How to Buy a Cell Phone for a Kid

How to Buy a Cell Phone for a Kid

The cell phone has become a staple in long distance parenting. When a child is very young, cell phone conversations happen on their parent’s phone. But there comes a time in every kid’s (and exasperated parent’s) life when it’s time to buy a cell phone for them, of their very own.

How do you know when a kid is ready for their own phone?

Perhaps I am now a curmudgeonly old person, but I have a hard time applying ‘need’ to ‘young child’ and ‘cell phone’ outside of long distance parenting. Needs are food, shelter, love, support, education. Apps and games and texting with friends is a want when it’s just as easy to walk down the block and talk to them. Now get off my lawn?

Kids with a long distance parent are perhaps the exception. They live with one parent and one parent lives far enough away that typically, they only see them a few times a year. That means that video chatting (virtual visitation), texting and talking on the phone are an invaluable part of their connection with their long distance parent.

Additionally, although the long distance parent can go through the co-parent to speak with their child, because the calls are likely to be frequent, this can cause friction. Often getting the child their own phone is part of solving co-parent contention.

My son got his own phone when he was 11. However, that was in 2010 when video chat wasn’t ubiquitous in all the apps. He had a computer in his room from toddler on and that’s what he used to video chat with his dad.

If I were doing long distance parenting with a child now, in 2020, I expect they would have their own phone earlier, with some restrictions, which we will touch on later.

Talk to your co-parent before you buy a cell phone

As a long distance parent, your child’s cell phone will be vital to staying in touch with them. The first step to buying them a cell phone should be to talk to your co-parent. This goes for either the long distance parent or the custodial parent. Things you should talk about before the phone happens :

  • Who is paying for what? What if the phone breaks or is lost? What if the data bill is super high because of video chats?
  • Who has the controls and what is allowed? Will you give your co-parent joint control? Conceivably, one of you will have parental controls on the phone. Are you allowed to block family phone numbers? Will times of day or days be disallowed? What happens in the way of contact with the long distance parent if the child is grounded or has restricted screen time?
  • What carrier and ecosystem is best? Are there advantages in photo sharing or video chatting if one carrier or phone ecosystem over another is used?

This might be a good thing to talk about in concert with the parenting plan, if it works out that way for you.

A phone made for Kids?

When my son got his first phone, we started with a phone made specifically for kids. We wanted something with strong parental controls and at the time, parental control options were slim. The only phones for kids came from niche carriers. The phone and/or the service was terrible and I remember cancelling almost immediately.

Although those phones still exist, the time between when you first gift a child a phone and when they need additional features is shorter than you think. Having a phone that will grow with your child is important and now it’s a whole lot easier to get any smart phone and make it kid suitable. That’s where I’ll focus this post.

New Phone + insurance or Refurbished?

I am of the school of thought (I’m pretending it’s a school of thought) that young kids not only don’t need the latest and greatest but it’s not until sometime in late middle school that they even notice they don’t have the latest and greatest. That’s because unless you live in a swanky neighborhood, NO ONE is buying their kids the latest greatest phone when they are too young to hold it in their hands securely. Quite frankly, most adults don’t need the latest and greatest.

We don’t buy our kids the latest and greatest because the latest and greatest costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 (and up). As a long distance parent who is already paying for travel, child support etc, keeping the cost down when you buy a cell phone for them (and it’s replacement(s)) is even more attractive.

New models of each phone come out once a year. Phone contracts run two years ish, generally. So if you’re the type that wants the latest and greatest, you’ve got a new one every year or two. If you’re the type of person that has kids and a mortgage and a car note, (and maybe student loans) (and not a 6 figure income) you have probably pushed a phone to 4 or 5 years before. Lo… it worked! That’s because those shiny new phones aren’t often necessitated by actual industry technology shifts and instead have new features like more memory, better cameras, bigger screens.

But, all those people who swap their phones out once a year create a giant market for refurbished phones. Reburbished phones are phones that have been used and then traded in to the manufacturer or to an authorized dealer. The manufacturer or dealer replace anything that is broken, damaged or defective and sell it at a discount. You get a phone that is like new at a fraction of the price (affiliate link). Seriously click that link and check them out. There are some pricier options for the cutting edge models but there are also many newer model big name phones that are under $200.

