The first time you heard of a burner phone—a cheap prepaid mobile intended for temporary use—was probably while watching a crime drama. But an extra cell phone comes in handy even when you operate on the right side of the law.
A second number can help you stay safe while chatting with strangers online, establish a business, and protect your privacy. And these days, you don't need a second phone to have a burner. Several apps make it easy to put a second (or third or fourth) number on the same phone.
Why you need a second number
Burners have two main benefits: They're temporary, and they're largely anonymous. So a second number will be useful in any scenario where you need one or both of those things.
Think about any one-time occasion when people might have to text you or call you, but you don't really want to give out your main number. If you're organizing a wedding, going to a festival, or helping arrange any kind of local event, you'll need to get in touch with lots of new contacts...but you might not want to give them your personal information.
As another example, take dating. Many online dating services let you chat anonymously through their apps, but eventually, most people either stop talking or decide to swap numbers. If you reach this point but you're still not sure you can trust a potential partner, a burner will let you keep more distance from them. While it's bad manners to give out your number and then disappear, the second number can be a lifesaver if a person you're dating doesn't respect your desire to break off a relationship.
Dating isn't the only occasion when you have to share contact information with strangers you meet on the internet. Sites such as Craigslist also require that you get in touch with unknown buyers or sellers, and a burner number can act as an extra buffer between you. People might use your real phone number to look you up online, but a burner doesn't give them the same power. And if one of the people you're chatting with becomes intrusive, you can cut them off immediately by eliminating your second number.
Although burners earned a reputation as temporary, they don't have to be. The same apps that create burners also provide a fast and easy method of establishing a second long-term phone number for personal or professional use.
For example, if you're self-employed or starting up a side business, a second number will let you keep your work and home lives separate. With another number, you can keep track of new professional contacts—say when you network with colleagues at conferences—without mistaking them for casual friends. And you can set up your phone to ignore business calls, while allowing personal ones, outside of work hours.
A second number is also a great way to protect your privacy online. A growing number of services make their users create personal accounts, and they often require your cell phone number during registration. To prevent special offers, promotional codes, and other marketing texts from cluttering up your main phone number, give the less important sites or apps your second number. Just make sure not to delete any burner numbers that you need to access specific accounts.
How to get a burner
You can find multiple apps that create burner numbers. Our two favorites are Burner and Hush (in that order), although Sideline and Flyp also have good features. We'll discuss all of them here.
Burner excels due to ease of use, number of features, and flexibility: You can create either prepaid burners with a preset expiration dates or subscription burners that stay alive as long as you pay a monthly fee.
Sending a message through Burner works much like sending a message through any other app. You manage contacts and initiate calls and texts within the app itself. Burner coordinates everything so that, when messages reach your contacts, they appear to have come from a real phone number. This keeps the complex processing behind the scenes, leaving the interface neatly arranged so it's a breeze to navigate. Like your regular cell phone service, Burner can automatically block robocalls and establish "do not disturb" time periods. For instance, it can send calls straight to voicemail after a certain time of day.
That said, Burner differs from your regular phone number in a couple great ways. It plugs into a host of other services, including Evernote, Slack, and Dropbox. Through these connections, you can archive texts, receive Burner alerts within other apps, and more. The app also takes security measures to protect you, allowing you to lock your account with a PIN. And if you decide to ditch a burner number before its preset time period is up, you can reconfigure or erase it at any time.
When you install the app, you sign up for a new account using your existing cell number. Then pick the type of burner number you want (prepaid or subscription) and label it. The prepaid numbers start at $2 for 14 days of use, with 20 minutes of calls and 60 texts. Prices rise as you extend the period of use, add call time, or increase the number of texts. The subscription numbers start at $5 per month for a single line with unlimited calls and texts. If you're not ready to pay up yet, you can test out the service during a seven-day free trial.
Most users won't have to look beyond Burner, but international users might prefer a service that offers numbers in other countries.
Hushed performs the primary function as Burner, and it also lets you make calls in 45 different countries. That said, it only provides SMS support in a select few, including the U.S.
Like Burner, Hushed lets you establish a prepaid or subscription burner number, which can easily make a call or send a text through the app itself. You can also label and delete your numbers through a straightforward interface.
However, Hushed lacks some of the advanced features we like in Burner, such as automatic robocall blocking and "do not disturb" rules. And while Hushed plugs into some third-party apps like Slack, it doesn't coordinate with as many services as Burner does.
Although it's in second place overall, Hushed does have helpful abilities. For example, the integrated instant messenger app can send and receive self-destructing messages with other Hushed users. This is a little superfluous as far as we're concerned, but you might find it useful.
When you open the app for the first time, it will prompt you to create a new account with your current cell phone number. Then you can establish new Hushed numbers as needed. Pricing packages are very similar to Hushed's big rival. A one-time $2 payment will get you a number that expires after 7 days, with 20 minutes of calls and 60 texts. For a more permanent number, with unlimited calls and texts, the monthly cost is $5.
The other options on the market probably won't tempt you away from Burner and Hushed, but they have specialized features that might appeal to specific users.
Sideline emphasizes advanced business features, such as integration with Salesforce and an online dashboard where you can access your numbers. This works best if you want second numbers for professional purposes. However, considering that plans start at $10 per month—twice as much as subscription burners from Burner and Hushed—most users will prefer the less pricey alternatives we've already discussed.
Flyp scores highly for smoothly managing multiple communications across multiple numbers inside its easily-navigable color-coded interface. Still, the overall look and feel of the app doesn't measure up to our two faves, and at $8 per month for each number, Flyp can't match its rivals' more competitive prices. We recommend that before investing in it, you take advantage of the free seven-day trial to see if Flyp matches your needs.