How to save money with an iPhone

Despite the previous post trying to dispel the sheer hype of the iPhone, I still not only have people wanting to use these things, but they can’t seem to work out how to make the carrier changes necessary to save money with them using the superguide. As such, let’s help out with this situation by walking through the entire process.

Preface

Before we start, as for iPhones in general… if you’re thinking about (re)investing in one for whatever reason, read this first. If you still insist on or can justify using one of the most expensive and least frugal smartphones on the market instead of saving some money or selling the thing, let’s get you started down this primrose path leading to your cheaper walled garden.

AT&T iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S models

Courtesy of Yutaka Tsutano, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Courtesy of Yutaka Tsutano, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

If your AT&T iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S has not been carrier unlocked (easy to find out – if you put in any SIM card other than an AT&T one and there’s no Settings > General > Network > Cellular Data Network setting or you receive an error message, it’s carrier locked), you’ll need to do that. Fortunately, it’s relatively cheap and easy to unlock if need be. AT&T will carrier unlock for free on request with active customers if the phone is over two years old or the ETF has been paid, but the unlocking service is also available through Ebay for around $4-5. If you do pay someone through Ebay, use common sense when selecting someone offering the service, and keep in mind that this is still very legal to do just so long as the phone in question was clearly purchased before the end of January 2013 due to changes in DMCA law. These phones may have data speed issues on T-Mobile MVNOs in most markets due to lack of AWS 1700/2100MHz band support, but more on that under Carrier Options.

If you’re looking to buy an iPhone and don’t have one yet, re-read this post first. If you’re still convinced you want to buy one, these are the models that you’ll likely want to get either used or refurbished, excluding the 3G model due to its full end of life status and lack of iOS updates in nearly three years. The 3GS is technically end of life as well, but is still receiving iOS feature and security updates from Apple for the time being. You can usually find refurbished 3GS models with new batteries and a short refurb warranty for under $200 without working too hard looking on Ebay and Amazon, and used through Ebay or Craigslist for this model will be cheaper still. Just be sure to look for it being carrier unlocked (saves you a step) and having a clean IMEI (no outstanding ETF or listed stolen with AT&T). The prices just go up from that point, the newer the model.

You can technically buy any currently available iPhone 4/4S/5 from Apple directly brand new, outright and factory carrier unlocked, but prices start at $450, and $450 can buy four new carrier unlocked pentaband Nokia Asha 311 phones (Amazon referral link). Just something to keep in mind.

Sprint & Verizon iPhone 4/4S models

If you’re dealing with a Verizon or Sprint iPhone 4/4S model, you’re SOL as Verizon and Sprint are CDMA carriers, aren’t compatible with any AT&T or T-Mobile’s GSM networks and their related MVNOs, and the only Verizon MVNO being Page Plus doesn’t officially support the iPhone, and the same can be said for the Sprint iPhones and the related Sprint MVNOs Ting and EcoMobile. If you do have a Verizon model, do some research. You can make it happen with Verizon 4/4S models with Page Plus only if you feel comfortable with the risks involved, but understand that you’ll be in breach of contract with Page Plus doing so and could get service yanked without warning.

If you insist on using an iPhone on the CDMA end, and specifically on a Sprint MVNO, you can buy iPhones through Virgin Mobile.

Although the 4S models have GSM network chipsets and SIM slots, both Sprint and Verizon have carrier locked these phones to only use the European/Asian 900/1800MHz GSM bands, and carrier unlocking from them will only let you use the phone abroad. There might be ways around this to use North American GSM SIM cards, but it involves doing very technical things. You’re on your own.

If you’re stuck with one of these CDMA iPhone models and you insist on both continuing to use an iPhone and want a cheaper GSM MVNO plan, then you’re just going to have to sell and re-invest in one of the AT&T 3GS/4/4S models listed above. Before selling your phone, wipe everything by doing a factory reset. Do NOT sell your handset back to Apple for store credit, it’s store credit and not cash, and you’ll get even less than the cash many “we buy your phone” outfits you see advertising on late night TV will pay out for the same hardware. Better still? If its in good shape and the ESN is clean (ETF fees paid if any), sell it yourself on Craigslist or Ebay.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile & Verizon iPhone 5 models

First, we’ll start with the Verizon model of the iPhone 5: this phone cannot be sneaked onto the Page Plus network like the 4/4S models due to the presence of the LTE network chipset. However, due to LTE bandwidth agreement deals between Verizon and the FTC, GSM support is fully unlocked for global GSM 850/900/1800/1900 frequencies from the manufacturer. This means that you can choose any GSM MVNO you like for service with the phone without doing anything but paying off your ETF if you have one and trying to cut down your SIM card to the 4FF nano-SIM size without damaging it. This model phone will also have the same data speed issues on T-Mobile MVNOs as the AT&T 3G/3GS/4/4S models due to lack of AWS 1700/2100MHz band support.

