Money Management

Cheap Cell Phone Plans - How About Free?

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I don’t know about you, but I am pretty tired of paying too much for my cell phone plan these days. And we won’t even get into the cost of cell phones but they are also way over the top as far as cost and value. I wanted to write this article last spring but as the world turns I never quite got to it. Thanks to the holidays (most of my clients go into holiday mode this time of year so I can try and clean up loose ends) I finally got some time to both try out one of the plans and write this article.

Everyone knows the big four cell networks, which are Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. You may have noticed new advertising lately for several new or improved cell phone plans that aren’t exactly household names but offer very cheap phone plans. Most, if not all, of these new guys are MVNOs.

And from what I’ve seen and heard in the news, T-Mobile and Sprint will officially merge sometime in 2019. So it’s soon going to be the big three rather than four. What impact this will have, nobody knows at this point but I would bet that the new company will go after the 5G market. The new combined company will be called T-Mobile and benefit from the newer 5G technology which promises up to 5 times the fastest speeds of 4G. It will be interesting since T-Mobile is GSM and Sprint is CDMA, and the 5G can work on both. Time will tell, most phones can’t even use 5G so it will be a few years for this technology to be main stream. And you can bet that the new T-Mobile will get very aggressive in pricing so that might start a bidding war but it won’t benefit any current users unless they switch.

These MVNO or Mobile Virtual Network Operators are small cell plan companies that lease cellular coverage and data bandwidth from one of the big four. Here’s a good definition by Wikipedia: “A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), virtual network operator (VNO), or mobile other licensed operator (MOLO), is a wireless communications services provider that does not own the wireless network infrastructure over which it provides services to its customers. An MVNO enters into a business agreement with a mobile network operator to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates, then sets retail prices independently. An MVNO may use its own customer service, billing support systems, marketing, and sales personnel, or it could employ the services of a mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE).” I’ve been keeping an eye on these carriers for the past year or so since they offer such cheap cell phone service, and huge savings compared the big guys.

List of MVNO’s by subscribers:

U.S. Cellular (Both AT&T and Verizon networks)
Cricket (recently bought by AT&T)
Virgin Mobile (Sprint owned)
Boost (Sprint owned)
MetroPCS (T-Mobile owned)
Straight Talk (Tracphone owned)
Red Pocket (Both AT&T and Verizon networks)
Net10 (Tracphone owned)
Consumer Cellular (AT&T network)
Republic Wireless (Sprint network)

Here’s the New Guys On The Block:

Project Fi (owned by Google and uses Sprint-T-Mobile-US Cellular networks)
Mint SIM (T-Mobile network)
Ting (Sprint network)
Scratch Wireless (T-Mobile network)
GoSmart Mobile (T-Mobile network)
FreedomPoP (Sprint network)
FreeUp Mobile (AT&T network)

How Much Can You Save?

The going price, give or take a temporary promotion, for basic cell phone plans that have unlimited text and talk and at least 1 gig of data on the big four is around $50-$80 dollars per month, plus $8-$12 dollars in taxes and fees. At the time of writing this article Sprint has dropped their price to $50 to try and pick up new customers. T-Mobile is at $65 and then Verizon and AT&T are at $65 and $55. Now keep in mind that the big four often advertise low prices but then figure out ways to increase them as you add services. And all of the big four fail to point out that there may be another $8-$11 of fees and taxes on those low advertised prices. Always read the fine print, that’s where they put all the exclusions or exceptions in billing.

The MVNO’s offer same type of plans from $15-$35 per month, some are pre-paid (you pay in advance each month) and most include the taxes and fees. There are some caveats since they may have some limitations if the network used gets overloaded, like when a hurricane or other scenario where cells are used much more. The MVNOs can be throttled down or limited in data. And the customer support can be (and often is) atrocious since they are working on slim margins. If you already have a phone and phone number, transferring (porting) that to the new carrier can be frustrating due to it being a little beyond many users technical skills. Then there’s the big four not wanting to lose customers too so they are not eager to help.

