In early January, I terminated our contracts with AT&T and switched to Straight Talk Wireless, a land where there are no contracts. My motives for switching were twofold: cost savings and the freedom to choose a new carrier at any time. My monthly costs dropped by around 35%, from around $140 on AT&T to $90 with Straight Talk (this is for two iPhones).
Lots of people might not know how Straight Talk and all their MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) brethren work, and might be somewhat unsure about what is involved in stepping away from the security blanket of the Big Four carriers, so I’m going to tell you how it went for us.
The short version: most people can probably save a lot of money this way.
What’s an MVNO?
For the uninitiated, before diving into our personal switching story, you should first understand how a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) works.
MVNOs are companies that buy capacity on the big carriers’ networks and then resell them to consumers. That means same coverage, same technology — but often at a lower price than what you would get from AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint (T-Mobile to a lesser extent, since they now operate without contracts by default). MVNOs aren’t the crappy regional carriers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which had spotty coverage and charged you an arm and a leg for “roaming” if you went more than two states over. Again, these are the same networks — if AT&T’s network works great in your area, than an AT&T-backed MVNO will work great too.
You’ve probably seen some ads from the bigger MVNOs: Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, etc. There’s a page on Wikipedia that lists MVNOs and the networks they operate on — but there are new ones popping up all the time, so that list might not be 100% current.
The general rule with MVNOs is that they don’t do contracts. You’re not locked in, you can leave at any time (and take your phone number with you). That also means they don’t subsidize phones, which is one reason the monthly rates tend to be cheaper than the big carriers. That does mean you pay “full price” for your phone — an iPhone 5S costs $649, not $199, as one example. But I put “full price” in quotes because you had better believe you’re paying for that phone — and then some — on AT&T/Verizon/Sprint. Hence the contracts. They just hide it in the monthly rates, and once you’re under contract you wind up paying a lot more than $649 for that iPhone.
Our switch: ordering SIM cards and activating
Once I decided we were really going to do this, the switch itself was fairly simple — I ordered two AT&T-compatible SIM cards (since we both have AT&T iPhones) preloaded with one month of service. You can get the cards through Straight Talk’s web site or even order them from other vendors like Amazon.
I decided to go with Straight Talk because:
- We had AT&T locked phones, and we needed an AT&T-based MVNO that they would work on (also, the AT&T network works very well for me and I wanted to stay on it). I can get the phones unlocked after we leave AT&T and pay off the contract, but not until then. Once they’re unlocked, I could use any GSM-network MVNO. Chicken-and-egg problem.
- Straight Talk is one of only a few AT&T-based MVNOs that allow use of full LTE data speeds on the network (that means it’s fast). Most others are limited to slower speeds.
- They have some of the most affordable plans for our needs.
Weirdly, Straight Talk didn’t (at the time of my switch in January 2014) sell the nano-SIM cards that fit in the iPhone 5/5s. The only sold full-size SIM and micro SIMs, which work fine up to the iPhone 4s and in many other smartphones, but won’t fit into the newest phones. Fortunately, micro SIMs (the medium size) and nano SIMs (the tiny size) are electrically identical, the micro SIMs just have extra plastic around them. So I ordered a nano SIM cutter from Amazon for about $5, and used it to punch the micro SIMs down to nano SIM size. Then they fit into our iPhones with no problem.
When the SIM cards arrived, they included instructions for activating them on the Straight Talk web site. During the process of activation, I selected the option to ported our phone numbers over from AT&T — and after a quick phone reboot, that was it. Our existing phone numbers worked on our new Straight Talk SIM cards.
There was one brief problem: cellular data didn’t work right away. I had to get the phones to download a carrier update file (via WiFi, naturally) by going to Settings->General->About. Apparently just visiting that screen triggers a check for any available carrier updates.
On my iPhone, all it took was accepting the carrier update and restarting the phone; then my LTE-speed cellular data started working. On my wife’s phone, though, I had to reset the network settings (Settings->General->Reset->Reset Network Settings) before it would take.
