You might have often seen burner phones in spy movies and crime thrillers, but have you ever wondered what they are and how they work? If you have, today is your lucky day. Because in this article, we will discuss everything about burner phones. It means we will answer what is a burner phone, how it works, and if burner phones are illegal. We will also tell you all about why you might also want to use burner phones yourself and where you can buy one for cheap right now.
A Guide to Burner Phones: What Are They and Where Can You Buy One? (2021)
So-called burner phones (or disposable phones) are available all across the world, in most major cities and small towns. Well, they have gained an unfortunate reputation because of their extensive use by organized criminals and creepy nutcases. But, burner phones also have a lot of legitimate purposes. So, hang on as we take a deep dive into the secretive world of burner phones. We will tell you when to use one and how to buy one for cheap.
What is a Burner Phone?
As its name suggests, a burner phone is a disposable mobile phone that you can throw away once it has served its original purpose. These are often ultra-cheap old-fashioned feature phones that you can only use for phone calls and sending text messages (SMS). However, they aren’t meant to be used for a long time. The device would usually come with a prepaid SIM card with credit loaded into it. Once the credit is used up, you can either dispose of the phone or load more prepaid credit from your carrier. It depends on how long you intend to use the device.
Burner phones typically do not come with 4G or 5G connections. Plus, they do not offer users access to app stores from Apple or Google. They typically look and feel like phones from the turn of the century, and in essence, function as such.
As long as the device can make phone calls and receive text messages, they are good to go. To call a spade a spade, burners are feature phones, often with prepaid credit. They are used for short-term purposes by folks who either want to avoid detection or have a tight budget. However, there are other legitimate uses of burners, as detailed later in this article.
Burner Phones: Depiction in the Media
Burner phones have often been front and center in espionage movies, crime thrillers, and action flicks. However, media portrayals have often highlighted only the negative aspects of technology. Countless Netflix movies and TV series have shown criminals using a burner phone to make ransom calls after an abduction. Or, in some cases, you might have seen attackers using such devices to communicate with law enforcement.
In the popular HBO series, The Wire (2002-2008), gun runners and drug peddlers in West Baltimore were shown using burner phones to avoid detection by the authorities. Quite a few movies have also depicted stalkers making threatening phone calls to their victims using burner phones. However, such incidents are not limited to the realms of fiction.
In an astonishing real-life case in Kentucky, one David Richard Stewart was accused of using prepaid burner phones for a strip-search phone call scam. In at least one of the many cases cited by the prosecution, the accused, posing as a police officer, convinced restaurant managers to carry out unlawful and intrusive searches on female employees. The incident was later made into an indie movie called Compliance (2012).
Legitimate Uses and Benefits of Burner Phones
Despite what movies and sensationalist mainstream media reports would have you believe, burner phones have many legitimate use cases. And these are:
One of the leading reasons to use a burner phone is privacy. A disposable phone can protect your identity because the number is not linked to your real-world identity. That means you can use the device without the risk of being identified. It is especially true in the case of massive anti-government protests, especially in countries with authoritarian administrations. In that case, any involvement in such activities might jeopardize your life or freedom.
You can also use burner phones in certain other occasions where you want to remain anonymous. You can also use a secure messaging service without disclosing your primary phone number. Journalists who interact with their sources for potentially explosive news stories often use burner phones. This is true not only in countries with oppressive governments but also in western countries. Well, that’s because the last thing you want is to reveal the identity of your source.
3. Avoid Spam Calls and Messages
While many countries around the world, including the US and India, have instituted National Do Not Call registries to relieve citizens of unsolicited marketing calls, this doesn’t solve the problem of unwanted texts and robocalls from services you have signed up for voluntarily.
A burner phone gets around this problem. You can easily use your burner number to sign-up for services you know you won’t be using for long. Then, once you start getting spam calls or messages, you can either swap out the SIM or simply get a new phone.
4. Protect Your Primary Phone Number
Hikers or adventure junkies also often prefer to carry burner phones on their trips. The idea of hiking up a trail or rafting down a ravine with an expensive iPhone is enough to unnerve many. They may also come in handy when visiting a particularly tough neighborhood where you think you might get mugged. Using a burner in these cases makes sense because you can replace them without burning a hole in your pocket.
5. Avoid Roaming Charges While Visiting Foreign Countries
While on a foreign sojourn, roaming charges can go through the roof. One way to avoid that is by getting a burner phone. This way, you cannot be charged more than the prepaid credit. You can then recharge it as you go along, ensuring that you never end up with a massive bill. In any case, it is always advisable to use a prepaid SIM while on foreign trips to prevent excessive billing from your carrier.
6. Keep Creepy Dates and Would-be Stalkers at Bay
If a stranger asks for your number at a party or if you are giving out your number to someone you barely know, the last thing you need is for them to harass you if things don’t work out. You can avoid any potential future headaches by giving them a burner number. That will still allow them to call or text you, although iMessage or WhatsApp may be off-limits.
Burner Phones Do Not Guarantee Anonymity
While burner phones have many legitimate uses and can go a long way in protecting your identity, they are not a silver bullet against all tracking. It just removes the association between your phone and your real-world identity, thereby reducing the chances of you being identified accurately. However, the credit card you used while buying the phone and your cell tower location might still positively identify you. Not to mention in-store CCTV cameras, voice records, and other resources investigators may gather to find out who you are.
Drawbacks of Burner Phones
Since burner phones are feature phones, they are severely limited in their abilities by today’s standards. Most lack cameras or have poor-quality lenses and image sensors. They also don’t have internet access or have very limited networking abilities. And well, forget about access to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store on a feature phone. These devices are used only for phone calls and text messaging, for the most part. However, the one area where they do trump modern smartphones is battery life. Most disposable phones have excellent battery efficiency and can run for days on a single charge.
