How to check Gmail on a basic or prepaid cell phoneElia writes: I want to receive gmail on my AT&T GoPhone just like I do on my Apple iPad. Can you help?

Hi Elia! Yep, you sure can check your Gmail on a prepaid AT&T GoPhone—or just about any basic cell phone, including those that won’t let you install apps.

Basically, there are two ways to check your Gmail on a budget phone: using the phone’s own email client (if it has one), or by accessing your Gmail inbox using a mobile web browser.

Note: AT&T offers a single budget Android phone, the “Avail,” through its GoPhone prepaid service—and for that phone, of course, you can access your Gmail through the pre-installed Gmail app.

1. Using a built-in email client

Even the most basic of cell phones can be typically programmed to check an email account, including Gmail.

So, how can you tell if your phone has its own email client?

Check the manual that came with your phone, or dig around its menus. If you come across an “Email” option, you’re in luck. If not, don’t worry; just skip to the next section.

Now, how do you set up your phone to check your Gmail? That depends on the make and model of your phone, of course.

In general, you’ll need to enter a few settings that’ll direct your phone to Google’s Gmail servers, and you’ll need your Gmail username and password handy.

You’ll also need to pick a method—or, technically speaking, a “protocol”—for your phone to grab your Gmail messages. Your two choices are “POP,” short for “Post Office Protocol,” and “IMAP,” or “Internet Message Access Protocol.”

What’s the difference between POP and IMAP?

In practical terms, any changes you make to your phone’s email inbox using IMAP will be synced to your online Gmail account. For example, if you read a message on your phone and move it to your “All Mail” folder, that same message will be marked as “read” and moved to “All Mail” in your Gmail account on the web.

The POP protocol, on the other hand, only “fetches” copies of your messages from the Gmail server. If you move or delete a message on your phone, it won’t be moved or deleted in Gmail on the web. (You can, if you wish, set Gmail to delete or archive all email messages fetched via POP, or mark all fetched messages as “read”.)

OK then, why would you ever pick POP over IMAP, given all of POP’s limitations? Well, if your phone doesn’t support IMAP, you may be forced to go with POP—and indeed, there are plenty of bare-bones phones out there that only have POP configuration settings.

For more specifics on the settings you’ll need to tweak on your phone and in Gmail, visit this handy Gmail support page, then click either “I want to enable IMAP” or “I want to enable POP” to get started.

2. Using a mobile browser

Can’t find an email client on your phone? Or does the prospect of setting up your mobile email client sound a little too daunting?

If so, here’s an easier way: just use your phone’s web browser.

Once you launch your mobile browser, visit this web address:

(You can also visit this page on your desktop browser and click the “Send to phone” button to send the link to your phone via text message.)

You should zap instantly to the mobile web version of Gmail, the look of which will vary considerably depending on the capabilities of your phone’s browser.

If you have a older prepaid cell phone, for example, don’t be surprised if you end up with a pared-down, text-only version of Gmail.

But even the all-text Gmail will still let you check your inbox, open and reply to messages, or archive messages you’ve already read. As you do, your changes will be synced with Gmail on your desktop browser.

Not bad—and indeed, the overall look and feel of mobile Gmail may top the bare-bones email clients on many budget phones.

That said, you’ll need an Internet connection—and therefore, a wireless signal—to access Gmail on your mobile browser. No Internet, no Gmail, nor will you be able to review the messages you’ve previously received.

Hope that helps, Elia. Still have questions? Post ’em in the comments below.

Bonus tip

You won’t need a lot of wireless data to check your Gmail on the web, but you will need some sort of data plan on your budget and/or prepaid phone.

Most standard and prepaid carriers offer service bundles that include unlimited mobile web access, or you might opt for an inexpensive bucket of monthly data.

If you’re not signed up for a specific data plan, beware: your carrier might charge you for data on a per-kilobyte basis, and that can get expensive in a hurry.