How to have an iPhone 5 Unlimited Data no Contract for $30 / Month
NOTE: This post has been updated to account for the new T-Mobile iPhone 5 plans. See the full discussion here. The general upshot is that the below is still the most cost-effective way to get an iPhone 5 with a fast dataplan.
The iPhone 5 and the Available Data Plans
I have always been a huge Apple aficionado, and the new iPhone 5 was a gadget I had been looking forward for a long time. It is sleek, fast, neat. And just like the iPad mini, you don’t realize how much you need and want it till you’ve held one in your hand.
UPDATE: T-Mobile’s new plan is discussed in the Update here.
However the pricing structure never appealed to me. The providers which Apple has signed on charge (approximately) the same price – $80 per month for a two-year commitment plus a down payment of at least $199 for the cheapest model:
The Apple website:
Of course if you do the maths this adds up to a hefty $2,119 (24×80+199) over two years, not accounting for charges, interest, inflation, etc. See for yourself below:
As far as alternatives exist, Apple has been quite insistent to not allow competitors much leeway into the iPhone market. However since the iPhone 5 came out unlocked in the US last month, T-Mobile finally has released a nano-sim of their own. This is awesome. T-Mobile’s network is based on the GSM standard, which is what the iPhone 5 requires.
However the factory-made nano sim for T-Mobile requires a contract which is even more expensive than the one offered by AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. While the sim itself is offered for free, the cheapest data plan comes in at $89.99 – ten dollars more than the other providers also for two years. It is in fact impossible to order the T-mobile nano sim without selecting an expensive data plan.
So I set out to find the most bootstrapped data plan version for the market’s most high-end mobile telephone. Step one was to order an unlocked iPhone 5 from Apple’s website. After a number of days, this sleek little gadget arrived:
Now I needed a sim and a data plan that would work with this phone.
T-Mobile’s $30 Unlimited Plan
However T-Mobile does offer an unlimited data plan for a measly $30 per month. The details of this are (sorted by my priorities):
- 100 minutes per month of talk
- Unlimited texts
- Unlimited data, some of it at 4G speeds
- No contract
However you’ll be hard pressed to find it on T-Mobile’s website – though it is there if you search long enough (UPDATE: This plan no longer exists on the T-Mobile website. However it is still available through Wal-Mart). The plan is web-exclusive, which means you won’t get it in a T-Mobile store. This plan is also sold by Wal-Mart as a downloadable Pay and Go credit. However it turns out that for this operation, you don’t need to purchase this quite yet.
Because the unlocked iPhone 5 is (at least currently) the Apple version is the model A1428 – it says so in their fine print. This model is GSM-compatible, not CDMA compatible. The only carriers for GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile. In other words, as AT&T has no comparable data plan (its cheapest unlimited data plan comes in at $50 / month and requires the purchase of a phone), it is pretty much the only choice. As regards cellular data, the A1428 model is limited to the 4 (AWS) and 17 (700b MHz) bands. This allows T-Mobile to function at at least 3G capacity.
UPDATE: As of recently, in selected cities, T-Mobile allows for 4G HSPA+ service. The speed of this (it’s fast!) is discussed in the update blog post.
So much for the data plan. Where to get a T-Mobile nano sim from?
T-Mobile Nano Sim DIY
Luckily the blogosphere has been experimenting with sims for the iPhone 5 for quite a bit by now. Hence the way to procure a nano sim was relatively simple (however nerve racking). Sims have long been cut into micro sims as explained online. An exhaustive guide for cutting a sim into a nano sim can be found here. However it is not actually necessary to sand down the thickness of the sim – the iPhone 5 accepts normal and mirco sim thicknesses. The easiest way is to print out a PDF which holds the cut lines for the new sim, tape the old sim on top of it and cut away as detailed here. You can download and print the PDF from here. Another very good guide to cutting your sim can be found here.
Thus armed with a printout, scissors and ruler, I set out to cut a sim. I only needed an actual T-mobile sim. The cheapest version which you can get is found online at Wal-Mart again – T-Mobile walk-in stores do not sell sims without contracts or plans. The T-Mobile website does not offer sims without plans either. However you can get one from Amazon for almost free. This is what you receive:
The final ingredient required is an activation kit. This also includes a sim card, hence the above Amazon sim card may not be necessary. I ordered mine from Wal-Mart.
