Choosing a cell phone plan for kids and teenagers

Summary: How to find the right phone and plan for your child, tween or teen.

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Cell phones are becoming increasingly appealing to younger age groups, with more and more parents caving into their child's demands for a phone of their very own. And while having a means to contact your child wherever they are offers peace of mind to anxious parents, there's no denying that for kids tween-age and upwards, having a phone is as much about fitting in socially as it is about appeasing the needs of overprotective moms and dads.

If you have made the decision to let your child have their own phone, you might be facing the task of figuring out what kind of plan would be best for their needs. It’s no secret that when it comes to money (in particular, their parent’s money) kids don’t always make the smartest decisions, which is why it’s so important to make the right choice concerning a potentially costly investment such as a phone - especially if you’ll be footing the bill.

We’ve come up with some tips for finding a plan that best suits the needs of your child (and your wallet), and offered a few suggestions to help you narrow it down.

Questions to ask before deciding on a plan

Before you go rushing out to buy the latest and most expensive smartphone on a top tier plan, there are several things you need to consider.

  • What will they be using it for? Younger children will just need a way of contacting parents in an emergency, and a means for parents to contact and locate them. Tweens will probably want to be able to text and call their friends as well as family. Teens and older will want to be able to access social networks and browse the web as well as contact friends.
  • For older children – which provider are their friends with? Many networks will offer free talk and text between customers, so in this case going with the crowd could save you a lot of money (so long as you'll receive good network coverage in your area).
  • Which handset has the features you’ll need? Smaller children don’t need smartphones – a basic cell is enough. Are your children likely to pester for an upgrade to the latest and greatest device? This could be a problem if you get locked into a contract, so SIM only or monthly plans may be a better option. And if your child has a track record of not exactly being responsible with their possessions, getting the coolest and costliest new phone on a contract is only going to lead to trouble.
  • Who will be paying for it? Prepaid plans can help teach teens the value of money if they pay for it themselves. The biggest benefit of prepaid is no nasty bill shock at the end of the month – you pay for your calls, texts and data use in advance, so it’s perfect for youngsters learning how to budget, or parents wanting to avoid bill-related heart attacks.
  • Can you change your mind? Before getting locked into a 24-month contract it's best to consider what it will cost you to switch or cancel the plan if it's not meeting the needs of your child. Plans with no fixed term are often more economical as they allow flexibility without slugging you with extra fees.
  • For post-paid plans - what charges apply if your child exceeds their limit? Although we don't recommend an individual post-paid plan for children and teens, because of how easy it can be to run up costly additional charges to the monthly minimum cost, if you are looking at this option it's important to compare call, text and data costs as these can vary between carriers - although many offer unlimited plans if you're willing to pay extra.

Family and mobile share plans

Some carriers still offer 'family plans' to help parents monitor and control their children's cell phone use. These plans allow parents to add additional lines for a set fee per phone, but is a practical way for them to keep track of their child's phone habits and make sure they don't overspend.

T-Mobile's Family Plans include unlimited talk and text for all devices connected, and customers can link up to five devices to their account. Customers can also set family allowances to manage the minutes, messages and downloads used by each line on their Family account, for an additional $4.99 each month..

Verizon Wireless' Share Everything plans allow you to connect up to 10 devices to the one plan. Customers can enjoy unlimited talking and texting and share a monthly data allowance starting at 500MB. However, at a minimum cost of $80 each month for one smartphone and 500MB of data, Verizon's plans aren't the cheapest on offer.

AT&T's Mobile Share Plans include unlimited talk and text and shared data, started at $20 each month for 300MB. You can also bring your own device and receive a $15 discount on your monthly service fee. Depending on the plan, you can add up to 10 devices to one account.

Sprint's Unlimited, My Way plans have replaced its previous Family Plans options. Plans start at $50 each month for a single device with unlimited talk and text, with additional charges for data that can be shared with up to 10 devices. Sprint also offer unlimited and unthrottled high-speed data on all mobile plans.

