Do you want to buy or own an iPhone but can’t afford the monthly fees? There’s something that the major post-paid carriers don’t want you knowing. You can have an iPhone with cheap monthly payments.
Here’s the secret: You don’t have to renew with Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. There are alternatives called MVNOs who lease spectrum wholesale from the big players and resell to the consumer at a much lower rate. If you want to save money, there are two choices: Purchase a new, unlocked iPhone and add it to an MVNO carrier or buy a locked iPhone from an MVNO.
This article explains the five best MVNO carriers for iPhone users and the issues faced when migrating from a major network. However, if you simply want tips on how to evaluate the best iPhone prepaid plans, check out this article.
How Do I Get An iPhone onto a Prepaid MVNO?
As stated previously, you can either purchase a new or used unlocked iPhone or you may purchase a locked phone from an MVNO carrier. However, caveats exist:
- You cannot move a used Sprint iPhone onto any MVNO carriers. Sprint has given little explanation for this decision, unfortunately. The likely reason is that they don’t want their biggest cash cows to graze in other fields. If I’m wrong, please correct me.
- If you’re under a contract, leaving will require a very hefty early termination fee.
- If you move a phone across networks, even on GSM, you may experience data speed issues. For example, if you switch an AT&T iPhone 5 onto the T-Mobile network, you may only be able to reach 2G or 3G speeds.
- The iPhone 4S comes with dual GSM and CDMA technology, meaning that if unlocked they function on any network (except Sprint), making them highly prized among Apple products.
- GSM phones use different sized SIM cards. The iPhone 4 uses a micro SIM whereas the iPhone 5 uses a nano SIM. However, wrong sized SIM can easily be converted into the right size.
For heavy data users, T-Mobile’s $30 a month plan for 100 voice minutes and unlimited SMS and data ranks among the best. However, if you require additional voice minutes, T-Mo offers $60 and $70 plans for which include unlimited everything, although data gets throttled after 2GB and 5GB, respectively.
They don’t advertise their best plans, though. You have to go to the bottom of their prepaid page to find their “Pay by the day” plans.
What’s good? In terms of total value, the $30 T-Mobile plan provides the best bang for your buck. However, if you scale up, you get better value, and network connectivity, from the MVNOs.
What’s bad? Unfortunately, the T-Mobile network trails behind the other three big carriers in data connectivity. Its 4G network focuses on providing HSPA+ data, which doesn’t reach the speeds of LTE. T-Mobile plans on rolling out its actual LTE network throughout this year, although any phone without an LTE chip won’t be able to reach LTE speeds.
What’s ugly? In many markets, all iPhones except the iPhone 5 are limited to 2G data speeds because of 3G compatibility issues with the 1700-MHz band. You will want to check with T-Mobile to see if your area is one of the effected regions.
Phone cost: A brand new iPhone 5 will run about $649.99 from the Apple Store.
Extra costs: The T-Mo SIM card runs about $10 from their website.
PagePlus Wireless currently holds the honor of being the only MVNO with full functionality with the Verizon iPhone 5. While Verizon officially disallows its iPhones from leaving its service, it’s been reported that users have been activating Verizon iPhones on the PagePlus Cellular service. Keep in mind that Verizon is legally obligated to provide service to any phone on its network – if it attempts to block service, that’s grounds for a class action lawsuit.
PagePlus offers three main plans:
- $29.95 for 1,200 minutes of talk, 3,000 SMS/MMS and 250 MB of data.
- $39.95 for unlimited talk and text and 200 MB of data.
- $69.95 for unlimited talk and text and 5 GB of data.
What’s good? PagePlus uses the Verizon network, meaning that it receives excellent data speeds and coverage.
What’s bad? The PagePlus plans rank among the most expensive.
What’s ugly? The fact that Verizon may decide to block iPhones from operating on their network is criminal.
Phone cost: You can’t buy an unlocked Verizon iPhone 5 outside of eBay. The Verizon iPhone is sold “unlocked” and it includes a SIM card slot. However, Verizon can relock the phone if the terms of the contract are not met. However, you can still buy an iPhone 4S from the Apple Store for $549.
Extra costs: None.
Straight Talk operates on both AT&T and T-Mobile networks, which use different SIM cards for each network. Finding an AT&T SIM might be difficult, however. For heavy data users, the $45 a month, unlimited everything plan for Straight Talk offers great value. Also, it appears that Straight Talk may start offering codes for Verizon-CDMA phones (although, probably not iPhones).
I personally regard Straight Talk plans as the best suited for all GSM iPhones.
