What Is a Burner Phone & When Should You Use One?
Thinking about buying a burner phone? Wondering if they can protect your identity or if they’re illegal to use? Here’s everything you need to know about how burner phones work, plus ten legitimate (and legal) reasons to use one.
Jump to: What is a burner phone? | How do burner phones work? | How much do burner phones cost? | Where to buy a burner phone | Are burner phones traceable? | Burner phone alternatives | Legitimate reasons to use a burner phone
What is a burner phone?
A burner phone is a cell phone used for a short time, then discarded. The term was popularized in HBO’s “The Wire” television series, which depicted these throwaway phones as criminal tools. In the show, drug dealers used burner phones to hide their identities and evade law enforcement.
Despite the bad rap they get on TV and in the movies, burner phones are completely legal, and there are perfectly legitimate reasons to use them, as detailed below.
In fact, burner phones are simply prepaid phones – the only difference is they are only used short-term – though some people take extra precautions to protect their identities when they use burner phones.
How do burner phones work?
Burner phones can help you remain anonymous when you call and text. There are no service contracts, and there’s no need to give your credit card information. Instead, you buy prepaid cards to load minutes onto your phone.
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Most offer only the most basic 3G calling and texting functionality, but you also can get 4G Android burner phones that include data so you can browse the Internet and download apps.
If your goal is anonymity, the general process is to:
- Take your laptop to a location that offers free public WiFi, then set up a free anonymous email address (Proton Mail is a good option). You’ll need it to activate your burner phone, and you don’t want to associate your email with your identifiable personal accounts
- Buy a prepaid burner phone AND phone card from a physical retail store like Walmart, Best Buy or anywhere else that sells prepaid phones. Do not use your credit card – pay cash only, and throw away the receipt
- Go back to the public WiFi location, connect your prepaid phone to WiFi, then activate the device (this is when you’ll use the anonymous email you created)
- Turn off functions that could track your burner phone, including WiFi, Location, Bluetooth and GPS
- You can now anonymously call and text since nothing is tying your identity to your burner phone
- Discard the phone when you’re done using it
You can find a more detailed, step-by-step breakdown on how to buy and set up a burner phone on the r/privacy subreddit.
How much do burner phones cost?
Burner phones typically cost anywhere from $25 to $200, depending on whether you buy a no-frills “feature” phone or an Android burner phone with a touchscreen, data and app downloads.
You’ll also need to pay for a prepaid card, and the total cost depends on how many minutes and data you need. For example, you can get a Tracfone card with unlimited talk and text for $20 for 30 days at Walmart. A Straight Talk prepaid card with unlimited talk, text and data for 30 days sells for around $55.
Often, the best strategy is to buy a cheap burner phone without any bells and whistles. You plan to throw it away, after all, and if you want to remain anonymous, you don’t need data to log into apps that could link your identity to your phone.
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Where to buy a burner phone
You can buy burner phones anywhere that sells prepaid phones and phone cards, but the best options are physical retail stores that accept cash payments. They include:
- Best Buy
- Dollar General
- Gas stations and convenience stores
Are burner phones traceable?
Burner phones do not require contracts, and when you buy a burner phone using the process outlined above, nothing directly links you to the calls and texts you make with a burner phone.
However, that doesn’t mean burner phones are untraceable. There are several ways law enforcement and other authorities could identify your burner phone. They include:
- Video footage of your purchase
- Cell tower location pings
- App downloads and account logins from your burner phone
- Credit card usage (if you make a purchase using your burner phone)
- Connections made to your home or business WiFi
- Matching records – if you carry your normal phone and your burner phone at the same time, location records can prove the burner phone is yours
- Law enforcement stings like Trojan Shield, a three-year operation in which the FBI sold burner phones loaded with spyware on the black market and tracked criminal activity that led to hundreds of arrests
Here are some extra measures you can take to safeguard your identity when you use a burner phone:
- Only turn your phone on when you need to use it
- Never carry your burner phone alongside other devices, including your normal phone
- Do not turn your burner phone on at or near locations you frequent, including your home and place of work
- Never buy anything online using your burner phone
- Never share personally-identifying information via call or text from your burner phone
- Buy your burner phone from a store that has no or limited surveillance cameras
- Throw away all receipts, and wait a few days to activate your phone – and do it in a location that’s far from the place you bought it
- Do not download apps and never log in to your financial, email, social media or other accounts from your burner phone
Understand that it’s still possible to trace a burner phone, even when you take the most stringent security measures, so total anonymity is never guaranteed.