Next, we’ll address the AT&T models: the earlier revisions of this model (A1428) appear to still have the same data speed issues on T-Mobile MVNOs as the AT&T 3G/3GS/4/4S models mentioned above due to lack of AWS 1700/2100MHz band support, and it cannot be corrected through firmware updates. More current models from AT&T might have full T-Mobile AWS support, if serial numbers end with the right four digits. You’ll still need to get it carrier unlocked from AT&T first before proceeding if it isn’t already before you can hack down an MVNO SIM card and take it elsewhere. Hooray for ETF fees and contracts!

Third up, we’ll address the T-Mobile model: if you bought it outright, you’re golden. This one’s going to support whatever cut down SIM card you can throw at it right now, and not have any quirky data speed restriction issues with other T-Mobile MVNOs. If you bought it (or any of the other models through T-Mobile directly) on their $99 down payment plan, this magic simply is not going to happen until after you pay the phone off and get it carrier unlocked with T-Mobile. Until then, you may think you don’t have a contract on your phone service, but you do anyway. ETF by any other name…

Finally, we’ll address the Sprint iPhone 5: sorry chum, you’re stuck where you are with the same problems as the Sprint 4/4S models. That said, you might be able to pay off your ETF and switch plans over to Sprint’s new As You Go service, which has a marginally less terrible $70/month smartphone plan which may or may not be cheaper than what you’re already paying. Otherwise, you’re going to need to do the same thing as the advice given for the CDMA 4/4S models above if you want to keep using an iPhone but want to switch to a cheaper MVNO plan.

GSM MVNO Carrier Options

For your GSM carrier unlocked iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S/5 model handsets, in addition to Airvoice Wireless being an option on the AT&T GSM network end, there’s also Platinumtel and GoSmart Mobile on the T-Mobile GSM network to consider (those are the three best GSM carriers for most people’s needs – both price and support). However, you’ll be limited to EDGE/2G data speeds on any T-Mobile MVNO in most markets for the immediate future with your iPhone due to GSM data network band incompatibilities between AT&T and T-Mobile’s GSM networks, specifically due to the lack of AWS 1700/2100MHz band support with these phones (excluding the T-Mobile iPhone 5). That said, EDGE/2G speeds are still plenty fast for text, e-mail and leisurely web surfing and this network incompatibility is changing. Also, don’t forget about WiFi hotspots and FreedomPop or NetZero if you’re inclined to those sorts of “free” services. In addition to all the linked providers, there’s a plethora of other GSM MVNOs on both the AT&T and T-Mobile network like Consumer Cellular, H2O Wireless, PureTalk USA, Red Pocket, and Walmart Family Mobile. Research if none of the linked providers suit your needs, and if data speeds are that important to you through your primary carrier, stick with an AT&T MVNO (Airvoice, Consumer Cellular, H2O, PureTalk, Red Pocket, etc.) and get ready to pay way more for data than you would with any T-Mobile MVNO.

As Airvoice is an AT&T MVNO (and this applies to any AT&T MVNO), the unlocking step can be done after activating with them if need be as the SIM card will still work in AT&T locked phones for calls and basic SMS messaging, just not for data. You’re not so lucky with T-Mobile MVNOs, however, as you will need the iPhone carrier unlocked first before any form of use.

Setup

If the phone is a 3G/3GS model, the default 2FF mini-SIM from Airvoice/Platinumtel/GoSmart/etc. will fit in the phone without modification. If it’s a 4/4S model, you’ll need to hack the SIM down to 3FF micro-SIM size. If it’s a 5 model, you’ll need to hack down to the 4FF nano-SIM size. There’s plenty of instructions online for cutting yourself, or there’s a thread on the MMM forums passing around a SIM punch between fellow mustachians. You can also frequently find pre-cut micro-SIM and nano-SIM cards for the MVNO of your choice on Ebay. More on SIM card sizes here.

As for number porting and activation with your new MVNO carrier, the thing to remember is to NOT just activate the SIM card, but to fill out their number porting form instead (Airvoice formPlatinumtel formGoSmart instructions). It’s pretty self-explanatory, and if you have troubles, call customer support for assistance. If you’re not porting your number over, ignore this step and just activate the new account.

Once that’s done, you’re certain the phone is carrier unlocked, your number is ported, the SIM is active, and the phone is working… just follow the instructions on setting up data and MMS on the phone (Airvoice instructionsPlatinumtel instructionsGoSmart instructions).

Congratulations, you’re now saving some money on service for your iconic consumerist moneypit, hopefully without breaking the bank!

