There’s a good chance that, when you were a kid, cell phones weren’t that common. Even if they were, they weren’t the 5-inch plus pocket-friendly computers they are today. I still remember getting my Nokia candybar phone and how excited I was.
Today, kids are increasingly connected and their tech is leaps and bounds above anything we might have considered in our childhood. They also seem to want more and more of it.
Whether you’re looking for a simple way to keep an eye on your toddler while they explore their world or you’re searching for an affordable option for a teen or young adult, we’re going to break down the best cell phone options for kids in 2016!
While the exact features you might need will differ based on the age of your child and what you want them to do (or not be able to do) with their phone, we felt these considerations offered benefits to any age group.
Affordability: Even as adults, accidents happen. Handing a kid a $600 phone sounds like a recipe for disaster to us.
Kid-Centric Features: While a kid can use most any device out there--sometimes better than us--we wanted to find options that offered specific benefits to a range of ages and skill levels.
Good Battery Life: If the phone only lasts an hour before it dies, it’s not going to do much to keep the kids from coming after your phone to play games. If you’re using it for emergency calling or to keep tabs on their location, extended battery life also adds peace of mind.
Durability: While the rugged options out there are probably out of the price range of most kids phone budgets, we wanted to find options that will stand up to the occasional tumble and deal with being tossed in bag or sat on from time to time.
With those criteria in mind, we made our picks.
Rugged designs and simple interfaces for tiny minds and active living
While not exactly a phone, the FiLIP offers important phone features in this age range with a design likely to withstand the abuse of tiny hands and an active life.
Although it looks like a kids’ smartwatch, the FiLIP has built-in GPS tracking and support for both GSM and Wi-Fi connectivity. You can program up to 5 numbers into the FiLIP that allow it to receive or place calls without worry of who they’re talking to.
One of the features we like is SafeZones. Each FiLIP can store 5 SafeZones. When your child enters or leaves a SafeZone, you receive a notification on your phone. This is great checking if they made it to school safely or if they’re visiting a friend.
There’s also the emergency button that calls each number on the device’s contact list until someone answers, starts recording audio and updates the GPS location every 60 seconds until the emergency ends. The button activates by holding it for 4 seconds to avoid accidental activation.
For kids that like to customize, there’s a line of decorative wrist straps and covers to personalize the device as well.
The only downside to this device for us is that it’s currently an AT&T exclusive. However, with its limited data usage and affordable price, it shouldn’t impact your monthly bill too much.
Phones with Basic Calling and GPS Tracking
The KISA Phone is one of the most interesting options we found in our search for the best cell phones for kids.
Featuring a stylish yet rugged design, the phone is similar in size to a modern smartphone but ditches the touchscreens and apps for a straightforward, physical button interface. You can choose how many buttons to phone has at the time of order and each is assigned a label and a number.
Placing a call requires a push of the appropriate button. The option to use pictures on buttons provides added simplicity for younger children. Should you need to change the numbers assigned to each button, you contact KISA and they can make the changes for you.
Additional features include GPS tracking, an emergency mode and an optional charging cradle if you worry about small hands and cords.
While the company is based out of Australia, the phone supports GSM networks around the world. Pricing is slightly higher if you’re using your own SIM. However, when you consider the added durability of the phone, we feel the price is competitive as you won’t need to replace it anytime soon.
If you’re looking for something more like a traditional mobile phone, the Jitterbug Flip offers similar features in a classic flip phone format.
From $68.75 at Amazon
Although it’s marketed toward seniors, the same features make it ideal for kids who don’t need the power of a smartphone. Large buttons are easy to operate with small hands, the screen’s high contrast and large fonts are easy to read and the flip design should help it to stand up to a few more drops and dings.
Easy texting without access to advanced features
It seems that while phones get fancier each year, we’re doing less calling on them than ever before. For younger generations, texting and IM is likely more common than actual phone calls at this point.
