How-tos

What Is a Burner Phone, and When Should You Use One?


A hand holding an old feature phone.
Tacio Philip Sansonovski/Shutterstock.com

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.

A “burner SIM” is a related term, and refers to a cheap, prepaid SIM card that you can insert into another phone. You may plan on only using the SIM card for a limited period of time and not linking it to your real identity.

What Is a Burner?

A burner phone is a cheap, prepaid mobile phone that the owner generally doesn’t intend to use long term. These phones have traditionally been purchased with cash to avoid any kind of paper trail that would tie the phone number to an individual.

The term was popularized in the hit 2002 HBO series The Wire, where “burners” were used to avoid detection by authorities. Once a number was suspected of being compromised, the device was discarded or “burned” so that the trail would go cold.

Since the rise of iPhones and Android devices, burners are more commonly referred to as “feature phones” or “dumb phones,” since the smartphones of today didn’t exist in the early 2000s. While the term “burner phone” is still common, SIM cards could also be used in such a manner.

Instead of purchasing an entirely new device, a burner SIM can be used in a smartphone to switch between numbers for a variety of reasons. Some smartphones can even accommodate more than one SIM at a time for this purpose.

With that in mind, some of the applications of a burner phone rely solely on having a second dedicated device you can use.

Why Would You Use a Burner?

You might use a burner phone or a SIM to protect your identity. If you can manage to procure a handset or SIM card that isn’t linked to your real-world identity, you can use the number without the risk of being identified.

There are all sorts of reasons that someone might want to remain anonymous. Maybe you’re phoning in an anonymous tip to an employer. Maybe you would like to use a secure messaging service like Signal or Telegram without disclosing your primary phone number.

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Maybe you’re trying to avoid giving your main phone number to marketers who will likely send you follow-up messages—like when you’re viewing a real estate listing or looking for insurance quotes.

Since burner phones are feature phones, they are severely limited in their abilities. Most lack cameras or access to a modern browser, and are instead limited to phone calls and text messaging. Since they are relatively lightweight devices, they have excellent battery life, too.

Many such devices will last for days on a single charge, and sometimes even months if you use the battery sparingly. This makes burner phones ideal for use in an emergency. They are often found in emergency survival kits since they can be charged and turned off until they are required. A burner phone is a spare phone with long battery life that doesn’t need an expensive cell phone plan—what’s not to like?

RELATED: Signal vs. Telegram: Which Is the Best Chat App?

A Burner Doesn’t Guarantee Anonymity

If you’re buying a burner phone for privacy reasons that extend beyond simply using the number to send anonymous Signal messages or avoiding spam, be aware that no cell phone provides you with true anonymity.

It’s all about your “threat model”—what threats are you trying to protect your privacy from?

Just think about the process of getting a burner phone from the store. Let’s say that you drive to a store, buy the burner phone with a credit card, drive home, and turn it on.

In the process of this: If you took your normal phone with you, your cellular carrier will know that you were at the store at the time the phone was purchased. License plate cameras on the route may have captured your license plate and recorded your movements. A camera in the store may have recorded you buying the phone. Your credit card company will have a record of you buying the phone. When you turn the phone on at home, the cellular carrier your phone uses will have a pretty good idea of where your home address is.

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And if you carry your burner phone and normal phone at the same time and both are powered on, anyone looking at cellular phone records can get a pretty good idea that those phones are owned by the same person.

Yes, that’s a lot of ways that you could be traced by an adversary with serious resources. If you’re really trying to evade government authorities—well, good luck. You’ll need it.

On the other hand, if you just want a new phone number that isn’t directly and easily linked to your identity by the companies you deal with and the people you call, that’ll do just fine.

And if you’re not looking for anonymity and just want a secondary cell phone with long battery life for use in emergencies, this doesn’t really matter.

RELATED: Can Anyone Really Track My Phone’s Precise Location?

Where to Get a Burner Phone or SIM

Convenience stores and electronic retailers will sell prepaid SIM cards and burner phones. Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and other similar stores will have a good selection of cheap devices or SIM-only plans that allow you to call and text, and not much else. You can often buy prepaid SIM cards from corner stores like 7-Eleven and drugstores like Rite Aid.

You should expect to pay between $10 and $50 for a cheap burner, depending on the features you want. Plans start at around $10, but ultimately, it depends on your intended usage. Most burners are used purely for texting and calling, and any additional features on top of that (touchscreens, cameras, etc.) may be surplus to requirement and a waste of battery life.

Nokia 110
Nokia

The Nokia 110 is a simple 2G feature phone that provides up to 14 hours of talk on a single charge. The BLU Z5 is similarly priced and even has a camera. The Nokia 1.3 is one of the most “advanced” cheap handsets, though it will cost you around $100 and runs Android 10.

If you’re really looking for anonymity, how far you want to go in anonymizing your purchase is up to you. You could ask someone else to buy it for you, or ask them to purchase you a gift card, which you then might use to buy the phone. You could also use cash in person. For the sake of anonymity, you probably want to avoid using your credit or debit card, so purchasing from an online retailer is probably not the best idea.

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If you’re only purchasing a burner to throw into a survival kit or to keep in the car for emergencies, you can comb the web for the best deals without worrying about privacy implications. Amazon, eBay, or your preferred local service provider are great places to start.

What About Google Voice and Other Services?

If you’re simply looking for a second number that you can use to call and text from a computer, or to use with a service like Signal or Telegram, consider VoIP services. Google Voice, Skype, and other internet telephony providers can give you a number that you can use for basic texting and calling.

Google Voice only works in the U.S., but it’s free and easy to sign up for. You can register a new Google Account to use with your new number and take precautions like hiding your IP address using a VPN. Other providers exist, but they will likely charge you for a number (and that may require linking your card).

Google Voice
Google

RELATED: What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?

Burn After Reading

If you’re using a burner for privacy reasons, make sure that you take appropriate steps to distance your identity from your purchase. If your interest in a burner is purely for emergency or backup use, make sure that you charge the phone before you stow it (and consider an AA battery charger).

Wondering how you can charge your burner while away from a power outlet? Learn how to charge your phone in the middle of nowhere. If you’re wondering how police have tackled this phenomenon in the past, consider watching The Wire.

RELATED: How to Charge Your Smartphone While Camping





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