My experience with AT&T is a perfect example but more on that later. So there are two possible ways you can sign up for these new MVNO’s, bring your own phone or buy a phone from them. Most have all the latest and greatest models from the major phone companies plus some very low cost second tier phones (from $50 and up). You can also buy an unlocked phone from eBay, Best Buy, and Amazon. Unlocked phones are not tied to a carrier and may operate on either CDMA or GSM networks and even both (duo slot for different SIMS). They should work on any carrier that supports the networks, CDMA is Verizon and Sprint, whereas AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM.

The most Popular Choice Is To Bring Your Own Cell Phone & Phone Number

So if you are going to bring your phone with you the first step is to go to the carrier’s website that you are interested in changing to and check to make sure your phone will work. They will ask you to input your phone’s IMEI number and they will then tell you if your phone is compatible with their

network. You can find the IMEI by dialing the following on your phone: * # 0 6 # or the IMEI usually located on the back of your phone or under the battery too. I was coming from AT&T so I knew that I needed a network that was GSM but I checked it anyway just to make sure. Also be aware that if you have some phone that is only available on your current network it might have problems since some are proprietary. But if you have one of the popular brands like Samsung, iPhone, Motorola, HTC, Nokia, OnePlus One, and several more you should be able to find a MVNO that can use it.

And a warning to people who live on their phones whether it be data or calls, there can be bumps in the road. I don’t use a lot of data on my phone for two simple reasons. First and foremost I am within range of a WIFI network 80% of the time. I also don’t use my phone for data much since I normally use a laptop or tablet for the bigger screen. In fact the only measureable amount of data I use is Google Maps when I go to somewhere that I need directions or I use the near me search for restaurants or other entertainment. So for me, going from $80 or above per month to $20 per month would save me $720 per year. That’s a good chunk of cash. And I brought my own phone so there was no cost for new phone. And the one I chose isn’t even one of the cheapest phone plans, most of the bigger MVNO companies are running specials for $15.

First Step Is To Review Performance, Price, And Compatibility of Your Cell Phone

Just for fun I checked out the complaints and problems with the big four carriers first to give me a baseline for the MNVOs. The FTC has cell carriers as the fourth most complaints with over 75,000 annually. The latest figures were several years old so I wanted to try to get a little more detail and current numbers plus use the same website so that it would be a level playing field. You also need to consider that a review usually falls into two kinds, people that are really upset and people who are really happy. And of course the big four have quite a few subscribers.

  • Verizon Wireless: 153.9 million (Q3 2018)
  • AT&T Mobility: 150.2 million (Q3 2018)
  • T-Mobile US: 77.2 million (Q3 2018)
  • Sprint Corporation: 53.5 million (Q3 2018)

With average upwards of 53 million subscribers the complaints percentage is pretty small. And I was looking more for what was the biggest complaint, coverage, service, billing, or something else. Here’s how the big four did on www.consumeraffairs.com.

AT&T – Number of Complaints – 5840 – Rating 1.5% (billing)
Sprint – Number of Complaints – 5744 – Rating 1.5% (billing and service)
Verizon – Number of Complaints – 5710 – Rating 2.0% (service and billing)
T-Mobile – Number of Complaints – 5127 – Rating 1.7% (billing and service)

Not a lot of love out there for cell carriers. I’ve only had personal experience with AT&T and most of it good. I’ve bought 4 phones over the years and got good deals on all them. The only complaint I have is about a phone replacement debacle. I always got insurance on my phones since I bought the pricey high end devices for work. The one time I made a claim was a nightmare. I ended up buying a pre-paid phone to use for a week since that’s how long it took to replace my damaged phone. They had no problem with me going a week without a phone, really?

Also keep in mind if you have millions of subscribers so there’s going to be somebody that is an unhappy camper. Percentage wise, 5,000+ is a very small number. Now if you happen to be one of the complainers, I understand it’s not a good thing, but nobody can hit 100% with that kind of volume.

