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August 13, 2013

What's The Difference Between Prepaid and Postpaid Satellite Airtime?

Ever wonder what the difference is between prepaid and postpaid satellite airtime? Is one cheaper than the other? Do all providers have both prepaid or postpaid? Can you combine the two? 

Satellite airtime is very, verrrrrrrry complicated. Although it might be easy to blame the networks for this, we've got to cut them some slack. They're all juggling massive multi-billion dollar technology - in space - that allows you to get connected from pretty much every inch of the globe. 

Sometimes that technology even saves your life (we've seen it happen). 

That being said, we completely understand that it's complicated and we get the occasional call or email lambasting us for how horrible satellite airtime is. 

We just resell the airtime. We have to follow the rules and pricing set up by the major providers (Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar, Thuraya, and VSAT). That being said, we try and help make it as clear, easy, and inexpensive for you as is possible. 

So here's some answers to the most common questions we get regarding satellite airtime pricing.

What is the Difference Between Prepaid and Postpaid Satellite Airtime?

Postpaid airtime is when you sign up for a flat monthly fee in a yearly contract. Sometimes carriers will call this a subscription. Depending on the postpaid plan, you can get some minutes included up to a certain point. Often you have to pay for what you use, whether it be voice minutes or data minutes, on top of that monthly fee.

Iridium 500 Minute Prepaid Satellite AirtimeFor example, with an Iridium 9555 handheld, you could sign up for the basic postpaid plan ($50.50 per month with a 1-year contract, at the time of writing this) and expect to pay $1.17 per minute for voice. $1.17 is a nice low amount and you have the security of always having minutes available.

Compare that to prepaid airtime. Prepaid airtime has two factors to it: minutes (how many) and validity (how long). If we look at that same Iridium 9555, a typical prepaid card of 500 minutes costs $720.25 and lasts 12 months. Each prepaid minute costs $1.44. 

Well heck, $1.17 vs $1.44? Sign me up for postpaid!

Hold your horses (or, uh, boat motor). Remember that postpaid is a yearly contract. Even if you're only cruising for three months a year, you're going to be paying that $50 a month all year round. And, that $50 doesn't include any minutes. Nada. So, if you plan on doing anything with that phone other than admire how nice it looks sitting on your nav station, you're going to start racking up airtime charges. 

Now, you could go with a postpaid plan that has unlimited minutes. Yes, unlimited! You can web-browse to your heart's content from your iPad, in the middle of the ocean. 

Except that you will need a broadband terminal (like the Inmarsat Sailor 500) and be willing to shell out several thousand dollars a month to cover that monthly fee. For many cruisers, that's out of the question.

Which brings us to this question:

Which Is Cheaper? Prepaid or Postpaid (Subscription) Satellite Airtime?

Iridium Postpaid Satellite AirtimeThis depends on you. For many of our cruising customers, prepaid ends up being less expensive, because typical cruiser airtime usage generally makes the best of, say, the Iridium 500 minute plan (or the corresponding Inmarsat 500 unit card for the IsatPhone Pro).   

If you divide the Iridium 500 minute prepaid card into 12 months, it's about $60 a month (which breaks down to about 41 minutes a month). The basic postpaid plan is $50 a month. In order to save money with the postpaid plan here, you would need to use less than 8 minutes of airtime per month to still stay under the $60 (and 41 minutes) you would pay with a prepaid card. 

Now, that being said, many of our postpaid customers simply set up the postpaid plan and then never expect to use it. They depend on this plan for emergency situations only, when they know they will need immediate access to voice and data minutes and don't mind paying extra for their minutes in those cases. They consider it a form of insurance. For this type of usage, they don't need to worry about buying or extending minutes that they will never use, and they will always have minutes available just when they need them most. 

Is There Some Magical Combination of Prepaid and Postpaid Minutes That Will Save Me the Most Money?

Iridium Pilot Satellite AirtimeYes. With the Iridium Pilot, you can actually exploit the benefits of both options to get the best savings imaginable. With the Pilot, data is billed postpaid, and voice is best done using prepaid GoChat cards that get the cost of a voice minute down to $0.60. Sixty cents a minute! We're pretty excited about that. Especially since you don't have to pay a multi-thousand-dollar-per-month postpaid bill to get those prices. The postpaid bill is $39 a month. Then you pay for what you use.

Do All Providers Offer Both Prepaid and Postpaid Satellite Airtime?

Nope. Globalstar, for example, only has postpaid accounts. VSAT systems (of epic inexpensive data lore, although watch out for that initial hardware cost) are all postpaid. All of the other carriers (Iridium, Inmarsat, and Thuraya) generally offer both options. Iridium, however, is the only carrier we're aware of that allows you to combine your postpaid plan with prepaid minutes.

I Still Don't Know Which Is The Best Option For Me

You can always, always, always contact us to get more detailed information about your specific needs. Maybe you're a charter captain in the Caribbean with guests who want to check email while they're on board. Maybe you're rowing across the arctic circle and need to have backup airtime systems in place. Maybe this is your first time cruising and you have no idea what will work for you. We can help! 

Shoot us an email at or drop us a line. We have actual (knowledgeable) humans available to chat about what will work best for you.


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