How do I bring my own iPhone to a US carrier?
May 31, 2012 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I have a legally unlocked GSM iPhone 4 from Europe and will be moving back to the states soon for the foreseeable future. Since I don't need to trade the next year or two of my life for a hardware subsidy and am not bound to any company already, what is my best carrier choice for a data plan with modest talk use? Does having my own phone free and clear give me any extra options I wouldn't have otherwise?

If it matters, I'll be in Northern Virginia, working in the suburbs and living in Arlington, but do expect to travel around the US a good amount for conferences. I understand that the US offers are expensive (but also overly equipped) compared to Europe, but ideally I'd have something like the Cricket wireless deal announced today. Unfortunately, they are CDMA only, so don't work with my phone. Also, I might well want to upgrade when the next iPhone comes out, and thus have no interest in locking myself into a contract whose main benefit is a phone discount I don't need.
posted by Schismatic to Technology (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you want 3G data, your only choice is going to be AT&T. There are various ways to get it working with one of those $2 a day pay as you go SIMs, so that's probably your best bet.
posted by Oktober at 2:45 PM on May 31, 2012

T Mobile's got a $30/month no contract plan for unlimited data and texts and 100 minutes talk time. You'll have to get the SIM clipped to micro size, but you can pay someone $5 to do that at your local iPhone repair place or order a clipper from Amazon.
posted by katemonster at 2:56 PM on May 31, 2012

T-Mobile USA offers a variety of relatively cheap no-contract plans if you provide your own device. For example, you can get 2GB data + 500 minutes talk time for $45/month. But as mentioned above you may be limited to very slow 2G speeds.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:56 PM on May 31, 2012

T-Mobile has also announced that its high-speed network will be iPhone-compatible "later this year" if you are willing to wait.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:59 PM on May 31, 2012

Europe uses different frequencies than North America. Your phone might not work here.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:02 PM on May 31, 2012

His phone will work fine on AT&T, but will be all but unusable for data on T-Mobile.
posted by Oktober at 3:06 PM on May 31, 2012

Best answer: This is what you want. Select the AT&T compatible phone option, and then micro-sim.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:18 PM on May 31, 2012

StraightTalk wireless is worth a shot. $45/month for "unlimited" everything (data isn't actually unlimited but should useable up to about 2GB).
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:21 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chocolate Pickle: Europe does not use different frequencies than the US. It does use different wireless standards than Verizon and Sprint.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:22 PM on May 31, 2012

An AT&T reseller like straight talk will be significantly cheaper than AT&T prepaid.

I've heard mostly good things about straight talk, linked to above. Also consider red pocket mobile which I have used.

Service is nearly identical from a reseller, though perhaps the data may be a little slower. Look up mvno on Wikipedia for more info on mobile resellers.
posted by skewed at 3:42 PM on May 31, 2012

Cricket just started offering plans, they should be available in about 3 weeks from today. $55 for unlimited* talk/text/data.

*They throttle you after 2.something GB.
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:51 PM on May 31, 2012

I was just about to mention Cricket also.

I read June 22nd as the availability date in one of the many articles covering this but can't find it now.
posted by eatcake at 5:30 PM on May 31, 2012

Also read that "unlimited data" = 2.3 GB as Wild_Eep mentioned
posted by eatcake at 5:31 PM on May 31, 2012

Straight Talk is your best option here. You should be able to get a "real" at&t plan with no contract. It's available, although getting it done can sometimes be a challenge because the salespeople get no commission on no-contract activations. The pricing is much worse, however.

Even when they had their annoying policy of requiring a 1 year contract for every activation I had some success getting the contract requirement waived.

FWIW, the contract term and the subsidy are different things on at&t. Sometimes the sales folks fail to note the fact you haven't yet received a subsidized device on the account, but policy is that you can get a discounted phone later if you sign up with a contract to get some promo feature or whatever and don't take a phone at that time.
posted by wierdo at 6:36 PM on May 31, 2012

Used to be that the US used 800 MHz and 1900 MHz, whereas Europe used 900 MHz and 1800 MHz.

Did that change?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:44 PM on May 31, 2012

iPhone 4 is 850/900/1900/2100, IIRC. T-Mobile runs their HSDPA network on 1700. There aren't a lot of non-T-Mobile branded phones that have 1700MHz. There are a few Nokias, the Galaxy Nexus, and maybe one or two more pentaband phones that have been released recently.
posted by wierdo at 11:09 PM on May 31, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice! I definitely hadn't realized that the carrier options for a GSM phone were so limited. I'm not yet sure if I'll do an ATT data+per-use prepaid, which might be cheapest for my expected light use, or the Straight Talk plan, which is clearly better in principle, but it's good to have a more precise sense of my options.
posted by Schismatic at 2:01 AM on June 1, 2012

"all but unusable for data on T-Mobile." That's an exaggeration. It's slower, yes, but quite usable. I use my unlocked iPhone 4 on T-Mo and generally it's fine. Of course, I'm not used to faster speeds on it which is maybe why it seems fine. My housemates both have older iPhones on AT&T and mine loads most sites faster. Maybe our local AT&T networks just suck!
posted by litlnemo at 2:38 AM on June 1, 2012

katemonster: T Mobile's got a $30/month no contract plan for unlimited data and texts and 100 minutes talk time. You'll have to get the SIM clipped to micro size, but you can pay someone $5 to do that at your local iPhone repair place or order a clipper from Amazon.

Just a note that T-Mobile has iPhone compatible micro SIMS available if you ask them for one, so trimming a SIM to size shouldn't be necessary these days. When my wife got an iPhone last year to use on an existing account, the local T-Mobile store didn't even charge me to swap the old full size SIM for the new micro version.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:49 AM on June 1, 2012

Your existing iPhone won't be useable on Cricket, which is a CDMA carrier.
posted by The Lamplighter at 12:17 PM on June 1, 2012

AT&T will no longer allow you a data plan for a smart phone with the cheap PAYG plans -- you have to have a minimum of the $25 plan, and then pay extra for data ($25 for 1 GB, $15 for 200 MB, $5 for 50 MB), or the $50 unlimited plan.
posted by katemonster at 4:31 PM on June 7, 2012

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