Every MVNO has slightly different rates, and some offer family rates, but Straight Talk isn’t too fancy with their plans. The one we’re using is what most of their customers seem to use: I’m paying $45 a month per line for cell phone service on my iPhone, and that includes unlimited talk, text, and 2.5GB worth of LTE data (after 2.5GB, the data speed gets throttled way down). So with two iPhones our total bill every month is now $90 + taxes. On AT&T, where we had a very small family voice and text plan (550 minutes and 200 texts each), with one phone on unlimited data and one on 2GB of data, we were paying around $140 a month. So we’re instantly saving money, although if you have a lot of phones in your family you might not see the same (since Straight Talk doesn’t really have a family plan, as far as I’m aware).
We were on older plans that had been grandfathered in on AT&T; even if you compare directly against AT&T and Verizon’s current plans, MVNOs like Straight Talk are generally going to offer significant savings.
My wife and I did have 20 and 9 months left on our contracts, respectively, which I calculated cost around $500 total to break (which is essentially to pay off our subsidized iPhones). However, with the monthly savings, that will be paid for in about a year.
Now — and this might be my favorite part — I can move around to different providers if I want to, every month. No contracts. Whoever has the best service and best deals for my needs can have my business. If my experience switching to Straight Talk was any indication, it will be relatively painless to switch around if I want to.
The other side effect of not having a contract is that it’s easier to upgrade phones. You would generally buy unlocked phones for full price — $649 in the case of the newest iPhone, for example — but that also means that when you upgrade, you can sell last year’s model for a premium (unlocked phones are much more valuable). Many MVNOs will now sell phones to you on a payment plan if you like, which makes it a little more like the old model (pay $100 or $200 up front, then $25 a month or something until the phone’s paid off). Except that when the phone’s paid off, they stop charging you for it (unlike your old big carrier contracts).
You can always recoup some of your new phone costs by selling your old phone on eBay or Craigslist. Or if you want less hassle/risk and are willing to sacrifice a few bucks, just sell it to Gazelle. The point is, assuming you sell your previous phone, you can still upgrade every year or two and expect to pay less total than you would by upgrading and remaining under contract with the big carriers.
So…how is Straight Talk?
All that sounds great in theory, but how has our experience been? Overall good, but not without a couple bumps/caveats. And these are important to point out, because Straight Talk’s customer service isn’t the best for everyone.
- It took several tries to get my wife’s iPhone 5 to work on the data network with the new SIM card; I had to reset its network settings and reboot the phone a few times before it picked up the necessary configurations for its data connection to work.
- About one week in, the data connection on my iPhone 5s simply stopped working. I got in touch with Straight Talk chat support by posting a comment in their user forums; within 10 minutes a representative contacted me via private message and asked me to do a live chat with them. Why didn’t I just call? Well, I’d heard the live chat support was the way to go, and I happened to be in front of a computer at the time. They had me manually install the APN settings (the settings that make the data connection work) by visiting a certain web site while the phone was connected to wifi. After that, it worked fine — but a little irritating that it had worked fine for a week without doing that step. My wife’s phone still works fine, and we’ve never had to do that on hers.
- For iPhone users: no visual voice mail. Your voicemails won’t show up in a nice list in the Phone app, you’ll have to call and check your voicemails through a touch-tone menu like in the old days. There are workarounds to this if you’re willing to use a third party voicemail service like Youmail. Some people report visual voice mail working fine on Straight Talk, but for most it doesn’t (including me).
We’ve had Straight Talk for nearly two months now with no other problems aside from those early ones. Everything’s been just as speedy and reliable as when we were direct AT&T customers.
So Straight Talk is cheap, but setup can be a touch finicky and the support likely isn’t going to be as robust as with a top-tier carrier. Still, if you can deal with that, you can get essentially the same service you have now for potentially quite a bit less.
While I haven’t had any direct experience with other MVNOs, my second choice (and my recommendation for people who might be a bit turned off my Straight Talk’s iffy support and used-car-salesman-style web site) would be AIO Wireless. They’re actually an MVNO that’s directly owned by AT&T, have plans/pricing very similar to Straight Talk, and LTE high speed data (and visual voice mail!), and from what I hear their support is much better. The big caveat there is that you actually have to have an unlocked phone to use AIO; even though they’re owned by AT&T, a phone that’s locked to AT&T won’t work.
All in all, we’re quite happy we dumped our contract-driven phone upgrade cycle and are now free to change carriers and get new phones at will. I encourage all of you who are still locked into contracts to look around at MVNO options and see if you can save money too. Post any questions you have below and I’ll try to answer them.