The product links to amazon products I recommend in this post are amazon affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  If you purchase the advertised products on this page, you won’t pay any more for the product and I will earn a small commission, which helps support the site.  Win win!  

Insurance or Refurbished – the math

Although we will talk about ways to protect the phone, your kid will. Destroy. The. Phone. You can get insurance on a cell phone. Not all insurance is created equally. Some will cover a shattered screen, for example, and some will not. Most, if not all, have a deductible in the fine print.

My experience with cell phone insurance is, you pay a monthly fee of $14 or so. In the way of example math : let’s say a year after purchase, your kid breaks the phone. You’ve spent $168 so far on insurance. You still pay a deductible of $100 on top of that for the replacement phone, so $268 total. Further, it will take them two weeks to replace the phone. In the mean time, you could have picked up another refurbished phone for less than that and had it shipped to you in 2 days.

Ironically, the longer your kid manages to not lose or destroy the insured phone, the more it will cost to replace with insurance.

As a side note, you can also use your homeowners insurance or renter’s insurance if the phone is destroyed or stolen. However, often your deductible is more than the phone costs and then you have a claim against your insurance.

The one exception to cell phone insurance versus refurbished cell phones is if you are selective about having the latest and greatest for your child. If so, insurance might be the way to go. A refurbished version of the current model phones can still run $600-$800.

Protective case for their cell phone

Even if your rule is the phone stays at home, homes have toilet bowls, bowls of cereal, and three foot drops to a hard floor. Kids have an almost magical ability to destroy just about anything. Odds are the phone won’t be staying at home so the possibilities for destruction (and loss) are endless. Just think about that furniture you bought because you loved, and thought it would last through anything as long as you Scotch Guarded it.

Phones have come a long way in regards to water and damage resistance. Some are even waterproof and “rugged”. (affiliate link) However, that decreases your phone options. So, the alternative is a rugged, waterproof case (affiliate link) for whatever phone you get.

Phone cases are specific to the exact model phone you have so read carefully to make sure it will work for your phone. Although these rugged, waterproof cases are pricier than non-rugged, non-waterproof cases, they often come with a warranty that covers damage to your phone.

The household name in rugged waterproof cases is OtterBox (affiliate link). They have been around for many, many years and their tech is sound. However, now-days there are many options. Check the reviews on anything you purchase. To protect a several hundred dollar item, you will want to make sure it has a lot of positive reviews. My rule of thumb is no more than 10% of reviews below 4 stars, and I only consider products with the highest overall number of reviews.

Screen protector

If you purchase one of the rugged waterproof cases, it will have a cover over the screen, so no need to purchase a screen protector. However, if you go for a case that does not have a cover over the screen, a screen protector is a must.

I have used ArmorSuit screen protectors (affiliate link) on my last three phones. It protects against minor scratches and is easy to apply and replace. However, I will say that all the way through high school, my son was shattering the screen on his phones. We were saved only by his having a glass screen protector (affiliate link). They are a little tougher to install and replace but when they shatter, the actual phone screen remains undamaged.

Long Battery Life (and extra chargers)

“My battery died” will become the bane of your existence. And for the custodial parent, “I lost my charger”, is the other. I am not sure how it is that I have never lost my charger and my phone has never drained to zero in the 20ish years I have had a phone but a kid will lose their charger and kill their battery in once a week, but there it is. Another magical power of kids with phones.

When you are shopping for phones, compare battery life, as maybe the single must have feature a phone for a child must have. In addition, buy charging cable multi packs for every birthday and holiday in which gift giving is appropriate and maybe for some holidays where gift giving is not traditional. And maybe just some days that end in y. If you have charging stations in your home for civilized folk, expect that those cables will go missing as well.

I think most phones have USBc charging ports these days but micro USB could still be a thing. It’s also worth making sure that you focus on fast charging cables (affiliate link) over any old USB cable. It could be the difference between a several minute charge and a several hour trickle charge. What kid has the patience and memory to let their phone sit and charge for several hours and then pick it back up again?

