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How to pick a back-to-school phone plan

Selecting a cellphone service for your child is a bit more complicated than choosing one for yourself. To find the most cost effective ways of keeping your kids in touch, you should explore prepaid plans and second lines.
Image: Kid and phone
Monthly prepaid plans offer little savings over a family plan and don't provide parental controls, so aren't the best option for kids.Getty Images stock
/ Source: Techlicious

Selecting a cellphone service for your child is a bit more complicated than choosing one for yourself.

Cost is still important, of course, and both prepaid plans and adding a second line can work out to be a cost effective way of keeping your kids in touch. But parents should strongly consider what parental controls are available with each type of service before making a decision.

Do you want to ensure your child can reach you even if he or she has gone over the allotted number of minutes? Are you interested in making sure your child isn't texting under the covers until 2 a.m.? Or do you have concerns about your child encountering mature content?

You can manage all of these things with parental controls when you set up a second line on your account, but not with a prepaid phone.

Costs: Prepaid vs. second line
Your first instinct may be to go prepaid — it is the best way to ensure your extra-chatty teenager doesn't give you a nasty surprise at the end of the month by going over their minutes.

However, it may cost less to add a line to your existing account, depending on how your child will use the phone.

Take this example from AT&T using their lowest cost plans:

AT&T 550 Family (if you assign the extra 100 minutes you get when moving from the 450 minute individual plan)
What you get: $10 for 100 minutes per month, $10 per month for the second line.
Best for: Kids who use all their minutes and want the flexibility of using the phone any time.

AT&T $2 Daily Unlimited Talk and Text
What you get:
$2 for unlimited talk and text every day you use the phone.
Best for: Kids who talk occasionally.

AT&T Simple Plan (flat $0.25 rate for calls)
What you get: $25 for 100 minutes.
Best for: Kids who need an emergency-only phone.

Data vs. No-Data
Even most basic phones can send and receive email and photos, browse the web, stream music and run a limited number of apps. So if you plan on letting your child use these services, you'll need a data plan for your child's phone too. In which case, a Family Plan is the best way to go.

AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile treat data the same for basic phones and smartphones, letting you choose a 200 MB plan for either. Verizon has a 75 MB data plan for $10 per month that's only available for basic phones, while its entry level smartphone plan costs $30 for 2 GB.

If you eliminate data, you'll save between $5 and $30 per month.

Read: Should you buy your kid a smartphone?Comparing the plans
These charts of rates from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile (Sprint doesn’t offer daily plans) let you compare rates to see what will make the most sense for you.

Monthly prepaid plans offer little savings over a family plan and don't provide parental controls, so aren't the best option for kids. Pay special attention to the expiration dates on prepaid cards. Lower-priced plans expire in as little 30 days, and any unused minutes will be lost.

Image: Charts of prepaid daily calling plans and family plans

Parental controls for second lines
A huge benefit of adding a second line for your child on your account is that you can take control of how and when your child uses his or her phone; helping cut down on costs while keeping your child focused on schoolwork.

Parental controls also provide a measure of safety for your child. You can stop bullies from contacting your child by blocking their calls and texts; ensure that your child isn't exposed to mature content in online stores or while browsing the Internet; and even do a quick location check to ensure your latch-key kid has arrived safely home.

Control isn't free. Most of these parental control features come at a price of $5 per month and an additional fee for location tracking. Even if you don't subscribe initially, it's good to know what options are available should the need arise.

Keeping track of your kids
Of the four major carriers we looked at, three let you track the actual location of your child: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. Verizon's Chaperone service and Sprint’s Family Locator use GPS to pinpoint your child's location (which means you need a GPS-enabled phone), and even let you set up zones where your child is allowed to go — giving you an automatic alert (to either your cell phone or computer) if they leave that zone.

AT&T’s FamilyMap service will use GPS, if it’s available, or triangulation based on the location of cell phone tower. The latter isn’t quite as accurate, but works better indoors.

Talk time
T-Mobile and Verizon let you put a cap on minutes. And AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon let you limit phone use to specific times or days. Of course, your child can still make 911 calls to emergency services at any time, and T-Mobile lets you add up to ten always allowed numbers that your child can dial, even if he or she is over the limit on minutes.

Text messaging
While text messaging is all the rage with kids (as well as adults), there are a few good reasons for restricting this kind of communication. For starters, it can be a terrific time-waster and, if you don't get a plan with unlimited text messaging or a message plan, the costs can really add up.

But beyond that, you can protect your child from unwanted messages with number blocking. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon let you put a cap on the number of messages and Sprint lets you block the messaging feature. All let you block texts from specific numbers.

Entertainment on a mobile phone can be anything from games to music to ring tones to video. Downloading new content to a phone can cost extra on a pay-as-you-go service plan, so again, you need to put a cap on things or establish limits with your child.

While Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile make a big deal out of their entertainment offerings, they will let you set a spending cap. Sprint only allows you to turn this feature on or off. All have content filters that prevent your child from viewing mature content.

Image: Chart of parental cell phone controls by carrier

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