UPDATE: Sadly, my experiment with Straight Talk has come to an end. I tried my best to make it work, but with the release of iOS 6 and iPhone 5, the tide turned back to the mainstream carriers. Specifically: in iOS 6, it seems to no longer be possible to change the MMS settings to work with Straight Talk. This has been well-documented online in other places.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I also suffered through very inconsistent data connectivity on Straight Talk, lost iMessages (due to said inconsistencies, I imagine), and generally poor quality of service all around.
On top of all this, my iPhone was two years old and exhibiting hardware flakiness, so I felt it was time for an update. What did I do? Got a new iPhone 5, but this time on Verizon, which I’m hoping is the lesser of two evils. There’s Verizon but not AT&T LTE where I live, the pricing is similar to AT&T, and the coverage and call quality are generally known to be better. After many many years as a GSM fan, I’m trying out CDMA. So far, so good. I’m seeing 25Mbps download speeds, and voice quality is excellent. The new phone is pretty great, too.
If you just want cheap phone service and don’t need reliable or fast data, then maybe Straight Talk would be good for you. I can no longer recommend it for iPhone users, however. Seems that the game is indeed rigged, and there’s no easy way to avoid forking over $80-$100/month for quality service.
Summary: Fire AT&T! Save money! Break free from contracts!
- $45/month for unlimited talk/text/data
- no contract (month-to-month, quit at any time)
- keep your phone number
- same network as AT&T (could be a downside for some people…)
- requires jailbreaking your iPhone to get MMS (picture messages) to work
- no more visual voicemail (though Google Voice and other services easily replace it for free, and do more)
- you will have to pay an early termination fee to AT&T if you are still in a contract (though you will probably come out ahead by the time your contract would have expired, and every month thereafter)
- unlimited data is not really unlimited, more like 2GB/month
- you will not get much (if any) support from the new provider for configuring your phone; if you are not comfortable reading discussion forums and tinkering a bit, it’s probably best to stay where you are.
- you don’t get a $200 subsidized iPhone/Android phone every two years when you renew your contract. But, with the savings you’ll see on your monthly bill, you can buy a phone outright at full price every two years and still come out way ahead financially. If you buy a lightly used phone, you’ll do even better. The subsidized phone is just a tool to get you to sign up for another expensive contract. Lots more info about the true costs of phones.
I recently fired AT&T and saved myself a load of money, and you can too! My cell bill went from ~$80/month to $45. That’s $35 in my pocket this month, $35 next month, $35 every month thereafter. $420 per year: enough for cross-country airfare, substantial contributions to savings or retirement plans, or a decent unsubsidized smartphone.
I had an AT&T plan with 450 minutes, 200 text messages (which I occasionally exceeded), and “unlimited” data (explanation of the quotes around unlimited will be forthcoming). I rarely used up my minutes, so I had a nice stockpile of rollover minutes. Kudos to AT&T for that feature. Checking their online usage tool, I saw that I typically used only 100-200MB of data per month.
I had six months left on my 2-year contract, so I knew I would have to pay an early termination fee (ETF) by quitting. Mine was $145. You can find out yours by calling AT&T and asking, or calculating it yourself. It starts at $325 for iPhone, and decreases by $10 for each month that has passed in your two-year contract. There’s an ETF calculator here.
By choosing to cancel and pay the ETF, are you getting screwed? Unless you are in the last few months of your contract, probably not. My situation:
save $35/month x 6 months left on contract = $210
– $145 ETF
= $65 ahead at end of contract, and $35 ahead every month after that.
If you cancel one year into your contract, and you are paying $80 like I was, then you would save:
$35/month x 12 months = $420
– $205 ETF
= $215 ahead at end of contract time! And if you pay more per month on AT&T, your savings will be even greater.