Cell Phone Carriers, Plans, Data and Minutes

When you buy a cell phone for a child, what carrier and plan you choose can either be the perfect partner or your worst nightmare. You will most likely go with a family plan and add your child’s phone to your plan. However, every carrier and plan is different in the way they handle minutes, text messages and data. What you’re looking for is very few surprises. If it is possible that your child’s phone usage will ever surprise you, it will. No matter how much wifi they have available, they will use up all the data.

If you and your co-parent have a good relationship, consider comparing the merits of your carriers and plans. Sometimes, however, it’s worth switching carriers once you start adding kids to your plan. Look for features like data and text budgeting, if your plan charges more for more texts and data.

I am partial to Google Fi because the base rate is really low and the only thing they charge extra for is data. For family plans, there is an unlimited plan that makes it super easy or, if you’re interested in a lower rate, they have a lower base rate plan and charge $10 per Gig of data. They also only charge you for the amount of that Gig you use. So if you use half a gig, it’s $5. If your child is good about staying on wifi, that could conceivably decrease your phone bill quite a bit.

I’ve found Google Fi to be easy and straight forward. Google Fi doesn’t have contracts so I could decide to change providers any time I’d like but unlike with other carriers, I haven’t found myself shopping around once a year for a better deal.

One thing worth mention for long distance parents is carrier specific video chatting. When my son was on his dad’s AT&T plan and I was on first Verizon and then Google Fi, the video chat out of the box on the phone didn’t work. It was only when we were on the same network that it worked. That said, so many apps include video chat now, that’s less of an issue.

And finally, before you sign a contract, make sure it’s crystal clear which parent is paying for what. When you get that first $400 phone bill, emotions will be high and that’s not when you want to be having that conversation.

Child Protection Features

A child with a cell phone introduces a host of potential safety and parenting issues. Luckily, you wont be the first parent doing this and there are some great features and services to have your back.

Generally, these features and services are not part of the phone but instead are part of the carrier or third party apps. That means that when you buy a cell phone, which phone you choose has little to do with protection features. When considering which carrier you are going to use for your family plan, take a look at their child protection features. You are looking for features like :

  • block texts and calls from unknown numbers or specific numbers
  • stop texts, calls and data during certain times of the day (during school or at night)
  • set a data or minutes cap
  • content filters and app download review
  • phone locater services – this one, although helpful for the misplaced child, is also helpful for the lost phone, and is a must

Some carriers charge extra for these features. Verizon charges $5-$10, for example. If your child has an android phone, all of Google Fi’s family services will work on their phone at no extra charge.

3rd Party Software

And finally, it is possible to use 3rd party software instead of your carrier for some of these features. Net Nanny, Norton Family and Kaspersky Safe Kids seem to be the front runners these days. It’s unsurprising, given that all three parent companies have been household names in internet safety forever.

Between the three, Net Nanny is the most expensive and doesn’t have the greatest location based services. As of the time of this post, Kaspersky Safe Kids wins pricing (it’s about $15 a year and Norton is about $50 a year). Both will cover unlimited mobile and desktop devices. From there it’s preference as to what features mean the most to you.

Checklist for Buying a Cell Phone for a Child

Time needed: 3 days.

All of the options can be a little bewildering the first time you buy a cell phone for a kid but you’ll get the hang of it. High level, here is the stuff to remember :

  1. Talk to your co-parent

    Talk to your co-parent first. Get on the same page about your child having a phone and who is paying for what and who has the controls.

  2. Decide on a phone

    Decide on the combination of the phone and how you will protect it (rugged phone or rugged case + screen protector) and replace it when it’s damaged or lost (refurbished vs insurance). Make battery life a priority. Buy extra charging cables preemptively.

  3. Decide on the carrier and plan

    Decide on the right data and carrier options for your family. Consider talking to your co-parent about who’s plan the phone should be on and what carrier would be best. Compare their child protection plans while you’re at it.

  4. Consider 3rd party child protection software

    This might be part of the mix when settling on a carrier. Once you have a carrier, 3rd party software might work better for you than the carrier’s family protection features.

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