For those with prepaid phones finding airtime, especially in certain situations, may not always be easy. And missing an important call, whether from a family member or friend, could be a problem if one’s service is off-line. Finding how to buy airtime online or via a card becomes critical.

Cell Phone Revolution

In the modern world cell phones are ubiquitous. There are many different types starting with basic models that allow a user to simply make and receive calls. Other, more advanced, equipment, with contracts from cellular providers (such as Virgin Mobile), rely on “Smart Phone” technology that also has computing capabilities.

And popular opinion to the contrary, Apple did not invent the concept of the “Smart Phone”. The forerunner was first presented to the masses by Nokia in 1996. [The term was coined 25 years earlier, though, in 1971. It was the vision of a scientist who thought individual phones could perform as personal data assistants or PDAs; IBM created a working model in 1992.]

What Can One Do with a Phone Today?

Today’s devices allow one to take pictures, shoot video, surf the Internet, and interact globally with others, not merely by dialing a number and speaking but by sending text messages, e-mails, forwarding images, and uploading content to websites.

Whereas in the past people could conduct telephone banking (by calling their financial institution and asking for certain transactions to be executed) now one can do cell phone banking by logging onto one’s personal bank’s web site, paying bills, and one can transfer money to other accounts. Online banking saves drive time and gas money.

The Next Revolution in Cell Phones

After the first wave a secondary market appeared. These are inexpensive units that don’t need contracts. A consumer buys it (with a SIM card installed unique to that phone) and is assigned a unique phone number. The equipment almost always has a limited amount of airtime available out-of-the-box.

These are called “pre-paid” or “pay-as-you-go” phones. Unlike “traditional” mobiles, they don’t require long-term service contracts (around two years on average). People can make calls, take pictures, shoot video, and send text messages or e-mails based upon the type of unit and number of minutes bought.

The advantage is that one doesn’t pay outrageously for limited use. Some people make very few calls: why pay $70 per month if one doesn’t use but, perhaps, an hour of airtime?  Most “traditional” cell phone service plans offer “unlimited” time for a relatively hefty fee. Such plans are a waste of money for people who talk or text infrequently.

This is where the “disposable” has an advantage. Though the per-minute rate may be higher (anywhere from 20¢ to 50¢ US) the consumer is not stuck with an exorbitant monthly fee for services he/she does not use.

The downside is that once the number of minutes purchased on a disposable phone has elapsed the user cannot make a call (except, by law, in the US any cell caller can dial “911” for emergencies and have it go through).

What Are the Different Ways to Get Airtime?

If the time on a prepaid phone has run out one must re-up his/her minutes. So, the issue of buying airtime (either online or from some other source) comes into play. While this may be simpler in many markets (by using a credit card or debit card directly from the phone, letting one add airtime immediately) in some instances payment channels may not be so easily accessed.

One may have to use an ATM card first to get cash and then go to various shops to buy a “prepaid minutes” card. Such a card means traveling out of one’s home to physically go and get it. These top-up vouchers are not difficult to use: the buyer simply makes a card purchase then scratches off the identification number (or PIN) on the back. While leaving the unit “on”, and following the instructions on the card, service time is added.

Many network providers in most developed countries make getting minutes easy. For example,  Cell C (in South Africa) lets its customers buy Cell C airtime online with a simple web action. MTN (that country’s largest mobile carrier) also gives customers the means to buy MTN airtime via the Internet. Telkom is another big carrier based in Johannesburg with service in over 38 countries on the continent of Africa. And Vodacom offers online packages for prepaid and contract service, whatever the customer wants.

Top Up is a company that specializes in letting consumers use its website for adding time. They service over 100 countries and handle over 250 carriers.  Their cards are also available in many communications’ retail outlets, too.

Internet banking companies can make it easy to keep one’s mobile unit on. Many, such as ABSA, let customers tap their online accounts to pay for things like cell service. First National Bank (FNB) lets South African customers get free minutes by signing up with them. Similarly, many banking companies (Nedbank, Standard, and Capitec, to name a few) offer services to their customers to recharge their mobile minutes.

All in all it is certainly more convenient to use the Internet to buy airtime instead of going to a store to get a card for extra air minutes. The only problem for some people, perhaps, is that paying online usually requires tapping into an online account or a credit card; for those without either, the trip to a retailer is necessary.