Really? $1000/year?
September 4, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I need a phone plan (US). All the options seem bad. Can anyone think of an option I've missed? Special snowflake details inside.

So I'm feeling quite sorry for myself as I'm about to lose the free phone plan I've had for the past two years. Here's my special case:

- I live in California. There is no cell reception at my house (sometimes texts arrive a day late or the phone will ring but conversations are almost always impossible: success rate 2 calls/2 years).
- I call Canada during my commute for 3-4 hours per month.
- I would like to be able to text with my Canadian sister.
- Otherwise, maybe 30 minutes of domestic calls per month.
- I don't currently have a smartphone but having some sort of app that would tell me about accidents/mudslides on my route home sounds really handy.
- My Canadian family are all on iThings, so I use imessage with them when I have wifi. I like my iPod and am thinking of an iPhone (I know not to buy one this week), but I'm not too invested.

I've thought of calling cards for calling Canada and using data instead of texting, which may make things cheaper since the international aspect is complicating things.

Here are the options I've thought of:
- Ting: I think this sounds great, except they won't sell me a plan because they don't have coverage at my house. I think I could use a friend's address or my work, though. International texting included, calling Canada is $0.15/min. I have access to an old phone I could test this out with first.
- AT&T: I get a 21% discount through my work, which still ends up being ~$100/month. Seriously, $20/month to add texting to your phone?
-Verizon: 7% discount through work, still really expensive. Their website makes it sound like you can get the same 2 gig data plan either prepaid or on a plan, but you'll pay $40 extra per month for the privilege of having a contract. I don't understand. They do seem to have the best coverage around home though.
- T-Mobile: possible although I'm concerned about coverage. They have $10 International Talk & Text plan, except calls have to originate from their network and there are two gaps on my drive home.
-Straighttalk: international texting is not even possible. Concerned about the fact that they are currently being sued for their unlimited data claims.
- Other MVNOs: Some of these sound great on their websites but every single one seems to have terrible reviews online. Ignoring the reviews, promising sounding ones are Airvoice Wireless, Boost, Simple Mobile, Redpocket, net10, ptel. Is anyone happy with any of those? I am also concerned about coverage being not good enough. But I guess these don't come with contracts so I could experiment.
- The "I give up" option: get a PAYG plan for emergencies, save many hundreds of dollars per year, tell my family I'll call them via Skype at less convenient times, and listen to even more podcasts while driving.

And a bonus question: if the coverage maps show 2G for most of the way home, is that good enough for phone calls?

I feel like I have enough information here to make some sort of decision but nothing here seems very good. Anyone just want to make a decision for me?
posted by carolr to Technology (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've never had a problem with Straight Talk or Ptel. I've been on both unlimited plans ($45 and $40) for several months with no issue.

If you only talk 30 minutes a month, may want to try the T-Mobile $30 for 100 minutes and unlimited text/data prepaid plan. I would use Google Voice and/or Skype for calls/texts to Canada.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:25 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a very happy Virgin Mobile customer. In fact I know multiple people who are doctors/lawyers/corporate manager types (i.e. people who could afford any service they want) who use Virgin because it is cheap and just works.
posted by miyabo at 11:39 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used a Virgin mobile plan that has unlimited data, texts, but phone time is limited to 300 min/month for ~$30 month.I would make sure that you get some coverage in your respective city or it would be pointless (see map on right side) and there is no contract. The caveat is that you need to buy an iphone for them and since it is sans contract, you pay full price for the phone (I did the math and for me, it was still cheaper than the fancy pants contract deal over a year).

I also do not get coverage for any cell phones in my apt, but I give out a google voice number, which sends texts and will send the call to your computer, landline, or cell (so since it goes through the internet, I will get text with WIFI even though I get no cell coverage).

I've used google voice to make calls to Canada and the States (and then spoken over the computer, landline, or cell) and have never been charged since it is a free service, but one never knows if google voice will remain free forever.
posted by Wolfster at 11:42 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've recently Downgraded to TMobile in a metro area in SE USA; a huge huge quality drop for going to $50 a month. But I primarily use Google Voice so I get notified eventtauulty of calls.
posted by tilde at 11:43 AM on September 4, 2013

Just since it doesn't appear to be clear in your question: is the sister you want to text on an iphone? Because if so, you can imessage her if you have an iphone also, without using text messages, just internet (data) -- imessage doesn't care where the two phones are, and it's free even internationally. So if you were for instance to choose AT&T, you wouldn't necessarily have to add texts for that extra $20 (though if you want road alerts, you probably will need to receive texts for that, but do the math, my spouse doesn't use enough texts to make the text plan worth it so we just pay for individual texts, it's cheaper that way if your usage is low).

Whatever plan you choose, I second Google Voice for calls. You can also use Talkatone to make calls over Internet, so if you have a router at home, you can still use your phone even if you don't have a cell signal. Though the sound quality is crappy. One other thing to note about Google Voice is that it's not seamless; you can't make your phone number show up as the number assigned to you, just the GV number, which is confusing unless you only ever go through GV.

Speaking as someone who also does not have reception at home, you might want to look into a signal booster. AT&T and Verizon both offer these for their networks. Again, this assumes you have a router at home.

I have only ever used Verizon (which I like, the coverage seems to be way better than anyone else) so I'm afraid I can't weigh in on that choice.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:53 AM on September 4, 2013

Response by poster: I'm glad I asked because I had completely forgotten about Google Voice. And I had no idea that Google Voice uses cell minutes, not data, if you want. That sounds like a really good option since so many plans seem to come with unlimited (domestic) talking and texting. Maybe I don't need to worry about the Canadian piece at all.

There are a couple gaps with no coverage on my drive home on Sprint, which is why I had left off Virgin but I seem to have forgotten that when I started looking at other MVNOs.
posted by carolr at 12:08 PM on September 4, 2013

came in to suggest that $30 virgin plan, and also this $30 tmobile plan you could then add things on to.

screw paying $60-90 a month(or more!) for phone service. they don't do that in basically any other country in the world.

For what it's worth, i had a really terrible experience with boost. But what was back when their entire network was iDEN only before they started using sprints CDMA towers. I also had a crappy experience with virgin, but it was mostly with them being money-grubbing about minutes and using every excuse to burn through the ones you had artificially quickly(call is 1:03? TWO MINUTE CALL!) and having the worst rude, generally worthless support line i've ever had to contact for anything. I thought i was on crank yankers or something. Friends seem to have enjoyed the hell out of it ever since they started selling smartphones though, so maybe things have changed. This was back when they only had crappy flip phones and maybe one with a keyboard.

As for tmobile, they had the nicest support and store reps ever. They've gone above and beyond to help me with weird problems with an unlocked phone i didn't even buy from them. The vibe i got from them was always something along the lines of "cool stoner friend in highschool who would spend hours helping you beat majoras mask". The 3G/"4G" was fast as hell too. I did however, have the coverage issues tilde mentioned, with one big caveat: It was only inside of certain buildings. Out on the street or in a car it always worked. But bizarrely even in certain houses right in the middle of town it would go from 4-5 bars to 0 the instant i walked in the front door. I've never experienced this with any other carrier in just a normal house. And this type of thing still happens to my tmobile using coworker all the time.

That said, i agree with your urges to get an iphone... but why the hell get a new one? Wait til the new ones come out and buy a used at%t 4 or 4s for cheap, buy an unlock online for like $9-$20, then jump on that tmobile plan or another sim-based cheap plan.

O, and as a closing note

And a bonus question: if the coverage maps show 2G for most of the way home, is that good enough for phone calls?

Yea. That only matters as far as data goes. Any signal as long as you have a few bars is fine for just voice calling.
posted by emptythought at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks, emptythought! I need to look at that as long as I'm sticking myself with tMobile ... I wonder why I couldn't find that online when I was searching?!?
posted by tilde at 12:14 PM on September 4, 2013

FWIW iMessage is not texting, so you would not need a text plan if, as you say, all your relatives have iphones. BTW The iPhone will iMessage with or without WiFi. Just be aware that without a text plan actual texting costs about .20 per (incoming and outgoing).
posted by Gungho at 12:15 PM on September 4, 2013

One I have not seen mentioned: Tracfone.

When I researched it a few years ago, the answer I came up with was a Tracfone. I had a military ID which gave me a 10% discount at Kmart. After the discount, I paid about $145 for a cheap phone and a card to put a year of air time and "double minutes for life" on the phone. (Without the discount, it would have been about $160.) I don't recall how many minutes it got me. I do recall it worked out to just over $10/month because the phone came with like 10 minutes of air time and two months activation, so my $145 bought me 14 months of service. I think I had 200 minutes left when I trashed it (for medical reasons not relevant to your situation) just shy of the 14 month mark.

It tells you how many minutes you have left. I liked being able to buy a year's worth of service in advance. Most pay as you go phones at that time required you to buy new minutes every 30 days to keep it active, even if you had not used it up.

I also briefly had an AT&T phone last year. Not a fan. I liked my tracfone a lot better.
posted by Michele in California at 12:54 PM on September 4, 2013

No experience with this personally... RingPlus is an Ad-Supported Cell Service that Gives Users 300 Minutes and 50 Texts per Month for Free. Thought I'd just mention it because of the low volume of domestic calls you make.
posted by banished at 1:04 PM on September 4, 2013

AT&T pay-as-you-go. My cost is $100 a year with them, buying the 90-day $25 option. Texts are 20¢ (outrageous to some) but since I rarely make voice calls, this works for me. And, your 20% discount may apply.
posted by Rash at 1:15 PM on September 4, 2013

I've used both Virgin (for about two years) and Simple (just started, for a couple months) and they are both OK. They have clumsy customer service, but that seems to be de rigueur now, and the actual function of the phones has been fine.

On Simple Mobile (which uses the T-Mobile network) you could get a $40 unlimited text/call/data plan and supplement with $10 International Calling cards (Canada is a penny a minute). Or if you don't like to buy the calling cards you could get a $50/month plan with unlimited international calling.

With Virgin (which uses the Sprint network) you could get a low-data phone for $30/month and then pay 10 cents a minute to call Canada (I'm assuming that's extra).

They both get fine reception and get good coverage. My Virgin phone generally would stop working if I went camping or got more than 10 miles from an interstate (they use Sprint, but I don't think they have Sprint's reciprocal agreements with roaming networks), and I assume Simple is the same -- so I might not use these networks for a cross-country road trip. But otherwise Virgin/Simple pick up anywhere that Sprint/T-Mobile do.

One more thing: If you go with Simple or another GSM carrier and decide you don't like them, you can try a different GSM carrier later (Tracfone, T-Mobile, etc) without getting rid of your actual physical phone. But if you get a CMDA phone (Virgin etc), you are pretty much stuck with your carrier if you want to keep the phone.
posted by feets at 1:23 PM on September 4, 2013

On not-preview, I now see that 10 cents a minute to call Canada for you would mean an extra $24/month! OK, so I'm thinking I shouldn't have recommended Virgin for you. Whoops :)
posted by feets at 1:25 PM on September 4, 2013

Best answer: The only thing that makes t-mobile work for me is the wi-fi calling app. It will route calls to your phone over whatever wireless network you are connected to. great at home, where the reception is lousy, but the wi-fi is strong.
posted by clockwork at 4:33 PM on September 4, 2013

Do you need to call using a cell phone when you call Canada? Do you have a good internet connection? Perhaps some sort of VOIP solution like a Skype subscription and/or minutes and a microphone would work for the international calls. Then you can buy a cheap prepaid phone/plan that charges by the minute or by the text message for all other situations that require one (I used a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan). I basically had this setup during college and I would spend about $75/year, including semi-regular calls (about once a month) to Canada. I used fewer minutes per month than you would, so I'm guessing you'd spend more, but I'd be very surprised if your usage would top $250/year, and if you're willing to use Skype for more of your domestic calls as well, you can bring down the cost even more.

Main downside is that most prepaid data plans require a monthly prepayment and tend to be fairly expensive, so if you have your heart set on having a smartphone and you don't have good access to WiFi hotspots, that might kill this.
posted by Aleyn at 5:43 PM on September 4, 2013

Best answer: Assuming you have Internet access, have you tried a Microcell or Femtocell? That might get you signal at your house. Not sure if they work for MVNOs (i.e. you get an AT&T Femtocell and use it with StraightTalk/Red Pocket who resell AT&T service, or use a Sprint Femtocell with Ting.)

Edit: Ting supports the Airave device, which would theoretically get you coverage at home.
posted by cnc at 5:43 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, I've learned lots. Thanks guys! I didn't know about T-mobile's wifi calling, although I guess that's not so different from using google voice or Skype to call from home. Nor did I know about femtocells. Right now I'm leaning towards T-mobile, either with an iPhone (no wifi calling) or a google nexus 4. Does anyone know why the nexus 4 is $250 from google and $420 from t-mobile?

Aleyn, I do use Skype and FaceTime to call my parents when I'm home but they're 4 hours later than I am so it's nice to be able to call when I leave work instead of when I get home. Plus it makes my hour long commute seem like less of a waste. I do have enough money to afford a cell plan, I just need to get my head around it. I seem to have inherited my dad's aversion to phone bills!
posted by carolr at 9:46 PM on September 4, 2013

You should know that the Nexus 4 does not support calls over WiFi. T-Mobile doesn't allow it. You can Skype and GVoice and Hangouts all you want, but phone calls have to go through the mobile network. That cost difference is a big part of the reason why.

Also, if you're concerned about reception, get the cheapest prepaid cell phone with the network you're interested in and just use it around your house, work and commute. It's a great way to see if the network is actually up to snuff (and the cheap phone you'll get will almost certainly have worse reception than the smartphones you're looking at).
posted by Punkey at 11:55 PM on September 4, 2013

...may want to try the T-Mobile $30 for 100 minutes

Worth remembering that T-Mobile (and other carriers) round up to the nearest minute. That 10-second call where you get somebody's voicemail? Charged as one minute. The 2:10 call to order pizza? Charged as three minutes. If you make a significant number of short calls, you'll burn through 100 minutes very fast. This bit me in the ass a while ago, and I audited my bill: 30% of my 250 minute plan was being eaten by rounding up.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:39 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also keep in mind that if you have a pre-paid phone and are using T-mobile's Wi-Fi Calling, the minutes used still count against your limit. You don't get to use Wi-Fi for free.
posted by jeremias at 12:37 PM on September 19, 2013

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