What’s good? You get a lot of juice out of this bargain, if you use a lot of data, voice minutes and SMS. Another great option is that you can pay up-front and receive a discount. For example, if you pay a full year in advance, it only costs $41.50 per month.
What’s bad? It’s hard to find AT&T Straight Talk SIM cards anywhere. Walmart sometimes carries them. Another place is eBay and Craigslist. Otherwise, you are forced to use the T-Mobile network SIMs.
What’s ugly? Nothing! I consider the Straight Talk plan to be the prettiest of the MVNOs.
Phone cost: A brand-new, unlocked iPhone 5 will run about $649.99, or more, from the Apple Store.
Extra costs: Finding a Straight Talk SIM card is not easy. Walmart sometimes carries them.
Virgin Mobile operates on the Sprint network, so, depending on your region, could be very good or very bad – or something between.
Here’s some of the V-Mo plans that you can sign up for:
- $35/month with 300 minutes of voice and unlimited SMS and LTE data.
- $45/month with 1,200 minutes of voice and unlimited SMS and LTE data.
- $55/month with unlimited everything.
What’s good? Virgin Mobile plans rank among the best. For those who want Sprint coverage combined with great customer service and an awesome replacement program, you can’t do better than Virgin. Additionally, you get LTE speeds.
What’s bad? V-Mo only offers the iPhone 4 and 4S. Also, after buying, you cannot move your phone onto another network, nor can you ever unlock your iPhone from the V-Mo network (which is Sprint). All V-Mo phones, by default, are locked to the carrier without the possibility of ever changing that.
What’s ugly? Not much.
Phone cost: A brand new 16GB iPhone 4S will run about $449.99 from Virgin Mobile and the iPhone 4 8GB costs $349.99.
Extra costs: None.
Cricket operates on the Sprint CDMA network. It also has a single $45 a month, unlimited everything plan, which is on par with the competition.
What’s good? For a completely unlimited plan, Cricket ties with Straight Talk. However, it uses the Sprint network – it has been reported that CDMA phones function better from within buildings.
What’s bad? Cricket, like most CDMA carriers, doesn’t allow their phones to be used on other networks. Nor does it allow other CDMA phones on their network. I have read about third parties that modify CDMA phones to work with Cricket. However, I would not advise that.
What’s ugly? The Cricket iPhone is not available in many major markets.
Phone cost: A brand new iPhone 4S will run about $400-500 from Cricket’s website. An iPhone 5 likely runs about $650. However, Cricket does not show prices if you aren’t within an eligible market (and I am not).
Extra costs: No additional costs.
Ptel operates on the T-Mobile network. They’re known for their barebones PAYG (pay as you go) plans and for not rounding up on voice and data usage. Essentially, if you barely use your phone and don’t mind the T-Mo network, Ptel will likely suit your needs. Its plans all work with all models of GSM-capable iPhone.
- $10 for 60 days of service, with your balance expiring after a year.
- $20 for 90 days of service, with your balance expiring after a year.
- $30 for 120 days of service, with your balance expiring after a year.
- $40 for 150 days of service, with your balance expiring after a year.
- $50 for 180 days of service, with your balance expiring after a year.
- $100 for a full year of service, with the balance never expiring.
Full disclosure: I am a happy Ptel user.
What’s good? Ptel offers no-nonsense BYOD pay-as-you-go and unlimited plans. However, their unlimited plans aren’t entirely comparable to similar plans from Straight Talk or Cricket. On the other hand, their pay-go ranks among the best around.
What’s bad? Ptel doesn’t have a data roaming agreement with AT&T, so data coverage can be poor when traveling.
What’s ugly? Ptel ranks among my favorite BYOD prepaid MVNO carriers. Nothing is ugly about them, unless you use a lot of data – in which case you’d pay $100 a gigabyte on their most expensive pay-go plan.
Phone cost: A brand new iPhone 4 costs $449.99 from their website, but you can bring aboard any GSM iPhone for the cost of a SIM card.
Extra costs: A microSIM card costs $4.99 from the Ptel site.
There’s a lot of great plans out there for people who want an iPhone, but don’t want to get ripped off. In my experience, as long as you avoid signing a contract and pay up front for the phone, you won’t get taken to the cleaners.
Remember that each person’s individual usage and location will strongly influence which MVNO carrier provides the best deal. For most iPhone users, if you can find an AT&T Straight Talk SIM, Straight Talk provides the best value.
Also, keep in mind that if you already have an iPhone, you can migrate to a cheaper MVNO by simply swapping out the SIM card.
However, for those of you sick of the iOS walled garden, consider some of the alternative absolute best Android prepaid plans that you can buy in the US.