Best Value in Smartphone Plans? T-Mobile $30/month Prepaid 4G with Unlimited Data

Even though I know you can get cheap, basic cell service for under $10, I do find value in having a smartphone with mobile data, for business reasons and mobile hotspot use if nothing else. My current contract is coming to an end, so I’ve been looking for the best current value in smartphone plans.

I kept hearing about a T-Mobile $30 a month prepaid plan that with a little “hacking”, you could turn into an unlimited minutes, text, and data plan for $30 a month with no contracts! Too good to be true? After many hours of research and tinkering around, I finally have it all set up and have been using it for a little over a week. Here’s a summary of what I discovered (ended up being a bit long):

The Plan – T-Mobile $30 Monthly4G with Unlimited Data

As mentioned, this cheap plan is run by T-Mobile, which probably has the smallest nationwide network footprint of the major providers but may be just fine in your area. I hear it’s actually not bad in New York City and other metro areas. The good news is that with prepaid you can try it out for a month and switch out if it doesn’t suit you. Look under their Monthly4G plan section and scroll down until you see this option:

This specific plan is only available for new activations at either Wal-mart or online at T-Mobile.com. Geeks will be quick to point out that T-Mobile 4G is HSPA+, not the super-fast 4G LTE that Verizon and some AT&T towers offer. If you have no idea what that means, just consider it “3.5G”. I get 5 Mbps down from HSPA+ in my area, vs. 1.5 Mbps from my current 3G connection, vs. 10-15 Mbps from my house’s cable modem. That’s plenty fast for me, and 5 gigs of 4G data is pretty generous and would cost quite a lot more with AT&T or Verizon. If you exceed that, you still get data but at slower speeds.

Now, there are two sticking points. First, since this is contract-free prepaid, you don’t get any discounted premium phones for signing a 2-year contract. Second, 100 minutes isn’t very much, and there are no free nights-and-weekends or mobile-to-mobile either.

The Phone – BYO, or Google Nexus 4

You can bring over any unlocked GSM phone or off-contract locked T-Mobile phone onto this $30 plan. All you need is a 99 cent SIM or Micro SIM card from T-Mobile to get started. However, many people think the best value right now is the new Google Nexus 4 smartphone. It has almost all the modern amenities (large and crisp screen, newest Android OS, fast processor) and comes unlocked and contract-free for only $299 – cheaper than most used phones! Indeed, the primary knock on the phone is that it doesn’t support LTE, which you can’t get with T-Mobile currently anyway. It’s been going in and out of stock, but I expect supply and demand to equalize soon. I was able to pick one up earlier this month and it shipped in a week despite being given a “2-3 week” timeframe.

The Trick – Free Phone Calls Over Data

To put it simplify, Voice over IP (VoIP) is a way to make phone calls over the internet. It’s what powers Vonage, the Ooma box in my house, and Google Voice (see Obihai box for free home phone service). Data usage rates vary, but use a rough estimate of 1.2 MB per minute for VoIP calls. So 1,000 minutes would only use up 1.2 GB of data.

Google Voice (GV) is free and the simplest way to set this up. If possible, port your desired phone number to Google Voice for a one-time $20 fee. If you don’t care, just sign up and pick a new, free phone number. You then use your Google Voice number only, and when someone calls it will forward the call to your home phone and/or cell phone. If set up properly, when you call out, people will see your GV number on their caller ID. This also makes it very easy to switch cellular providers in future as you won’t need to port numbers anymore.

I put “hacking” in quotes because setting this up is actually not very difficult, although it can be easy to get tripped up on little things. The simplest way to go is to install the GrooVeIP app (lite version free, $4.99 for full). Just log in with your Google Voice info, and you’re basically good to go. The full version even integrates into your native dialer interface so it feels very natural. There are other options like SIPdroid (free) for those that want to customize things like codecs. Here are the most useful forum threads with detailed instructions that I used to get myself up and running. You can do this with the iPhone too, but I haven’t researched that very deeply.