Final Thoughts

If you couldn’t already tell before with the last post on the subject and after reading this one, I’m clearly not a fan of Apple’s hardware. It’s not that it isn’t good hardware, or that the iOS platform doesn’t have some benefits, but it’s the price premium and the near idolatrous attraction to the platform by others willing to sink thousands of dollars into these devices for no other reason than to have an iPhone that bothers me. It’s one of the most expensive, consumer unfriendly, and environmentally damaging phones on the market… and people buy new copies of these things every time there’s a hardware refresh like their insides are going to melt if they don’t have one. As magical as the overall technology is, there’s nothing inherently magic about these things specifically; they’re just expensive wireless global communicators that aren’t that great at communicating with other people so much as they’re great at distracting you and separating you from your money.

Knowing this, I beseech you to ask yourself again why you need an iPhone. If you have just cause for legitimate business use? Go for it! If you just want it because everyone else has one, then take a step back and remember that if you have some intangible spiritual yearning for purpose that you think this phone will help fill with its text bubbles and access to Netflix for $8 a month… you’re not looking to the right place for that fulfilment.

May you use whatever phone you decide to use in good health.

13 thoughts on “How to save money with an iPhone

  1. Save money with iPhone? Bwaaah!
    The fact that I didn’t switch to an Android device after my 5s was ios-upgraded into non-usability shows I’m not completely well – But No…had to get a whiz-bang 6s, which is clearly headed the same way.
    ASAP it’s getting sold & am thinking Google Pixel, any suggestions readily accepted.
    Love this site/blog.

    • Appreciate the kind words!

      Ironically enough, Microsoft finally won me over with Windows Phone. Great prices and a no-nonsense, utilitarian platform that works with just about anything. The Lumia 640 LTE is a steal as a carrier unlocked, refurbished handset these days for around $50.

  2. What if you already have an iphone and want to avoid buying another phone? I am currently with Verizon and have one of their iphone 5 models. (I think the 5s.) I would like to switch to one of these low cost plans when my contract ends in November, but I would like to keep my current phone. (I only got it in the first place because I couldn’t keep my blackberry any more when they went under.) Is that possible for someone like me who barely understands what you’re talking about when you start saying things like how I will need to cut my sim card to size (is this literal?)? I am finally comfortable with using this phone, and plus, I don’t want to fork over the money for yet another smart phone if I can just keep using the one I have, which is totally fine for my purposes. Would the staff at Airvoice or providers of other low cost plans be able to walk me through it?

    • You should have no problem whatsoever keeping the phone you currently have. With the Verizon iPhone 5s, you have the choice of either Selectel or Puppy Wireless on the Verizon MVNO end, and a plethora of GSM MVNO options depending on how technical you want to get. Airvoice could work (or many other cheaper AT&T MVNOs), but data and MMS configuration is unfortunately not the easiest to do under iOS with AT&T MVNOs. That said, if you want to go with an AT&T network carrier, consider Consumer Cellular – not the cheapest, but data should auto-configure with the SIM card (unlike the others). All T-Mobile MVNOs such as P’tel should work fine, but you’ll need to do manual data configuration (which is possible and relatively easy, unlike with AT&T MVNOs).

      Regarding SIM cards, all the GSM carriers from the guide now offer 4FF sized Nano SIM cards for purchase (this post is a couple years old at this point), as do the Verizon MVNOs I mentioned that permit Verizon LTE handset activation… so no card trimming if you order the right SIM card. That said, this is a literal thing as there are different physically sized SIM cards, with Nano being the smallest and what the iPhone 5 and newer models take.

      All the providers should be able to help walk you through configuration, but Consumer Cellular (AT&T), Selectel (Verizon), and P’tel (T-Mobile) are probably going to be the three easiest providers to switch to in your case specifically considering the phone and your technical levels, and all have crack support staff. Hope this helps!

      • It does help, thank you. Since I apparently can’t use Page Plus, it sounds like Selectel is what I’m looking for. I never heard of them before and just did a quick search. There is no store near me, but I assume they can set me up online/over the phone. If I go with Selectel, do you know if A) I will still be able to use programs like FaceTime, B) I will still have my phone’s address book, photos, etc., and C) I will still be connected on my ipad so that texts, calls, etc. go to my ipad when I’m on my home wifi? Also, is there a good primer you could point me to that is not riddled with tech speak? Or maybe a good glossary would help; I still don’t know what a lot of these acronyms mean.

        Thanks again for answering my questions. I know very little about cell phones except that I’m tired of paying $80 per month for my service. Also FWIW, I agree with you that a smart phone is definitely not a necessity of life. I bet a lot of people are like me and either don’t pay for them or get them heavily subsidized. I got mine as part of the deal for signing my Verizon contract. No way would I have paid $300-$400 for a bleeping phone. And the ipad I got for free when I got lucky and won a raffle, or I would never have bought that either. At first I had no idea what I would do with it. It wound up being a good thing to have though, because my laptop (not an apple) is old and decrepit, and I have been using the ipad instead of replacing my laptop.

