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What’s a Burner Number and Why Do You Need One?

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In today’s digital world, when you never know who could be watching your activity online. You may wonder how to best keep your information safe. One way to stay relatively anonymous is with a temporary phone number or burner number. When you consider how often you use your phone number to sign up for online accounts — which usually contain identifying information like your name or email address — it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to get a second number.

What is a burner number?

A burner number is a temporary cell phone number you can use for a while then easily discard. (Getting rid of it is the “burning”). This gives you a number to use for a one-off situation or provides you with a second number when you don’t want to give away your personal one. 

You can obtain a burner number by using a smartphone app that gives you a second secret phone number, purchasing a physical burner phone, or getting a temporary SIM card. Each option has pros and cons, and each comes at a different price.

How to get a burner number

How you go about getting a burner number is up to you. It depends on what you use the number for and how much you’re willing to spend on a second number. The three primary methods for obtaining a temporary phone number are:

  1. A burner app
  2. A burner phone
  3. A temporary SIM card

Let’s look at each one in more detail.

1. A virtual phone number or burner app

Burner apps work by assigning you a real phone number after you sign up and pay for a monthly subscription. Some apps require the purchase of credits instead of regular subscription payments, which might be more beneficial if you don’t use your number that often.

A virtual phone app is a popular option because it doesn’t require extra hardware, like another phone or a SIM. An app is usually your only option if you want a phone number based in another country as well.

Some popular burner apps are:

  • Burner
  • Hushed
  • Sideline
  • CoverMe
  • Skype

With these apps, keep in mind that some value privacy more than others. CoverMe, for example, uses military-grade encryption standards. If you’re trying to stay off the radar, look for an app with higher privacy standards.

Another thing to remember is that some apps may have limited features. Perhaps you can receive calls and SMS messages for free, but you have to pay to send your own. Always check out the full list of features and read reviews before downloading a temporary phone number app.

2. With a burner phone

The classic way to get a temporary number that’s unattached to your identity is to buy a burner phone, like they do in spy movies. They’re usually cheap with limited functionalities. They also may or may not already have a prepaid SIM installed. You can buy a burner phone from just about anywhere that sells phones.

A burner phone is the costliest option to get a temporary phone number because you have to invest in a phone and a SIM card. If you want to keep using your phone regularly, you’ll have to reload the SIM card each month with calling minutes and SMS messages. Keep in mind that if you’re trying to remain mostly anonymous, you should NOT reload your SIM card with your credit card because your credit card has your name attached to it. Instead, you can pay with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, use cash or gift cards.

A burner phone can be useful if you want to keep your burner number separate from your primary phone. If someone else gets a hold of your primary phone and snoops through it, they could see a burner app installed.

3. With a temporary SIM card

The final way you can get a burner number is with a temporary SIM card that you insert into your existing phone. This method is common for traveling abroad, so you can have a local number while you’re staying in a foreign country. These SIM cards work like a burner phone, but without having to buy another phone. You purchase the SIM, then you purchase a subscription or credits for calling, sending SMS messages, and using mobile Internet.

You don’t have to travel to use a temporary SIM card, however. You can pick one up at grocery stores, gas stations, or convenience stores, then add credits online and start using it with a different number.

The downside to a temporary SIM card is that you may have to remove your main SIM card to use it, unless your phone can hold two at once. Also, in some countries, you have to furnish an ID to purchase a temporary SIM card, which defeats the purpose of getting an anonymous second number.

Can a burner number be traced?

Although it may run counter to why you get a burner number, know that burner numbers can be traced to their owners. Whether you use a virtual number app, burner phone, or temporary SIM, the number goes through a cellular carrier or network operator. These carriers keep call logs, track data usage, and even know your approximate location. 

For this reason, you should always read the fine print when signing up for a virtual number app. Look at the company’s policies to see which information they can see and how much of it they hold on to. If their privacy policy is not forthcoming about this info, it’s best to avoid creating an account with them.

Also, don’t use your burner number for anything illegal. It’s for protecting your personal privacy, not for conducting covert activities. If you do something illegal with the number, the authorities will be able to trace it back to you.

Downsides to using a burner number

While there are privacy advantages to using a burner number, it comes with some downsides as well:

  • Cannot contact emergency services: Virtual phone number app operators don’t want to be liable so they don’t allow calling to emergency lines.
  • Numbers get recycled quickly: The pool of available numbers is limited, and there’s usually a quick turnover. So you may get calls from people who think you’re someone else, a previous owner of the number. With some burner apps, you also lose your number if you don’t use it often enough.
  • Added cost: If you already have a nice smartphone and pay for a regular monthly phone plan, you may not be motivated to purchase a second burner phone or pay a subscription fee for another number. Although burner numbers and phones are inexpensive compared to a new smartphone and mobile plan with a major national carrier, they’re still an added cost.

Situations you can use a burner number for

There are several situations where a temporary phone number would come in handy, or you may just prefer to have a second phone number to screen the calls you get. Burner numbers are ideal for the following situations:

  • Giving out at a conference: If you don’t want the people you meet at a conference to follow up with you or have information about you, you can give them your burner number.
  • Online dating: Online dating scams are common, so using a second number can help you protect yourself.
  • Airbnb: Whether you’re a host or a traveler, keep your Airbnb separate from your personal life by using a burner number specifically for your Airbnb account.
  • Ride sharing apps: For Uber, Taskrabbit, or any app based on connecting you with strangers for services, you can protect your identity by using a burner number.
  • Selling items online: When you list items for sale on eBay or Facebook Marketplace, use a temporary number to communicate with buyers.
  • Job hunting: You may not want to put your real phone number on job applications, to avoid potential scams or getting spammed by head hunters.

Using a burner number to stay safe

A temporary phone number won’t cloak your identity completely, but it will add another layer of privacy between your personal life and the outside world. Having a burner number comes in handy in many situations — more than you’d think. If you want to protect your privacy, consider getting yourself a temporary phone number.

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