Where Can You Buy a Cheap New Burner Phone?
The best burner phone is a free one. And the best way to get a free burner phone is by rummaging through your old electronics drawer. If you have an old feature phone from before the advent of smartphones, it might be the best burner phone you will ever use. Well, if it still works, get a prepaid SIM from a compatible carrier, and you are good to go. You might need to replace the battery, but doing so in older feature phones is easy.
If you can’t find an old phone in your collection, you can get one from eBay. However, if you are buying a pre-owned device, make sure that it works and that the battery can actually last a working day. You can also find new feature phones on Amazon or Newegg. Nokia, Alcatel, BLU, and many Chinese brands sell feature phones at virtually throwaway prices.
Walmart, Right Aid, 7-Eleven, Target, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, 99 Cents Only, and other stores, along with many mom-and-pop retailers across the US, sell inexpensive feature phones with or without prepaid SIMs. You can also get burners from low-cost carriers and MVNOs like Tello (Sprint), Ultra Mobile (T-Mobile), Truphone (AT&T), and Page Plus (Verizon) in the US. Expect to pay anything between $10-$50 for most of them.
Alternatives to Burner Phones
The best alternative to a burner phone is an additional SIM in your existing smartphone. While the carrier-driven smartphone market in the US doesn’t allow for it, folks in many countries around the world, including in India, buy unlocked dual-SIM devices that support multiple carriers. While most people use their two SIMs for separate official and private numbers, you can use the second slot for a burner SIM.
There are two alternatives to burner phones – an additional prepaid SIM in your existing smartphone or burner phone apps.
Another amazing alternative to physical burners is burner phone apps. These apps offer a slew of fake phone numbers that you can use to sign-up for services you don’t intend to use for any length of time. Both these methods work great if you are not looking for anonymity but for only reduced roaming charges or to protect yourself from creeps.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the frequently asked questions about burner phones. While we have answered most of these above, we feel a more compact, TL;DR version might help some of you catch certain points that you might have missed earlier. That said, here we go:
Are burner phones illegal? If not, what are its benefits?
No, burner phones are not illegal. Instead, the biggest benefit of burner phones is that they help you maintain digital privacy and anonymity. Burner phones also help you keep your primary phone number hidden from scammers and spammers. Therefore, putting an end to spam calls and marketing messages to your primary number. Finally, you can also avoid roaming charges while visiting a foreign country.
Do you need a burner phone?
Does anyone really need a burner phone? No. But should you have one, especially under certain circumstances? Absolutely. As mentioned already, it could be an important tool to fight spammers and scammers. It can also enhance your digital privacy and protect your true identity in certain situations.
Do you need an ID to buy a burner phone?
Burner phones are prepaid feature phones that you can purchase from Walmart or 99 Cents stores with ease. No, you don’t need to provide any identification, can buy more than one burner device and start using it anonymously. But remember that you are not truly anonymous, as we explained above in this article.
Aren’t burner phones meant for shady activities?
No, they are not. Burner phones get a bad rep because of movies and TV shows that depict criminals using them for shady activities. However, the tech itself is solid and useful for law-abiding citizens. While it is true that real-life criminals also often use burners for illegal activities, you can say the same about most other things in life. For example, you don’t stop using cars because a bunch of bank robbers escaped in one. Or kitchen knives because somebody murdered someone with one.
Aren’t burner phones bad for the environment?
Here, we need to differentiate between physical burner phones and burner phone apps that you can download from the internet. While the latter has no discernible impact on the internet one way or another, physical burners can be a cause for concern. Disposable phones contribute to the growing e-waste problem.
What is the difference between a burner phone and a prepaid phone?
Both burner phones and prepaid phones are technically pre-paid, so the difference lies in the way how you use them. Regular prepaid numbers are typically bought for long-term use, while the latter are bought for temporary or intermittent use. A prepaid phone can also be bought with a high-end handset, while burner SIMs typically come with ultra-cheap feature phones, costing no more than $20-$40.
Can you identify burner phone users?
Burner phone users in the US cannot be identified because personally identifiable information cannot be collected during purchase for legal reasons. However, you might still be identified as the caller while using a disposable phone if you used a credit card for purchasing the device or through location triangulation while using the device. Of course, in-store CCTV cameras can also identify you as the buyer of a particular phone.
Can someone find out your real number if you are using a burner app?
Regular folks cannot find out your real number if you are calling from a burner app. However, burner app companies may work with law enforcement to help resolve criminal cases by handing over call records and your credit card information. So burner phones are not a shield for criminal activities, unlike what movies and TV shows would have you believe.
Can calls and texts from burner phones be traced?
As mentioned already, the government and law enforcement have a lot of tools at their disposal to nab criminals. So if a particular number raises any suspicion, rest assured that they will do everything in their power to trace every call and text from that number. As for anti-government protests, they are best limited to secure messaging or offline messaging apps that are generally believed to shield them from Big Brother.
Can burner phones help protect you from hackers?
No, they can’t. But burners can protect you from spammers, scammers, and unwanted friends. To protect yourself from hackers, you will need to imbibe good online practices, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Burner Phones: Tools to Safeguard Your Real Identity
Burner phones may have gained an unfortunate reputation because of their association with shady characters, but they do have many legitimate uses. Whether you are trying to get rid of an uninteresting suitor or going on a treacherous hike, whether you are an international man of mystery, everyone can use a burner phone once in a while. It can also come in handy if you want to temporarily press the pause button on your social life without going completely incommunicado. So if you believe you will ever be in any of these situations, get yourself a cheap burner and save yourself from unnecessary trouble.