Thinking about upgrading my cell phone experience
April 25, 2020 12:01 PM   Subscribe

My cell phone has never been my friend, but I'm thinking about changing that. The new iPhone SE has me interested in getting a much better phone than my crappy old LG phone. Along with that I'm thinking about moving from TracFone to an actual cell contract. I'm curious what people have to share about what cell plans and cell companies they have that they like that aren't hugely expensive. I'm not a household bundle sort of person, the contract would be just for me.

Also, anything to share about how to port a phone number from something like TracFone to a different service would be helpful. I have zero knowledge about any of this.
posted by hippybear to Technology (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: More information: I've never yet been someone to use my phone all the time. My usage as mostly been for texting and weather checking and twitter. I might do more with my phone if I had a better one and didn't pay for data, but I don't see myself streaming movies on it or anything. If that information helps.
posted by hippybear at 12:02 PM on April 25, 2020

Google Fi is a good affordable option for people who don't use mobile data heavily. You can pay as little as US$20 per month plus $0.01 per MB of data. Since I usually use less than 1 GB per month, that means I pay less than $10/month for data.

They also provide international data roaming for free, which is a nice time-saver if you ever travel internationally. (No need to shop for a local SIM card and use a different number while abroad.)

If you buy one of their “designed for Fi” phones then you get some extra features like switching between multiple mobile network and Wi-Fi calling. But most unlocked phones, including most iPhones, are compatible if you prefer to buy an unlocked phone yourself.

If you sign up as a new customer with any mobile network, they will ask you at sign-up time if you want to port a number, and they'll handle most of that process for you.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:18 PM on April 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've liked Cricket wireless. I have a $35 (40 - 5 for autobill) plan that comes with enough data for me. Maybe 5GB? Coverage is good, internet is fast-- it's owned entirely by AT&T. I use this with a Huawei phone I got on prime day.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2020

I used pay-as-you-go cell service for years, but finally switched to PureTalk, and am liking them a lot. US$20 a month, unlimited calls and texts, including MMS, and 1GB of fast data. If I use that up, which I never have, I would still have data, just not fast. The service has been fine - no unavailability or dropped calls. I think they use AT+T network, maybe also T-mobile. There's no contract, just month-to-month. You'd need an unlocked phone to use them.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2020

Boost Mobile is another option. I have what sounds like pretty much the same plan as MaxWell_Smart mentioned above for Cricket wireless -- I guess Boot Mobile is Sprint version of Cricket. Got a nice android phone for reasonable deal.
posted by 3FLryan at 12:40 PM on April 25, 2020

My wife (original iPhone SE owner and unhappy Verizon prepaid customer [they really slow the data down for prepaid customers]) is just about to switch back to T-Mobile thanks to their new prepaid plan that offers 5 GB of data and unlimited talk/text for $25 a month. (There's a 2 GB of data version for $15, which is a screaming deal too.)
posted by Polycarp at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Good phones are nice. Few postpaid plans are unless you're taking advantage of a family plan type deal or use an absolute crap ton of data, in which case you can sometimes find "postpaid' (which aren't actually post paid any more, they just don't cut you off instantly if you are late and charge you for the privilege) plans that are more cost effective than what MVNOs or carrier prepaid plans will get you.

I don't think anyone is even still doing contracts for consumers anymore, though they will sell you a phone (usually) at a bad price on a payment plan.
posted by wierdo at 1:15 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mint Mobile for $15/20/25 for 3gb/8/12 if you can pay in advance. It’s t mobile network. Plus you’ll generally pay lower taxes on them than with traditional carriers. Bare bones but good service and proper account user interface.
posted by ccl6yl at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I also use Mint, and it's been good for me.
posted by wotsac at 2:02 PM on April 25, 2020

I find prepaid Verizon with an SE tolerable. Note that those T-Mobile plans only allow for tethering at 3G(!) speeds unless you cough up extra.
posted by praemunire at 2:07 PM on April 25, 2020

I switched from AT&T to Verizon recently and was pleasantly surprised to learn that things like the "24 month contract" were no longer the business model. It's month by month now, at least for Verizon. The way they lock you into long-term servitude is by offering you promotions that pay out gradually. In my case, I got a "free" iPhone, but what that really means is that I pay the normal monthly financed price for it ($29/mo for 24 months), but the promotion adds a line item on the bill that exactly cancels that out: -$29/mo for 24 months. If I leave Verizon, I'm still on the hook to keep paying for the phone, but that promotion will disappear. YMMV.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:34 PM on April 25, 2020

