One could argue that a phone without a data plan isn't good for much, but that's not true for everyone. Remember voice calls? Yep, still a thing. And text messaging? Just as important these days. Meanwhile, many of us are still working from home, where Wi-Fi handles all our data needs. And I know some older people who don't use apps at all; they just need a phone.
So let's revisit a compelling, newly updated option from TextNow: Unlimited ad-supported calls and text messages, absolutely free. There's no data included (more on that below), though calls do use voice-over-IP cellular data, not traditional cell service. Virtually all other apps that allow free calls and messaging (
, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and so forth) require Wi-Fi or a traditional data plan.
So, for example, if you've got an old phone lying around and want to keep it active as a backup, here's a totally free way to do that. Similarly, you could give a phone to a kid or other family member who just needs a way to keep in touch, without the added expense of a monthly bill.
Read more: The best budget phones for 2021
Just to be clear, any phone running TextNow's free plan can still do app and internet things; it'll just need Wi-Fi to do them.
Speaking of that, the service now offers an interesting video-calling feature as well: You can set up a video call with anyone, even if they don't have the TextNow app or service. You just text them an invite; they'll receive a link that allows for a browser-based session. But, again, this requires Wi-Fi or a data plan; TextNow's free plan doesn't include data.
Who's paying for this free lunch?
As noted above, this is an ad-supported service, one that originally operated on Sprint's network but just made the move to T-Mobile's. (That greatly expands TextNow's reach; roughly 75% of U.S. devices are compatible, according to the company.)
Those ads take the form of banners within the TextNow app and occasional videos (some with sound) that appear after a call. You'll also see full-page pop-up ads, though only once a day at most, according to a TextNow spokesperson.
If you want an ad-free experience, you can pay $9.99 a month. That also scores you voicemail transcription and unlimited photo and video history.
As for data, TextNow gives you the option of 2GB per month for $19.99. That's a reasonably competitive rate, though if you're looking for low-cost phone service that includes data, make sure to check out carriers like Hello Mobile, Mint Mobile and Visible.
Maybe you just want data for a month or two at a time? No problem: Pay for the months you want, then revert back to the free plan. As with most smaller carriers, TextNow requires no contract.
There are TextNow apps for Android and iOS; the free plan is available on both platforms. You need an unlocked, GSM-compatible phone (check compatibility here) and SIM card. If you're missing the latter, you can buy an activation kit for $5 (a price drop; it was previously $10).
Does it work?
This free plan is available anywhere on the T-Mobile network. However, data roaming is not included, so your only option for service outside the network would be on Wi-Fi.
TextNow does use "real" SMS and MMS, which is important for things like shortcode messaging (five-digit numbers used primarily for business-to-consumer messaging and advertising) and two-factor authentication. "Messaging does run through the app but delivers over real SMS and MMS channels with all the major operators in the US and Canada," the rep told me. "TextNow also supports most shortcodes, just like normal carriers do."
I've tested the company's free plan on a couple older phones, namely the Motorola Moto X4 and an LG G6. In both cases I encountered a few setup obstacles, but with some tech-support assistance they were easily ironed out. Your mileage may vary.
What's great is that I now have that LG G6 as a functional extra phone that's not costing me a dime to operate. When Wi-Fi is available, TextNow defaults to that. When it's not, I can still make and take phone calls and send and receive text messages. The service even includes free calls to Canada, conference calling, voicemail and group texting.
This could be a genuine money-saver for some users and a lifesaver for others.
Read more: 8 best phones under $200: Our picks for budget phones that still work great
This article was originally published previously. It has been updated with the latest deal.
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