Phone card options
Find the prepaid card that best suits your needs
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 12:21 a.m.
When Macario Alejandro Garcia calls his family in Mexico, he uses a $5 phone card.
FYI: Tips for using phone cards
Reputable phone cards have fees and restrictions listed on the card. Comparison shop and then read the fine print carefully before buying a card. Here are five issues to consider when choosing a card:
- N.Y. Times Regional Newspaper Group
By shopping around for the best rates - generally 10 to 20 cents per minute - he can afford to phone home more often.
Consumers such as Garcia, who lives in Wilmington, N.C., are a big reason for the fast growth in prepaid phone cards. Sales have risen from about $750 million in 1995 to more than $3.6 billion today, according to the Boston research firm Atlantic-ACM.
It's hard to miss the cards, sprouting around checkout counters in convenience stores, gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores. In tiendas, the specialty shops appealing to Latin-American immigrants, the different cards can cover an entire wall.
Latinos and other immigrants are a major chunk of the market in the United States, using the cards to call relatives and friends back in the old country.
"Of the Latino community here, easily, 99 percent of them use them," said Lucy Vasquez, director of Centro Latino in Wilmington, N.C. "Not just to Mexico but all over. It's the cheapest way to communicate by phone."
Immigrants aren't the whole story, though.
College students often use the cards to phone home, especially since card calls can be cheaper than calling collect. Business travelers often use them to avoid hotel surcharges for phone calls.
Often the prepaid cards are cheaper than a long-distance company's calling card.
A growing number of consumers use the cards in place of a long-distance calling plan. Some folks who use long distance a lot have cut their telephone bills in half, according to Consumer Reports.
Prepaid phone cards - with which you buy your minutes in advance - are also an excellent way to manage long-distance use, advises Consumer Action, a nonprofit advocacy agency based in San Francisco.
Vasquez agrees. "If some people get on a calling plan, they might talk on and on, and the bills can be outrageous," she said. Sometimes, over-phoning can spoil newcomers' credit. Vasquez suggests that clients rely on phone cards entirely and avoid long-distance plans, at least at first.
Which cards are best?
All phone cards, however, are not created equal.
Some cards boast incredibly low charges, as little as 1 cent per minute. Those bargain rates might conceal hidden fees, though, that can erase any "savings."
Which cards are the best? It often isn't easy to tell.
"It's very, very difficult for consumers to do," said Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. "I wish it weren't so."
Consumer groups agree that some of the best prepaid cards are carried by the shopping clubs - in particular, the MCI card offered by Costco and the AT&T card carried by Sam's Club.
Sherry also notes low costs among "virtual" cards that can be bought online at such Web sites as BigZoo.com or CallingCards.com. For a fee, the sites e-mail a PIN number to consumers, which can then be used to place telephone calls.
Beyond that point, it's sometimes hard to tell which card is best. Sometimes, the answer depends on how you use your telephone.
First off, check both the per-minute rate and the fees.
Some cards charge a 50-cent connection fee, or even more, each time you make a call.
The government authorizes an extra 28-cent fee for each call from a pay phone, to reimburse the phone company for maintaining the line. Some companies, however, raise that to 75 cents or $1 per pay phone call, pocketing the difference. Some companies even charge extra for calls to cell phones.
On some cards, there may be a surcharge of up to $3 for each international call, according to the New York State Attorney General's Office. Some cards simply tack on an extra 25 percent for "taxes."
Some cards might also add a "maintenance fee" for handling your card, added in monthly, weekly or even daily, Sherry said.
Sometimes, though, a card with high fees might be the better investment. If you plan to make just one or two very long calls on your card, a high connection fee might be worth the trade-off for the much lower rates.
Another issue involves "rounding." When calculating minutes of phone time used, most companies round up to the nearest full minute. Some, however, have a six-minute rule, warns New York's attorney general: a one-minute call could wound up being counted as a six-minute call. Generally, the less "rounding" a company does, the more you save.
Check if a card has an expiration date. Some cards offer many minutes, but they must be used in a ridiculously short time after purchase. For example, a card might be valid for one year after purchase, but the fine print will reveal that it expires 90 days after you make your first call.
Deals on overseas cards vary greatly from country to country. A prepaid phone card that offers a bargain on calls to Mexico, for example, will not likely be as good for calls to Europe or even within the United States, Sherry said.
Some low-fee international services might come with poor connections; Internet-based systems, for example, may be prone to echoes and delays.
Generally, it's a good idea to buy phone cards that are "rechargeable" - in other words, you can order extra minutes via phone or the Internet with a debit or credit card. The Sam's AT&T card offers this option; so do the AT&T cards sold by the U.S. Postal Service.
Often (but not always) you get a better per-minute price for phone time by buying cards with larger blocks of time, Consumer Action advises. As always, factor in the per-call connection and maintenance fees.
Ben Steelman writes for the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C. Amy Hotz contributed to this article.
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