Prepaid plans

Prepaid plans are an ideal option for teens who'll be paying for their cell themselves, or parents wanting to avoid the stress of unexpected charges appearing on their monthly bill. Having a set limit of minutes and data that they can't go over allows young people to limit and control their phone use, especially if they'll be the ones paying the bill; it's a great tool to help teach them responsibility and budgeting.

Monthly plans can start at around $10 a month and go up to the more top tier unlimited plans, where you'll be looking at $80 - $100 monthly depending on how much data your teen requires (or demands).

Most carriers also have the option of pay-as-you-go deals where customers only pay for the minutes, texts and web browsing that they actually use, although you'll usually find that the value of each call, message or megabyte is inflated compared to buying in blocks through regular plans.

If you're allowing a child access to a cell solely as a means of contacting you, and not talking and texting friends or playing on Facebook, this may be more suitable than a plan where you're paying for more minutes than your kids will use.

The other benefit of prepaid plans, aside from making it easier to control spending, is that many are available without needing to sign up to a long-term contract - you can cancel any time without incurring penalties.

And lastly, many prepaid offers are also bring your own phone/SIM only, so instead of shelling out for a new cell for your son or daughter, parents are able to connect a hand-me-down phone to a prepaid plan (see our SIM only guide to find out more about how these plans work).

Virgin Mobile and US Cellular's prepaid plans both feature unlimited minutes and texting options (as well as data) for $50 or less each month.

Kajeet plans for kids

If you're looking for an extra level of reassurance, Sprint MVNO Kajeet is 'designed for kids by parents' and offers plans specifically aimed at parents wanting to monitor their child's cellphone use. All plans are prepaid, and come with some pretty unbeatable levels of parental control.

You can control when you child's phone can and cannot be used, which contacts your child can communicate with, and what websites and applications - if any - if your child can view. You can also nominate who will pay for specific calls and texts and set usage limits, and use GPS to see your child's location and receive alerts when they have arrived safely at a destination such as school or work.

Plans start from $4.99 each month up to $49.99 for unlimited calls, texts and 2GB of data. Kajeet runs on the Sprint network and customers can bring their own Sprint-compatible device, or purchase from a variety of Android phones available. Parents can opt for a monthly plan or pay a 32c per day connection fee to use the service.

Zact Mobile

Another Sprint MVNO, newcomer Zact Mobile also provides excellent parental control options for anxious moms and dads. Account holders are able to set restrictions on their children's Zact phones in order to decide who their child can contact, how frequently and at what times of the day.

Zact's plans are also highly customizable, allowing users to select individual amounts of talk time, texts and data use, which they can change as often as needed. There are no unlimited options, but if your child is a light-to-medium phone user, Zact's pay-for-what-you-use system may be an ideal choice.

The company has also partnered with Disney to release a child-friendly smartphone, the ZTE Awe. The Android phone comes pre-loaded with child-safe Disney apps and access to Disney content, as well as standard smartphone features such as a 5-megapixel camera and 4-inch display.

Other things to remember before you decide

  • Your child must be 18 before they can sign a contract (and even 19 or 21 in some states) so chances are the phone will be in your name. That means that large bills and missed payments are legally your responsibility, so be careful if you decide on a post-paid plan.
  • Be wary of premium content, such as downloading ringtones or games or sending texts to promotional services - they’re charged at a much higher rate than standard texts and downloads and are usually not covered by plan inclusions.
  • For smartphones running applications such as games: be aware that allowing apps to run in the background, or enabling automatic notifications for things such as Facebook or email, uses up both data and battery life. You can always disable automatic notifications through the 'Settings' option on your child's phone.

For other advice on how to avoid excessive monthly charges, check out our guide to preventing bill shock on data plans.

Having their own cell phone can be a great way to for a child to develop responsibility and independence, and can give a sense of security to parents anxious about being able to stay in touch with their kids. Taking the time to find the right device and plan to match their needs will allow them to make the most of their phone, by spending the least amount of money.


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