How The MVNOs Faired On User Feedback

OK, I checked out most of the MVNO’s to look at features, cost, and complaints. I thought that it would be a pretty quick review but there are so many it took longer than I expected. There are a lot more MNVOs than I listed above but I had to narrow it down to ones that had at least some national coverage. One of the reasons it took so long was checking out all the comments, complaints, and testimonials. Evidently phones are like cars, people really are serious about brands and are quite loyal. Most of the problems that I saw were phones that would not work on the new network. And support on almost all of the MNVO companies got a lot of flack on both technical stuff and billing.

Let me offer you a hot tip here on billing. I never use the auto-pay on any monthly billing. That is the single biggest point of problems for almost all of these MNVO carriers, and people were very vocal. Cell carriers in general have embraced the add-ons (just like the airlines now) in order to advertise a super low price then make it back with small print and exceptions. Nobody likes surprises in billing, and if automated you may not even notice it for a period of time. The simple way to avoid these issues is to manually pay your bill. You can put a reminder on your phone and manually pay your bill in about two minutes and never have to deal with these problems.

The other biggest complaint was coverage in the location of the subscriber. T-Mobile has less coverage than AT&T and Verizon so the MVNOs that use T-Mobile caught a lot of heat. So be sure to check coverage in your area before making a choice. If you are coming from Verizon or AT&T there shouldn’t be coverage problems but check just in case.

During my research one of the newest carriers caught my immediate attention since they have figured out a way that you can literally get free phone service. And the guy that runs this new MNVO is Rod Nakjavani, who already built a very successful MNVO and sold it for big bucks a few years back. The new kid on the block is FreeUp Mobile, they just came out in March of 2018. That gave me a little pause since they have no track record but they do have a very experienced founder so I’m willing to take a chance. FreeUp also uses the AT&T network which I was currently on so I figured the connectivity would work just the same.

Your choices of cheap phone plans with FreeUp Mobile:

Freeup has a totally free version that provides 500 Local Minutes or Texts and +100 MB 4G LTE Data. So I guess free is the cheapest phone plan.

For $10 per month you get Unlimited Local Talk & Text and 200 MB 4G LTE Data

For $15 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and No 4G LTE Data

For $20 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and 1GB MB 4G LTE Data

For $25 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and 2GB MB 4G LTE Data

For $30 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and 3GB MB 4G LTE Data

For $35 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and 4GB MB 4G LTE Data

For $40 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and 5GB MB 4G LTE Data

For $60 per month you get Unlimited Global Talk & Text and Unlimited 4G LTE Data

*If you are a huge user of data, you can get addition Gigs for $5 but the unlimited for $60 is probably your best bet.

If you are bringing your current phone FreeUp Mobile offers a free SIM card with first month payment (most of the others do not offer a free SIM but only charge $10-$25) that they mail to you. Once you receive it you can start the porting procedure to move you device from your current carrier to your new FreeUp account. This should be a simple process and in theory is, but you need to have some very basic information in order to complete the changeover. I have an Android Samsung phone so that’s what the following instructions are for but the Apple methods are quite similar except for the APN settings which you will need to go to Apple’s website via the Safari browser to see your necessary changes. Yea, Apple doesn’t like you changing things much either. If you want to see exactly what the steps are for your phone just go to YouTube.com and do a search on your phone and replacing the SIM, they have just about every phone in use today.

First Step – Porting Cell Phone And Phone Number

FreeUp Porting Form

Porting information to provide: your name, address and customer account number as they appear on your bill. They may also ask for your account password or Pin if you have one. This is where my porting went sideways. I have been with AT&T for more than 15 years and was on a grandfather plan. So I had two accounts, one for web access and one for the actual phone. Yea, it wasn’t pretty and took several calls to AT&T to figure it out. My port attempt kept failing due to the two accounts. The web account was what I knew from my billing but it was automatically using the older account info. And I have the transcripts from AT&T calls which show the continued attempts at either bribing me with more data or just talking me out of leaving AT&T. This is common from what I’ve read on all four major carriers. Long story short, this added about three days to a porting process that should have only taken about 2.5 hours. The wireless industry and FCC have agreed a goal of 2.5 hours or less to port, but the FreeUp support guys mentioned it usually only takes about 25 minutes. In my case it only 10 minutes once the information was correct. Now I still had service (you can literally switch back in forth between SIMS) the whole time so other than being frustrating it was no big deal. Keep in mind that my problem was not common, it only occurred due to the fact that I had such an old account.

