The Complete Guide to Getting a Cell Phone with Bad Credit (500 Credit Score)

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By Saphia Lanier
Reviewed by Lauren Bringle, AFC®

How important is it to have a good credit score? One could say it's just as essential as having an education.

Throughout your childhood, you heard of the importance of education and landing a good career. But few teens are taught why building credit is essential to obtaining financial success.

It can be difficult to rent an apartment with bad credit, as it is to buy a car, or even own a home. So this leaves many people scrambling to learn about credit for the first time.

Roughly 20% of Americans have what's known as subprime credit (580 to 669). Another 11% struggle with ultra-low scores (below 580) and 15% have no credit at all.

If you fall into one of these categories, you'll quickly learn how tough it can be to get the things you want in life, such as a cell phone.

Do you need help with cell phone financing? Let's take a look at what your options are for getting a cell phone financing with bad credit.

What's Considered Bad Credit to Cell Phone Companies?

In the past, cell phones were merely an extension of our house phone. Today, it's become a crucial part of our lives. We use them to communicate with friends and co-workers, check emails, post on social media, and play games when we're bored.

Smartphones are ingrained into our daily lives, making them a must-have, especially for younger generations. That’s why knowing your cell phone financing options is so important.

And while getting your hands on a smartphone is easy (thanks to prepaid options), obtaining the one you really want may not be as simple.

For instance, the new iPhone that's only available with a T-Mobile plan.

It doesn't matter if you have the cash to pay for the mobile phone - getting approved for the plan requires a good credit score.

But what's considered acceptable credit to cell phone companies? Well, if you have a subprime score (below 600), then you're likely to be denied a plan with companies like Sprint.

If you choose a plan on their website, you'll have to choose a credit range between excellent (700+) and fair (550 or below). Fair is their way of saying "bad."

Is No Credit History the Same as Bad Credit to Phone Companies?

So, can you get a no credit check phone plan? The reason cell phone companies check your credit report is to identify whether you're likely to pay your bill on time. If they see many missed bill payments or delinquent accounts, this will raise a red flag.

A low credit score tells cell phone companies you're not responsible with your finances. Or lack the means to cover all of your expenses each month.

Either way, you're considered a risky customer.

But what if you don't have a credit history? This is the case for many young Americans who've yet to apply for credit or a loan. Unfortunately, your rent and bill payments aren't automatically reported to the credit bureaus (although there are services that can do this for you).

If a cell phone company pulls your credit history and you have a thin or non-existing file, then you'll still struggle to get approved for a plan. Although you don't have a track record of missing bill payments, you don't have a reputation for making on-time cell phone payments either.

Nor do you have a credit score to base your approval on.

So this too is a red flag, making it a challenge to get approved for a plan.

What Do Cell Phone Companies Look for in a Credit Check?

If you've ever checked your credit scores, then you know each credit bureau provides a different score. This may be due to differences in accounts reported to each. Or the scoring system the bureau is using.

Some mobile carriers use one credit bureau over another, while others pull your credit score from all three (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Knowing which bureaus a mobile carrier uses can help you plan (like making sure the report is spotless).

So here's a look at which bureaus major mobile phone companies pull your scores from:

  • Sprint: Experian and Equifax
  • AT&T: Equifax
  • Verizon: Equifax
  • T-Mobile: TransUnion

Of course, this may change at any time, so it's essential to monitor all of your scores. Knowing your odds of being approved can save you the hassle of being denied by a mobile carrier.

A denial will do more than hurt your ego — it can also hurt your credit score. If you knew in advance, you could've saved your rate from dropping.

In case you didn't know, any time a creditor does a "hard pull" on your credit, it "dings" it. It won't drop your score significantly (in most cases), but it may reduce it by several points.

Each hard pull on your credit remains on your report for two years, so don't be trigger happy with your applications.

The good news is some mobile carriers do a "soft pull." The difference between a hard and soft pull is that a soft inquiry doesn't show up on your report, and it doesn't ding your score.