The faster your data speeds, the better the voice quality. People have varying experiences, but in regards to voice quality it is acceptable overall, but not as quite as good as normal voice service as there is a slight delay and at times a light echo heard by the other caller. The best solution I found after lots of experimenting was using GrooVeIP and their adaptive echo-cancellation feature (needs a fast phone, but the Nexus 4 is fast). You can always fall back to your 100 minutes of call time if needed (10 cents per minute overage).

The Bottom Line

I bought the Google Nexus 4 knowing that I could use it with a variety of GSM prepaid providers (or likely sell it close to cost if I didn’t want it). My brief experience using this T-Mobile $30 plan has led me to the conclusion that I wouldn’t use this plan for business – it’s just not worth talking with clients occasionally on a fuzzy connection for even a $50/month savings. The exception is if you are okay with the 100 minutes given + $0.10/minute for overage. BUT, if this is a personal line where you’re just talking about where to meet up for beers, then why not? The savings over the average 2-year contract could be over $1,000 per line. I paid a $30 flat for a month of service, as opposed to an $80 bill with another $5 of government fees and taxes tacked on.

My next experiment is to buy a Straight Talk SIM card to try out their $45 Unlimited talk, text, and data plan for a month and see how that works. Straight Talk uses AT&T towers, and I won’t have to use VoIP to get unlimited minutes. (See my Straight Talk iPhone post.)

Comments

  1. Jonathan,
    when you did your research, can you not just add pre-paid minute cards (i.e. $100 for 1000 minutes that last a year) to the account so you have more minutes? Only the 100 minutes would expire every month while your 1000 minutes (or whatever is left) would just carry over from month to month.

    John

    long time reader and we have chatted a bit in the past before. :)

  2. I’m going to put a plug in for http://www.ting.com. We moved my wife to a basic Android phone on Ting, and she now actually carries a phone. They have the closest thing in the market to “pay for what you use”, as that’s how any utility should be billed- I’m thankful I don’t have to predict how much natural gas my home will require next month, and worry about overage charges.

    She’s a light user, but uses it when needed. Her last bill was $17, highest she hit in a month where there was more work travel was $28.

  3. I’m happy with Republic Wireless for $19/mo. Curious as to why you suggest the T-mobile, when it was you who originally recommended RW. Is it the lack of choice on phones?

  4. There’s an official Google Voice app in the Play Store that integrates it into your dialer. You can set it up so that whenever you make a call it will ask you if you want to make it over mobile or internet. Incoming calls are only over the mobile networks, though.

  5. Will the iphone work on this plan? I currently use the iphone 4s on straight talk for 45 unlimited.

  6. What do you think of the Nexus 4?

  7. I have Google Voice + GrooveIP on my Virgin Mobile EVO. As you say, the call quality is not suitable for business or important calls. That’s why I think the extra $5/month is worth it for an extra 200 minutes/month on the basic Virgin plan. T-Mobile is more generous with the amount of 4G data before throttling, though, so it comes down to your priority.

  8. The 10 cents in overage is fantastic. I can risk an extra $6-12 for going over an hour or two. Verizon tells me my average usage over the last 6 months is just over 100 minutes a month anyway, and that includes a few conference calls I’ve listened in on from my cell, which I can start doing from Google Voice. Now I just need to scrape together $650 for the Galaxy Note…

  9. I think to make this work you can’t already be a T-mobile costumer.

    “New activations only. Available exclusively in-store at Walmart, on Walmart.com, and T-Mobile.com”

    I’ve heard of people buying the cheapest phone at Walmart, activating it, and then transferring the SIM card to their current phone.

    My wife and I are starting the $35/month Virgin plan with new Galaxy S2′s that we got for $299 each Black Friday weekend. I wonder how it compares to the Nexus 4, but we’re kind of stuck now since Virgin phones don’t include SIM cards I think. They might only work with Sprint and Virgin towers.

  10. What about Ting?

    https://ting.com/plans

  11. I must be the last person on earth who does not have a smart phone yet. I like my low monthly family plan but I do think that it’s getting harder to avoid the need of a smart phone in today’s world.

    I didn’t realize that you can opt to have your current phone number for $20 through google voice. That definitely makes it more appealing for me to switch over.

