220 Comments

Summary:

I’m now using Straight Talk, a Tracfone-owned cellular provider that resells service on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. After a few weeks of testing and some questions posed to the company, here’s the skinny: Depending on your data needs, this plan can save money.

straight-talk-SIM-featured

Earlier this month, I took a look at Straight Talk, a TracFone-owned mobile virtual operator that resells service on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. I personally bought a T-Mobile compatible Straight Talk SIM card for my Galaxy Nexus because the deal for unlimited everything at $45 per month and no contract sounded too good to be true. For the most part, Straight Talk delivers on its promise with two small exceptions that I’ll point out shortly. The company calls its product a “BYOP” or Bring Your Own Phone prepaid service.

Since trying the service, I’ve received a number of questions about it and the company noticed. So in order to help me answer them intelligently, Straight Talk sent me a loaner unlocked iPhone 4, two AT&T SIMs (regular sized and micro SIM) and some pre-paid monthly service cards.

Unlimited isn’t quite unlimited, except for voice and messages

So here are some follow up experiences I’ve had with both my phone and the loaner iPhone 4, which hopefully helps you decide if Straight Talk’s $45 month to month service is an option for you. First, let me point out the two key exceptions that I’ve found.

  1. Apple’s Visual Voicemail isn’t supported by Straight Talk, so if you go this route, you’ll be calling in to hear your messages. I don’t think that’s a huge issue, at least not for me personally as I use Google Voice for all communications. However, some folks may not be happy with the feature loss.
  2. For $45, Straight Talk advertises unlimited voice minutes, messages and HSPA+ data (There’s no LTE support, even if your phone is capable of using AT&T’s LTE service). Based on user-reported experiences, Straight Talk won’t cut you off provided you keep your monthly usage to 2 GB or about 100 MB per day. Hit either of these and you might get a message about excessive use, along with the threat of service termination. History shows that I use about 1 to 1.5 GB of mobile broadband a month on my phones (I use Wi-Fi a ton), so this works well for me. If you want truly unlimited data or use more than 2 GB per month on your phone, this isn’t the plan for you. Don’t even try it, would be my recommendation.

Note: I asked Straight Talk about the limit and was told that company is trying to “focus on trust and communication with customers.” It’s likely that TracFone has no way to throttle after any limits, since it doesn’t operate the networks. As a result, the company will warn folks for excessive use and potentially disrupt service if you don’t limit your usage.

Good value or no?

If you can live with those two caveats, I think the service is a great value. I was using a $30 data-only T-Mobile SIM in my Galaxy Nexus paired with low-cost VoIP calling but due to coverage issues with dropped or missed calls, I’m much happier with the Straight Talk SIM. My first month of service ends next week and I’ve already added 3 months to my account for $130 thanks to a $5 bundle savings. And because my kids have T-Mobile Sidekick 4G handset and share 1,000 minutes, I ordered a pair of Straight Talk SIMs for them as well. They use very little data but tons of minutes and messages. Now I’ll save on their service and not worry about voice minute overages.

Some questions people have asked me along with answers:

  • How hard is it to set up a Straight Talk SIM on an iPhone? Great question since you can’t directly access the network or APN settings on an iPhone without jailbreaking it. It’s quite easy to set up the new SIM. Just pop it in your iPhone and hit this site in mobile Safari over Wi-Fi: http://unlockit.co.nz/ Here you’ll get a small file to download after choosing Straight Talk as your provider. This file will set up the phone to work with the new SIM and the process takes all of two minutes.
  • Is it difficult to set up the service on an Android or other phone? Nope, this is super easy as you can access the APN settings directly on most smartphones. You simply enter the settings provided with your SIM card. It takes a minute or two at most to type the data in.
  • What about MMS on the iPhone? The above setup solution doesn’t enable MMS, so there are several manual methods to enable both data and MMS. First, back up your iPhone in iTunes with its current SIM. Then swap SIM cards and restore your iPhone backup with the Straight Talk SIM in the handset. Again, this isn’t an issue for me personally as I use Google Voice for messages. There’s plenty of information on Straight Talk setup in this wiki page if you need it. If you have a cut-down T-Mobile SIM, you can follow these simple instructions as well. Or you could jailbreak your phone to get access to the settings.
  • Are the network speeds the same? According to my testing: Yes. I’ve used my Galaxy Nexus with both a T-Mobile SIM and Straight Talk SIM for T-Mobile’s network and found the speeds to be equal. On T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network where I live, I routinely see between 6 and 8 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up and ping times around 120 milliseconds. The same test on my iPhone 4S with a SIM from AT&T and then from Straight Talk showed no difference either.
  • How’s the coverage? Since Straight Talk is paying AT&T and T-Mobile for their networks, the coverage is the same as if you were paying those operators directly. I haven’t seen any coverage differences at all. If you get good coverage now from one of the two carriers, you should get the same with a Straight Talk SIM.
  • If I can save money with this SIM, why wouldn’t I do it? First, if you’re a heavy data user, I wouldn’t recommend this option, as stated above. Second, you’re bringing your own phone. That means you either pay full price for your phone — which can be anything from $400 to $700, if not more — or you keep your current phone and close out your contract with an early termination fee. You’ll have to check with your carrier to see how much that will cost. I’ll be closing my T-Mobile contract on the two Sidekicks, for example, so my break-even point is a few months out. Lastly, if you use a CDMA phone (such one from Sprint or Verizon) or you want LTE service, this plan won’t work for you.
  • What about tethering or using the phone as a mobile hotspot? That’s expressly forbidden in the terms of service. You might get away with it for a short bit here and there, but once you bump up against some heavy usage in a single day, you’re raising the red flag to Straight Talk’s systems.
  • Can I port a number to Straight Talk? Yup, not a problem. You do this when you activate your SIM card online. I didn’t do this for my account. Although I now have another new phone number, nobody knows it because of Google Voice. I will, however, port my kids’ phone numbers next week.

No, this service isn’t for everyone. Heavy-duty data users, folks that want LTE, use a CDMA phone or don’t want to pay full price for their handset are unlikely candidates. But for someone like myself that buys unsubsidized hardware, doesn’t want a long term contract and can supplement mobile broadband with Wi-Fi usage, the BYOP plan at Straight Talk offers solid savings and the same level of service found from national carriers.

Disclosure: The free 30-day service provided by Straight Talk was for testing purposes, not for my personal use, and the iPhone will be returned, per our editorial policy. I pay for my own phone service and provided my own Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 4S  smartphones, which I bought out of pocket last year.

  1. Zarani Barrow Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    I’ll have to wait for someone to do this with LTE but I’m sure by the time my contract is up it will be available. I love the stuff you post. After reading your post on HD voice I’ve been using Callcentric and gvoice for 3 months with my Verizon Nexus. Wonderful way to save $30/month. Keep up the good work!

    Share
    1. Thanks much for the kind words, Zarani. Hope that the posts inform and help!

      Share
      1. Can you help me with striate talk unlimited data? How fast the date same speed AT&T?

        Share
        1. The data speeds are the same you would get from AT&T or T-Mobile’s HSPA+ (not LTE) service.

          Share
  2. I was planning on getting T-Mobiles 35 buck plan for 100 mins and 5 gigs of data. That seems to be more like how I use my phone. This looks like a good option for those who talk more than browse I guess.

    Share
    1. Sid, many folks have told me about that plan, which I think is $30. Agreed; if you can get by with 100 minutes per month or less, it’s a great deal.

      Share
      1. I’m either going to get that $30 T-Mobile plan or Straight Talk. I’m very glad to hear it’s HSPA+ speed. I just sold my Sprint 4s this afternoon. I plan on selling my Sprint GNex next. The ETFs are gonna be killer since I have two lines on a family plan, but $700 now is better than paying $1700+. I’ll be SO GLAD to get back to GSM. I just might get that unlocked GNex from Google Play.

        Share
      2. Alex Sanchez Friday, August 3, 2012

        I got the 30 dollar tmo plan (from Wally’s). Also pay 15 a month to do legal tether. Get ok speeds (5 down,1 up). May get mifi from ATT or Verizon though. Thanks!!

        Share
      3. Sid – 100 minutes may sound OK but be aware that most companies round UP. Signed my daughter up for AT&T GoPhone ($25 monthly for unlimited text and 250 minutes) but every month they say she is over.

        Ex. – a 10-second call is rounded up to 1 minute; a call 1 minute and 3 seconds is rounded up to 2 minutes. So your 100 minutes won’t last long unless you just want it for emergencies in which case I’d say go with AT&T because you get 250 minutes for less $.

        Share
      4. Simon Bérubé Saturday, August 11, 2012

        At $0.45 per minute overages, this wouldn’t be for me.

