- When to Get Your Kid a Phone
- Best iPhones 2020: Which Apple phone should you get?
- The Cardinal Rule
- Top 5 BEST Smartphones of 2019
- Thinking About Your Kid's First Phone
- Best phone purchase options
- Cell Phones
- The Service Plan Question
- What to look for when shopping for a cell phone
- How to Make Your Kid's Phone Safe
- The Best Phones for 2020
- The Best Phones for Every Age
- Ages 8 and Under
- Best iPhone 2020: which Apple phone is the best?
- Ages 9 to 13
- How we test iPhones
- Ages 14 to 17
- Best iPhone: which one should you buy today
- Republic Wireless Relay
- Kyocera Cadence LTE
When to Get Your Kid a Phone
I'm one of PCMag's phone experts, and also a parent, so I've thought a lot about this.
Best iPhones 2020: Which Apple phone should you get?
Mobile phones are useful, powerful, and helpful. They're also expensive, distracting, and a potential gateway to a lot of nasty things on the internet. So should you get your kid a phone? And if so, which one?
If you simply want to get straight to the recommended phones, scroll down to the bottom of the page.
The Cardinal Rule
There's one reason to give your child a phone: if they're often out of sight of trustworthy adults and may need to contact you or another caregiver.
If your kid wants to play games or watch videos on a personal device, but doesn't actually need cellular connectivity, we recommend the iPod touch.
At under $200, the iPod touch( at Amazon) is essentially a phone-without-a-phone—it lets your kid do everything they want with a phone, without the monthly costs associated with cellular service.
Top 5 BEST Smartphones of 2019
It's a great device for backseat entertainment, for instance.
If you're not a fan of Apple products (hey, this is PCMag after all), look at low-cost, unlocked Android phones that don't require a SIM card. They can do everything a regular Android phone can, just over Wi-Fi.
Thinking About Your Kid's First Phone
Do not buy your child an expensive, high-end smartphone.
The Wait Until 8th campaign, which advocates only giving kids smartphones once they reach the 8th grade, makes some good arguments, although it too easily elides smartphones and social media, which are different things.
The campaign's central point, though, is that younger kids generally only need phones for calling and limited texting.
The best phone for tweens and younger is a simple voice phone, a screenless Republic Wireless Relay, or a pure tracking device like the Jiobit.
When you do step up to a smartphone, don't spend too much money.
Best phone purchase options
Kids aren't responsible. That's part of what makes them kids. They'll lose phones, drop phones, soak phones, and break phones. Assume it will happen. There are a ton of good phones in the $200 to $400 range that run relatively new, secure versions of their operating systems, aren't frustrating to use, and don't look shamefully uncool.
There are even some good ones under $200.
We are not going to get into the endless debate, never resolved, about cell phone radiation and kids, but many parents have expressed concern to us about it. The "good" news is that radiation concerns only really come into play when a phone is held right up to your head for long periods of time, and kids don't talk on the phone with their friends much any more: they text. Short conversations with parents on a basic phone, for safety or logistical uses, won't hurt anyone.
For longer conversations, get an inexpensive wired headset.
Whatever phone you get, make sure to get a nice, rugged case for it. My daughter has a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in an Otterbox Commuter case. She loves it. I didn't expect how creative she'd become with the S Pen, constantly doodling and making notes.
Thanks to the pen, her Galaxy Note 4 isn't just a phone, it's an endless diary.
The Service Plan Question
When you get your kid a phone, whether it's a new one or a hand-me-down, you have to address what service plan it'll be on.
The lowest-cost option is Wi-Fi-only, with no SIM card.
In that case, they only have coverage in known Wi-Fi networks, and can't send standard text messages or make regular phone calls. They can, however, use iMessage and FaceTime on iPhones, or Google Hangouts for texting and calling to other Google accounts on Android phones.
Your carrier may have a good or convenient deal to add a line, which may also mean that you can get a phone on a monthly payment plan.
What to look for when shopping for a cell phone
If you're sharing a data bucket with a child, make sure to limit their line to a certain amount of monthly data so that they don't eat up all of yours.
You may also be able to save money by connecting your child's phone to a low-cost service. Take a look at our Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You Never Heard Of. If your kid just wants texting, for instance, you can get a plan from US Mobile with 100 minutes, 1,000 texts, and no data for $8 per month, less than what most add-a-line deals cost.
