Smartphones earn their place in our everyday carry thanks to their extreme functionality yet pose a very real security threat as they continue to store and collect huge amounts of information about us, often without the user’s knowledge. Burner phones aim to address this by offering an alternative communications method completely stripped of your identity. This means when it is time to burn, or get rid of, a phone, they can easily be disposed of without any collected data being tied back to you.
Sourcing a burner phone correctly can be a challenge, but as we will see, is often well worth the investment to protect your identity. So, let’s look at exactly what a burner phone is and answer if it might just be the tool for you.
What does Your Smart Phone Say About You?
From the moment you purchase your smartphone, it becomes linked to you.
If you buy a contract or pay for a device with your credit card, your phone’s Mobile Equipment Identifier (MEID) permanently becomes linked to your name and accounts.
Once out of the box and loaded with all of your account information and personal details, our phones become silent reconnaissance devices, tracking your every move and action.
It is possible to minimize how much data our phones obtain, but with so much of their use relying on access to our information, we often compromise a phones functionality in the name of security.
So how do we continue to enjoy the luxuries of our modern smart phones, while still maintaining security and control over our digital profile?
Why is it Called a Burner Phone?
If you spend any time watching modern crime dramas or spy movies, it’s likely you’ve heard the term “burner” thrown around. You may even know their intended purposes, but where does the name come from?
The term was first popularized on a broader scale in the early 2000’s with HBO’s The Wire, but the concept of “burning” confidential information dates back much earlier to the world of tradecraft.
Here, when an agent’s identity or base would be exposed, they would be forced to burn all compromising information in the hopes of preventing critical data from falling into the wrong hands.
In the same way confidential information is burned in the hopes of disposing of it, burner phones get their name as they are purchased and used with the knowledge that should they ever be compromised.
The phone can easily be disposed of and “burned” with almost no connection back to you and your activities.
We’ll look at exactly what a burner phone is and how to use one in the following sections, but for now, the most important thing to remember is their disposability.
While there are some smaller differences between a standard cell phone and a burner device, including how you use it, it is the speed at which a phone may be disposed of and replaced that truly makes burner phones such a valuable tool within your communications plan.
What is a Burner Phone Used For?
Burner phones in recent years have become synonymous with criminal activity, being particularly popular among drug dealers and others, but their uses go far beyond helping a criminal make a living or threatening our livelihood.
Their applications may not appear obvious when compared to other secondary comms devices such as HAM radios, but in spite of this, it’s safe to say almost everyone can find at least one purpose for a burner in their life.
The first and arguably most obvious is simply as a backup cell phone in the event your network provider goes dark or phone breaks during a critical time.
As most of us will leave a burner phone off and in a bag between uses, they’re generally more protected from damage while the battery is able to last considerably longer than our EDC phones.
This makes them an ideal back up device when the worst happens and it’s critical to make a call out.
Secondly, they can dramatically improve your security by providing you an alternative number for you to distribute with virtually no risk of the number being tied back to you.
Whether this is given to questionable contacts who may pose a direct threat to you, or even as an easy way to avoid spam calls when searching for your next insurance policy, a secondary number offers a unique luxury most of us are not used to.
Finally, the ability to reliably share information with the knowledge it will not compromise you cannot be overstated.
This is growing ever more important as modern communications platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, continue locking down speech they deem as “dangerous”.
Whether you agree with it or not, users essentially agree with they fact they can be restricted at any given time.
SMS and calls are subject to nowhere near the same restrictions as social media conglomerates, meaning when your message truly matters, it may be better to free yourself from oppressive terms of services and fall back to a more traditional means of communication.
Are Burner Phones Legal?
If there’s a place in your communication plan or everyday carry for a burner phone, it’s important to know their legality before moving forward and integrating such a device in your EDC.
As their use is overwhelmingly associated with criminal activity, it makes sense to assume the ownership and use of a burner phone may be illegal, but this could not be further from the truth.
Just like almost all other tools we use in our daily lives, it is much more a matter of how you use your burner than simply owning a phone that would lead you to falling into any potential legal trouble.
With that said, if you’re ever to some sort of search or regularly have to go through security checkpoints, some people may find having a secondary phone suspicious, leading you prone to increased scrutiny and interrogation.
In situations where you think having a secondary cell phone may get you into trouble, the beauty of these devices truly shine as you can simply burn the phone and replace it when the next opportunity arises.
What is the Difference between a Burner Phone and a Prepaid Phone?
Now we know some of the roles a burner phones can fill and that you can legally own one, it’s important to understand exactly what makes a burner phone and how you can use one effectively.
First, it is important to understand the differences between burner phones and your traditional prepaid cell phone as this will likely remove a large amount of mystery behind the devices.
Generally, all burner phones start their life as a prepaid cell phone, but the differences arise in both how you first purchase and use your cell phone.
Prepaid cell phones are ideal for this role as you are not signed into a contract or subject to any form of credit check when purchasing your device, which dramatically helps minimize the paper trail left being with your purchase.
Choosing to use a prepaid device over a contract is also extremely important when considering the disposability of burner phones, as it makes no sense to sign into a multi-year contract when you may have to dispose of the device after only a few weeks of usage.
Whether you choose to purchase your phone and sim card together or separately, the most important thing to remember is the freedom offered by a prepaid device is crucial to effectively using a burner phone.
Can you Text on a Burner Phone?
As burner phones are essentially no different from regular cell phones, just applied to a rather unique use case, they’re capable of exactly the same functionality of your normal phone.
Whether you want to make a call, send a text, or even browse the internet, a burner phone should be able to meet all your needs and then some.
With that said, it is still important to be considerate of the information you send within your text messages as any information stated explicitly may allow someone to link the phone to you.
For truly sensitive information, it’s typically best to share this through a voice call to prevent the phone from storing any information on you, but for non-compromising text messages, a burner phone should be more than able to meet your needs.
How Much Does a Burner Phone Cost?
Unlike all other equipment we may buy, burner phones often have incredibly short lifespans down even to a few days depending on your needs, security concerns, and use cases.
For most people in the general public, it’s likely a burner phone can last considerably longer times spanning over weeks or months, but the general principles still remain.
Eventually, a time will come where you need to ditch your phone at a moment’s notice without being concerned about throwing an expensive piece of technology in the garbage.
The disposable nature of all burner phones means we’re often looking to spend as little as possible on a phone in order to make sure they are both easily obtainable and can be disposed of with no second thoughts.
This means we’re looking for the cheapest device available that still has the functionality to meet our communications needs.
In America, these devices typically start from as little as $15.00, with various devices available from providers such as TracFone, US Cellular, and Cricket.
Simple cell phones are ideal for use as a burner phone, but for those who need slightly more out of their device, even android powered smartphones can be purchased for just over $30.00.
Once you have a phone you’re comfortable using, they can be loaded with just enough minutes to keep you operational and ready to go.
We’ll look at the differences between using a standard cell phone versus a smartphone later, but the most important aim with a burner phone is to try and source one for as little money as possible.
When the time comes to burn a phone, we often need to be able to act decisively, and the less value or importance you place on these devices, the better.
How Can I Buy a Burner Phone?
For any burner phone, it’s important we go with either a prepaid or unlocked cell phone to avoid any background checks that may otherwise connect the device to us. But, there are other important considerations that must be kept in mind when actually going to buy your phone.
First, as we’re attempting to minimize the paper trail left behind with any purchase of the device, it’s important to purchase these phones in cash.
This not only conceals the purchase of your new burner phone from any bank statement but more importantly prevents companies such as Amazon from associating the device’s MEID number to your email address.
Use a Big Box Store
Secondly, it is generally worth making your purchase from big box stores such as Walmart or Target.
While these often have greater security, including cameras surrounding a technology department, they experience a much greater amount of foot traffic allowing you to blend into a crowd and prevent individual purchases from being identified more easily.
Another location I frequently use to source prepaid sim-cards is at the arrival gates of most airports.