Equipped with scissors and a nail file, I reduced the sim down to nano size:
Aligning the sim to be cut…
There was actually some room on the phone’s sim tray. I had cut away too much on the sides. Luckily that does not seem to matter if it fits snugly top and bottom.
To activate the phone, one needs one more item: a T-Mobile activation kit. This can be ordered online at Wal-Mart. T-Mobile usually includes this with their device. It includes a sim card as mentioned above and looks like this:
Before the activation process begins, you should take stock of having everything. You need:
- The phone with the IMEI number available (it can be found at the bottom of the iPhone box)
- The sim (cut down to nano size) and its sim number
- The activation code from the activation kit
- There is also the option to port your number from your old phone to the new one during the activation phase – so have that number at hand
T-Mobile guides you quite easily through the steps. The link for this is here. It looks something like this:
Make sure you have everything at hand
Pay. Use your prepaid Wal-mart card or credit card.
I have to admit that I got stuck during this last part and had to call T-Mobile support. They found my new account – apparently I had mistyped the sim card number and had to re-establish that via the phone. Once that was taken care of, I provided the Wal-mart prepay number and the phone was registered that way.
Update: if you live in an area which has T-Mobile’s HSPA+ service, you get 4G LTE service:
Discussion – Advantages and Disadvantages
1. CELLULAR SPEED –
The biggest difference from this iPhone is of course that it has (at the moment at least) no LTE capacity. This is not a big issue for me as I don’t need it as a pocket-browser but as a pocket-computer and phone. Most people also have wifi in their homes and at work, as I do at home (in my TARDIS) and at work (in my TARDIS?). In between I only use it for emails and other small-time data packages like google maps. It is a shame that the phone does not pick up T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network which really is quite fast.
UPDATE: The LTE 4G is live for T-Mobile and is quite fast as discussed in the update blog post.
So if you are looking for a fast online browser phone and you’re on the road a lot, then this phone may not be for you. T-Mobile has also made noises about expanding their cellular data network, I will update this as things move along. It also makes sense to check your coverage.
NO VISUAL VOICEMAIL – This kinda sucks. I really liked the visual voicemail feature in the phones.
UPDATE – Visual voicemail now works in this plan.
Apart from these features it very much behaves like a normal iPhone 5, with the added huge advantages listed below:
1. MONEY – This is of course the whole reason behind this – you pay a lot less in the final analysis and month-to-month. I engage in a more thorough discussion on this below.
2. FREEDOM – You are not bound to any contract with any carrier; the phone is yours to do and doctor with (heh) as you like. You can sell it or stop paying the plan for a month if you go abroad. I have also personally boycotted cellphone data contracts ever since the supreme court handed down its atrocious decision on class arbitration in AT&T v Conception. That ruling alone is reason enough not to choose AT&T as a carrier.
Yeah, but is it actually cheaper?
I keep getting this question. Although there are some serious up-front costs, namely the unlocked phone, in the long run you come out streets ahead. After only nine months, you will have spent less than someone on the normal plan and following that, you save fifty dollars per month:
In other words, your total savings will be 749 dollars.
But what if I get a free upgrade?
You might get an upgrade, depending on your contract. You might even get a free upgrade, though from what I have experienced, this is rarely the case. But let’s assume that you do get a free upgrade in a year. Since new generation iPhones are released on a yearly basis (iPhone: 9 January 2007, iPhone 2: 9 June 2008, iPhone 3: 8 June 2009, iPhone 4: 7 June 2010, 4S: 4 October 2011, iPhone 5: 12 September 2012) you may get one upgrade.
I may or may not decide to keep up, after all I have no contractual obligations. But if I do, I would sell my phone. Currently an iPhone 4S (the latest model) nets between $235 and $260, so let us assume that I would get $250 for my then one year old iPhone. The new model is likely to cost $650 again, which means that I would have to pay a price of $400. This is still far below my savings.