  12. I have been using Virgin Mobile for a long time. I have two basic phones, one for myself, and one for my wife. I set them each for auto top off from a credit card for $15 every 90 days. This is all they cost! Perfect for basic, low volume usage. I got another smart phone for my daughter on the “Beyond talk” plan. It allows for 300 minutes/month with unlimited texting and data. I am grandfathered in at the old rate of $25 per month! New customers have to pay $35, or $30 for the iphone.
    I just bought an iPhone 4 for my daughter for Christmas. It is a surprise so I have not activated her number on it yet. I am curious to see if I will still get the grandfathered rate of $25 when I switch her over. Either way it is a great deal.

  13. Jim, I have the Virgin for my kids. However, starting 2013 it now only lasts 45 days, effectively doubling my rate. Very disappointing after all these years. I’ll be looking into the $50/yr T Mobile deal mentioned above.

  14. Jonathan, have you looked into a T-mobile Value plan? Requires contract and no subsidies but has a low monthly price.

  15. @Christine – my parents are both on RW and have had great experience with it, especially for the price. Unbeatable. The only downside we have discovered is that I can’t send them picture texts (I have an AT&T data plan with a blackberry), nor can they send/receive multimedia texts (MMS), ie, multi-user texts. They can only receive SMS texts. Do you have these same downsides?

    For everyone else on a VoIP-type prepaid plan (RW, Ting, TMobile…) – do you all have the same drawback? No picture or MMS texting?

  16. @John – That’s pretty much how the overage works – you need to keep a positive balance on your prepaid account and they take $0.10 a minute when you go over. Since this is prepaid and thus no credit check, if your balance is zero and you go over the 100 min/mo then I think they just stop you from being able to make calls.

    @Steve Y – I looked at Ting, and it does look like a very reasonable plan structure, moreso if you have more than 1 person sharing plans, as on my own I’d be hitting around $68 a month but with my wife and I it’d be around $95 a month + surcharges.

    @Christine – I wrote about them, but I don’t know if I recommended them. :) Republic Wireless is very cheap, but their business model seems a bit iffy. They basically backed away from their cellular limits and said okay, we’ll be really unlimited during our “beta”. Basically, we’ll try it out and see if users suck too much data. What if it doesn’t work? You’re stuck with a mediocre $199 phone that will be hard to sell if you switch, and I don’t know how long the beta period will last.

    @Jon M – Yes, and you can use the mobile app to read your voicemails over data and they’ll even transcribe it for you. I love that feature.

    @Mark – Unlocked GSM iPhone, yes.

  17. @Travis – I’m not a phone geek anymore, but I like it. It’s my first Android OS device, so there is a bit of a learning curve, but it makes sense overall. The screen is big and awesome, I think basically “retina” resolution. I like the new keyboard where you don’t have to lift your finger to type on the screen. Google services seemed easy to set up. I miss some paid apps from my iPhone.

  18. @Johnathan I thought the same thing about Republic Wireless, but I also liked getting my bill lower by 50 dollars and I’m in a area with no TMobile service. I went with RW since after 4 months if I don’t like it then it has already paid for itself. The phone is really crappy if your use to a actually good smart phone. That’s really my main complaint about them. Although they did let everyone recently send back the single band phone and get a dual band upgrade for free.

  19. Jonathan,

    So as far as you know one cannot add for example the $100 prepaid minutes card and have those minutes carry over if unused is what I meant to ask? I am going to ask t-mobile folks themselves to see if that is feasible. If so that would be incredible to say the least.

  20. RW is addressing the photo/MMS text problem in the OS update this month. Yes, the downside is that there is no choice in phones.

    @jonathan, over the past year they saw that users required much less actual cell data than the even budgeted for, so they are now truly unlimited.

  21. @Christine. Starting in 2013 you need to add $20 for 90 days of service. So rates are going up by 33% not doubling if you do this. Yes, $15 now only gets you 45 days.

    Also, with VM if you have a smartphone Beyond Talk plan and one or more PayLo plans, if/when the balances build up in the PayLo accounts, you can call VM and have them transfer funds from the PayLo account(s) to the the Beyond Talk account(s). If you do not use a lot of minutes on the PayLo phones it makes these plans effectively free when you transfer the balances.