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Burner phone alternatives
If you’re just looking for a way to protect your identity when you call or text people who are not in your trusted professional or social circles, you might not need to buy a burner phone.
Instead, you can get a burner phone number by installing apps like Burner and Hushed on your normal phone.
These apps let you set up a second or temporary phone number so you can communicate without sharing your name and primary phone number. You can even get multiple throwaway phone numbers for different purposes, keep them for as long as you need, then “burn” them when you’re done.
Each app has multiple payment options, with subscription plans starting at $3.99/month for Hushed and $4.99/month for Burner.
10 legitimate reasons to use a burner phone
Though often depicted as criminal tools, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to use a burner phone that won’t land you on the wrong side of the law. In most cases, you don’t need to take extra security precautions to protect your identity. Here’s why you might want to buy a burner phone.
1. Online sign-ups and forms
Social media, online subscriptions, services and other forms often require a phone number to activate and verify your account. Unfortunately, some services sell your number to telemarketers who can inundate you with spammy calls and texts. You can use your burner phone number to avoid receiving those calls to your personal number.
2. Buying and selling online
You never know who you’re dealing with when you buy and sell online, so a disposable phone can serve as a safeguard that protects your personal identity from online strangers you contact via Craigslist and other websites.
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Burner phones made the news in 2022, when the FBI recommended athletes use them at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, due to an increased risk of cell phone security threats.
- Email spoofing and phishing
- Ransomware and spyware
- Social engineering
- Espionage and intellectual property theft
The risk isn’t limited to athletes, either, as academics, media members and business leaders traveling abroad are susceptible to phone hacks. In some countries, border control agents can seize phones and install spyware before returning them to their owners.
You can avoid these traps by leaving your normal phone at home and using a burner phone when you travel.
Another reason to use a burner phone while traveling? If you buy it locally, you can avoid international roaming fees your primary wireless carrier charges.
Some dating apps help protect your identity, but if things get a little more serious, at some point you’re likely to exchange phone numbers with potential dates. A burner phone can help protect your identity if your new love interest turns out to be less romantic talker and more creepy stalker.
5. High-risk hobbies, jobs and events
If you enjoy rock climbing, boating, hang gliding or other high-risk hobbies, you might want to bring a cheap burner phone along and leave your $1,000 iPhone at home. The same goes for high-risk jobs like roofing and farming, as well as crowded events where your phone could get lost, stolen or broken.
6. Avoid government tracking
You don’t need to be a criminal to want to remain anonymous, and burner phones can help you avoid being tracked by government agencies – though again, it’s not a foolproof strategy.
For example, you might want to use a burner phone if you’re attending an event where you’d prefer to avoid being tracked, such as a peaceful protest.
7. Abusive relationships
Suppose you’re leaving an abusive relationship but you’re on your ex-partner’s wireless plan. In that case, a burner phone can be a safe and anonymous way to communicate with trusted people who can help.
When you use a burner phone, your ex won’t be able to view your calls and texts or track your location, so you can get the help you need without fear of being traced through your phone.
8. Work and business
Burner phones can help separate your personal and professional lives. For example, if you’re a coach or consultant, your burner can serve as a second phone, so you don’t need to share your personal number with clients.
You can even turn your burner phone off during non-working hours to avoid work-related distractions in your private life, though it’s worth noting that many apps can accomplish the same thing.
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You can use a burner phone to send an anonymous tip to government agencies or media members and reduce the risk of being tracked. This is especially true if your only other device is a work-issued cell phone that likely reports usage back to your employer.
10. Emergency backup phone
Burner phones make excellent backups you can use in case of an emergency. Since many only offer basic functionality, burner phones tend to have long battery lives and can be stored at length between recharges. In addition, burner phones can typically call 911 without the need for a calling plan (though it’s a good idea to have a prepaid calling card that can be activated at any time).
Here are a few places you might keep an emergency burner phone:
- Automobile glovebox
- Boat or jet ski
- Child’s backpack or locker
- High-risk job sites
As you can see, there are several legitimate reasons to buy a burner phone – and since you’re not evading law enforcement, you don’t need to throw it away when you’re done with it or when you’re ready to upgrade to a newer model. Instead, you can donate or recycle your burner phone to keep toxic e-waste out of landfills; or you can sell your burner phone on Flipsy for cash to put toward a new one.
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