I've been happy with Consumer Cellular. They use the AT&T network. You pay for talk and data separately. The talk choices are 250 minutes for $15 or unlimited for $20. You can get 500 MB of data for $5, 3GB for $10, 10GB for $20 and you can get higher amounts but you won't need that much. They have good customer service and a lot of support info on their website. For instance, here is their answer to your question about using your existing phone number.
posted by Redstart at 3:46 PM on April 25, 2020

I've had Cricket for years (the same deal as Maxwell_Smart uses, though I'm paying extra for "unlimited" Internet, not because I need unlimited data, but because I need to use my phone as a wifi hotspot and that's the only way Cricket lets you do it), and have used it for an LG and two iPhones: the original SE and an XR. The service has been universally problem-free.

The new SE looks like a fine phone at a great price and it had had come along three or four months sooner I probably would have bought it instead of the XR. I love Apple's phones and I would advise going with a pay-as-you-go plan like Cricket, Boost or maybe even Virgin instead of a contract.

The key to buying the phone, incidentally, is to actually buy it through Apple; that way you are guaranteed getting an unlocked phone and can use whatever carrier you want. When I bought my first LG phone through Virgin I had to wait six months before I could unlock it and eventually move to Cricket. The SE and XR I bought through Apple and slotting the SIM card into the new phone was virtually transparent.
posted by lhauser at 6:17 PM on April 25, 2020

I'm using the Verizon network on US Mobile prepaid and I'm quite happy with it.
posted by medusa at 7:35 PM on April 25, 2020

I use Ting (with an original version iPhone SE) and I love it - it's set up so you pay for what you use (for me, more data, less texts and phone). I usually average $20-24 a month, but if I end up being in a situation where I need more, there isn't a cap, I just pay more.

It's easy to set up notifications for whatever levels you care about, and the one time I had to contact customer service, they were super.
posted by jenettsilver at 7:42 PM on April 25, 2020

Response by poster: If I get an unlocked phone from Apple but the only SIM card I have is from my TracFone phone and I want to keep my number on a new carrier, how does that exactly play out?
posted by hippybear at 8:25 PM on April 25, 2020

Sign up for the new carrier, when they ask if you have a phone number already, you say yes. The only caveat is that prepaid providers can be funny about what exactly the account number is. It might be your phone number, or it might be some random string that's listed somewhere in your online account, though a few carriers are a pain in the arse and won't readily disclose the actual account number. Make sure your information (mailing address, etc) is current on the TracFone account and be certain to give precisely the same details to your new provider. They will have an FAQ outlining exactly what information they will require.

If you do it online, they will ship you a SIM. (Make sure you get the right kind for your phone, probably a nano-, but I'm not certain) Some can activate an iPhone eSIM, but not all of them can. Either way, you'll likely get a temporary number that will work until the port actually completes, which usually only takes a couple of hours, but can sometimes take a day or more if there is some discrepancy between the details you provided and those your old provider has on file.

If you're moving to a different MVNO on the same network your TracFone SIM is for (or to the underlying carrier) it tends to be easier, faster (often instant), and less prone to weird glitches.
posted by wierdo at 9:09 PM on April 25, 2020

Like Redstart, I recommend Consumer Cellular. They offer a raft of phones at what look like good prices. I have a Motorola Moto G(7) Power, which is quite good. The battery lasts for days. It's a little large, but still fits in a pocket. Some of the phones are new, some are older (just got an iPhone 7+ for my daughter.)

CC uses both the T-Mobile and AT&T networks. If you know that one of those is better than the other in your area, tell the sales rep, and they will have that SIM card put in the phone. If they send you a phone set up for a network that turns out to be not so good, you can buy the other network's card at Target, and CC will refund the cost. CC's customer service is really good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:16 AM on April 26, 2020

I have been using Cricket for 5-6 years now and love it. 2 lines with 5gb each (more now as Cricket upped everyone’s data due to pandemic). We pay $60 total. Uses same towers as AT&T as they are a subsidiary. They alert me a day before they auto draft my payment — $5 cheaper each month to use autopay — and their app is good too.
posted by terrapin at 6:30 AM on April 26, 2020

Both Cricket and Google Fi are very good cheap cell phone providers.

I have Google Fi and it's great and cheap. However, unless you're getting one of the very limited number of fully supported phones (no iPhones are fully supported), I think it's not worth it.

My wife just got a new iPhone SE (totally lives up to the hype) and has Cricket and is completely happy with that.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:58 AM on April 26, 2020

By the way, since nobody has mentioned it, the downside to Cricket, Boost, and the big carrier's PAYG services is that you are (so close to always that the exceptions are irrelevant) limited to using only at&t or Verizon or T-Mobile cell sites, even if they entirely lack coverage where you happen to be at the time.

A few MVNOs do have roaming agreements that can fill in the coverage gaps in a more standard way than Fi's weird approach. Postpaid plans from at&t, Verizon, and T-Mobile generally allow roaming.

If you stay in one city and have good coverage there from your carrier of choice, it doesn't really matter outside of disaster situations. Those disasters are why I keep paying at&t. They're the only ones in South Florida that can manage to keep their network operational during/after a hurricane. Twice since I've moved here, none of Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint worked worth a shit in most of the area for weeks.

Obviously, different carriers are best in different regions, I'm not by any means saying that at&t handles disasters better everywhere, but down here they do, and only partly because of their anticompetitively large spectrum holdings.
posted by wierdo at 7:36 AM on April 26, 2020

I have Republic Wireless, which uses the TMobile cell network. 20/month unlimited text/talk + 1 gb data. Additional data is5/gb. Service is decent. You bring your own phone, selected from some options. I'm eying the iPhone SE, as well. Having a nice phone with a nice camera is a pleasure. I'd like to use Siri; Android's voice-activated assistant is very limited. I encourage you to make this jump, get a decent case to protect the phone, and enjoy.

Your new carrier will assist you in porting your number over, you'll buy a new SIM card from them, and it's painless.
posted by theora55 at 8:25 AM on April 26, 2020

Response by poster: I pulled the trigger and have an unlocked iPhone SE coming my way. Should be here mid-May, according to Apple. I do appreciate any and all past and further suggestions about carriers and service plans. I'm sort of new to all of this, having not had a cell phone for years and then only getting one grudgingly and getting one on TracFone. So all this is great information for me.
posted by hippybear at 12:40 PM on April 26, 2020

I use Visible from Verizon. $40 flat a month for an unlimited plan. The way it was originally is you got a certain amount of high speed data and then the speed slows down. They have a special promotion that does away with the speed restriction permanently. I don't know how long it'll last, but I took advantage of it sometime last year and it's still ongoing. All interactions with them are online, but I've not had a problem contacting them. The only "problem" I had at the beginning was getting visual voice mail working, but a online chat with tech support fixed that. I've been extremely happy with them. I found out about them from a post here on Ask.

ETA: I have an iPhone 8 and it works perfectly.
posted by kathrynm at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2020

Response by poster: My phone from Apple has arrived and now I'm trapped in the morass of making sense of different plans. How do people make choices amongst all this? Maybe I'll just run the iPhone on TracFone for a while until I figure it out.
posted by hippybear at 9:41 PM on May 14, 2020

Google "[your state] cell coverage" and see if there is any network that seems particularly good or bad in your area. If you don't have the patience to look up every plan mentioned in the comments here, pick three. For each one, google "[plan name] network" to see if it uses a network that's good in your area. If it doesn't, cross it off your list (and pick a different one instead if you want.) For each plan that uses a network you want, check their prices. Pick the cheapest one. If you compare at least 3 from this page and pick the cheapest one, you're pretty likely to end up paying a reasonable price and even if there's a cheaper option out there somewhere it's probably not going to be dramatically cheaper. And you can switch later if you find another plan that sounds better.
posted by Redstart at 10:10 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, as a follow-up... I've been researching local plans and will continue doing so, but in the meantime I got a "bring your own phone" SIM card from TracFone and they ported my number and all my already-purchased minutes/texts/data onto my new phone and they even spent time with me on the phone during the process to make sure everything was working (making calls, receiving calls, making/receiving texts, mobile data).

Honestly, it was a level of customer service I wasn't expecting, and the process was lengthy (about 45 minutes on the phone) but it was thorough and I appreciated it at the end. I'll be running on TracFone while I continue to do research.

I appreciate everyone's feedback in this thread. It will continue to be helpful to me as I try to sort everything out over the next while.
posted by hippybear at 6:20 AM on May 24, 2020

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