  22. I was the lucky one who got the first batch of Nexus 4. I got the t-mobile $30 plan, just like you did. I ported my phone # to Google Voice and disabled T-Mobile voicemail. I don’t talk that much so the 100-minute is perfect. I have great reception at my house (20mb down!) and soso at work. I use WIFI, so it doesn’t really matter.

    Two things you want to know:
    1. Google Voice (GV) doesn’t accept MMS :(
    2. T-MOBILE prepaid plan doesn’t accept forwarding for calls. Which means I can’t use the new T-Mobile # to call GV voicemail.

  23. I have used the Straight talk sim program and it is working well. Good coverage, perfectly fine clarity and everything works on my phone fine. The only issue I have is that I didn’t transfer my number to straight talk, so I used Google Voice. That took my MMS away, so I can’t use those anymore. That is a GV issue and not a Straight talk issue.

  24. I don’t understand the concern about not having MMS. If you have a smart phone and your recipient has a smart phone, why not just email the photo?

  25. I live a mile from T-Mobile Headquarters but the last time I had their service it was horrible when it comes to data. Perhaps they’ve improved it by now. But with my 20% corporate discount I pay about $100 after taxes for two Verizon lines 700 min total & 2 GB for my smartphone (the other phone is not a smartphone).

    If I can upgrade a phone with about $400 discount every 20 months at Verizon, that’s $20 of subsidy a month per phone or $40 of subsidy per two phones, which effectively reduces the rate to about $60 a month for two lines, or $30 a month per line. (Of course one has voice only)

    So as long as people have corporate discount, and keep upgrading their phones as soon as they can, Verizon offers an OK value with family plans. With individual plans, prepaid I guess is the way to go.

  26. @Christine – Regarding MMS, it’s honestly not a “concern” – it’s not a necessity for the phone, per se, but it’s definitely a luxury one gets used to (read: addicted to) easily. Maybe it’s a generational thing (I’m in my late 20s), but all my friends text pictures to each other, like from trips or while out shopping, and we all group text pretty frequently. Especially friend groups or co-worker groups. It’s kind of like AIM (remember that from the 90s and 00s??) but on your phone. But it’s text, so you dont have AIM going constantly wearing down your battery. MMS text (as opposed to SMS) allows the user to do both these things. It’s much more immediate than emailing back and forth.

  27. Jonathan,..I remember you mentioned in earlier post you had sprint sero premium with iPhone, were there any problems with sprint/iPhone,..that made you to look for other carriers? the sero plan was like about 50 per month correct?

    Also in general you preferring android OS over iOS?

  28. @Mike H – Yes, new activations only but there are workarounds. Yup, Virgin phones are locked and don’t have SIMs. You can’t even bring over a Sprint iPhone to Virgin Mobile. This is why I’m trying to stick with GSM providers nowadays.

    MMS is fun and not available through Google Voice. It is available if you give out your T-mobile Prepaid-specific number, but that may get confusing. There are various apps that can simulate MMS if you only have a limited group of people sending stuff to each other, really the only person that I do MMS regularly with is my wife. Otherwise, if it’s really cool I’ll wait and see it posted on Facebook.

  29. twistedcross says:

    The simplest way to get free calling on this plan is to download T-Mobile’s own Bobsled application. It uses data instead of talk minutes. See for yourself.

  30. If you are going to use your phone for business work, I will never go MVNO way, like Straight Talk. They advertise as unlimited but you need to go through the fine print. Don’t be surprised to see your line disconnected one day if your use is too much (in their eyes). This has happened before. Check Howardforums.

    I would also like to give a try to CDMA carriers but their locked phones and exorbitant plans keep me away. Republic hasn’t gotten their working for prime time yet so I will stay away from them. Ting, device issue. I will buy a device for $500 but I am locked with them which I do not like. Hence, just like you, I am going GSM way only.

    And honestly, I don’t understand why you are shying away from VoIP, lets face it, most likely, its THE future. Just get GrooveIP and Google Voice, you are good to go. I am on Airvoice Wireless, pay $10 every 3 months but primarily use GrooveIP, does pretty good job. Majority of the time, I am on wi-fi so don’t really need service but I still use it, just in case.. If you are a heavy texter, Google Voice may not come handy..

