There are lots of reasons why you might want the best burner phone – and you don't need to be a drugs dealer! A super low-cost mobile phone that you can afford to lose or break can come in handy even for the non criminally minded.
After all, if your handset is a luxury model such as the iPhone 12 Pro, there are bound to be times when you'd want to leave such an expensive item at home and switch to something more disposable.
Even with Gorilla Glass, we’re still not even close to a smartphone screen that definitely won’t smash if you fall over with it while trying to compose a shot with your camera – so there are occasions when it might want to use a phone that you won't matter so much if it breaks.
Head to a music festival, a photography-filled hike on difficult terrain or a mire ambitious holiday and you might want to consider a second, cheap phone. That way your best camera phone can stay safe and home AND you can also take advantage of a more basic handset that can last for days without the need of recharging.
Most of our top “burner” phones last up to a week or more before needing a charge. Their plastic build is more forgiving to drops and bashes. And some of them cost less than a cheap bottle of wine at a bar.
However, there are a few things to consider. Most of these are 2G phones, the kind of connectivity we had before 3G mobile internet was introduced. This isn’t a fundamental issue everywhere, but it is in the US, where most 2G networks have been wound down (this hand table gives the dates for close-down of 2G and 3G networks around the globe). For best coverage worldwide, look for a 4G phone.
The simplest of these phones won’t let you check email, look at websites or use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Some of them don’t even have cameras. And those that do won’t take remotely good photos.
They also tend to use microSIMs rather than the nanoSIMs, now used by almost every single current smartphone. MicroSIMs are larger. You’ll either need to get a new SIM from your phone network or a converter, a little piece of plastic into which your normal SIM slots. You can buy these cheaply on eBay.
Still want a burner phone? Here are some of the mobiles you might want to consider.
Best burner phones in 2021
Nokia resurrected the 3310 in 2017. Don’t remember it? The Nokia 3310 was one of the iconic phones of the era in which normal people started buying mobiles and SMS’ing each other. They were heady days of T9 texting, extortionate ringtone “deals” and talking on desktops in chat rooms rather than social media.
This remake doesn’t look exactly like the original. It gets an upgrade to a 2.4-inch colour screen and a 2-megapixel rear camera — the early version had none — but does roughly imitate its cute curves. And you can, of course, play Nokia favourite Snake. It’s a much fancier, faster version than we had back in 2000 when the Nokia 3310 first arrived. You need a heaped serving of nostalgia to appreciate the original these days.
We recommend the 3G version of the Nokia 3310, as it makes the phone’s scant connected features much more useful.
The Nokia 3310 has the Opera browser, which you might want to use for some emergency info gathering when out and about. Plenty of websites won’t work on this WAP-based browser, but the Opera store lets you install some apps. We consider these for emergency use only too, as they are extremely rudimentary (and slow) compared to those of an Android smartphone.
You can even use Twitter and Facebook, but these are effectively “web apps”, little more than app menu shortcuts to these services’ websites. However, the plan when using phones like these is often to get away from the social media deluge. And even if you do use them, the clunky experience is unlikely to see you engrossed in the same way as you might be on your iPhone.
Other Nokia 3310 benefits include a microSD slot for up to 32GB of music storage, a nice-n-loud speaker and FM radio. The camera is, of course, rubbish and the D-pad small and fiddly. But this is one of the only “burner” phones you could call desirable or interesting, if mostly as a turn-of-the century call back.
This phone, available in pink, blue or black, is amongst the cheapest you’ll find so if you’re looking for a burner phone this should definitely be in the running. Despite the minimal barrier to purchase, this is still a fully-functional cell-phone, capable of holding up to 2000 names and numbers and a trail of up to 500 SMS messages.
Unlike its more expensive cousin, the 3310, there is no camera (just a flashlight), nor a web browser, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any distractions available; there is a 3.5mm headphone jack to let you listen to news, sport and music using the built-in FM radio, or of course the phone is pre-loaded with games including the classic Snake (a little more colorful than you might remember it from the 90s). There is no web browser, no social network support.