Here are (some of) the downsides of being an iPhone/Android/Windows Phone customer on AT&T:
- If you are lucky enough to have a grandfathered unlimited data plan for $30/month, you find out it’s not really unlimited, and in fact, you may see your usage throttled when you’ve hit 1.5GB in a month while people paying $25/month get 2GB and those paying $30/month get 3GB. So, your “unlimited” plan that you’ve so carefully preserved since they took it off the menu is worse than the cheaper or same-cost plans with a hard limit. (Update: they’ve now declared that they will throttle “unlimited” 3G users at 3GB, and 4G users at 5GB. At least the policy is clear now.)
- You want text messaging with that? It’ll cost you $.20 per message for SMS, or $.30 for picture messages (MMS). Or you can add unlimited messaging, the only plan choice available after they eliminated cheaper options. That’s $20/month, thank you very much. If you calculate the network data used by messages, it works out that we are paying a ridiculous amount of money for texting.
- You’ve been a loyal customer, you’re eligible for an upgrade, and you want to get a new (subsidized) phone and sign up for another two-year contract. To repeat: you want to enter in to a binding agreement to continue giving money to AT&T (who already has you in their systems because you are presently a customer), every month for two more years. What will they charge you for the privilege of doing this? A $36 “activation fee”, recently increased from $18. This is on top of the subsidized cost of the phone, of course. Let’s see: at the easiest case this is the procedure: power down old phone, remove SIM, move to new phone. Pay $36. If it’s more complex, they may issue you a new SIM and have to activate that SIM for your account. Other people have discussed this at length; suffice it to say, it feels like a serious gouging, and their explanation for the price increase is laughable: “wireless devices today are more sophisticated than ever before. And because of that, the costs associated with upgrading to a new device have increased and is reflected in our new upgrade fee”. Sorry, a SIM is still just a SIM, even if they come in multiple sizes. Fail.
As I said, I was paying $80/month, or $960/year, and not only that: I was paying for features I didn’t use (unlimited data) and sometimes paying extra for features that weren’t sufficient (200 text messages). I started looking around, comparing carriers, trying to find a plan or set of features that would better suit my needs and hopefully reduce my bill. Here’s what I found:
I have seen the future, and the future is prepaid.
Straight Talk, a prepaid provider, recently started selling SIM cards for use in your own phone. Prepaid in the past had a reputation as the preferred choice of drug dealers (remember “burners” from The Wire?) and people with bad credit, but that’s all changing. Instead of settling for the cheapie $20 phone that you get with a typical prepaid kit, you can now easily bring your own device (BYOD). There is no credit check, no contract, and no AT&T!
Ah, I forgot, AT&T is still in the picture. Why? Because Straight Talk is an MVNO of AT&T; that means they buy AT&T service at wholesale and sell it under the Straight Talk name with completely different plans and phones. You don’t have to know or care that it’s AT&T’s network under the hood, unless you BYOD, in which case you must bring a compatible phone. You can’t bring Verizon or Sprint phones, I’m afraid. (They also resell T-Mobile, if that’s your thing.)
And here’s the amazing part: it costs $45/month for unlimited minutes, unlimited messages, and unlimited data! Important caveat: experienced Straight Talk users say that unlimited data is not really unlimited; apparently you get a stern warning at 2GB per month. Doesn’t matter to me, since I hardly ever exceed 200MB. [UPDATE: see the end of this post for a way to pay even less than $45/month!]
What does an equivalent plan cost on AT&T? Remember, my $80 plan was only 450 minutes and 200 SMS per month. For unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 2GB of data you will pay $120/month on AT&T (okay, that gets you 3GB of data, since they don’t offer a 2GB option; is it worth $75/month for that 1GB difference?).
I went to straighttalksim.com and ordered an AT&T-compatible microSIM (for iPhone 4/4S) for $14.99 and a 30-day service plan card for $45. The SIM works in AT&T iPhones as is; you don’t have to unlock your phone or jailbreak it (though jailbreaking is useful and perhaps necessary to configure MMS; see below). If you have an older iPhone or some other AT&T smartphone, get a regular AT&T SIM. If you have a T-Mobile phone, get a T-Mobile-compatible SIM (this will put you on the T-Mobile network, not AT&T’s, and I can’t vouch for the setup process or the user experience on T-Mobile). Either way, it is up to you to make sure that the SIM you order is appropriate for your phone and the cell coverage where you live.
Disclaimer: if you follow these instructions, you will no longer be an AT&T customer. If for some reason things don’t work out and you want to go back, you will probably have to sign up for a new contract. That would be awful. Do your homework, ask online if you are not sure about any of this, and proceed with caution. If you want to try it out without risking your current AT&T setup, then don’t port your number when you sign up for new service. You will receive a new phone number. If you test it out and things all seem good and you decide to take the leap and port, you will have to order another new SIM for $15. That might be worth it for peace of mind. Me? I crossed my fingers and jumped.
When the package arrived, I popped the SIM into my phone then signed up for an account on the Straight Talk website. I told them to port my number from AT&T, and five minutes after completing the sign-up process my phone became active with my old number and the new SIM. It was that simple.
Well, not quite. There are a few more things you must do:
Configure cellular data: the phone must have a wifi connection to do this. Go to unlockit.co.nz in the phone’s browser. Select US, Straight Talk, and then install the profile when prompted. Done, data works.
Configure MMS: you have to jailbreak your phone for this. Some people have reported success without jailbreaking by swapping in another carrier’s SIM card, but it may not work for every iPhone model and you may not have an appropriate SIM sitting around. [UPDATE: if you have an iPhone 4S and a T-Mobile SIM sitting around, you should be able to configure MMS without jailbreaking your phone. More info about that option here, along with a ton of other useful stuff to know about everything I’m discussing. HowardForums is an amazing resource for cellular enthusiasts.]
Many sites say to install an app from Cydia called “TetherMe APN Editing”. I didn’t find it, only the full commercial TetherMe app, which costs money. So, I googled and found another repo that has just the APN editing component. Add http://cydia.myrepospace.com/fernas/ to your Cydia sources (in Manage / Sources), then search for Tetherme APN Editing. Install it. Once it’s installed, go to Settings / General / Network / Cellular Data Network on your phone (in the Settings app) and apply these settings:
Username: (leave blank)
Password: (leave blank)
Visual Voice Mail: (Does not work so it can say whatever)
Username: (leave blank)
Password: (leave blank)
Now MMS should work as well! You can uninstall TetherMe and remove the repo if you like.
Configure Google Voice for visual voicemail:
You must have a GV account. Get one here. Even if you don’t use the new number you get (assuming you don’t port some other number to it — and definitely don’t port the number you just moved to Straight Talk!), you can still use the Google Voice iPhone app to manage voicemail for your regular mobile number.
Once you have a GV account, follow the instructions here (it says it’s for iPhone 3GS, but the procedure is the same for newer iPhones).
Install the Google Voice for iPhone app from the App Store. This has a visual voicemail interface much like the native Phone app on iPhone.
If you don’t want to use GV, there are other free solutions. Check out YouMail, for one.
Setup Auto-Refill on the Straight Talk website. This will automatically buy a new $45 service card every 30 days and apply it your account. If you don’t do this, then you will have to remember, every month, to go online and buy a new card, or to hit Walmart and pick up a physical card and scratch the silver coating off to reveal the code and input it on the website. Sounds like a drag to me. And remember, this is prepaid. If you forget to pre-pay, you will lose service right away (and risk losing your phone number too). [UPDATE: if you want to save even more money and/or you don’t want to sign up for Auto-Refill, you can buy 90-day and 180-day service cards from Walmart. The 180-day card is $249.99. This works out to $41.50 per 30-day cycle, so you save another $3.50 per month. Just don’t forget to buy a new one every six months!]
Okay, I think that’s plenty of info for my first post. Happy saving!
As I mentioned in a reply to one of the comments below, ST’s data service has had a load of problems recently, and until they fix it, I don’t recommend moving to ST unless you hardly use data. Apparently they are working on the system, but my patience only goes so far. It’s not such a bargain when you can’t get online reliably.