Would like to give old Iphone to Dad for a gift.
December 21, 2012 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I would like to give an old Iphone to my Dad for a gift. How do I get it off AT&T and set it up on an inexpensive network/data plan? The Iphones (a 3G & a 3GS) are just sitting in a drawer. What are the basics of accomplishing this. I'm not a tech whiz but I can handle the basics. Do I have to jailbreak it, unlock it, get a new sim card for it and/or reset etc.? What is the best (most economical) compatible network to join? He lives around Buffalo, NY, if that matters. I've trying searching this down online but the options are unlimited. Any help from experienced readers in narrowing this down would be appreciated.Thank you.
posted by mbx to Technology (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm doing this right now. Here are the steps I'm following:

Read these requirements on AT&T's site, then fill out this form. Order a T-Mobile full size SIM card (new iPhones use smaller SIM cards but the 3 and 3GS use full size) with the $50 4g monthly plan on ebay. Wait 7 business days while AT&T sits on their hands waiting to unlock your phone. Once they email you to say the phone is unlocked you will need to back the phone up on iTunes and then restore it. Upon restoring it will be unlocked and you can insert the T-Mobile SIM card and you're golden. When you activate the T-Mobile SIM you can either port your father's number or get a new phone number.

The $50 T-Mobile plan includes unlimited voice minutes and text messages and the first 100MB are at 4G speeds where available, slower but unlimited after that. I'm still in the 7 day waiting period for the phone to be unlocked but everything I've read elsewhere seems to indicate that this is the process.

It looks like T-Mobile has 4G coverage in Buffalo.
posted by ChrisHartley at 11:02 AM on December 21, 2012

Make sure that whatever you do is easy to navigate. We set my mom up on a Virgin Mobile tracfone (in her honor, I should really refer to it as a burner). We thought it'd be really easy for her to pick up refill cards at Walgreens, but she ended up not reupping until a year later, which somehow made her spend two hours on the phone with some CSR in the Philippines.
posted by Madamina at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2012

I did what ChrisHartley describes a couple of months ago (with a 4, not a 3G, and I got the $30 T-Mobile plan with only 100 minutes a month). It's super easy, though the unlocking process can take a couple of days (at the whim of AT&T, seemingly). If you want to have it up and running by Christmas you may need to go to a store to buy the T-Mobile SIM.* I don't know how good T-Mobile coverage is in Buffalo, but you could use any other GSM-based carrier (if there's a Buffalo-local one that works better).

* The $30 plan I have is officially web-only so if you want that and you want to buy a SIM at the store, don't have them set it up in the store, take it home and set it up online.
posted by mskyle at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2012

I would do this on the Straight Talk network, mostly because it works on AT&T's bands, and it will work at full 3G speeds, whereas on T-Mobile, things won't look at full mobile speed (T-Mobile is rolling this out, but it's only in a very few markets).
posted by deezil at 11:15 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, Straight Talk is your answer. If my family had AT&T iphones rather than Verizon, I would do this in a heartbeat.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:36 AM on December 21, 2012

ChrisHartley: "It looks like T-Mobile has 4G coverage in Buffalo."

Errr.... the iPhone 5 is the first iPhone capable of 4G speeds, no? So I wouldn't pay the extra for 4G when your phone can't even take advantage of it.
posted by Grither at 12:10 PM on December 21, 2012

If I may piggyback with a question about that form - if I switched from the 3GS to the 5, do I still use my current phone number (now used with the 5) to fill out the form to unlock the 3GS? The 3GS has no SIM in it now so it doesn't have its own number.
posted by mikepop at 12:44 PM on December 21, 2012

mikepop - my friend used her AT&T number to unlock my iPhone which had a different number. So I think you would be fine just using your current AT&T number. You can unlock up to 5 phones a year with one AT&T account.
posted by mskyle at 1:10 PM on December 21, 2012

If Buffalo is one of the areas that T-Mobile has upgraded its service for iPhone compatibility, you might be able to get 3g speeds, but you won't be able to get HSPA+, which is much faster and what T-Mobile is calling their 4g network. However, 3g is pretty decent for most uses, except streaming videos and stuff like that. You'll have to get your iPhone unlocked to get that to work, no jailbreaking necessary anymore.

