How to Get Approved for a Cell Phone with Bad Credit

It’s common for people with bad credit to get turned away when trying to buy a cell phone and set up wireless service.

Most phone carriers still check your credit. However, bad credit does not necessarily mean going without cellular service or a new iPhone.

Key Points

  • The easiest way to get a cell phone with bad credit is to buy a prepaid phone and plan
  • Many of the most popular service providers offer some type of prepaid plan with no credit check: This includes AT&T, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless and Metro by T-Mobile.
  • A pre-owned, unlocked phone can also be a good option
  • Even the major cell phone providers offer prepaid plans now
  • You can ask a family member to add you to an existing plan
  • Take some time to build credit before you try to finance a new phone

Pro tip: T-Mobile used to offer a “No Credit Check 10GB” plan. That plan is now retired and not accepting new customers.

Four Ways to Buy a Phone With No Credit Check

Considering the number of TV ads that tout free phones, it seems like getting a new phone should be easy. However, those “free” phones require a lengthy cell phone contract, and the carrier will almost certainly run a hard credit check to ensure you’ll pay your bills.

And given the skyrocketing retail value of most phones, most customers end up financing their $1,000 phones for fixed payments each month, which, once again, will require a credit check.

Though you don’t technically have to have a cell phone to survive, it makes essential functions like job searches much simpler. But it can be tough to qualify for a plan if you have bad credit. Here are the best ways to get a phone with no credit check.

1. Use a Prepaid Phone Without a Contract

For the ultra budget-conscious, a prepaid phone with a pay-as-you-go plan is the best bet. You see these phones when you shop at Target, Walmart or even your local grocery store. They start at around $10 for a super basic phone and can run up to a couple of hundred bucks for a fancy-ish smartphone. These are run on networks like Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Jitterbug, etc. 

You buy credits as you need them, so you can control costs.

The biggest pro of going this route is getting a phone and a plan for super-cheap prices. 

2. Buy an Unlocked Mobile Phone

This is a good option if you want to buy a specific phone but don’t want to be forced into a specific plan or carrier.

What’s an Unlocked Phone?

An unlocked phone is a phone that is not pre-locked into a specific carrier’s signals. You can keep the same phone but move that phone to different carriers or networks. Typically, all this requires is for you to switch out the phone’s SIM card.

Benefits of Unlocked Cell Phones

Choices abound! You can choose your phone, where to buy it, which carrier to sign up with and what plan you’ll use.

Unlocked phones work with most of the major networks. You can buy your unlocked phone from pretty much anywhere. Tons of different retailers sell these phones.

The primary drawback to an unlocked phone is that you will need to buy a cellular data plan if you want to use your phone away from a Wi-Fi signal.

Things to Consider Before Buying an Unlocked Phone

Shopping for an unlocked phone is just like shopping for a cellular plan. What do you want the phone to be able to do? Do you want a specific brand or operating system? Do you want a specific model? How much can you afford to spend?

Where to Buy an Unlocked Phone?

Most of the big-box stores have unlocked phones in stock. Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc. The Apple store is another option, but only if you have your heart set on an iPhone.

3. Buy a Pre-Owned Phone

Shop around on sites like Craigslist, eBay, Mercari, etc. for older phones. You can also shop for refurbished phones.

EBay has basically any older model you could want, ranging from an iPhone 6 for $45 to iPhone 13 for about $475. Even pawn shops sell pre-owned phones.

Check with your friends and family. Maybe someone has an older phone they can give you or sell to you at a reduced price.

Once you have a used or refurbished phone, all you have to do is put a new SIM card into it — and the cost for those usually ranges from $1 to $20.

4. Sign Up for a Prepaid Cell Phone Plan

This is not the same as the prepaid phone that’s already been mentioned.

These are usually offered by major phone providers. Instead of a base rate and overage charges, you pay upfront at the beginning of the month. Then, if you run out of time/texts/gb of data, you can choose whether you want to buy more or put your phone away until the next month, when your limits refresh.

Unlike contracts, most prepaid plans don’t require you to commit to a specific number of months or years with the carrier. Depending on your needs, you can even change your plan from month to month.

Pro tip: All the major carriers offer prepaid service plans. Verizon Prepaid, AT&T Go Plan, T-Mobile Simply Prepaid, TextNow Wireless, Tello, Xfinity and Spectrum all offer affordable options.

Why Does Your Credit Score Matter When Shopping for a Cell Phone?

Cell phones aren’t just getting smarter all the time. They’re also getting more expensive. Cell phone carriers understand that the average consumer can’t just fork over cash for a phone, so they end up serving as a lender, breaking the price down into smaller payments in their own sort of “Buy Now, Pay Later” program. Sometimes they offer incentives for trading in your older phone.

The cell phone carriers want to ensure you’ll be able to make your payments. They do this by running a credit check. Unfortunately, if your credit history is poor, they will not let you purchase a new phone — even if you have a trade-in.

However, even with a low credit score, there are still plenty of options available.

Other Ways to Get a Phone with Bad Credit

If you don’t want to go the pre-paid plan/phone route, some other options are still available if you have bad credit.

  • Find a co-signer: Having a credit-worthy co-signer tells the retailer that someone will be making the monthly payments on the phone and plan, even if you can’t. 
  • Get a parent or relative to add you to a family plan: This is the cheapest and easiest way to get a newer phone and a good plan without spending a lot of money or having a good credit score. Most plans will allow customers to add users for relatively low prices (some even as low as $10/month). Many major carriers also offer incentives like monthly discounts, etc. to customers who add lines and users to their plans! Plus, the plan isn’t in your name, so it won’t affect your credit score.
  • Pay a security deposit: Some cellular providers will allow users to make a down payment against the cost of the phone, then pay the remaining balance in installments. This way, if you default on your payments, the provider will still get something to cover the cost of your device. When you go this route, most service providers will make you sign up for automatic payments or debits. Security deposits can vary from a few hundred to around $1,000, depending on what kind of phone you want to buy and your credit score.

READ MORE: 10 best credit repair companies to fix your credit score

How to Build Credit So You Can Qualify for Phone Financing

First, make sure your score is accurate. Get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Make sure the reports are mistake-free. Then take steps to improve your score—start making your monthly payments on time, pay down your debt, increase your income, etc.

READ MORE: How to build credit

The Bottom Line

The question is not whether you need cell phone service. At this point, you probably do in order for employers to have a way to contact you or to call for help in an emergency. However, you don’t need the most expensive latest model smartphone. These strategies will help you get phone service even if you have bad credit.

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