Then you don't have to worry about overages or about your own plan being used.
How to Make Your Kid's Phone Safe
Make a deal with your kid: If they get a phone, you get to look at it. I check my daughter's phone periodically. She's fine with that; that's the deal.
The Best Phones for 2020
I don't read her text messages, but she knows I have the option.
Take a look at our Best Parental Control Software roundup. Android and iOS both have some built-in parental controls. On both OSes, you can block purchases (you should, immediately, because it's way too easy to buy things accidentally), as well as application usage or installation.
Google's Family Link software for Android 7 phones gives you activity reports and lets you set screen time limits as well.
There are some apps that are frequently used for cyberbullying, and should stay off of any child's phone. These apps tend to change a lot, as each new cohort of kids finds something new.
The general rule is that anything with a social aspect, or anything that allows public posting, is potentially dangerous.
You should be able to look through the apps on your kid's phone and see the sorts of messages that are being received.
You may be thinking, "what about kids sneaking and lying?" If your kid is lying to you, it isn't the phone's fault. You have the power to take it away.
The Best Phones for Every Age
As a parent, I've tried to keep this list diverse, with low-cost phones, used phones, and new phones.
Whatever one you get, make sure to lock it down.
Ages 8 and Under
Small children who need phones often need them because they have complex caregiving arrangements where they're handed off between adults. A phone or tracker can also be useful if your kid tends to get lost on the playground, or likes to run and hide.
For pure tracking, we recommend the Jiobit, which doesn't have calling functions.
Best iPhone 2020: which Apple phone is the best?
For talking to mom and dad, the Republic Wireless Relay is a screenless phone that's great for linking an individual parent and kid, or for kids with tight groups of best friends or group activities.
Over the years, we've sometimes recommended watch-style, restricted phones for kids.
We're just not that enthusiastic about any of the ones on the market right now.
If you think you can trust your little kid with a voice phone, read on.
Ages 9 to 13
As tweens and young teens get their first bits of independence, they may need phones to tote around the neighborhood—and to text their friends. Yet tweens are still kids, and often can't be trusted with expensive devices.
This is prime time to get your kid a voice phone.
Ideally, you want one that works on your carrier's 4G LTE network, for the best coverage and voice quality. Verizon is shutting down its 3G network at the end of 2019, and AT&T has already shut down its 2G network, so 4G is the way to go.
The Kyocera Cadence LTE is a good choice on Verizon.
On AT&T, the unlocked Nokia 3310 3G is a decent option.
How we test iPhones
The Doro 7050 on Consumer Cellular is a 4G phone that works on prepaid plans that use AT&T's network.
There is currently no good, affordable voice phone compatible with Sprint, T-Mobile, Boost, or Virgin, which is frustrating.
Low-cost or used smartphones are also good choices for this set.
The Moto E5 Play works with all four US carrier networks, runs the latest version of Android, and won't put you out more than a C-note. As mentioned earlier, my daughter uses an older Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
If you're an iOS family, make sure to get an iOS 12-compatible phone.
The oldest, least expensive iPhone we recommend is the iPhone 6, which you can find for under $200 at used-phone marketplaces like Gazelle and Glyde. Don't buy anything older, as they'll get left behind by apps soon.
Ages 14 to 17
Teens' smartphone needs are much more like ours, although, of course, they're still often a little irresponsible.
Best iPhone: which one should you buy today
Always make sure to turn on location tracking for your teen's phone as soon as they set it up, whether that's in your Google account, Samsung account, or iCloud account. That will really help when your kid's phone is left behind at a party or school event, and they panic.
Value for money matters here.
Tech-savvy teens and their parents can agree on the OnePlus 6T, which has flagship power and geek cred, but costs much less than the latest Samsung or Apple phones.
You might be able to avoid some costly phone replacements by getting a waterproof or less fragile phone. The LG X Venture for AT&T is rugged, affordable and water resistant.
With iPhones, get an iPhone 7 for the best balance of price and water resistance.
The smallest kids can benefit from the Jiobit, a pure tracker that clips onto clothing or shoes.
It doesn't make phone calls, but it can help prevent your kid from getting lost on the playground or on the bus.
Republic Wireless Relay
The Republic Wireless Relay is a screenless cellular communications gadget that can keep kids in touch with their parents and friends; think of it more as a walkie-talkie than a phone.