To unlock your phone, you have to ask AT&T's permission for this, which is pretty easy assuming you're still an AT&T customer and the phones are off-contract and you don't owe them any money. If that's not the case, then you can still do it quite easily, but it'll cost you $5 or so. Just go to eBay and search for one of the iPhone IMEI unlock services. Find a seller with high feedback. I did this with two different phones, two different sellers, both worked, my old iphones were unlocked in less than 24 hours. This will work for basically any iphone that uses GSM, doesn't have to be off contract. Then you can just buy any GSM SIM from T-Mobile, Straight Talk, whatever plan fits you best.

To get 3g data working properly, you'll have to configure your iPhone to whatever carrier's set up you go with, just search for "iphone APN ". T-Mobile has a page on its website to help you do this. Wifi is unaffected by this.

I personally would recommend T-Mobile, but only if you're sure that their data network has been upgraded for your area. Keep in mind where their network hasn't been upgraded for the iPhone, you'll get super slow data (2g "edge") which is only really suitable to check e-mail or very simple data-based web pages (like metafilter!). I used Straight Talk for awhile but the data speeds were significantly slower than AT&T, even though they're using the same towers. Also, pricing and customer service were not to my satisfaction, but your results may vary.

posted by skewed at 1:13 PM on December 21, 2012

hmm, somehow part of my message got deleted, to get the 3g data connection to work after you get the new SIM, you need to change the APN settings, try searching for: iphone APN [your carrier]
posted by skewed at 1:19 PM on December 21, 2012

Yes, use your current number (the one you have the AT&T contract with). I just did it for my sister. Surprisingly staightforward.
posted by snickerdoodle at 1:22 PM on December 21, 2012

Seconding deezer - don't go with TMo because they may not support 3G on the phone where you are. StraightTalk is $45 per month and AT&T GoPhone is $50 per month. Pick one of those and you'll get 3G service. They do require some changes on the iPhone to work, especially with MMS.
posted by cnc at 4:39 PM on December 21, 2012

You don't even need to unlock nor jailbreak the iphone for straighttalk.

Here's what I would do.

1. Go to Straight Talk website.
2. Select AT&T Compatible Phone
3. Bunch blah, blah, blah. Select next.
4. Select AT&T Compatible SIM Card NOT AT&T Compatible Micro SIM Card
5. Pay 14.99 for the sim card. ( optional step: Look around on fat wallet or slickdeals and see if there coupon to buy the sim card.)
6. Wait few days for the sim card to arrive.
7. Remove your sims card from your iphone 3gs.
8. Open and turn off your phone.
9. Enter all the info that came with the sim card. And go online to activate the phone. Select $45 unlimited talk, data, and text package.
10. Yay!!! The voice and text work but no data! :(
11. On your iphone using wireless go online. Go to this website and install the custom APN for straight talk.
12. Cross your fingers and hope the data would work right a way. It took me 3 days before the data would work.

You are done! I like straight talk so far, the only thing you lose is visual voice mail but with the price i'm paying I can live with that.

If you want even cheaper service and you don't need that much data there's Air Voice Wireless.

If that's too complicated, just sell the iphone 3gs on Gazelle and get $40. Then head over to Ting buy their devices and use their service. Ting would even refund your money if your usage is below what you signed up for.

Anyway, navigating cellphone services is not easy. Good luck!
posted by Carius at 6:50 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I activated a 3Gs on Straight Talk yesterday. Carius's rundown is the same steps I took. Additionally, I also called AT&T earlier this week to unlock the 3Gs and I ported an existing phone number from Virgin Mobile. Voice and data started working within three hours of activating with Straight Talk, with the exception of MMS texts: haven't been able to get those working and apparently for 3Gs's, it's a more involved process requiring a SIM from TMobile.
posted by jamaro at 10:24 AM on December 22, 2012

Just as an update on my process, the unlock from AT&T didn't go through due to some error so instead of bothering the original owner of the phone again I just paid $3.50 on eBay for an unlock code. It took about 10 hours for the unlock to go through and now we're waiting for the number to port from Boost to T-Mobile which for some reason is taking a long time. Data, MMS, voice all work great, albeit data is slow in my area.

I wouldn't suggest going with a route that requires lots of futzing around because then it will always be your fault when something doesn't work and you will need to fix it, which could be difficult if you aren't in the same place as the phone. I'd rather have them suffer with slow data for awhile than just have MMS silently fail.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:38 AM on January 2, 2013

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