BTW, I traded emails and phone calls with FreeUp support and they hung in there with me and were very helpful. And I have seen a few people complain about FreeUp support about bringing current phones, but I had a good experience. And they also followed up after we got it going to make sure I was up, running, and happy with the service.

Second Step

OK, after finally getting my cell phone and phone number ported I needed to replace the current SIM with my new one from FreeUp Mobile. They send you the SIM with three different size holders (one being the SIM itself and two larger ones). You basically take off the back of your phone, look for the current SIM card to remove. They are small and tough to grab so use a old style pencil with an eraser to genteelly remove it and then slide the FreeUp SIM into the slot. For my Samsung phone I used the middle sized holder and it slid right in place. Put your back on and then reboot your phone.

Third Step

Once your phone is rebooted you should see your new carrier at the top. Now you can’t make anything but emergency calls until you setup the data or APN info on your new carrier. It’s long but easy, here’s the instructions step by step:

Press “Menu” button on your device

Tap “Settings” > “Wireless Controls” or “Wireless and Network” > “Mobile Networks”

Check if “Data Roaming” or “Use Only 2G Networks” are both UNCHECKED

Tap Access Point Names

Press Menu button and select New APN

Enter the following information

Name: FreeUP Mobile

APN: PRODATA

Proxy: Not set

Port: Not set

Username: Not set

Password: Not set

Server: Not set

MMSC: http://mmsc.mobile.att.net

MMS Proxy: proxy.mobile.att.net

MMS Port: 80

MCC: 310

MNC: 410

Authentication Type: None

APN Type: default,mms, supl

APN protocol: IPv4

Bearer: Unspecified

Press the “Menu” button on your device and then “Save” on the screen.

Once I saved the settings I rebooted my phone and everything worked as usual. I could make calls, check my voice mail, surf the net, and all my contacts and other info was intact. Sweet!

But Wait… You Can Save Even More

My new carrier comes with an application that you can download and use to further reduce your bill. It’s called the Rewards App and this is how it works. You take part in different activities inside the application and earn rewards. These rewards are applied to your monthly bill to reduce the amount.  Here’s a copy of the email I got from FreeUp Mobile explaining each reward and how to receive them.

Here’s How You Can Earn Free Credits:

Surveys: Take a few minutes to answer simple questions and earn about $2-$3 per week.

Deals: Redeem deals like Coupons.com and receive $.24 per day for printing coupons (do it everyday and make over $7 per month). Also can participate in our special deals and earn up to $100 per action.

Shop Online: Earn percentage of what you spend in Rewards points when you shop at any retailer listed by clicking on the link inside the app or on our Rewards website.

Local Offers: Link your credit or debit card once and use our app to find participating restaurants and retailers. You will earn about 5%-10% cash back. We track your spending via registered cards.

Refer & Earn: Refer your friends by sending your personal sign-up link via Refer & Earn on the home screen menu. When they use that link to sign up for a FreeUP Mobile account they will receive $5 just for signing up and you’ll receive 5% of your referral’s earned reward dollars and an additional $1 a month for the you. Sign up as many friends and family as you’d like and watch the earnings add up.

Let me be honest here. I’m more than happy just to have a $20 cell bill and I’m pretty sure I’ll rarely use any of these rewards (other than to check out to see they work for this article). But I might do it for at least a month just for the bragging rights. I would love to be able to say I didn’t pay anything for my cell phone plane at least once.

But What About CDMA (Verizon And Sprint Subscribers)?

When I started my quest for the best deal from MNVOs, I didn’t know that I had an advantage being a GSM user (AT&T) due to a much bigger selection. The best deal on prices I found for a CDMA network (Verizon) user was Red Pocket. You can get the best deal from Red Pocket on eBay. Yes, you can get better prices than from Red Pocket on their eBay store than the Red Pocket website.