        Share
      5. CAN
        Straight Talk gave you unlimited date? How fast the date same speed as AT&T?

        Share
        1. You don’t get unlimited data. Roughly 2 GB per month.

          Share
  3. I think this article highlights that value of GSM networks and unlocked phones. Having your device uncoupled from your service provider allows you to decide what service features you need and then determine the best. With your Galaxy Nexus you can use AT&T or T-Mobile postpaid and prepaid as well as MVNOs or even foreign SIMs. Having many choices is good for the consumer.

    Share
    1. +1 to that Stuart. I’m really hoping Google starts expanding the direct sale method to consumers with more Android / Nexus devices. This is also why even though there are some superb new smartphones available or coming soon, I’ll likely stick with my Galaxy Nexus. The pentaband radio and ability to switch providers is a huge benefit to me.

      Share
  4. Another thought came to mind. Dual-sim smartphones will really make carriers mad. They are available but hard to find with US 3G frequencies. Being able to have multiple phone numbers as well as one network for data and a different network for voice means that the consumer can really be in control.

    Share
  5. Tristan Higbee Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    So I currently am in the stone age. I still have one of the Nokia brick phones and I’ve had it for years because the thing works fine for calling and texting, which is all I’ve wanted it to do.

    But now I want an iPhone. I haven’t gotten one recently because I don’t want to pay $100+/month for the plan and don’t want to be locked in to the contract. Straight Talk looks like a great solution.

    So let me see if I understand the whole process. I buy a regular iPhone from a place like Amazon or Best Buy (and it has to be an AT&T iPhone, right?). I buy the SIM card from Straight Talk, along with the $45/month plan. I get the SIM card and put it in the iPhone and go to that unlock website you mentioned in the article and do whatever it says to do there. And then I activate the $45/month Straight Talk service and then… It will work?

    I’d get all of the same functionality I’d get as if I were using AT&T or Sprint?

    Thanks in advance.

    (Also, any speculation on approximately when the iPhone 5 will come out?)

    Share
    1. Yup, you buy your own iPhone — full price, not the subsidized price through a carrier, which will require a contract — order the SIM card and service, configure it as stated in the article and it works on AT&T’s network. The only missing functions are what I mentioned in the article: Visual Voicemail (you can use a 3rd party app for this) and no MMS unless you follow the additional instructions.

      Share
      1. How do I get MMS on the iphone

        Share
      2. You tube has video on it.

        Share
    2. I believe you could also buy the unlocked iPhone directly from Apple.

      Share
    3. All iPhone 4S and GSM iPhone 4 are identical in the hardware aspect, the only caveat being that some are locked to networks if you buy it through them and they don’t unlock it for you.
      The iPhone’s frequencies are compatible with att’s 3G now and possibly Tmobiles in the future.
      I’d recommend buying through apple or bestbuy etc as long as it is unlocked. That is, no contract to be signed or anything like that.

      Share
      1. George Georges Sunday, August 5, 2012

        If your iPhone is out of contract (>2 yrs.) with AT&T, they will unlock it for you, free of charge, with just a phone call to AT&T (which took about 20 minutes to give the agent my phone’s information and for her to make all the necessary checks–like, was this a stolen phone…). It takes a few days to as much as 2-3 weeks for the action to finalize with an email to you. It took only three days for me to get my email. So, my iPhone 4 is unlocked, and I want to get a prepaid provider in place of AT&T. I was waiting for GSMNATION to offer service, but StraightTalk looks like a good deal also. — SteveG

        Share
    4. Tristan – I bought an unlocked smart phone for my daughter on Amazon but there are many places on the net to shop; just search for an UNLOCKED phone and you won’t have to bother paying to get it unlocked.

      Good luck!

      Share
  6. I have been using a straight talk sum for about two weeks and it has been excellent so far. I used it with an iPhone 4 for a week and it was easy to set up. I am now using a windows phone (focus s) and it was even easier to setup compared to the iPhone.

    Share
  7. My daughter is on a Straight Talk unlimited plan. She’s been using it the last three months with an AT&T Samsung Focus. Works beautifully. No issues whatsoever.

    I make sure that whenever she is in the house she has WiFi and we’ve never run up against the data issue though I have read in multiple places that the data cap is definite and if you start to hit 100 mb the warning will come quickly and if you ignore them they can shut your service down.

    I am hopeful that this is the wave of the future.

