The Best First Smartphone for Your Child

5 minute read

There’s no more modern rite of passage than the first smartphone. How else for kids to text their friends (all of whom, rest assured, “already have one!”), swap Instagram and Snapchat photos, and stream the latest Iggy Azalea music video?

Of course, if they’re clever, they’ll argue the practical side: You’ll always know where they are. They can text you when soccer practice ends early. Apps will help them keep tabs on homework assignments. Minecraft teaches spatial skills!

Pretty good points. So let’s take a look at some kid-friendly smartphones, along with service-plan options that won’t obliterate an allowance — yours or theirs.

First things first: Your kid wants an iPhone. He’ll settle for something else, but based on what I’ve heard from my own offspring (and their friends), iPhones are the cool phones. Feel free to leverage this teachable moment (“The phone you use doesn’t make you cool or uncool”), but there’s no escaping this truth: Your kid wants an iPhone.

Should you decide to oblige, don’t feel like you have to spring for one of the new models. In fact, there are deals to be had on last year’s iPhones, both from carriers and individual sellers. The recent introduction of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus has produced a glut of used previous-gen models on eBay and Craigslist, and a glut market means a bargain market.

Another perk to going this route: You don’t have to get locked into a two-year contract. Rather, depending on whether the used phone is a CDMA or GSM model, you can take it to AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile, or shop around to smaller and regional carriers offering a bit more bang for the buck. Walmart’s Straight Talk, for example, lets you bring nearly any GSM phone, and charges a competitive $45 per month for unlimited everything.

If you’re more comfortable buying new (which adds the assurance of a warranty), consider a no-contract carrier like Virgin Mobile. An iPhone 5s (32GB) would cost you $412.49 up front, but then just $30 monthly if you set up auto-pay. Total cost over two years: a little over $1,100. I priced the same basic arrangement at T-Mobile, and it amortized out to nearly double: about $2,050.

Finally, the path of least resistance — if not lowest cost — might be adding a new line of service to your existing plan. Check with your carrier to see what options they offer, as you can sometimes get a lower per-device rate as you add more lines.

Too many options? Fear not: Here are my picks for the three best smartphones for teens and preteens.

iPhone 5 (Ting)

Whether you bring your own phone (Ting allows for most Sprint models) or buy a refurbished one (a used iPhone 5 runs about $250), Ting boasts an average monthly rate of $21 per subscriber. Why so low? The company relies on floating text, voice, and data rates, and charges you only for what you use every month.

In other words, if your kid texts constantly but rarely makes a call, you’ll pay accordingly, rather than shelling out for an inflated flat rate that aims to cover everything. (Why can’t the cable companies work this way?)

Moto G (Any GSM carrier)

Motorola’s entry-level phone sort of redefines the entry-level phone, packing everything plus the kitchen sink for a price that would make Apple blush. The newly updated (a.k.a. 2nd-gen) Moto G has everything a kid wants, starting with a roomy 5-inch screen, a processor fast enough for Clash of Clans, decent cameras (front and rear), and an all-day battery. At $179.99, he or she can probably afford to buy it him or herself.

That price, remarkably, buys the phone unlocked, without ties to any contract or carrier. Just take it to any GSM-friendly provider and sign up for the plan that suits you best. The only hitch: The Moto tops out at 3G for cellular data, there’s no blazing-fast LTE speed here. Fortunately, most kids probably won’t mind — or even notice.

Samsung Galaxy S4 (TextNow)

Sprint-powered TextNow reverse-engineers its phones to rely primarily on Wi-Fi, switching to cell towers only when necessary. (Smart, and prescient: Apple’s latest iPhones will soon be able to do likewise.) That’s how it can offer service plans starting at $18.99, a price that includes unlimited texting, which, let’s face it, is all kids want anyway.

The company sells a handful of handsets (and lets you bring nearly any Sprint-compatible model), but the best deal by far is the refurbished Galaxy S4 for $250. Lest we forget, it was the hot smartphone of 2013, and it’s still plenty powerful for a kid.

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