To be on the safe side, ask the mobile carrier ahead of time before you apply.

T-Mobile Gives Hope to (Existing) Bad Credit Customers

To be fair, when you're denied a plan with a mobile carrier, this isn't the end. Some cell phone companies will still give you a plan in exchange for a higher security deposit.

Companies like Sprint allow bad credit customers to avoid a credit check if they bring their own device or buy an older, lower-end model (i.e., used iPhone 4s or Samsung Galaxy S4).

T-Mobile ended up changing its policies for existing customers because it was noticing a startling trend:

Roughly 50% of its customers didn't qualify for its high-end promotions.

Ever seen a commercial or poster for a cell phone plan, and in the fine print, it says "for qualified customers" only? This is the dividing line between the haves and have-nots in the smartphone world.

After seeing this issue, T-Mobile decided to stop pulling existing customers' credit for exclusive deals.

"We're now at a point where your relationship with us counts more than a credit score," T-Mobile executive vice president Dave Carey said in an interview with CNNMoney.

So when a customer renews their service or applies for a promotional upgrade, they won't pull their credit. Instead, they'll look at their 12-month payment history to see if they made their cell phone payments on time.

Since this time, we've seen more mobile carriers become more accommodating to customers with poor credit. For example, you now find cell phone companies offering month-to-month plans to folks with low credit scores.

And this brings us to our next point.

What Are Your Options for Getting a Cell Phone with Bad Credit?

Establishing, building, and maintaining a good credit report is tough. Especially when you're dealing with unexpected lay-offs, family emergencies, and other financially debilitating ordeals.

It seems unfair to responsible people who had a rough time and, in the process, took a hit to their credit score.

Owning a smartphone is becoming a necessity, especially for business owners and entrepreneurs. It's your PC away from your desk, and it enables you to stay connected on the go.

But the question now is how to get a cell phone with bad credit?

The simple answer is to opt for either a prepaid or month-to-month plan. You'll find both options with all the major mobile carriers today.

For example, Verizon offers unlimited prepaid plans for $50/mo. Plus, you have the option to bring your own smartphone. And AT&T and T-Mobile also has a Pay as You Go plan that doesn't require a credit check or deposit.

Some mobile providers will allow you to get a cell phone plan if you have a cosigner with good credit.

Unfortunately, AT&T doesn't allow this — here's a look at their credit check policy. If you have bad credit (under 650), you could face paying a deposit anywhere between $250 and $1,000. On the upside, you can get your deposit back after making 12 on-time payments.

Some of the other mobile carriers you can choose from for prepaid plans include:

There are many others to shop through as well — just be sure to check reviews to determine their wireless service quality.

So, in a nutshell, your options for getting a cell phone with bad credit are to:

  • Get a co-signer
  • Become an authorized user of someone else's plan
  • Opt for pay as you go or prepaid
  • Dish out the security deposit for a plan
  • Join a family plan
  • Work on your credit

How About Financing Phones with Bad Credit?

Getting the latest cell phone with bad credit can be tricky. For one, major mobile carriers, such as Boost Mobile, require you to have a monthly plan and make 12 consecutive on-time payments to qualify for financing a new phone.

Then with AT&T, you only qualify for phone upgrades with financing if you have good credit and meet other requirements.

And it's the same with Apple — if you want an iPhone, you'll need to be an established customer to upgrade. Or you'll need good credit to get a loan through its iPhone Payments plan.

The only alternative here is to go through a cell phone leasing provider. This requires that you're at least 18 years old, have a reliable income, own a bank account, and have a social security number.

Some of the cell phone leasing providers you can check out include:

Next, let's take a look at the good and the bad of getting bad credit cell phones.

What Are the Pros & Cons of Bad Credit Cell Phones?

Stick with paying hundreds of dollars on a deposit for a plan due to your low credit score? Or opt for a prepaid phone that doesn't care about your credit history?

Maybe this will help you to decide.