    Share
    1. I think 100mb is too little a day to start send out notices. Who cares who much I use in a day as long as I don’t go over the 2gb a month? Also, they don’t advertise that it is only up to 2gb. I’m currently on T-Mobile’s $30/month plan with 100 minutes, unlimited text and data up to 5gb, and love it. I can use more than 5gb if I please, but they will throttle me, which is more acceptable than shutting off my service.

      Share
      1. If you happen to be roaming on Tmo you only get a couple hundred mbs/month and then get shut down

        Share
  8. Kevin, your twin articles on this topic have been awesome; the possibilities of CHOICE have me so excited. This kind of thing (along with Boost, Republic, and the just launched Voyager) have sucha huge ability to save consumers money that the large carriers are going to HAVE to lower prices and add more flexibility to stay competitive. I hope you continue to follow these types of trends. I’d love to see you profile the afformentioned Voyager for example if you have not yet. Keep up the great work!

    Share
  9. how well does it work with google voice?

    can you completely turn off the carrier voicemail?

    or use conditional call forwarding?

    i ask because i really do not like to either have my carrier VM eat my calls and/or have to hit ’1′ to answer every call.

    Share
    1. Works great with GV, which is how I’m using it. However, I haven’t been able to shut off carrier VM or use conditional call forwarding as GV doesn’t yet support Straight Talk. I’ve actually never called in to my VM number; I just pay attention to GV.

      Share
      1. Derek Anderson Wednesday, July 18, 2012

        Have you considered writing a post detailing how to setup and use Google Voice in this scenario?

        Share
        1. That’s an interesting thought, Derek, but in reality, setting up a ST phone with Google Voice is no different than setting up Google Voice on any other phone. The only difference — for me, that is — was to never make a call with my ST number; just make all calls with Google Voice, which is a checkbox setting.

          Share
      2. Kevin I have ST using the at&t network sim. You can use GV and conditional call forwarding works on the at&t network but does not work on t-mobile’s.

        Share
      3. The only thing that’s keeping me off using GV as my primary number is the fact that it always requires a smartphone with the Google Voice app. In the unfortunate scenario where I might either break or lose my fancy smartphone and am forced to use a cheap brick phone (at least temporarily), I lose more than just my primary phone — I also lose my number. Isn’t this true or am I getting this wrong?

        Share
      4. Nicholas Moline Monday, August 13, 2012

        the only reason you need to use a smart phone is if you want to use the google voice app. Google voice does not require the app to work, it is capable of forwarding calls to any phone, and text to any cell phone with text messaging service.

        Now with a cheap brick phone to MAKE a call and have it come from your google voice number you have to call your google voice number, enter in your pin (or set it up with auto-pin), and then press the menu option to place an outbound call, similar to using a calling card. The smartphone app basically does this for you in order to have your outbound caller id be your google voice phone number.

        Another option to make sure your outbound caller id shows up as your google voice number is to place the call from the google voice web page. Just type in the number you want it to dial and select which number of yours you want it to call. I use this to place google voice calls from my desk phone.

        Share
  10. have you asked if they have plans to support at&t lte anytime soon?

    also they really need to get rid of the ‘unlimited’ data marketing thing. it makes them look like real bad guys.

    what i would really like to see more than anything else in prepaid though is real metering at a fair price. for the data part it should be $0.01 per MB or less deducted from a prepaid balance as it is used. i am tired of paying for what i do not need just to not be hit with super expensive overages.

    Share
    1. Tom, I didn’t ask about LTE support, but I doubt that will happen any time soon. The operators are likely to “keep” LTE for themselves as it’s so costly to upgrade their networks. That will allow them to totally control the revenue stream for LTE. I hear you on the “unlimited” marketing aspect and I did chat with them about that.

      Share
      1. I would be really interested in how that chat dialog went. my experience so far with prepaid operators is flat out denial that they are selling anything other than totally/completely unlimited service unless the call takes place after an account is cancelled and/or suspended.

        Share
      2. I was just talking to technical support at Straight Talk and was told that if there is an AT&T 4G LTE tower near me and my phone supports it, I will be able to use the 4G LTE. It is August 11 2012 now, maybe they support it now, 4 moths later?

        Share
      3. I just spoke to another technical support rep at the Straight Talk sim card department. He told me there is no information for Straight talk supporting 4G LTE, only 2G, 3G and “4G” which is, as you know 3G HSPA+. So I assume they don’t know what they are talking about, and I also assume they still don’t support 4G LTE.

        Share

Comments have been disabled for this post