Again, as these areas are extremely busy and purchases can often be made directly through vending machines, they can help to minimize any suspicion from staff if you choose to purchase multiple sim cards in a single purchase.
Finally, depending on how frequently you are purchasing your burner phones, it is often worth alternating between different stores with each purchase, as this will prevent any pattern in your behavior from becoming apparent to a third party monitoring you.
Where you choose to purchase prepaid sim cards and devices is largely a matter of personal preference, but as long as all of your payments are made in cash, it’s hard to get it wrong.
Can Smartphones be Used as a Burner Phone?
The security offered by burner phones largely comes from the simplicity of these devices.
A simple flip phone capable of only making two-way calls and SMS messaging stores a remarkably small amount of data on its users when compared to smartphones.
Devices such as the Moto E6 from Motorola, with access to a range of personal accounts and GPS data, stores a huge amount of information about us.
So knowing this, can you still use a smartphone as your burner device?
In short, it is possible but you have to be extremely considerate of the accounts linked to the device and the permissions you grant the operating system access to.
I typically use fake accounts wherever possible when using a smart burner phone. I also turn off all non-essential features unless absolutely necessary, such as only enabling my GPS for short periods of time.
This may happen when I am either lost or trying to navigate somewhere I do not want to store on my personal device.
The added risk to your security is present when using a smart burner, but that does not mean they are without their benefits, including:
- VPN protected internet access for OSINT
- High quality digital cameras for documentation and reconnaissance
- App store support for mission critical apps (such as GPS trackers)
Whether you choose to go with a cell phone or smartphone entirely depends on how you intend to integrate the device into your communications plan.
As long as you are careful in managing the additional risks posed by the device, there is not much to stop you from using a smart phone in this way.
What are the Best Choices for a Burner Phone?
Unlike other communications systems such as HAM radios (with the BaoFeng UV-5R) where it is easy to recommend a single device, there is a huge number of phones available that can be considered suitable for use as a burner phone.
As this is largely dependent on your budget, the stores available to you, and your needs from the device, it seemed more fitting to highlight a few devices I have previously deployed as burner phones to help find one suitable to your needs.
US Cellular ANS F30
For those unsure if a burner phone may even be for them, the ANS F30 is a perfect phone to start with at only $14.99 from Walmart.
The device is small enough to conceal relatively easily while keeping all of the controls accessible in both gloved and wet hands meaning even in the worst situations, you should still be able to get a call out.
Although reviews of the device are relatively mixed, I’ve yet to experience any problems with my devices in the past but that does not mean the devices are perfect.
As flip phones have become ever more rare these days, they do have a tendency to draw attention in public while the fragile hinge mechanism on cheaper phones also leaves the device prone to damage.
Phones of this style have become more and more available from a range of suppliers for less than $20, so for a phone that is able to do almost everything that should be expected of a basic burner phone, it’s hard to beat a classic.
The LG Journey is one of the most affordable android phones on the market starting at only $29.99, yet packs almost all of the features you can expect from a high-end device.
Unlike some other budget devices, such as those from Huawei, LG is an incredibly reputable brand so there is very little concern about the device being preloaded with potential foreign spyware.
More importantly than this phone’s features and security, as the LG looks almost identical to other smartphones released in recent years, there is much less concern regarding using the device in public making it an excellent choice for those looking for a smart burner, without breaking the bank.
Given that most data gathered by your smartphone is collected and used by Google, it may seem unusual to see a Google Pixel being recommended as a burner phone. But for those comfortable with technology, this may be an excellent choice.
Thanks to Graphene OS, a custom operating system that can only be installed on Google phones, it is possible to access almost all the capabilities of a smartphone while being completely free from the many questionable practices of Google.
These devices are expensive, but for those with the knowledge and ability to change your phones operating system, the freedom of Graphene OS may just be worth the cost if you are serious about protecting your digital security.
Can I Use a Preowned Phone as a Burner?
If you’re trying to source a phone on a budget, it’s not uncommon to take a look at the preowned market and it is arguably just as tempting for a burner phone.
While these devices are incredibly appealing, especially considering it is possible to save hundreds of dollars by going preowned, they aren’t without their limitations.