Durability is good, though the directional button could be a little easier for the big-fingered. The Nokia 105 has sold far, far more phones than you would likely guess. Its various versions had already shifted 200 million by 2017.
This is Alcatel’s alternative to the hugely successful Nokia 105. And at this price you don’t see a huge divergence in features. Their screen sizes and resolutions are similar, they are 2G only phones with minimal bonus features.
So, what’s different?
We think the Nokia 105 looks slightly less prosaic than the Alcatel 10.66, particularly if you buy one of the color versions. The Alcatel only comes in black.
However, after a play around we do think the Alcatel 10.66 D-pad feels slightly better than Nokia’s, if only because its larger squared-off shape makes mistaken presses slightly less likely. Digging a little further into the phone, we prefer the Nokia interface to the Alcatel’s, although this is largely down to how they handle text in the deeper menu structure. The two are fairly similar.
There are two more fundamental differences between these close rivals. The Nokia 105 has double the battery capacity of the Alcatel 10.66, with 800mAh rather than 400mAh. However, the 10.66 has a memory card slot for extra storage. You can load songs onto it and play them, although the music player software here is barebones and file type support is very limited. If you want a cheap portable music player phone, we’d suggest paying a little more.
The Alcatel 10.66 is also slightly thinner than the Nokia, no doubt helped by the smaller battery. But these are both chunky, if highly pocketable, little bricks. Want to play podcasts or the odd MP3 (and we do mean MP3)? Get the Alcatel. Rather have longer battery life? Pick the Nokia.
The large-button design is accompanied with a simple and clean operating system and an SOS button all designed with elderly users in mind though perfectly suited to acting as anyone’s emergency phone. As well as defining up to 5 numbers to be automatically called in sequence after a 1.5-second press of the SOS button, the OS has been used successfully by dementia patients as simple calls can be made without wading through menus, while the green call and red end buttons are simple but effective for those with failing eyesight.
Despite the accessible price tag there is even a camera (though not a lot of storage room for images, but you can solve that with an SD card). The phone is dual sim, but one will be enough for all the features required – a pay-as-you-go SIM from a network like GiffGaff is ideal. The only possible concern for those with limited dexterity is the USB charger, but with 10-12 days standby it’s possible you can help plug it in on visits. For excursions, a standard Nokia BP-4L battery can be used; at 25g each that’s a lot of potential standby time.
Doro makes phones primarily designed for older people and those with some form of physical impairment. But this makes them deliciously easy to use in a way any set of thumbs can appreciate.
The Doro 1370 does not use a tiny four-way d-pad, unlike almost every other popular feature phone. All its menus use simple up-down scrolling so it only needs two nav buttons.
Buying a Doro phone may seem like one of the least “cool” things you’ll do all year. But our digits are so used to touchscreens these days a phone designed for accessibility like the Doro 1370 may well be a much more comfortable fit than one that mimics feature popular phone designs from 1998-2005.
The Door 1370 also has dedicated shortcut buttons for its torch, the camera and the SMS section. And it is not completely without useful extras, even as a basic 2G mobile.
Bluetooth and music playback are those most likely to be appreciated. The Door 1370 has a microSD slot that supports cards up to 32GB, you can connect Bluetooth headphones or use a wired pair, and there’s a 3MP camera on the back. It’s a poor camera, of course, but some slightly cheaper feature phones do not have one at all.
The Doro 1370 also has an ICE (in case of emergency) button on the rear. A long press on this contacts people you specify in the menu system. This is designed primarily for vulnerable people who might, for example, be prone to falls. It may prove just as useful if your average photographic trip involves climbing up mountains, though.
You don’t have to make do with a low-smarts feature phone if your budget is very tight. But that does not mean a more advanced low-cost Android will actually be a better choice.
Granted, a phone like the Cubot J3 does let you do an awful lot more than a feature phone. You can play thousands more games and use core Android features like Google Play, Gmail and Maps.