Red Pocket has a great price of $240 a year ($20 per month) and you get Unlimited Talk & Text and 5 GB 4G LTE Data(if you go over it drops to 3G). The only issue is that you have to pay for a year at a time and they don’t sell phones so you need to bring your own phone.

But there are a lot of upset Red Pocket users, Red Pocket really has huge customer service problems from what I’ve seen on user reviews. The porting probably is number one, but problems with reception and data are a close number two. And that would concern me since you have to pony up an annual payment to start. But there were quite a few glowing feedback reports too. I found this type of feedback on many of the MVNOs, people either loved them or hated them. Red Pocket can use whatever network you come from so they get users from many carriers but most of the complaints seem to come from Verizon and T-Mobile users.

And all of the other MNVOs that work with CDMA are higher priced. Not sure exactly why, but it is pretty noticeable when you review 30-40 different MNVOs that many have terrible customer service and billing practices. Consumer Cellular, Straight Talk, Simple Mobile, and more are often touted on review websites but when it comes to actual users they get flamed on billing and customer service.

I really did not find a MNVO that was CDMA that even had a plan under $35 per month that had unlimited phone and text with at least a couple of gigs of data. Verizon itself does have a very basic plan for $30 (Single Basic Phone Plan) but it only has 500 megs of data with talk and text that is unlimited. So if you are not a big data user or can get on WIFI most of the time this may work. But that $30 does not include taxes and fees. However you will get a great network and customer service compared to the MNVOs that offer CDMA. This sucks but it’s the best I can recommend based on all the bad feedback and uncompetitive pricing on CDMA MNVOs.

T-Mobile MNVOs Are Kind Of A Mixed Bag

T-Mobile’s network is good if they have coverage in the area so the MNVOs that use T-Mobile’s network should be fine. The problems I’ve seen in the complaints are about dead spots since T-Mobile does not have the same coverage as AT&T and Verizon. And that could be a problem for some who travel a lot. Mint SIM is pretty popular due to low prices and they use T-Mobile’s network. The prices start at $15 a month for unlimited talk and text plus 2 GB of data, but you need to buy 3 months or more at a time. And you can get 10 GB per month at $21, which is really good and probably the lowest price I’ve seen on an MNVO. I didn’t find much in feedback direct from users except for a few that were positive. Android Central did have some members that stated the performance was good, not great,” and that “it varied wildly depending on the time of day and the location.”

So be sure and check out your location or anywhere you may spend time to find out if T-Mobile has good coverage. I have several neighbors that use T-Mobil and they have no problems in our area (south of Seattle) and have no complaints. I think there is a local store that is pretty good about service not far from here so that too might make a difference. I don’t think they would put a storefront in an area that doesn’t have good coverage.

Wrap Up On My Choice And Satisfaction

I’ve been using my new cell carrier now for a few weeks and I have had no connection, phone problems, or any other issues. My cell phone acts and works exactly the same. If you are currently an AT&T user and want to save some serious money, I recommend you give FreeUp Mobile  a shot. In fact, if you are paying over $20, I don’t care what carrier you are with it would worth the time to check out any of these cheap cell phone service MNVO providers. If you want to check out FreeUp Mobile, here’s there website address: FreeUp Mobile.

If you have kids that burn through data like there’s no tomorrow, I would probably go with the Mint Mobile Unlimited Plan. At $21 per month for unlimited data, I doubt you can beat that price. And for a family of four, a combined cost of $84 is the best I’ve seen from any cell carrier.

And if you are getting a new phone and number, this whole changeover should work without any of the effort it takes to port your current phone and number. I’m going to do a review on the cell phones these MNVOs offer in the next month or two so stay tuned. Just in doing a quick look on new cell phones I’ve found 2 models for less than $300 that are very competitive with the top of the line SamSung phones. And using any of the MNVO’s listed above should work fairly the same. I went for the cheapest price and current network I already used so it was more than worth the time and effort. But your mileage may vary so be sure and do your due diligence to find the best fit for you. And definitely check out the reviews and coverage for your area.

If anything changes on my service or any new MNVOs  I’ll definitely update this article. I have now been using my phone on the new plan for over 30 days with absolutely no problems.

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