7 things you should know about pre-paid smartphone service before you switch

It is no secret that I despise carrier contracts and locked Android devices. As Amazon puts it, “A locked cell phone benefits only the carrier by keeping a customer using their service. Unlocked phones give consumers more control of plans, pricing, and services and make carriers work for you.”
This year I cancelled my Verizon contract, paid the early termination fee, ported my number to Google Voice, and joined the pre-paid revolution. Since then I’ve been enjoying unlocked Android phones on several different networks and exploring different pre-paid options.
Over the last five months I have learned a lot of things about pre-paid wireless service. It was a pretty easy transition for me, but not everyone will have a smooth ride. Read on to see if pre-paid smartphone service is right for you.

1. You monthly bill really could be cut in half

Let’s start with the obvious. There are many benefits to pre-paid wireless, but the number one reason for switching is to save money. Do the math. Please. I switched from Verizon Wireless to Straight Talk and I instantly cut my bill in half, from $90 to $45 per month.
There are an endless number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), and their pre-paid plans range from $30-50 per month. Most include unlimited talk and text, with varying levels of data. Since most of these MVNOs operate on AT&T or T-Mobile’s network, you can expect the same coverage and data speeds.
Most pre-paid plans offer flat rate pricing, so there are no overages, hidden fees, or mystery taxes. You will still have to pay sales tax on your monthly service plan, but at least your costs will be the same each month.
Pre-paid wireless service is almost always cheaper than a post-paid plan, but there might be some exceptions for family plans with a lot of devices. With pre-paid you normally buy one service plan per line, instead of having a family plan that covers multiple lines. Not every line needs the same services, so you can still mix and match plans and come up with a cheaper bill than post paid.

2. Pre-paid is suitable for power users

A lot of critics like to dismiss pre-paid wireless and say it’s not designed for power users, but I’m here to tell you they are mostly wrong. I think “power user” is often associated with “data hog”, but most of us don’t consume 5-10 GB of mobile data per month. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Android users do not even consume 1 GB of data per month.
I consider myself a power user, and I have access to WiFi at home or work. I still consume a ton of data, but most of it is done over WiFi and not a mobile network. When I’m out and about, I can still access 4G HSPA+ data that is often faster that my home’s cable internet and the coverage is great.
Unfortunately, no pre-paid service plans offer access to 4G LTE networks. If you need a high-speed download and upload connection, then pre-paid might not be for you.
The good thing is that recent surveys show T-Mobile’s 4G HSPA+ 42 Mbps network is “LTE fast.” I have been using a Samsung Galaxy S III on T-Mobile’s network through the Solavei pre-paid plan and I found the speeds to meet my needs. I average download speeds of 10-15 Mbps and my uploads are 1-2 Mbps.

3. Customer service is hit or miss

The reason that pre-paid wireless plans are so cheap is because the companies offering them don’t have all the overhead of running retail stores. If you constantly go to your local carrier store for support, then you will not want to switch to pre-paid.
Your experience will differ with the company that you choose for pre-paid, but most of them offer support over the phone and the web. This is where things are really hit or miss. You might get an answer to your question right away or it could take days to resolve an issue.
If you absolutely rely on your cell phone for work or other matters, it is always good to have a backup. If your pre-paid account is abruptly shut off for unknown reasons, then it might take awhile to resolve. You could always run to the store and buy another SIM card to pop in your phone, but that might not be an option for all.
I don’t want to mislead you about customer service, so I’ll share a quick personal story. My brother Clark switched to Straight Talk SIM and he has experienced issues with data on an unlocked HTC One X. I had the same setup in a different part of Texas and my service was exceptional, but Clark had a bad experience. He has had quite the struggle trying to resolve his issue, and I think he is working on a longer post to detail his pre-paid adventure.

4. If you want total control of your mobile number, port it to Google Voice

I read a couple horror stories when I was doing my research on pre-paid, so I went ahead and ported my number to Google Voice so I could have full control over it. The porting process cost me a one time fee of $20, plus an additional $20 to keep the existing Google Voice number that I had been using for work.
Google Voice has some limitations, such as the lack of support for MMS (multimedia messaging service), but I found it to be an enjoyable service overall. I like the level of control it gives me (like personalized voicemails for different incoming numbers), and the Android app has greatly improved over the years.
If you switch to pre-paid, there is a higher chance that you might try different plans over the course of a year since you are no longer locked into a contract. It can be a hassle to keep porting your number from carrier to carrier, so I found it was just easier to port it to Google Voice and then forward your number to whatever new pre-paid number you get.

5. Switching devices, numbers, and SIMs is mostly painless

One of the main benefits of going pre-paid is having the freedom to switch devices and plans whenever you choose. I have found this process to be mostly painless with Android phones. All my contacts, documents, and photos are synced with Google, so it is a breeze to jump from device to device.
Over the last couple of months I have used the HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Galaxy S III, and LG Optimus 4X HD as my daily phone. Some of that time was spent on AT&T’s network with Straight Talk and the other was on T-Mobile with Solavei.
Switching back and forth is a pretty simple process. You just swap your SIM card, sign in to your Google account, and setup your APN (access point names) settings to access mobile data.

6. You can always have the latest version of Android

Wireless carriers control what software is loaded on their locked devices. This means your carrier branded phone likely has a ton of bloatware and Android updates take months longer to reach your device.
If you want Android updates directly from Google, then you can purchase an unlocked Nexus device from Google. These devices receive software updates in a timely fashion because wireless carriers are not involved in the process. Even if you don’t buy a Nexus device, the chances are you will receive faster software updates on an unlocked phone compared to a locked phone.

7. Stick with the GSM carriers that support unlocked devices

Not all pre-paid wireless service providers are created equal. Some operate on GSM networks and support unlocked devices, while others operate on CDMA networks that don’t support unlocked devices.
For the best experience, avoid pre-paid service providers on CDMA networks. These include Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, Cricket, MetroPCS, and several others.
An unlocked phone will cost you more in the beginning, but the long term savings will pay off big time. Best of all, unlocked phones have a much higher resale value because they can be used with a variety of service plans. You can buy and sell used Android phones on Glyde, Gazelle, Swappa, and many more online retailers.

Final Words

Pre-paid wireless service meets all of my needs, but I am not a typical user. The lack of in-store customer support and lack of 4G LTE access will be deal breakers for many. The cost of breaking a contract and the initial cost of buying an unlocked phone will also turn some people away from switching. If you can get past those issues, then pre-paid might be for you.
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