Tracfone cell phone report

As someone who dumped our cell phone service a couple of years ago after getting sick of surprise roaming charges, I can say that Tracfone is a great way to go. I picked up a Tracfone a few weeks ago on a whim and can say that I've been nothing but pleased with it. I recommend this for anyone who needs minor cell phone access on the road.

My costs: a Nokia 2285 for $35. I started with a 400-minute card for $76.

I don't understand the technologies thoroughly, but looking at their website and entering different zip codes to see the models, it appears they sell two different sets of phones. For instance at the $40 price point, you'll be presented with a Nokia 1100 in the big cities (Dallas, Austin, Ok City, etc) and Nokia 2285 in the smaller towns. I believe the difference here is that the 1100 is TDMA or GSM and the 2285 is CDMA.

What's the effect here? I'm not sure. But I think CDMA phones are more universal, which is why I decided to get the phone in rural east Texas rather than in Austin. On the flip side, a friend of mine has a phone designed for use in metro Dallas and it does not work well in rural east Texas, so this may be the TDMA/CDMA thing at work. Maybe someone can shed some light on this.

Tracfone seems to have agreements with a ton of carriers, and I've had no problems with any reception in the Austin-Waco-Palestine-College Station area, even in the sticks at places like Normangee and Marquez. A lot of this is Alltel and Sprint country. The only place where I've ever seen "no service" is a dead zone five miles northeast of Buffalo TX. E-mail everywhere works great and delivery is usually instantaneous... I've had lots of back and forth conversations. E-mail runs 0.5 minutes per message (rx or tx) even in a roaming area.

The good thing about Tracfone is there is no contract and you see exactly how many minutes you've spent and how many are left. When you register the phone, they take no personal information except a home phone for their records (which I don't think is even used, so you can make one up), and thus there is no possibility of getting stuck with any surprise charges. I used to have ridiculous $200+ bills with AT&T a few years ago with very little roaming usage, and I'm glad those days are over. Roaming costs on Tracfone are simply a double charge for minutes.

I've had no problems recharging minutes on the Tracfone either. The downside of Tracfone, from what I understand, is customer service is supposed to be bad, but I accidentally reached a human once without any wait. I think most of the bad service, from what I see on the web, dates back to 2000-2001-2002 when this company was just getting started.

In summary I strongly recommend Tracfone for any budget chaser or anyone coming from overseas to chase. I can't assure you what their coverage is in Kansas or Colorado, but in Texas I seem to be getting better rural coverage than I ever had with AT&T.

Needless to say, Tracfone is NOT recommended if you are a heavy cell user or are looking for two-way data connections. It's not for everyone.

Hopefully someone with more cell phone smarts can shed more light on the TDMA/CDMA/GSM thing.

Hi Tim;

I work in the industry and can shed a little light on this; it can be a bit confusing.

Both TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) are technologies that determine how the radio spectrum is used for particular type of communication. To make things even more complex, the technology can be further sub-divided by other techniques.

TDMA technology has been around for quite a while and includes some older, obsolete standards (IS-136 for instance.. quickly being phased out), however the newest variant GSM is the the most global format on the planet. TDMA slices up all the voice and data traffic, transmits it over a given frequency for the moment and then reassembles it at the other end (should be transparent to the user, but some say they notice the "handoff" when moving between towers).

CDMA on the other hand uses a more complex technique (spread-spectrum) to use the available frequencies at hand; the "standard" that is currently using this technique is actually called IS-95B. It is very widely used accross North-America but has been losing ground to GSM. Considered more robust by some experts, it might be a better choice for those needing access in more rural areas. This may have more to do with the huge amount of infrastructure for it rather than anything else though.

For people that do a lot of international travel, GSM is the best way to go. It's simply huge almost everywhere else. Some say that the GSM format may actually migrate to the underlying CDMA technology in the future to bring the best of both worlds together, but we'll have to see what happens.

In the meantime, coverage and performance should be the determining factor when buying a cellphone.

Hopefully I didn't make this more complex than it needed to be.
Hi John,

Thanks for the great info. Would you say that for those cheap $35 Tracfones that they only work in TDMA or CDMA mode and are not capable of hopping from one mode to another? Also am I correct that the TDMA phones will have problems in rural areas where CDMA will work fine?

Hi John,
Would you say that for those cheap $35 Tracfones that they only work in TDMA or CDMA mode and are not capable of hopping from one mode to another? Also am I correct that the TDMA phones will have problems in rural areas where CDMA will work fine?

That will be many people's experiences, as GSM towers (TDMA) tend to be concentrated in urban centers and along major routes for the time being. A lot will depend on what Tracfone's roaming arrangements are like with other partners too.

As for the mode thing, your phone will not be capable of switching between the two different modes. I might be wrong, but I'm not aware of any phone on the market that can do that; they're either GSM or CDMA (or another special TDMA format called iDEN).

I'll venture a bet that your CDMA-based unit will serve you better than the GSM variant for the time being for travelling purposes; although there will always be lots of dead spots out there (especially on the plains :( )

That suggests that anyone who decides on a Tracfone for lots of rural chasing will have to ensure they get a CDMA model, by either buying it in a CDMA town or ordering off the Tracfone website being careful to put in a ZIP code for a CDMA region.

For what it's worth, Palestine TX (75801) is a CDMA region.

I do believe Alltel is primarily CDMA, and with the greatest coverage area in the central plains, that should be a good indicator.

OK, I have done some more research and found more information.

Tracfone actually offers THREE sets of cell phones. At the $40 price point, this would be:
Nokia 1100 -- GSM
Nokia 1221 -- TDMA
Nokia 2285 -- CDMA

Looking around Oklahoma, I get this:
Enid, OK - GSM
Norman, OK - GSM
Woodward, OK - TDMA
Alva OK - TDMA
Hollis OK - TDMA
(couldn't find CDMA)

Also it appears that the Motorola v60/v120 are trimode and can use the analog 800 MHz for better coverage on the Plains, while the cheaper models do not offer analog.

Man, this should be less confusing.
OK, I have done some more research and found more information.

It looks like they are differentiating TDMA and GSM, which actually use the same underlying technology. In thier case, the TDMA they are refering to is the old IS-136 standard, which I would avoid like the plague as it's rapidly being replaced with GSM or CDMA towers, depending on the provider.

I can't say for sure, but I would guess that anywhere that a GSM or older TDMA tower is present that you'll also find a CDMA tower nearby.

To be sure though, check with Tracfone where you can/can't use your phone.
I have owned a Tracfone for over two years. They are simply wonderful.

Two years ago the model I bought was a Nokia 5165 (?) - that old chaser's favourite in phones. This TDMA thing absolutely gets service almost anywhere so it's a great emergency or last-resort type phone, and I can usually pick up signals when my other half's cellphone has no bars.

Tracfone is a great way to go if you do not want to be locked into a contract. One caveat? It costs quite a lot to talk on it! I certainly wouldn't use it as my MAIN phone at all - it is expensive to talk per minute.....but if you're chasing and you want a great, no-frills operation which won't mess you around, get a Tracfone and start text-messaging and calling folk from places you previously couldn't!

You can run a Tracfone without ever having to speak to a "customer sales representative". It's all done online at

Your Nokia 5165 appears to be a tri-mode phone (TDMA 800 MHz / TDMA 1900 MHz / Analog) so it looks like that vouches for the fact that analog can save one's hide out in the boonies.

I have had a Tracfone for a year and a half and it works better than my Cingular phone. I always have signal where the Cingular drops of constantly.