If your kids want to text but you don’t want them to have the full features of a smartphone, full-keyboard and slider phones are an excellent choice. They still get to talk with friends and you don’t have to worry about endless app downloads or a surprise on your monthly bill due to a weekend-long YouTube binge. Most major carriers still offer at least one feature phone option with a full keyboard.
However, keep in mind that most full keyboard phones cost as much as--and sometimes more than--an entry-level smartphone, so if you’re only looking at these to save money, you might skip to our next section.
LG Extravert 2 or Xpression 2
Both the LG Xpression 2 and the LG Extravert 2 offer a small touchscreen for switching between features, MP3 playback, alarms and plenty of storage for contacts. The QWERTY keyboard makes it easy to hammer out texts and emails without relying on the touchscreen.
From $69.99 at Amazon
LG Xpression 2
From $45.00 at Amazon
The Extravert 2 features better specifications across the board with nearly double the battery life, more memory, a slightly larger screen and increased internal storage. However, both support microSD cards, so loading up all of your kids’ favorite tunes shouldn't be a problem.
The 2MP camera used in both is perfect for quick snapshots or social media--but don’t expect amazing pictures.
If you're looking for the full keyboard experience without the slider format, the ZTE Z432 available on Amazon is a great GSM option as well. It resembles some of the classic BlackBerry phones of years past.
From $18.95 at Amazon with a prepaid plan
While the screen is on the smaller side--only 2.4-inches--it is a wider screen, so it might work better for reading text or webpages. This model also includes a 2MP camera and microSD card storage expansion.
NOTE: None of these phones support Wi-Fi connections. While this might be great for limiting access to things you don’t want your kids browsing, it is a limitation as they grow older. This also means that they will need to rely on data if you’re planning to let them use email or social media features. While feature phones are often quite light on data, this will result in extra monthly costs.
Affordable, full-featured smartphones for accident-prone teens
While the original iPhone and early Android phones forever changed the way the world communicates, smartphones aren’t the revolutionary things they once were.
Today, you can find Android phones for under $100 that would run circles around these earlier devices. Jump into the mid-$100s and you have a full line of options that are more than enough for most teens.
Motorola Moto E (2nd Generation)
With a 4.5-inch qHD display, quad-core processor and support for microSD cards, the Moto E from Verizon or AT&T (GSM) is a capable, fully-featured smartphone. It costs a fraction of the current flagships and the 1GB of RAM should handle basic daily use and light gaming just fine. There's also a 5MP camera for capturing quick snapshots or sharing images on social media.
Motorola Moto E (2nd Gen)
From $84.99 at Amazon
One downside is that there's only 8GB of internal storage so taking advantage of the microSD expansion card slot is recommended.
Motorola G Play (4th Generation)
Upgrading to the Moto G Play (4th Generation), you'll find a larger 5-inch screen, a faster processor and double the RAM. The 8MP camera will take images rivaling most entry level point-and-shoot cameras.
Motorola Moto G Play (4th Gen)
From $149.99 at Amazon
Support for microSD cards ensures plenty of room of music, apps and other media as well. However, it comes at more than double the cost of the Moto E.
If you’re looking for a full-featured phone for a responsible teen, we think this is a superb option. However, if you have any concerns about misuse or you’re looking for a younger child, sticking with the Moto E will provide most of the functionality at half the price.
What about an iPhone?
It seems everywhere you look these days, there's a kid with an iPhone. There's a good chance your kids have asked you for one as well.
However, the latest iPhone doesn't come cheap. This makes us hesitant to recommend a new iPhone for kids or teens. Even with insurance, you'll likely pay more for a replacement if it's broken than our previous teen-friendly recommendations.
However, if you're willing to buy used or refurbished, iPhones from the past generation or two are still very capable mobile devices. For example, depending on your carrier and internal storage preferences, Orchard offers three different iPhone 5 models with prices ranging between $160 and $280.
