s the truth behind the “National Do Not Call “List.”

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.