        • G, technically you can use Page Plus now, it’s just not advisable from my perspective. In the two years since I originally published this brief guide, Page Plus has reversed their iPhone activation policy, but I officially stopped recommending them as a Verizon MVNO after the completed America Movil buyout and subsequent shutdown of their domestic support center in January 2015. (There are no AM/TracFone properties recommended in the guide, and my experiences with TracFone/NET10 are partly why the guide exists to begin with. That said, I had removed them in the currently unpublished guide update for the site, but forgot to remove them from the current version until today, sorry about that everyone!) Quality of customer support is just as important in my book as using the right mobile network for your area and the right handset for your needs.

          Regarding your questions:
          A) Yes, Facetime is not dependent upon your cellular network.
          B) Yes, just make sure to back your data up first.
          C) I can’t answer this last one with authority, but that should theoretically keep working after the switch as well.

        • It’s cool. That said, these terms are actually covered in greater detail and terminology links provided throughout the guide here on the site. Regarding a lot of these mobile phone terms, most of them are actually linked off of the cell phone hardware page and not the carrier page. The reason behind that? My advice in the guide recommends most people keep their existing handsets and switch to an MVNO on the same network they’re leaving to insure full hardware compatibility and similar coverage expectations. For that switch, people don’t need to understand the difference between things like GSM and CDMA. However, if they’re looking to buy a new phone or potentially switch carrier networks, then the terminology matters… thus, the hardware category for the major terminology definitions.

          Regarding the full list of US MVNOs, it’s always useful to know what’s out there, but my recommendations in the guide on who to use of that list is built on age of the company (stability), the quality of customer service (quality), billing (accuracy), and price (value). My recommendations may not always be the cheapest options or the most common known brand names, but they’re almost always the least painful and most reliable to use. This is why my advice in the guide reads so differently on recommendations from most everyone else on the Internet. I recommend the cream of the crop MVNOs that are still a good value, and not simply the cheapest providers available.

  3. Great article, Meshugana. I was able to switch to Airvoice using my spare Verizon iPhone 5 (iOS 8.1.2). It works great except for MMS/picture messaging. Tried different options but, the APN screen ‘s still hidden. Thoughts on getting this to work?
    -Thanks

    • The problem you’re running into is related to the fact that you’re using an AT&T MVNO, and AT&T locks out APN settings in iOS. The only way to work around it that I know of from the iOS7 days (and this isn’t reliable) is to do a hot SIM swap to any T-Mobile SIM card (even an MVNO, doesn’t have to be activated) so the settings show up. Once they do, enter and save the APN settings, and switch back to the Airvoice SIM.

      Otherwise, you’ll need to either give unlockit.co.nz a try or jailbreak. This is yet another reason why I advise against people buying iPhones.

  4. Regarding your closing paragraphs, there are many reasons to own an iPhone rather than your cynical assumptions. For one, many are already tied into the Apple ecosystem or prefer the way Apple seems to handle things from an internal perspective. Android is a very fragmented ecosystem with each manufacturer adding their own spin on things which ultimately causes a poor experience.

    iPhone’s have the best cameras and the best apps, period. Everything just seems to work better and smoother on an iPhone.

    Are these things necessary for communication or do they necessarily warrant the monthly prices some are paying out for them? Absolutely not. But there are pros and cons to everything.

    • Tyler, your own response unfortunately proves the very point I was making.

      The paragraphs you take issue with in actuality says the exact same thing as your own closing paragraph, only I include a healthy dose of “cynicism” as you put it about the well documented realities of our selfish, debt-laden consumer culture and the genuine frivolity in the ownership of these devices for most people. Instead of recognizing the common ground espoused about the potential usefulness for a small segment of the population, you instead create a defense to justify broader ownership of such a decadent luxury using strawman arguments about how inconvenient Android is in comparison to iOS, the convenience of Apple’s larger software ecosystem, and how great its point and shoot camera is. These are intellectually dubious First World reasons for ownership and an example of hedonic adaptation at its absolute luxurious peak, which does nothing to address the criticisms you take issue with as your own defense of ownership is being justified with the very same flimsy excuses for ownership I was so cynically calling into question to begin with.

      I’m not saying that you or anyone else needs to get rid of your iPhone and opt instead for an Android handset. My argument is that almost nobody actually needs a cellphone in the first place, least of all a $300+ smartphone… iOS, Android or other.

      So I ask you (and any other reader who agrees with you): is your iPhone actually the necessary tool that you claim it is in your life and can’t be easily replicated or replaced with a device (or devices) a fraction of the cost with minimal sacrifice; or is it just another overpriced boredom alleviator that another entitled turkey doesn’t actually need?

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