  31. Jason Chen says:

    I am on puretalkusa $10 (130 mins) plan. I supplement by text/data need by adding a freedompop(500MB of free data a month). grant it is an extra device you have to carry, but I found it sufficient for my own use.

  32. Jonathan,.. were there any problems with sprint/iPhone,..that made you to look for other carriers?

    Also in general you preferring android OS over iOS?

  33. @John – I’ve been on this plan for several months and you can most definitely add a $100 prepaid card to your device. Any calls over 100 minutes for that month just deduct from your balance at $0.10/min.

    @Mike H – You can be an existing T-Mo customer and get this plan but it requires the minor headache of activating a new SIM with a new number and then calling T-Mo to request a number port from one SIM to another…not necessary if are using Google Voice to manage your incoming calls. If you are coming from an existing T-Mo prepaid plan, the catch is that your existing balance won’t transfer with the number…you will lose the balance on that existing plan when you port the number away from that SIM.

  34. NoSmartphoneNoMe says:

    Wow! This plan is great! I am a woman with 3 kids and I need a smartphone to keep up with everything i need to do! Its getting hectic going around with lists everywhere and then the worst part, not being able to find those lists. I talk sometimes and a 100 minutes is fine for me and if i need more, its just $0.10/min so thats alright because i know i’m not going to go over by a ton! This Voice over ip is amazing. Such a good idea and I am definitely going to go for it!

  35. Johnathan,
    Now that its been two months, do you still use this setup? how would you rank it taking into account T-mobile HSPA network – do you get their 4G in most locations you go to? is call quality for the most part good?
    I’ve been experimenting with my current phone (Nexus S 4G – on Sprint) When I’m in the house in wifi coverage the quality is good, sometimes better than Sprint’s voice quality since I don’t get much reception inside the house. But when I’m out on CDMA 3G (which is most of what I get around here) I rather use the voice network. 4G (wimax) works somewhat and I’ll use it especially if I’m running low on minutes but I’ll use it only if I’m stationary – call would drop if I’m in the car – seems like tower hopping (including 4G -> 3G) for VOIP data connection is not there yet.
    Have you tried other older phones? is it my phone that could be the bottle neck? (not enough CPU power, etc)

  36. more more note – in my experience, the native VOIP Android dialler works better than sipgate – this could be again because of my 1Ghz single core processor. have you tried the native Android dialler?

  37. Im interested in hearing a “60 days later” report on the setup described here as well. :)

    -Mark

  38. I bought a Nexus 4 from Google for $299. Then I got the t-mo $30.oo per month plan. I live in the Boston area and the coverage is adequate but not great. I also set up Google voice connecting my home line with my 2 cell phones. Every 2 weeks I go out to western mass via rt 2. There is NO coverage all along the 85 mile route to Amherst. If I drive close to the Umass campus in Amherst, I will be able to make a call but drive a few blocks away and it is gone.
    OK, I installed every VoIP app that the Google play store offers including the one, kayak, from t mobile. Each VoIP app is worse than the next one. The sound quality is truly poor and I got nothing but complaints from those on the other end. The t-mo kayak app tries to shut down my phone when I dial. That app went bye-bye fast.
    As far as the t-mo $30 per month plan goes, I have never had 100 minutes go so quickly as they did with t-mo. Just to note, my other phone is a pay as you go dumb phone from ATT. I buy 250 minutes every three months- about 83 minutes per month – and Never go over the limit and usually have minutes that “roll over” to the next period. So I was shocked when 2 weeks into the $30 per month plan went by and I had no phone service. I called t-mo and the customer service person told me that I had used up all of my minutes. Something smells just a little bit there.
    So, for me, I am going to look for an ATT reseller next. I guess Red Pocket or Straight Talk if they are still involved with ATT. To sum up:
    Nexus 4 = A;
    Google Voice = B;
    T mobile = D;
    VoIP apps = F

  39. Has T-Mobile changed its plans? Is the $30/mo unlimited data (or at least 5GB) still available?

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