Unlocked Phones and Low Priced SIM Plans

Many friends and associates are constantly bemoaning the rising cost and falling quality of mobile phone service.  Most of them (and myself) fall in the heavy-usage category and we seem positively giddy to find unlimited plans for $100/month, although this generally runs much higher on many carriers if unlimited is available at all.

Since my phone left contract this month I decided this was the perfect time to perform a little experiment before I simply renewed my service plan and chose a new phone.  What does unlimited data, texting and voice with no contract, month to month for $45/month sound like to you?  Yeah, I’m intrigued too.  :-)

Getting Started

You will obviously need a phone. In my case I have an aging, but perfectly serviceable Samsung Galaxy (branded Vibrant under T-Mobile).  You can also find new, refurbished and used unlocked phones at surprisingly competitive prices.  Of course, if you need the “latest and greatest”  you’re probably looking at several hundred dollars, but as you’ll see with the service plan savings you can still come out way ahead of the big carrier “deals”. In either case, you’ll probably pay more than the upfront costs of a comparable contract phone, take a look at the numbers below.

Purchase a GSM sim from Straight Talk with $45/month plan (unlimited talk, text and data). No contract necessary, pay as you go or auto-renew monthly.  Their SIM card is $15 but this is a one-time fee and you should never need another unless you break it, loose it or need additional phones.

The Cost

High end example: Unlocked Galaxy Nexus from Google ($399.99) and two-year of the plan above ($1080 + one-time SIM $15).  Once again, you can buy just a month, opt for auto renewal or skip months if you don’t need a phone at that time.

Total: $1494.00

The same phone seems to average $149.00 in most carriers with a two-year plan. Compare Phone + Unlimited Text, Voice, Data:

  • Sprint: $2549.00
  • Verizon*: $4229.00
  • AT&T*: $3509.00
  • T-Mobile: $3149.00

Of course, occasionally you can get a nice phone for free.  Subtract $149.00 from the numbers above and you’ll see, you can still come out ahead.

* Technically this carrier does not offer Unlimited, but this is the pricing for their closest plan.

The Process

No software installation and just some simple card swapping and settings changes.  Once your SIM arrives, you create an account on the Straight Talk web site and enter the information off the card.  This account will also let you see the status of your plan (expiration date if unlimited, minutes/etc remaining if you opted for a limited plan) and your new phone number (unless you opted to transfer an existing one).

Next I powered off my phone, removed the back, removed my old SIM card and inserted the Straight Talk SIM.  Keep that old SIM somewhere safe, they are tiny after all, if you’re just experimenting.

Powering on, you will probably have to re-log into some services like Google.  Straight Talk advises that it can take up to an hour for your phone to become active this first time, but I had access to incoming and outgoing calls immediately.

To update you data plan, you will have to add the Straight Talk APN (your screens my vary slight between Android versions).  On modern Android phones this is trivially easy and you can keep old APNs in case you need to swap back and forth.  Not all the fields are necessary, just use these settings (Phone Programming, choose your phone type) provided by Straight Talk in the appropriate fields.

Once saved, my data plan switched on/over immediately and I even noticed a speed increase (T-Mobile coverage here is moderate).

Seems like a no brainer, doesn’t it? Questions? Of course, I know I did. Here are a couple I’m resolving.

FAQ

Does this work with every phone?
No, but it works with a LOT of the ones used in the US. In particular, you will need a GSM phone with SIM card slot (micro or regular) that supports 850 and 1900 MHz bands. Nearly all
AT&T or T-Mobile unlocked phones do, but I’d check your model first just to be sure.

How’s the coverage and speed?
Since Straight Talk uses whichever networks is best in your area, it will be the same as AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint in your area.

Can I buy a phone from Straight Talk?
Well, yes, but I found their selection kind of lack luster. Luckly, there are plenty of unlocked phone dealers online and you can even “bring your own”. Nice option for folks at the end of their contracts.

Do they throttle or block data for excessive use?
No idea. I am running my phone flat out (updating apps, streaming media and heavy browsing) and will let you know if encounter any issues. Other users suggest that throttled speeds kick in after 5- 10gb in a single month (resetting after the month). This is pretty common for other carriers’ so-called “unlimited” plans so zero-sum issue here.

Roaming Charges?
Nope

Can I transfer my existing phone number?
Yup. If I decide to make this permanent, I may do just that. :-)

Activation or other fees?
Nope

Support?
No idea how good it is, but appears fairly modest focusing mainly on activation and connectivity.

Anything blocked?
Haven’t run into any data service, sites or practices yet. Someone with some more exotic usage practices may need to push the limits on this one.

Speed

Adding speed results from various locations and scenarios as the opportunity arises.  Each of these figures is derived from running 3 tests about 30 minutes apart in each of the locations and averaging the results.

  • Zip Code 30324, Indoors 2668kbps/766kbps
  • Zip Code 30361, Office 1557kbps/1017kbps

Closing

Want to experiment with it risk free? It will cost you $55 for a SIM (reusable) and one-month of service. Order, forward your old number to your new Straight Talk number, plug in new SIM and activate.

Questions welcome and if I encounter anything noteworthy, I’ll post updates.

 

Disclaimer: I am not paid or employed by Straight Talk or any of the companies mentioned above. I have recieved no compensation either in terms of material, money or services for this article.