The biggest concern with using a preowned phone in this manner is that although most devices are reset to factory conditions, it may still be possible to link the MEID of the phone to a previous user and in turn, who the phone was sold to and any activity carried out on the device.
That’s not to say a burner phones can’t be sourced from the preowned market, but rather that it is often a much better choice to pay the additional cost for a new device completely free of any history from a previous user.
How to Set Up a Burner Phone?
Assuming you are able to purchase a burner phone anonymously using cash, it is incredibly easy to set up your device and get it ready for use.
Once you’ve installed your sim card and the basic set up of your phone is complete, all that is left to do is activate your sim.
While most prepaid sims can be activated by calling a number provided with the card, certain providers require you to activate your card through their own website.
Website activation is less ideal than simply calling a number, but if you have a fake email address to use with the device, it can be easily achieved using either a VPN or public hotspot to get your device ready to go.
If you’ve chosen to go with a standard cell phone as your burner, your set up is fully complete and you’re ready to start securely making phone calls and sending text messages. But, for those of us who prefer smart burner phones, the set up slightly more complicated.
Smartphones will typically prompt you to sign into various accounts during your initial set up, and therefore require some access to WIFI.
To avoid using an IP address already linked to you, it is worth using a public internet source (such as coffee shop or restaurant) to sign into a fake account before activating your sim card and to get your phone up and running.
While here, it’s normally best to take the opportunity to disable all security privileges on your device before downloading and enabling a VPN which should remain active for the duration you keep your phone.
These two measures alone dramatically help to protect you and your device from any information it may otherwise record about you and is crucial in allowing you to start using your burner phone securely.
How to Use a Burner Phone?
After your sim card is activated, your burner phone is completely ready to be worked into a communications plan. But to boost your security, there are some special considerations to keep in mind during your daily usage.
Power Up Only When Needed
One of the more obvious considerations is that when you don’t actually need to use your burner phone, it should be powered off unless you are expecting or making a call.
This not only extends the battery of your phone considerably, but also prevents the phone from connecting to local cell towers that can help close in on the location of your device.
Do Not Store Contacts
Additionally, as you are attempting to minimize the amount of information stored on your device, any numbers you call or text should be entered manually to prevent a contact list from ever being used against you.
With that in mind, it may be time to start memorizing phone numbers again.
Finally, even though you may not be discarding the phone on a regular basis, it is also good practice to regularly wipe your phone of all messages and phone calls.
These messages are often retrievable to those with the technical knowledge, but at the very least will stop individuals going through your phone from finding any compromising information should they ever briefly gain access to your device.
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember when using your burner phone is just to be cautious about any personal information you enter into the device so when you decide to burn the phone, it should hold almost no information to tie it back to you.
How to Dispose of a Burner Phone?
If you’ve been using a burner phone correctly and have stored a minimal amount of information on the device during the time it was in operation, burning a phone, in theory, is as simple as throwing it away and not looking back.
In spite of how easy this is to do, there are still some steps you can take to better dispose of your burner phone to separate the device from you.
At the very least, I like to remove the sim card and dispose of this separately before performing a factory reset of the phone in order to safely toss the phone.
You can go one step further, such as by breaking the phone with a rock or hammer, but there are some risks associated with this as the lithium battery found in cell phones is prone to rupturing which can result in extremely dangerous explosions.
If you feel this step is necessary, it’s often better to simply leave the phone submerged in water for an extended period of time, frying the circuits and preventing the phone from becoming operational again.
These additional steps are not always necessary, but can help mitigate the risks to your security in the event you ever accidentally leave confidential information on your burner phone.
When used correctly, burner phones can be extremely valuable tools offering you a secure back-up option when you cannot trust your EDC cell phone.
While their use cases may appear relatively niche at first, their low price and huge range of applications mean these devices can be worked into almost any communication plan extremely easily.
Burner phones can be a great addition to any communication plan, but if you’re looking at developing your plan further to include a more reliable means of communication, be sure to check out our introduction to satellite phones and HAM Radios for a great place to dive in.