How to live without a smartphone

I’ve talked before about how I’m a great fan of the dumbphone, that is, a mobile phone without internet/web capabilities. I’ve never owned a smartphone, in fact, and don’t plan to get one, at least as long as I can avoid it.

It’s okay if you have a smartphone, of course. That said, an informal survey tells me that 100% of smartphone users complain about their smartphone from time to time, so perhaps you are one of them.

Perhaps also that you are so driven to irritation (or contrariness, or the pursuit of simplicity, or similar) that you have decided to get rid of your smartphone. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good.

It can be done! And I can show you how.

Get a phone

First of all, ditching the smartphone doesn’t mean that you need to be without mobile communications. Instead, we need to get you a dumbphone. Contrary to popular belief, you can still purchase dumbphones from any of the major carriers. People often look at my phone and exclaim “wow, it’s so old!” but really, it was purchased right around when the iPhone 4 was released. Amazingly, you can still buy my phone today. (Update: Sadly, as of 2016, this phone is no longer available.)

My phone, still for sale four years later. I admit to being surprised by this.
My phone, still for sale four years later. I admit to being surprised by this.

But the best thing about tech that’s out of fashion is that people don’t place any value on it, so you can get it for cheap or free. And I guarantee that if you hit up a local Goodwill or second hand shop or even Ebay, you can find a dumbphone there.

If you have a smartphone with a SIM card, you should be able to just switch it out, saving you from having to get a new number or service. That said, new service, especially prepaid, is ridiculously cheap. (I currently pay $30/month.) After all, you don’t need a data plan anymore.

Get around

The number one reason most people say they could “never” get rid of their smartphones is the map/GPS/directions feature. This is a self-fulfilling cycle, though; when you use a GPS, you don’t need to know where you are, so you don’t practice the ability to figure it out. This means that you’re never going to get any better. Well, with a dumbphone, you will; you’ll have to.

When you don’t have directions, you have to take stock of your situation in a different way. You will look around more, you will make notes of signs and buildings and places. If you’re city walking, you will look at those tourist maps on boards that show you the area with a big You Are Here marker. You will find paper maps and you will take them and refer to them. This will feel different. You may feel more present in where you are.

You can also ask for help. Being lost isn’t a character flaw. You can go into a gas station or restaurant, or even just flag down a passerby, and ask how to get where you’re going. You will have to interact with the outside world a bit more, but that’s a benefit.

You can also just get lost, and discover a place that you would have never discovered otherwise. That’s another benefit. Not everything needs to be Instagrammed.

I recognize that some people are better at things than others, but the idea that someone just “can’t” read maps seems wrong to me, anymore than someone just “can’t” do math, or “can’t” balance their checkbook. I believe you are a competent person with the ability to learn anything if you give yourself a chance. Take your time.

Get the shot

When I’m wandering around and I find one of those boards with a map on it, I usually take a picture of it so I can refer back to it later (this is also great for hiking trails). But that only works if you have a camera, and dumbphones aren’t exactly known for this feature. (Mine has a 0.3 megapixel camera, for example.) I often carry a separate point and shoot, which, again, if you don’t have, you can get for cheap.

But if you don’t have a camera, that might also be fine. When you don’t have a camera, you can be in the moment and not capturing it for later. This can actually be a benefit.

Get that table

Most information you want still can be gathered via phone. How do you find the address to that restaurant you want to go to? How do you find out a restaurant when you don’t know the name? Believe it or not, 411 (Information) still exists to do all this. On my phone, I enter a business type or a name of a business, and it can text me the address and connect me to the place by phone.

For other situations, such as to find out when the next bus is coming, I can call my local transit agency’s automated system.

Get offline

Some dumbphones do offer web access, but the browsers are effectively useless, so you’ll be offline. This means no status updates. You’ll be out of touch for a bit, and that might make you feel a bit uneasy, but it will pass over time and you will come to appreciate these digital silences. And you’ll still be available via text, so it’s not like you’ve gone off the grid totally.

That said, you can send tweets via text message, so you don’t actually have to stop doing that if you don’t want.

Get a break

There will be some times where you might actually need to use the web when you’re out and about. Luckily there are many places where you can get internet access. Libraries are a good place, as well as the occasional internet cafe. Hotels often have computers in their foyer area, and if you look like you belong there, they probably won’t bother you. So you have options.

Get going

Life with a dumbphone is totally doable, and is actually quite fun. It can sometimes move a little slower than life with a smartphone, but I don’t think anyone will complain that their life currently moves too slowly. You will find yourself looking around at and interacting with your environment more. And contrarily, since your dumbphone does only a small range of things, you’ll find yourself bothered by it less. After all, I’ve never complained about a software update that messed everything up, because I’ve never gotten a software update.

Going without a smartphone isn’t for everyone, but it can be done. Try it. It works for me, and it can work for you.

But enough about me. Have you tried giving up your smartphone? Or why wouldn’t you?


  1. saulofhearts

    I’m starting to think pretty seriously about this. My contract is up in about 6 months, might be time to make the transition!

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