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I have a working GSM handset without a SIM card. I would like to maintain it as my backup phone while travelling within the US while I am a student here.

In India, where I am a citizen, this was easy. While travelling, along with my postpaid phone (the one which I used regularly and paid a monthly bill for) I carried a prepaid card of a different carrier on another spare phone. I had the option of adding minutes to the prepaid card and the validity of these minutes was for about a year. I used to add 60 minutes to this prepaid card and that was more than sufficient for a year. My primary phone worked almost all the time and I used the backup phone only when the former's battery was dead or when it was out of coverage.

However, in the US I find pre-paid plans cost about $45/month. Maintaining a backup phone would imply maintaining a full-fledged regular phone with all its costs. What would be a good way to maintain a cheap phone (no internet, just calls) just for the sole purpose of having a backup while travelling?

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One option would be to use a pay-as-you-go "plan" with either a long validity of the credit when you top up a lot, or a low monthly fee. The T-Mobile page, for example, lists a $3/month Pay-as-you-go choice that includes a few minutes/month.

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You don't need a backup phone as a student in the US. This is for a few reasons:

  • Most of the US is relatively safe. Especially as a student you are unlikely to find yourself in a survival situation where you need a second phone.
  • Most of the US has decent cellular coverage, and multiple providers allow roaming on each others' networks. Many years ago you might have wanted two different phones to get better coverage in different regions, but this rarely applies anymore.
  • USB "power banks" (external batteries) are cheap and widely used.
  • Prepaid phones in the US are not nearly as common as post-paid, nor are they as common as they are elsewhere in the world. You won't find as many options available, they will be more expensive than they should be, and people will look at you funny. :)
  • The most important reason to have a local phone is to save on roaming. – Burhan Khalid Dec 23 '14 at 10:20
  • @BurhanKhalid: I agree, but that's not what the OP seems to be asking. Rather, the OP seems to ask how to replicate his setup from India, which was to have two phones, one for "backup" in case the first one runs out of battery etc. I am advising to carry only one phone in the US, and of course it should be local to avoid international roaming charges. – John Zwinck Dec 24 '14 at 0:06
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First factor you need to consider is that the USA uses different GSM frequencies than the rest of the world, so would your older handset work in the USA? Global frequencies are 900 & 1800 whereas the USA & Canada use 850 & 1900.

There are a number of non-monthly pre-paid plans available, where you buy $XX and get YY months of validity. Many of these tend to hover around the $25 gets you 90 days, $100 gets you one year, with calls costing 10 cents a minute (both inbound and outbound, a sneaky US phone company trick).

Some of these pre-paid plans allow you to bring your own phone and simply get a SIM. Others require you to buy one of their phones. AT&T and T-Mobile offer bring your own phone plans, Tracfone has buy their phone (but they offer some really cheap talk only models).

Finding out the best plans from afar is not easy, as the phone companies tend to bury information about their cheapest offering hoping you will sign up for a more expensive monthly plan. I found talking directly with the sale people in their respective stores revealed more low cost options than their websites do.

  • I was thinking of the $100-top-up for a year of validity "option" as well as well, but couldn't find one on the web for a SIM-only pre-paid pay-as-you-go "plan". Perhaps you have a link? – DCTLib Dec 22 '14 at 9:10
  • Both AT&T and Tracfone offer the $100 good for one year plans. But it takes way too long to dig through their poorly designed websites to find a link for you. That is why I prefer walking into a store. – user13044 Dec 22 '14 at 13:14

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