Healthy Aging Column – Give the Gift of Communication – Prepaid Phone Cards

Do you have an older relative or friend who is hard to buy for? One of the best gifts you can give might be a prepaid phone card. These cards can give your relative the gift of long-distance phone calls to friends and relatives with no cost to them.

Prepaid phone cards allow you to pay in advance for long-distance service. For a specific price, you get a specified number of minutes. There is a wide range of costs per minutes.  Usually, the more minutes you buy, the cheaper the cost of each minute of phone service. You can buy prepaid phone cards at a variety of places including the post office, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, department and discount stores, by mail and even on the Internet.  

The cards work by giving a toll-free access number to call. You then punch in a PIN, or personal identification number, that is usually hidden on the card under a scratch-off coating when you buy the card. After calling the number and dialing the PIN, you are given recorded directions on what to do next. Prepaid phone cards often give the caller a choice of languages in which to hear the directions and also may give the minutes remaining on the card.

Before buying a card, check to see what additional fees the card may have. These could include a one-time access fee or an access fee every time a call is made with the card. There might be a service or maintenance fee which would be deducted daily, weekly or monthly from the card. Taxes or government surcharges ranging from 7.5 percent to 15 percent may also be deducted. There could also be pay phone surcharges when the consumer uses a pay phone to make calls, because the federal government requires that pay phone owners receive 24 cents for each toll-free call.

Find out about the rates charged for in-state, out-of-state and international calls (if needed). Also, purchase a card with no expiration date to endure the person receiving the card can use all the minutes available to them. The terms and conditions of the card should be included with the card or through a service representative at a toll-free number listed with the card. If information is not available, keep looking – the card is definitely not a good buy. Also, do not buy a card if the scratch-off cover on the PIN has been removed.

The best card to buy has no extra fees, tells what the cost of each minute is as well as any additional costs for international calls.

Most prepaid phone cards have a toll-free, 24-hour customer service number with operators to handle questions and complaints. Minor complaints can be handled at this level. For major problems with a prepaid phone card, the International Prepaid Communications Association has a toll-free ombudsman hotline at 800-333-3513 and Web site at  Colorado also has a Public Utilities Commission that can respond to consumer complaints.   Contact them by sending e-mailing to, or call toll-free at  800-888-0170.

Additional information on Healthy Aging is available on the Cooperative Extension Web site at by selecting Info Online, Consumer/Family, then Healthy Aging.

by Bonnie Sherman, Golden Plains Area Family and Consumer Extension Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension