The SIM-only, “bring your own phone” plans that I posted about last week are now live, for both Net10 and Straight Talk. As expected, these plans will let you use just about any phone you want on Straight Talk’s $45 unlimited monthly plan, or on Net10’s $50 unlimited option.
A word of warning in advance: this is a rather long post! I find it very exciting, but it might not be for you. And if that’s the case, you might want to skip to the “how it works” section, or just skip reading this post altogether. Either way, though, maybe you’d like to consider sharing this with some friends who are overpaying for their cell service. I’m a firm believer that if more people jump on this plan, we all win since it will let the big phone companies know that we consumers want our freedom from contracts.
Specifics on the phones
These plans are limited to GSM phones. In case you’re not familiar with that terminology, let me break it down for you a little.
First, GSM refers to the type of network technology in the phones. In the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile are the dominant GSM carriers, while Verizon, Sprint, and US Cellular use CDMA technology. Around the world, the vast majority of other countries operate on GSM networks.
Next, AT&T requires that the phone be “compatible.” This means that the phone must use the same frequencies as those offered by Straight Talk. Since Straight Talk “rents” coverage from AT&T or T-Mobile, if you want to use a phone that was previously active on one of those networks, you’ll be fine.
Another option is to shop for an “unlocked” phone – this means that the device is not locked to a certain network. Usually in the U.S., carriers sell phones that are locked to their service, so customers are obligated to keep paying them month after month. In other parts of the world, it is more common for handsets are sold “unlocked,” giving the consumer the choice of which carrier to use (like Straight Talk and Net10 are doing here).
One obvious question here is whether you can use an iPhone with this service, and the answer is definitely “yes!” The iPhone (starting with iPhone 4 and newer) requires a special SIM card, called “micro-SIM,” and this is addressed during the ordering process. As far as I know, this is the first “official” way to get a Prepaid iPhone.
On the other hand, you will not be able to use a BlackBerry with this service, since BlackBerries require a connection to special servers that support the different functions unique to BlackBerry. Also out are other Straight Talk, Net10, or TracFone devices since they are all locked to their respective providers.
Where to buy phones
There are several options to buy phones, and to me it seems a little bit overwhelming. I’m used to choosing from among the fairly limited selection of the three brands listed above, so it wasn’t hard to settle on a particular model when it was time to upgrade. Each of TracFone, Straight Talk, and Net10 offered at most a dozen different models, and each device had clearly defined features and price.
With this plan, it will be a little more complicated. There are literally hundreds of different models that could possibly work with these plans, and a handful of different places from which to obtain the phones.
I personally would go with either an iPhone or an Android device to take full advantage of the “unlimited” data of these plans. Another option might be Windows mobile, which I’ve never used but I understand might be a good bet especially for people who have never before used a smart phone. But their application marketplace is much more limited than the Android or iPhone app selection.
Once you’ve decided on which particular phone you want to purchase, it’s time to decide where to buy. I think the most likely options are eBay and Craigslist. Here the usual precautions apply – pay attention to eBay seller rating and the product description to make sure you know what you’re getting. And on Craigslist, be doubly cautious since there is often little or no recourse if the transaction goes awry. Be safe and think defensively, especially if you are spending a lot of money!
Some other options might be using your own phone that was previously on one of the big carriers (and in that case, congrats on escaping the shackles of your contract!). You could also ask around of friends or relatives. Inquire whether any of them have a phone they’d like to sell off; or maybe they’re looking to upgrade and could sell you their own phone to come up with the necessary cash for a brand new model.
One final option, which I have not tried personally but I’ve heard of other people doing, is to ask the workers at phone retailers. I’m talking about places like Best Buy, Radio Shack, mall kiosks, or maybe even AT&T or T-Mobile stores. These workers sometimes have access to a lot of phones, and maybe upgrade more frequently than the typical consumer. Therefore, they might have a barely-used phone that they want to get rid of. Again, I’ve never tried this personally, but it strikes me as an interesting possibility.
How it works
This might be obvious, but in case you missed it, you will buy only the sim card from either Straight Talk or Net10. You’ll also have the option of adding an airtime card to your order. I recommend buying the bundle, since you’ll need the airtime to activate your SIM.
Here’s where it’s helpful to know a little bit about which phone you want to use, before you get started with the process. You’ll be asked whether the phone you want to use is Unlocked, or AT&T or T-Mobile Compatible. Next you’ll need to know whether you want a micro-SIM card. The iPhone 4 and 4S models use the micro version. Most other phones, unless the phone specs list something to the contrary, use a “regular” SIM card.
You’ll then have to enter your ZIP code. Next you can choose whether you want just the SIM card, or the SIM card plus a one-month unlimited airtime card. Again, I suggest the latter since you’ll need airtime to get activated anyway. From there, it’s simply a matter of entering your payment and shipping details, and waiting for the SIM to arrive.
When you receive the SIM card, follow the instructions that come with it. This will include inserting the SIM into your phone, and following some steps online to get your account activated. You’ll also need to change some settings in your phone to make sure the data connections are working properly. I’ll cover this more in a future post.
I’ve personally ordered a Straight Talk SIM which I intend to use with an AT&T-based Android device I will buy on Craigslist. I’ll report next week on my early experiences with the activation process and the service.