What Is a Burner Phone, How Does It Work & When You Need One - Articles by Flipsy (2023)

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:

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  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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)
  4. Turn off functions that could track your burner phone, including WiFi, Location, Bluetooth and GPS
  5. You can now anonymously call and text since nothing is tying your identity to your burner phone
  6. 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:

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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3. Travel

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.

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Risks include:

  • Malware
  • 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.

4. Dating

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.

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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.

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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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9. Whistleblowing

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
  • Nightstand
  • 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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Related Help

> The right way to dispose of old cell phones > MVNO carriers compared > How to save $1,000/year with cheap family phone plans > Alternative wireless carriers compared > How to trade in a prepaid phone

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FAQs

What is a burner phone and when should you use one? ›

A burner is an inexpensive mobile phone that is designed for temporary use, after which it may be discarded. Burners are purchased with prepaid minutes and without a contract.

What's the difference between a burner phone and a prepaid phone? ›

A burner phone is basically a prepaid phone with basic features only. These phones don't offer app-use, or online browsing. They enable you to call, use a phone book and contact the emergency services or relatives, whilst your identity remains anonymous.

Can someone call you on a burner phone? ›

If you're someone who likes swapping numbers with potential flings, give them a burner phone number. You can still use a burner phone to text and call, although WhatsApp may be off the menu.

How many minutes are on a burner phone? ›

Burner is available on iOS and Android, and comes with a free trial that lasts seven days, 20 minutes, or 60 messages. You can get unlimited voice minutes and texts in the area code of the user's choice for 8 credits, which costs from about $4 to $4.99, depending on whether you buy credits in bulk.

How much does it cost to get a burner phone? ›

Available at the App Store and Google Play, Burner is free to download and free to try. Additional time and numbers are available by in-app purchase (from $1.99) or a subscription for $4.99/month, which enables one burner line with unlimited calls, texts, and picture messages for one month.

What happens when you call a burner phone? ›

When you receive a call to your Burner line, it will show up on your phone just like any other call and it will look like your Burner is calling you. If you have notifications turned on, you'll also get a notification to let you know it's your Burner that's ringing.

Why would someone use a burner phone? ›

A “burner phone” is a cheap, prepaid mobile phone that you can destroy or discard when you no longer need it. In popular media, criminals often use burner phones to evade detection by authorities. You might use a burner phone for privacy reasons, as a last resort, or during an emergency.

Can a burner phone text be traced? ›

Generally, a burner phone number can be traced. All mobile phones and burner apps go through a cellular carrier or virtual number operator. Your identity can be tracked via call logs, data usage, location, and text messages. Law enforcement can compel companies to provide this information.

How can I tell if a number is a burner phone? ›

You cannot easily tell if a phone is a burner. Someone with a cheap, secondary cell phone may be using a burner phone. Mobile service providers can sometimes identify if a caller was using a burner phone number. Laws requiring identification at the time of purchase may establish burner phone ownership.

Do burner phones need a plan? ›

Because they don't require a contract, prepaid phones are fast and easy to buy.

How do criminals use burner phones? ›

The criminals would pay in cash and would use the phones for carrying out illegal activities. Once they felt that the phones were useless, they would throw these and get new ones making the whole operation untraceable.

Can the burner app be traced? ›

In our guide on how to use Burner with your phone data, we've gone over how Burner works with your phone data, WiFi, and your data. But, can a Burner phone be traced if you're using our app? Nope.

How do you set up a burner phone? ›

Creating A Burner
  1. Make sure you are in the Inbox for 'All Numbers', Tap the Gear icon from the Main Screen located at the top right, then tap Burner Numbers, then + Create Number.
  2. Choose your Burner type! ...
  3. Enter an area code for the Burner number you want.
  4. Choose a number! ...
  5. You're all set!
12 Jul 2022

Does a prepaid phone come with a phone number? ›

Prepaid SIM card. Every prepaid account comes with a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card. A SIM card is a small data chip that contains your account details and various data from your wireless provider. Each SIM card also contains a number that once registered, provides you with a personal phone number.

Where do people get burner phones? ›

You can look for burner phones in any cell carrier store. Because burner phones are not limited by contracts, you can find them in major convenience stores, including Target, Walmart, or Amazon.

