You know the movie trope: A spy, fugitive, or criminal utters something into a phone, then snaps it in half or takes it apart (with one hand, no less), as pieces litter the ground. But even you, assuming you’re not on the run, can benefit from a second phone that bears none of your identifying data or history. Here we’ll look into what a burner phone is and what it’s used for.
What is a burner phone?
A burner phone usually refers to a cheap, prepaid mobile phone that’s meant to be disposable after use. It’s typically a “feature phone” or “dumb phone,” likely disconnected from the internet and lacking a touchscreen, as opposed to the smartphones we use these days. Its functionality is mostly limited to phone calls and text messages.
Burner phones usually come with a prepaid SIM card with credit already loaded into it for you to call or text right away. When the credit is used up, you can either dispose of the phone or load more credit into it.
It also must be noted that some people indeed use a smartphone as a secondary phone. It’s not seen as disposable but serves similar purposes as a burner phone.
What is a burner phone used for?
Pop culture would have us believe that burner phones are only for spies in back alleys or criminals making drug deals. In reality, anyone can find legitimate use of a burner phone.
1. To protect your identity when communicating by phone
There are a lot of things people can find out about you with just your phone number. For example, social media accounts are usually linked to your phone number, and a search could reveal your name, where you work, and what you look like.
As long as you don’t use them to sign up for services, burner phones aren’t tied to your identity. You’re starting with a clean slate. A few scenarios where you might want to protect your identity by using a burner phone:
- Staying anonymous while whistle-blowing or providing a crime tip
- Texting people you meet through online dating
- Communicating with people about buying used items (such as through Facebook Marketplace)
It’s worth noting, though, that there are more and more countries imposing SIM-card registration laws requiring your real name and personal information for purchasing prepaid SIM cards. And even if you just want to get a burner phone online without walking into a physical store, you will need to create an online account with your personal information. This means your name is going to be on the record somewhere, but still not easy to find.
2. When online shopping, to avoid spam calls and messages
Anyone can easily become a target for spam calls or messages if they provide their phone number when buying something, entering a contest or lucky draw, or donating to charities. The organization you provided your number to could be texting you themselves or selling your number to telemarketers and all manner of third parties.
To avoid more spam calls on your primary phone, you can give out your burner phone number instead of your real one. Even if your burner phone starts ringing off the hook or getting flooded with texts, you can simply dump your current SIM card and turn your burner phone off.
3. To protect your primary phone from accidents
We’re used to taking our phones everywhere we go. But some activities—like music festivals or hikes—can put our smartphones at greater risk of accidents, like getting bumped, lost, or stolen. Do you have a tendency of losing your phone on a big night out?
Not only are they costly to repair or replace, they also contain a lot of personal data that are potentially irreplaceable, like photos. It’s a lot of stress to keep worrying about your smartphone when you just want to have a good time. Some would argue that a dumb phone also lessens the distractions so you can enjoy what you’re doing.
A burner phone will lighten your load, both mentally and physically. As a side note, burner phones have long battery life and can last for days on a single charge. Not only do you not have to bring an extra charger with you, but your phone is a reliable lifeline for emergency situations.
4. To hide your communications
There are scenarios where you might want to hide what you’re doing online from people around you. For example, victims of domestic abuse might want to keep a hidden phone from their abuser to call for help or look up resources. Sometimes, you might just want to evade nosey family members or roommates.
5. To get a phone cheaply
Lost your smartphone and can’t afford a new one just yet? A cheap burner phone is a simple temporary solution. However, the cost of prepaid plans is usually high, and you likely can’t get a separate mobile plan for a burner phone. You might be better off getting an inexpensive phone with an affordable mobile plan.
Read more: 10 life-enhancing tech products under $30
Where can you buy a burner phone?
There are many places where you can get a burner phone, like mobile phone vendors, department stores like Walmart or Target, or mobile virtual network operators like AT&T and T-Mobile. You can also get one online from sites like eBay or Amazon. They’re fairly affordable, starting at roughly $10 to $20.
Read more: How to stay safe when shopping online
FAQ: About burner phones
Are burner phones legal?
Yes. Although they are frequently used for illegal activity, prepaid burner phones are perfectly legal to buy, offering privacy benefits and convenience. Many countries require buyers to provide their real identities when buying one, though, lowering the level of anonymity that a burner phone provides.
Can burner phones be traced?
Contrary to their depiction on mainstream media, burner phones can still be traced. All mobile phones go through a cellular carrier or virtual number operator, so your call logs, data usage, location, and text messages are kept on record. The authorities can ask these companies to provide this information by law.
In addition, if you use a credit card to buy the burner phone, the credit card company will have you on record. You can also get picked up by the security cameras at the store or on the street in the process of the purchase.
That said, the average person getting a phone call from your burner number likely wouldn’t have the resources to find this identifying information.
What is the burner phone app?
A burner phone app allows you to create disposable phone numbers on your smartphone without having a physical device. It protects your primary number as it’ll show your burner number as you call or text someone.