You might be surprised to know that smartphones do not require a cellular plan or a data plan to make calls or surf the ‘net. The setup I describe in this article isn’t suitable for everyone, but with telecom bills rising at three times the inflation rate, there’s no way I could hold back from sharing my experience.
Each of the suggestions that follow can be implemented on their own to save you a few bucks — or put them all together like I did and pocket 100% of what you’re currently paying your cell carrier in monthly charges. If you’ve got an inactive smartphone hanging around from your last upgrade, these tips will show you how to turn it into a useful device without spending a dime.
Here’s what I learned over the last eighteen months that ended up netting me a fully functioning smartphone with no cellular carrier and no monthly costs.
First up, let me tell you how I learned that you don’t need a data plan to surf the ‘net or receive email on a smartphone.
What You Need To Know About Smartphone Data
For many years, I had the all-you-can-eat-buffet version cellular plan: unlimited data. It was great. No worries about how much data I used, no worries about which device I used to surf the ‘net. But when I decided to reduce my work schedule to part-time, it didn’t make sense to continue paying $50 per month for this convenience so I opted for a pay-as-you-go data plan and committed to using Wi-Fi when surfing the ‘net or accessing apps that use data. The goal was zero data usage.
Imagine my surprise when I continued to see small amounts of data being used on a daily basis even when the phone remained at home and connected to our Wi-Fi. Here’s what I learned: When phones go into sleep mode they disconnect from Wi-Fi to conserve the battery. Any apps that are running in the background will automatically switch to cell data as they go about their normal pinging and update-checking routines.
I solved that problem by having my carrier turn off all data usage. With no data plan I still enjoyed all the usual things we need data for — email, surfing the net, downloading and using apps — as long as I was connected to Wi-Fi. I work from home so I only felt the inconvenience when I was out doing errands or traveling. The biggest impacts were the loss of instant GPS and no email until I found my next Wi-Fi hotspot. That’s how I learned you don’t need a data plan for a smartphone — contrary to what cellular carriers tell us.
Next up, I learned to make free calls using Google and other internet services.
Make Free Calls Using Internet Services
Since Gmail is my chosen email client, it was pretty easy to adopt Hangouts as a de facto phone line. All video calls and most telephone calls to the U.S. and Canada are free when you use Google Hangouts.
To open Google Hangouts on a PC, simply click the phone icon at the bottom left of the Gmail screen to display a search icon next to your name. Start typing either a phone number or a name and Google will display contacts from your address book. Click the one you want or continue keying in the entire number if it doesn’t exist in your contacts. It’s that easy.
You can do this on your smartphone, too. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection and the Google Hangouts Dialer — a free app available for Android and iOS.
Once I learned the ins and outs of VOIP (that’s the acronym for Voice Over Internet Protocol) I hardly ever made cellular calls so I began toying with the idea of dropping the cell plan completely. But how would people phone me if I gave up my cell number?
Getting A Virtual Phone Number For Inbound Calls and Text Messages
If you live in the U.S. Google Voice is the easiest solution. You can get a phone number and voicemail at no charge. Inbound numbers via Google Voice are not available in Canada so I had to do some digging. After trying a few different products I finally settled on FreePhoneLine.ca (by Fongo) for my laptop and FreeTone (by TextMe, Inc.) for my smartphone. You can call almost any phone number in Canada or the U.S, it doesn’t matter if it’s a landline or cellular. The party you’re calling doesn’t need any kind of account or software.
What About 911 Service?
All cell phones in North America can call emergency services — even with no cellular carrier. So as long as you’re in range of a cell tower and the phone is charged, you’re covered. But there’s one important thing to note: You must be prepared to give your exact location immediately as the operator will not be able to call you back if you get disconnected.
Skype and Google Hangouts have turned out to be great business meeting tools because of their video and screen sharing capabilities. I like them both. Facebook Messenger offers fancy-pants texting capabilities and some phone calls are free. Unlike the two companies I chose as my virtual phone number providers, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger require both parties to have an account or download an app.
By the way, all of these solutions work on Wi-Fi enabled tablets so if you don’t own a smartphone just download an app and plug in your earbuds. Voila — you’ve got a phone.
It takes a little fiddling to get everything right, and even when it’s set up properly the audio quality is not quite as good as a landline or standard cell service, but I’m not going back. I’m perfectly happy as a Wi-Fi ninja.