Just remember, iPhones don't support microSD cards. So choose a model with plenty of storage.
Any other options for me?
Yep. Blu also makes a variety of Android phones with budget-friendly prices. Options start at around $40 with high-end phones topping out around $200. All options are unlocked from the factory and many are quad-band phones. This means you can use them on nearly any GSM carrier network--including popular prepaid options.
The top end phones--such as the VIVO 5R Refresh, LIFE ONE X2 and Vivo XL--offer many of the features of flagship phones at a price that is easier to stomach. Better still, if the phone is dropped in the pool or left at the mall, you’re not out $500+.
Blu constantly releases new phone models, so we won’t get in-depth with details. However, in our opinion these are some good ranges depending on your needs.
- Basic: 4-inch+ display, at least 1GB of RAM, dual-core processor at 1Ghz or higher
- Media Playback: 5-inch+ display, at least 2GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage + microSD card, dual-core or quad-core processor at 1Ghz or higher
- Gaming: 5-inch+ display, at least 2GB of RAM. 16+GB of internal storage, quad-core processor at least 1.2Ghz or higher
Anything else to keep in mind?
Yep. Glad you asked.
If your kids play a lot of games or have a large collection of downloaded videos or music, choosing a phone with microSD card support will ensure they can fit their favorites on their phone. For internal storage, we recommend starting with a minimum of 8GB, though 16GB is preferable.
Related: You can compare the best MicroSD cards here.
The apps added by the manufacturer or carrier and the operating system all take up room on the phone. In most cases, you can count on these default apps taking up at least 1GB of storage space.
Alternative Options to Cell Phones
Depending on your kids’ wants and needs, they might not need a full-time phone of their own. We’ve found a few options that might work for extremely light use or situations where calling or mobile data service isn’t required.
Own an iPod Touch or Tablet? You can use apps to simulate many features from a smartphone. With regular access to Wi-Fi, you might get away without any monthly cost at all!
How do I do that?
There’s a good chance your kids already have Google or Facebook accounts. If so, both Messenger and Google Hangouts allow voice calling over Wi-Fi. If you’d prefer to keep your kids off social media, Viber and WhatsApp offer voice calling features as well--though their friends will need to have the app too.
And what if I want a more phone-like experience?
As long as the tablet has a microphone, you can use magicApp to add a phone number to it for a small yearly subscription fee. This number can send and receive text messages and place calls to other mobiles or landlines. Currently, the plan includes unlimited calling and texting in the U.S. & Canada so you don’t need to worry about bill shock if the kids talk all afternoon.
Upcycle an Old Phone
The old phone collecting dust in your office drawer might be a great fit for your teen. You've already bought it, so you don't have to worry about costs should they break it. Most carriers will also unlock phones for a fee should you need to use the phone with a new carrier.
For even more savings, you can use the method listed above for tablets and iPod touches to use VoIP instead. However, if your teen is on the go, they might have trouble using features unless Wi-Fi access is nearby.
Although the number of younger kids with mobile phones is increasing--and they might tell you all their friends have one--there was a time when we all made it through our day without one. If you’re holding out and feel that the best phone for your kids is none at all, there’s some evidence to back you up.
There's nothing wrong with no phone at all.
Ultimately, it is up to you to know what features are best for your child and what you’re comfortable with. We hope this guide helped to highlight the best options out there and answer any questions you might have.
If you’re one of the many parents out there that think cell phones and kids shouldn’t mix, let us know why in the comments! On the other side, if this guide helped you find the perfect phone for your kid or we missed a question you might have, we’d love to hear from you too!
P.S. If you’d like to be able to track what your child does with their mobile device or place restrictions on their features, most major carriers offer a form of parental controls or allow you to set per-line limits for common features--such as data or texting--through your account dashboard.
These tools also offer a great way to start building responsibility by creating a bill and highlighting the true cost of the services they might view as a common part of life. Contact your carrier to see what options are available to you.