Pros and Cons of Prepaid Phones

Choosing to go with a prepaid phone is sometimes the only way to afford a modern smartphone plan. But is it worth it?

Pros:

  • There's no cell phone contract (leave when you want)
  • Pay as you go (skip a month or two if your finances are hit)
  • Own your phone outright (Prepaid phones are older and cheaper)
  • No credit check (or ding to your credit score)
  • More smartphones to choose from

Cons:

  • There's no financing, so you'll have to pay upfront for your phone
  • The wireless range may not be as great (dropped calls and dead zones)
  • The upfront cost is higher for newer phones

Pros and Cons of Cell Phone Plans

Having a cell phone may not be all it's cracked up to be. But it may be the perfect route for you.

Pros:

  • Pay less for your phone (financing and promotions)
  • Family plans make monthly bills cheaper
  • Great wireless coverage
  • Excellent customer service
  • Data network priority (contract holders get more bandwidth)
  • Device insurance (in case you drop it in the pool while taking a selfie)

Cons:

  • Monthly costs are higher
  • You're stuck in a contract (for two years)
  • Fewer phone options (has to be in-network devices)
  • More fees (activation fees, access fees, rate fees, etc.)

How Do You Build Your Credit So You Can Get a Cell Phone Plan?

Have an idea of the route you want to take? If you decide to go with a cell phone plan (without paying hundreds for a deposit), then you're going to need to work on your credit.

Here's a look at how to build (or rebuild) your credit.

Establish Credit Responsibly

If you're starting from the bottom, then you'll need to establish credit first. Here's how:

  1. Open credit accounts (start with secured credit cards or credit builder loans).
  2. Apply for different types of credit (credit cards, credit builder loans, authorized user, certificate of deposit loan, etc).
  3. Don't apply for too many lines of credit — start with three or four max.
  4. Make sure to pay your bills on-time each month (set up payment reminders).
  5. Keep your credit card balances beneath 30%.
  6. Learn how to read your credit report and keep an eye on it.

Rebuild Credit Responsibly

If you have a poor credit history, you may need to do the above and fix your report's issues.

For instance, you may need to:

  • Pay down loans and/or credit card balances
  • Pay money owed on delinquent accounts
  • Consolidate your debt into one loan or utilize other debt management strategies
  • Work with a financial expert

As you clear the negatives off your credit report, you can apply for secured credit lines and start rebuilding.

How long it takes to build or rebuild your credit depends on your current score and the items on your credit. It can take as little as three to six months or as long as one to two years.

Start Working On Your Credit Today

Creating an excellent credit history isn't difficult, but it does require consistency and time. With the right plan, you can build or rebuild your credit rating so you can feel confident in applying for financing.

You'll have more freedom to purchase the things you couldn't before, like a vehicle, a home, or the new smartphone that's on your list.

But it all starts with you. And the best time to start is today!

Sources

  1. House of Debt. "How To Get Approved For A Cell Phone With Bad Credit?". https://houseofdebt.org/how-to-get-approved-for-a-cell-phone-with-bad-credit/

  2. Credit Karma. "Mobile loans: How to apply for a loan using your smartphone". https://www.creditkarma.com/personal-loans/i/mobile-loans

  3. Nerdwallet. "4 Ways to Get a Cell Phone Plan With No Credit Check". https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/utilities/get-cell-phone-plan-no-credit-check

About the author

Saphia Lanier is a content writer with 14 years of experience writing on topics relating to SaaS, marketing, SMBs, and business/personal finance. See Saphia on Linkedin.

About the reviewer

Lauren Bringle is an Accredited Financial Counselor® and Content Marketing Manager with Self Financial – a financial technology company with a mission to help people build credit and savings. See Lauren on Linkedin and Twitter.

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Written on January 5, 2021
Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings. Comments? Questions? Send us a note at hello@self.inc.

Disclaimer: Self is not providing financial advice. The content presented does not reflect the view of the Issuing Banks and is presented for general education and informational purposes only. Please consult with a qualified professional for financial advice.

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