What phones are untraceable? ›

3 Untraceable Cell Phone Myths (Tips To Get Close)
  • Generally, an untraceable phone does not exist. ...
  • Most mobile phones use a SIM card to connect to your cellular network. ...
  • One promising solution is Silent Link, a cellular service provider that reduces the amount of information a cell phone user reveals.

Is a TracFone a burner phone? ›

Essentially, a burner phone is another name for a prepaid cell phone. It's a device that you don't plan to keep for a long time once you've exhausted the phone's minutes or its usefulness to you. You can find prepaid phones from providers like TracFone at retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and drugstores.

What is a trap phone? ›

trap phone (plural trap phones) A prepaid cell phone, often used by criminals to conduct illegal activity.

Can you buy a burner phone without ID? ›

Almost every major retailer sells burner phones. There's a catch though: these burner phones sold by major retailers don't really work as burner phones. That's because these companies require some sort of identity registration. Stricter retailers may even ask for a credit check.

How do I make my phone impossible to track? ›

How to make your phone impossible to track
  1. Lock your SIM Card. No app or disabled setting will help if your SIM card has been compromised. ...
  2. Limit ad tracking on your phone. ...
  3. Opt-out of carrier tracking. ...
  4. Disable Bluetooth. ...
  5. Activate airplane mode. ...
  6. Disable GPS location services. ...
  7. Try a GPS spoofing app. ...
  8. Enable a VPN connection.
3 Jun 2022

What is a stealth phone? ›

A stealth SIM can be used to access the mobile phone network but makes use of a network of management features (USSD for user interaction/control and CAMEL for routing and handling) to mask its location and true identity from anyone receiving calls from it.

Can a prepaid phone be traced to owner? ›

There are a number of resources available to help trace a cell phone or land line phone number. However, it can be difficult to trace the location or person behind a prepaid cell phone number since there a prepaid cell phone can be purchased and used without using personal information.

Can a phone call be traced to a location? ›

Understand that you can't track a phone's exact location.

Since it is impossible to trace a phone's exact location, avoid using third-party apps or services which claim to be able to track phone numbers. At best, these services don't work, and they will often scam you or steal your information.

Can a Google Voice number be traced by police? ›

When you call contacts from your Google Voice number, it shows up on their caller ID, but standard phone traces don't reveal your identity. If law enforcement agencies become involved, Google provides them with your account information, including the IP address from which you created the account and placed calls.

Does TracFone require personal information? ›

We do not require you to provide your personal information to us to enjoy some of our services. However, if you do not provide certain personal information, you may not be able to use or access portions of our websites, such as the account features or account information.

Can a Burner number be blocked? ›

There isn't a way to block burner numbers specifically.

How do you know if a number is a text app? ›

How to Tell If a Number Is From a Texting App? Usually, you can tell if a number is from a texting app by checking its caller ID. Mostly, the number will be listed as a text number or a calling number, which represents a number from a texting app.

Do I have to register a prepaid phone? ›

Currently, there is no requirement in the United States, either at the federal or state level, to register end users of prepaid mobile wireless devices or subscriber identification module (SIM) cards.

Do prepaid phones expire? ›

Yes and no. As long as you continue to make payments, your prepaid number should not expire. Even if you miss a payment, most major carriers should offer a grace period. During this time, you still have the option to make the full payment due for your prepaid plan while keeping your phone number active.

Why would someone use a prepaid phone card? ›

Prepaid phone cards can be purchased and used for a flat fee to make long distance telephone calls. Cards provide you a specified amount of call time to certain destinations.

Can I have 2 phone numbers on one phone? ›

A dual SIM phone is one that can have two active numbers, plans, or accounts. You get this convenience on one device because it can have two separate SIMs: A physical SIM: A plastic card inserted into your phone. An eSIM: A digital SIM downloaded to compatible devices.

Can two people have the same phone number? ›

There is no possible way someone can have the same number as someone else, at least not when it comes to GSM phones. Not unless this unknown person has cloned your SIM card, which is highly unlikely.

How long do prepaid phone cards last? ›

Prepaid SIM cards don't expire, but their credit does. When you activate a prepaid subscriber identity module, or "SIM," card for a phone, the call, text and Internet credit you purchase expires after a certain period of time, as specified by the mobile carrier.

Are TracFones traceable? ›

TracFones are pre-paid cell phones that you can buy at a variety of outlets and dealers. However, like any cell phone, a TracFone can be traced and located.

