Nine days after I came back to the US, AT&T charged me $121.86. ‘FOR WHAT?!’ I wondered. I hadn’t put their SIM card back in my phone. In fact, the SIM card hadn’t been in my phone for 13 months!
It seemed ridiculous to me that I should have to pay so much for a service I wasn’t using. When I called to get the details, they said they had put my contract on hold for a year and I should’ve known when it was going to restart, without any warning. Meanwhile, I had been paying $11 and some change monthly so they could hold onto my number- that’s about $135 for the year, and with no communication about when anything would change and how it would change.
Over a few phone calls I was able to talk them down to charging me only $50, but that still seemed like a lot to pay for something I didn’t want or use. I could understand if they had sent me a notice giving me a head’s up of when the account would be reactivated, but that never happened. It was all done passively in the background and I was supposed to be the one on top of it, contacting them to find out.
I have to say I felt cheated. They did something for me I never asked them to do and they expected me to pay for it. Why should I?
One of the benefits of living abroad is you experience how other cultures handle things. Nothing like this happened to me in South Korea. Even with the language barrier, my cell carrier was straightforward and a breeze. I didn’t have one surprise.
Even when I traveled abroad, as soon as my plane landed my carrier sent me text messages saying I’d have to use a different network to make calls, send texts, and use data. The roaming price per unit was spelled out in the text, along with the price to get unlimited roaming and instructions on how to sign up. The last text said roaming would be automatically shut off at $100/month. That means when I was in China for 2 weeks and I roamed on occasion, I got a daily update saying how much I had spent on roaming and I knew I’d never exceed $100. It was considerate and fair.
It was also 3 weeks before AT&T slapped me with a huge bill, unannounced, with no services rendered, which made for a shocking juxtaposition. It didn’t make sense how the company in Korea could offer great customer service and a superb technical experience (they do have the world’s fastest internet), all for around $70/month and that AT&T couldn’t. It hit me that in America, large companies don’t do what’s right, they do what they can get away with.
Bejeweled toilet at AT&T (at least in my imagination).
This attitude doesn’t sit well with me. So much so that I will complain and try to get as far away from it as I can. So I figured out another option, and it’s way, way better.
Here’s what I did:
- Buy whatever phone you want outright (or use your existing unlocked phone)
- Set up a Google Voice account and use it as your main number (you can port your current number, if you want)
- Turn off cellular data access in your phone’s settings so you automatically use wifi*
- Get pay-as-you-go minutes, texting, and data in case of emergencies when you don’t have wifi**
*For step 3, think about where you spend most of your time. For me I’m typically home or at work. Since there’s wifi at both places, this means the majority of my web browsing I can do through wifi. It also means that when I’m out shopping, killing time on public transportation, or whatever and there’s no wifi, if I want to browse online I’ll dip into my prepaid data. Knowing that, I typically will choose not to use my phone unnecessarily because I don’t want to pay extra for it. This has the added benefit of keeping phone addiction at bay. That said, people’s browsing and spending habits vary, so be self aware and consider what you’ll likely do. Even if you use a lot more talk, text, and data than me, the savings are so great I expect you’ll still come out ahead with prepaid.
**If you’re concerned about connectivity issues with pay-as-you-go, fear not. The company I went with, Tracfone, uses the same towers as AT&T, so coverage is exactly the same.
Now, let’s say you do what I do and it turns out you only need 300 MB for web browsing a month from cellular data (because you’re doing the rest of your browsing through wifi).
Here’s the math if you get the latest iPhone 6s Plus, 64G:
Option A: Buy phone, then do pay-as-you-go with Tracfone
iPhone 6s Plus: $849 ($35.38/month)
Service: $300 ($12.50/month for 24 months)
2-Year Total: $1,149 ($47.88/month)
Tracfone Nano SIM card + 1st 90 days access: $40
(includes 360 minutes, 360 texting, 360 MB data)
2 years of minutes & texting:
$120 1 year service, 800 minutes (also doubles all future minutes) & 800 texts (remember, these are for emergency, non-wifi times)
$40 9 months service, 300 minutes & 300 texts
2 years of cellular data:
300 MB/month x 24 months = 7.2 GB/2 years
–> $50/4 GB card x 2 cards = $100
Now let’s say you want to go the traditional route with a cell carrier:
Option B: Get new phone with 2-year contract with AT&T
iPhone 6s Plus, 64GB: $400
Monthly Bill: $60 (300 MB) or $70 (2G) or $140 (15G)***
300 MB/month: $1,840 ($76.67.month)
$60/month x 24 months = $1,440 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $1,840
2 year savings with Tracfone: $1,840 – $1,149 = $691 ($28.79/month)
2 GB/month: $2,080 ($86.67/month)
$70/month x 24 months = $1,680 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $2,080
2 year savings with Tracfone: $2,080 – $1,149 = $931 ($38.79/month)
15 GB/month: $3,760 ($156.67/month)
$140/month x 24 months = $3,360 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $3,760
2 year savings with Tracfone: $3,760 – $1,149 = $2,611 ($108.79/month)
***I’m including the 2GB and 15GB pricing options because I suspect most people fall into these categories, or somewhere in between. I know I used to.
Finally, let’s talk about my own savings. I decided to keep my old iPhone 4S because it still works pretty well. Also, when I started the new iPhone wasn’t out yet and I didn’t want to buy a new phone that was about to be an old model. So, I had no upfront phone cost.
My old plan with AT&T cost me $121.86/month. If I hadn’t changed anything with them and continued to pay that bill with my old phone, I would have paid $2,924.64 in service fees over 2 years to use an old phone. Given that the service fees with Tracfone are $300 for the same amount of time, I would have paid $2,624.64 in additional service fees I wouldn’t use with AT&T- that’s equivalent to 3 NEW IPHONES!
So there you have it. Get rid of traditional service carriers. They’re like any bad relationship: they’re expensive and come with a ton of bullshit. You don’t need that. You have better options.