Very cheap Androids like this tend to use Android Go, a cut-down version of the system designed for low-power processors and limited amounts of RAM. The Cubot J3 has 1GB, nowhere near enough for a satisfying experience with full-fat Android.
The Cubot J3 also has an 18:9 aspect screen, so doesn’t look like an outdated relic in person either. Using Android invites direct comparisons to much more capable phones, though, and you may find the shortfalls glaring. Even if your usual phone is a more conventional budget Android.
Expect poor camera quality, a fairly laggy interface and a relatively ugly screen. The Cubot J3 has a 5-inch 950 x 540 pixel display. This sounds fine for the price on paper, but it uses a twisted nematic style display, which looks flat-out bad some angles. And as a smartphone, you don’t get the long batter life benefits of the other phones here.
This does not mean the Cubot J3 is a terrible choice. But you need to load up on patience and enter expecting a below-par Android experience. Phones like this don’t half let you do a lot for the money, though, even if they don’t do much of it that well.
The 2019 Alcatel 1 is a 4G smartphone which might not quite match one of the flagship handsets from Apple or other leading brands, but you can have twenty of these for the same money as the fruit-based brand’s top model. There are a lot of reasons why you might want a burner like this too; when transitioning kids to smartphones it is best to start with something cheap you wouldn’t mind replacing, but at the same time you know the kids won’t be happy with a simple candy bar – this might be the solution.
Available since July 2018, this handset brings with it Android 8.1 Oreo (Go Edition) which is thoughtfully designed for folk using pay-as-you-go SIMs; the YouTube app even offers you lower video quality to save data charges. The camera is OK (except for real close up, which is unhelpful with small QR codes), and takes decent pics or 1080P video. The very latest Android 10 phones are now starting to become available at bottom end prices, so perhaps look for a Ulefone Note 8 if you can spend a little more, but the Alcatel 1 has everything you need for less.
Here’s a non-smart phone pick that stretches at the price definition of the kind of phones we’re looking to highlight here. But you will find it online for around $70 / £55.
This was the follow-up to the Nokia 3310. Nokia was no doubt encouraged by the waves of nostalgic interest the retro phone received. The original Nokia 8110 became famous in part for its use in The Matrix, the phone Neo used to communicate with his handlers out in the “real" world.
It was also known as the “banana phone” thanks to its curved shape, elongated when the call mic is flicked out. Nokia has leaned into this with the remake, selling a bright yellow version as well as the classic black.
But unlike the Nokia 3310, the Nokia 8110 is a different prospect to the original. The 1996 version was, at the time, a high-end executive phone. This is more a pastiche or ode to the past than a remake. It is nowhere near as well made, and we’d trust the Nokia 3310 to survive abuse more than the 8110, although the flick-out mechanism of the call mic does have some of the same satisfying executive stress toy appeal.
This is a 4G phone that ever-so-slightly blurs the border between feature phones and smart ones. It has GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1, and baked-in email and Google Maps support. However, it uses KaiOS rather than Android. App support is still very, very limited and the apps you do get feel quite clumsy and slow, not helped by now unfamiliar button-based control. The Nokia 8110 can do more than the other Nokias in this round-up, though.
Looking more like something created by Q-branch than anything else in this list, the Zanco Tiny T1 is very deliberately the smallest phone you can buy but, despite that, it is still able to make a call using a 2G cellular network. The quality is broadly comparable to any other handset of the era (this phone dates from 2018), and charging is simple via micro USB.
Obviously, being the width of a coin, the phone’s buttons are somewhat compact, but Zanco have managed to include Bluetooth 3 to enable you to copy contacts from another device, and – in keeping with the spy-phone feel – the other technology squeezed into this tiny frame is a voice changer. Squeezing a nanoSIM into the device is only one option; you can also use it as a Bluetooth speaker/mic for your regular phone. If you’re in the market for something to surprise and delight, want a novelty that actually works, or need something very, very discrete, this will work for you.
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