How much is a Verizon bill for one person? ›

Verizon unlimited plan: How it compares on price
Monthly price comparison1 line2 lines
Verizon$80$140
U.S. Cellular$70$135
Boost**$50$80
Metro by T-Mobile$50$80
4 more rows
2 Dec 2021

Do burner phones have Internet? ›

Burner phones are not smartphones; they don't have internet access, you can't go on Facebook, they don't have a camera, and a lot of them don't even connect to wifi.

How can I make my phone untraceable? ›

How to Make a Cell Phone Untraceable
  1. Buy a pre-paid cell phone that does not have GPS features. ...
  2. Do not complete and send in your rebate form. ...
  3. Never publish or post your cell phone number on a blog, social networking site, etc. ...
  4. Order automatic call blocking. ...
  5. Refuse invitations to be located via GPS-enabled phones.

Is a TracFone a burner phone? ›

Essentially, a burner phone is another name for a prepaid cell phone. It's a device that you don't plan to keep for a long time once you've exhausted the phone's minutes or its usefulness to you. You can find prepaid phones from providers like TracFone at retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and drugstores.

How do I get a burner phone number? ›

Best Burner Phone Number Apps in 2022
  1. Burner – Best Burner Phone Number App.
  2. Hushed.
  3. CoverMe Private Text Messaging + Secure Texting & Calling.
  4. Cloud SIM.
  5. Line2.
  6. 2ndLine – Best Free Burner Phone Number App.
  7. Flyp.
  8. Grasshopper.
7 Jan 2022

Do burner phones need a plan? ›

Because they don't require a contract, prepaid phones are fast and easy to buy.

Can a burner phone text be traced? ›

Generally, a burner phone number can be traced. All mobile phones and burner apps go through a cellular carrier or virtual number operator. Your identity can be tracked via call logs, data usage, location, and text messages. Law enforcement can compel companies to provide this information.

Why do you need a burner phone? ›

A “burner phone” is a cheap, prepaid mobile phone that you can destroy or discard when you no longer need it. In popular media, criminals often use burner phones to evade detection by authorities. You might use a burner phone for privacy reasons, as a last resort, or during an emergency.

What phones Cannot be tracked? ›

Here's our list of most secure phones you can use today:
  1. Bittium Tough Mobile 2C. ...
  2. K-iPhone – The one of the most secure Phones. ...
  3. Most secure Phones – Solarin From Sirin Labs. ...
  4. Among the most secure Phones – Purism Librem 5. ...
  5. Sirin Labs Finney U1.
29 Apr 2022

What is a ghost phone? ›

One of the Urban Dictionary definitions of Ghost Phone is a phone that cannot be tracked. People in the U.K. use the term ghost phone number to describe a number that is not assigned to a physical location in the same area code.

What is the code to see if your phone is being tracked? ›

Diversion Code: *#21#

This means that calls won't even reach your phone, leaving fewer traces than a redirect. To know whether your calls are being diverted without you knowing, you can dial the *#21# USSD code. You should see a pop-up screen that displays the diversion status of calls, data, and more.

Is TracFone discontinuing flip phones? ›

Older style 3G models of Tracfones, flip phones, Jitterbugs, etc. will be discontinued as early as January 2022.

Why is it called a burner phone? ›

Back in the day (in this context, “the day” means the 90s and early 2000s), burner phones were physical throwaway phones that you could use whenever you didn't want you or your phone calls to be traced.

What network does TracFone run on? ›

TracFone is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which means that it doesn't actually have its own cellular network. Instead, MVNOs lease bandwidth from existing networks to bring service to their customers. Tracone actually uses the bandwidth of all three major networks: Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Can the burner app be traced? ›

In our guide on how to use Burner with your phone data, we've gone over how Burner works with your phone data, WiFi, and your data. But, can a Burner phone be traced if you're using our app? Nope.

Are burner phones anonymous? ›

Burner never shows your real number when you place a call or text someone. When you receive a call, Burner forwards calls from your burner numbers to your phone to stay anonymous. Whenever you place a call, it'll show up on someone else's phone bill as a call from your Burner number, nothing else.

Can two people have the same phone number? ›

There is no possible way someone can have the same number as someone else, at least not when it comes to GSM phones. Not unless this unknown person has cloned your SIM card, which is highly unlikely.

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