Around 3 months ago we severed all ties with Verizon direct. We were tired of dishing out around $120/mo for limited phone service and figured there must be a cheaper option. Neither of us are the type to need/want the latest snazziest phone model, but we still wanted to be on the Verizon network just without the contracts and high fees. Is it too much for a frugal RV geek to ask? Thankfully there are many Mobile Virtual Network Operators (“MVNO”) operators who lease and re-sell phone and data from the major operators. We took advantage of just such a solution on the data side ~8 months ago, and we decided it was finally time to do the same for our cellphone.
Sound too good to be true? Well, honestly yes and no. We are perfectly happy with our solution and frankly our new phone is an upgrade from our old one, but it may not be the right solution for everyone. Here are some of the key things to consider if you’re looking at doing this for yourself:
1/ Buy The Right Phone For the Right Network
Operators like Straight Talk only carry certain phones, and only a small sub-set of these will run on the Verizon network. Straight Talk re-sells for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile. The important thing to understand is which phone you buy will determine which carrier you end up on. If you really want to be on Verizon you need to look for the following:
a) Phones Models Ending in C or with CMDA-V on the box: You can typically tell which network your phone will run off by looking at the phone model (for older phones) or the box (for newer phones). For older phones (non-Android, non-smartphone) model numbers ending in “C” are CDMA and will run on Verizon, whereas those ending in “G” are GSM and run on either T-Mobile or AT&T depending on the area. For the newer phones (e.g. Androids) you’ll typically see CDMA-V (“V” for Verizon), CDMA-S (“S” for Sprint), GSM-T (T-Mobile) or GSM-A (AT&T) on the bottom left corner of the box. If you want to be doubly sure it’s Verizon you can “shop” online using a zip code that only offers Verizon (e.g. 54747 or 59801 work, at least for now).
b) Phone Models With The “Red” Verizon Map: Android Phones that run on the Verizon network will all have the classic red Verizon map on the box. Android phones that run on AT&T will have the blue map. The Android Sprint phones typically won’t have any map on the box at all.
c) OR, Choose The Super-Easy Way: If you’re looking for an Android phone simply buy a Samsung Galaxy Proclaim, Samsung Galaxy Centura, LG Optimus Dynamic, LG Optimus Zip, or LG Optimus Showtime. These phones models are the main Android offerings that currently run on Verizon. They should ALL have the red Verizon map and CDMA-V on the box when you pick them up. Or you can buy an iPhone (see #8 below).
Also, do check this excellent Q&A from Howard Forums, especially since things change and they often update it.
2/ You’ll Need To Pay Full Price For The Phone
Part of the deal for getting cheaper prices on regular service is that you have to buy the phone outright. Since most of the phones are older models (there are exceptions -> see #8 below) this usually means you won’t be shelling out more than around $150 for a decent phone. Given the $$ we were throwing at Verizon, this little investment put us well ahead of the game in only a few months! We could have gone for a snazzier phone, but the Galaxy Proclaim got good reviews and has all the “bells and whistles” we needed. A very good deal for the price.
3/ You’ll Only Have Access to 3G Data
At the current time Straight Talk only has access to 3G data which means you won’t be plugging into any of the 4G networks, even if you buy a 4G capable phone (e.g. iPhone 5). So, you have to be ready to live with the slower data speeds. We mainly use our phone for browsing, navigation, apps and 3G is perfectly fine for us.
4/ Unlimited Data Is *not exactly* Unlimited
Although Straight Talk advertises “unlimited” data on their $45/mo plan, the word on the web is that there’s really around a 2Gb limit or around 100MB a day, after which you may be warned, start to see throttling on the phone or may possibly even be dropped. Also tethering (using your phone as a hot spot) is not allowed per the Straight Talk Terms Of Service. So, the question is can you actually live with around 2Gb of data? We monitored our data usage for several months before making the change and decided we were OK with that. So far our usage on the phone has supported this. We do everything we normally would on the phone and stay well within those limits.
5/ You’ll Be Limited to Verizon “Native” Network
When you buy a Verizon-operated phone on Straight Talk your phone coverage will be limited to their pre-paid “native” coverage map. This means no roaming and no extended network. To see this what this looks like go to the Verizon coverage map and click on the “prepaid” map -> you’ll get coverage in all the darker pink areas, but not the pale purple ones. In practice this will result in a somewhat smaller coverage map than what you would have with Verizon direct. The differences are not huge, and most of the non-covered areas are pretty remote, but if you’re regularly in one of those spots this service may not work for you.
6/ Customer Service Sucks
The one big complaint you’ll hear across the board is that customer service for Straight Talk sucks. I’m not going to deny it…it does and that comes with the territory. So far we’ve done everything on-line and have not had to deal with their phone support. If we ever do I’ll imbibe a strong beverage and suck it up. For me, it’s a price I’m willing to pay for cheap, reliable coverage and if it really pisses me off too much I’ll just leave. After all, that’s the beauty of not having a contract!
7/ You Might Have A Few Extra “Fees”
A minor thing to be aware of with Straight Talk is there is usually a small fee ontop of your $45/mo* plan depending on how you buy your monthly service. If you purchase your service online directly through Straight Talk (or sign up for auto-refill) you will be charged your state’s sales tax, and possibly some regulatory or 911 fees, depending on local laws. For our number this adds up to just over $4 extra per month. If, on the other hand, you buy refill cards directly at Walmart stores (or on the Walmart web site) you will only be charged whatever the sales tax is in the state where you buy it. No other fees. In a State like Oregon (no sales tax) this means you pay exactly $45/mo and no more. You can also get a little extra discount by buying 3- or 6-month refills.
*Straight Talk also offers an unlimited international plan for $60/mo. We use Skype (on the phone) for all my international calls, but for those looking for a separate plan, the $60/mo deal is a great (and still inexpensive) option.
8/ What About The iPhone?
A lot of folks went pretty gaga when Straight Talk started offering iPhones. You’ve got to pay full price for the phone (which means around $550-$750 depending on model), but even with that initial outlay the $45/mo deal can still save you significant $$ over a direct carrier for 2-year contract (see this comparison). If you buy the iPhones directly from Straight Talk it’ll run on CDMA, and word has it Verizon is the carrier. The catch? Exactly the same points I mentioned above. You’ll be limited to 3G data speeds (the phone comes programmed that way), the Verizon native network and the 2Gb “limit”.
We’ve been totally happy with our Straight Talk switch so far. Our new phone was an upgrade from our old one, has all the modern “smart” features (GPS navigation, Android apps, voice recognition, web service etc.) and has worked great all though Arizona and Utah, except in the most remote locations. The only ding? Our phone battery is pretty poor and doesn’t seem to last the day, but that’s about the only irritation. So far, we haven’t noticed any difference from our old Verizon service, just more $$ in our pockets.
Other Options For Low-Cost Phone Service
There are many other options out there for low-cost phone service. We carry a back-up phone from TracFone which only costs us ~$100 per year. We simply buy a “bucket” of ~1400 minutes once a year and that’s it. No monthly fees, no extra costs. Just like Straight Talk (they’re part of the same company), which phone you buy determines which carrier you end up on. It’s a great, ultra-cheap option if don’t need a lot of talk time and want to avoid regular monthly fees. Also, other MVNO’s such as Page Plus offer various plans all running on the Verizon network and will allow you to bring over your own phone too. A fabulous option if you already own a Verizon phone and just want to port it over to a cheaper plan.
So, what about you? Do you use Straight Talk or have found a cheap cellphone plan that you love? DO share, ask and enjoy in the comments!
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