You should get a burner phone number (even if you are not a spy)

No, you don’t need to buy a new phone.
A person holding an iPhone while sitting in front of a laptop, possibly setting up a burner phone number.
You can manage burner phone numbers directly from an app on your personal phone. William Iven/Unsplash

This post has been updated. It was originally published on 06/21/18.

The first time you heard of burner phones—cheap prepaid mobiles 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.

An alternative number can help you stay safe while chatting with strangers online, establish a business, and protect your privacy. Also, these days you don’t need another 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 burner phone number

Burners are temporary, and largely anonymous, so a having a one is useful in any scenario where you need a number that’s one or both of those things.

Think about any one-time occasion when people might have to text 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 them to contact you outside of that particular context.

Another example—many online dating services let you chat anonymously through their apps, but if things go well, you might decide to swap digits and take the conversation elsewhere. If you reach this point but still aren’t sure you can trust a potential partner, a burner phone number will let you keep your distance. Ghosting is rude, but giving out alternative contact information can be a lifesaver if someone you’re dating doesn’t respect your desire to break off a relationship.

Online dating isn’t the only occasion when you have to share contact details with strangers you meet on the internet. Sites such as Craigslist also require that you get in touch with unknown buyers and sellers, and a burner number can act as an extra buffer. People might use your real phone number to look you up online, but a burner doesn’t give them the same power—if the person becomes intrusive, you can cut them off immediately by eliminating your second number.

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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 burner 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. Having a “work only” number will also make it easier for you to set up your phone to automatically ignore business calls when you’ve already called it a day.

A burner phone 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 phone, give the less-important sites or apps your second number—just make sure not to delete any burner numbers that you’ll need to access specific accounts.

Where to get a burner number

A man in sunglasses looking serious as he holds a phone up to his ear outside. This is what using a burner phone feels like.
All the benefits of a burner phone (including feeling like a secret agent) without the need to buy a second device.

You can find apps that create burner numbers. Our two favorites are Burner and Hush.

Burner excels due to ease of use, number of features, and flexibility. You can create either prepaid burner phone numbers with 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’ll need to sign up for a new account using your existing cell number. Then you’ll be able to pick the type of burner number you want (prepaid or subscription) and label it. The prepaid numbers start at $1.99 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 $4.99 per month for a single line with unlimited calls and texts. If you’re not ready to pay up at the start, you can test the service with a seven-day free trial.

Two phones charging on a white table. Nobody knows how many burner phone numbers they hold.
The more devices you have, of course, the more burner phone numbers you can use (if you have the money to pay for them). Steve Johnson/Unsplash

Most users won’t have to look beyond Burner, but international users might prefer a burner phone app that offers numbers in other countries.

Hushed performs the same function as Burner, and it also lets you make calls in 45 countries. That said, it only provides text messaging in a select few, including the US.

Like Burner, Hushed lets you establish a prepaid or subscription burner phone number, and you 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.

But 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.

[Related: Emojis and reaction GIFs make Slack better. Here’s how to create them.]

Although, in our opinion, it’s the second-best burner phone app, Hushed does have helpful abilities. For example, the integrated instant messaging app can send and receive self-destructing messages with other Hushed users.

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 similar to Hushed’s big rival. A one-time $2 payment will get you a number that expires after seven days, with 20 minutes of calls and 60 texts. For a more permanent number, with unlimited calls and texts, the monthly cost is $4. If you want to communicate internationally, the price goes up to $5 a month.

The other burner apps 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 $9.99 per month—twice as much as subscription burners from Burner and Hushed—most users will prefer less pricey alternatives.

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 $7.99 per month for each number, Flyp can’t match its rivals’ more competitive prices. Before buying it, we recommend you take advantage of the free seven-day trial to see if Flyp meets your needs.