Sunday, September 27, 2009

T-Mobile Prepaid Cellphone Service Review

I have a few US phone numbers (two are cellphone numbers) so I thought that I would review T-Mobile USA's prepaid phone service.

The first thing to do before getting a prepaid local phone (in this case a US SIM) is to check the coverage map for the carrier. Regardless of the per minute rate, if the carrier does not offer coverage or has very weak coverage in the city that you will be visiting (or the city that you will be using the prepaid phone in), you should not get a prepaid phone from that carrier whether the carrier is CDMA or GSM.

I'm a fan of GSM because I can continue to use my existing unlocked GSM phone by simply using the GSM carrier's SIM card. Most GSM companies will allow customers to use phones that aren't sold by them. There are some exceptions like Net10 (in the US) so it pays to do your homework before purchasing a carrier's prepaid SIM card.

T-Mobile Prepaid is actually my secondary US SIM card. I actually bought T-Mobile prepaid because with my primary US SIM card. The reason that I purchased it was because my primary US SIM card was an AT&T MVNO and at the time, AT&T's native coverage did not include Vermont. I had gone to Burlington (VT) and my primary US SIM card didn't have any coverage.

The first thing to note about T-Mobile prepaid is that in order to activate a T-Mobile SIM card on prepaid, you must have an activation code. The activation code is included with prepaid kits but is not included in any postpaid option. The activation code also can't be purchased from T-Mobile without purchasing a T-Mobile prepaid activation kit or a T-Mobile prepaid phone with activation kit. If you purchase a brand new T-Mobile SIM card, you won't be able to activate it with T-Mobile prepaid. You can only use this SIM card as a replacement for your T-Mobile prepaid/postpaid account or you can use it to sign up for a postpaid plan. Postpaid plans aren't an option for people who don't live in the US and/or don't have a good credit rating in the US.

T-Mobile has two main prepaid plans (for all phones), one prepaid plan for SideKicks, and one what I term "hybrid" prepaid plan. The two main prepaid plans are the "Pay by the Day" plan and the "Pay As You Go" plan. Both plans don't offer data except for something extremely limited call T-Zones which is accessible on some phones.

In this blog entry, I will only write about the "Pay By the Day" plan and the "Pay As You Go" plan since I've tried both of these plans with my T-Mobile prepaid SIM card.

The "Pay By the Day" plan allows for unlimited nationwide calling from 7pm to 7am. It also allows unlimited calls to any T-Mobile number. All other nationwide calls outside of the 7pm to 7am time period are charged $0.10 per minute. There is a daily charge of $1 per day for every day that the phone is used. On days that the phone is not used, there is no charge.

The "Pay As You Go" plan offered staggered per minute rates for nationwide usage which range from approximately $0.33 per minute downto $0.10 per minute. The staggered per minute rate depends on the airtime top-up purchase. The lower the airtime top-up, the higher the per minute rate. The lowest airtime purchase available is $10 and the highest airtime purchase is $100. For any purchase under $100, the expiry date is 90 days. The expiry date is not cumulative. By this I mean that if the current expiry date is 7 days when you refill (top up) your account and you purchase airtime that offers a 90 day expiry, you will get 90 days and not 97 days. For a purchase of $100, you not only get the preferential per minute rate of $0.10 per minute for nationwide usage, you also get the benefit of a 365 day expiry and something called "Gold Rewards."

"Gold Rewards" is a benefit that allows any airtime purchase (top up) to have an expiry date of 365 days. It also allows for an extra 15% more minutes for all airtime purchases under $100. It can be obtained only on the "Pay As You Go" plan and not on the "Pay By the Day" plan. However, once it is obtained and you switch from "Pay As You Go" to "Pay By the Day", if you were ever to switch back to "Pay As You Go", you will benefit from "Gold Rewards" again. Customers obtain "Gold Rewards" after they've exceeded $100 in total airtime since the life of the account. They can either do this by purchasing low airtime top-up amounts until they reach $100 (subsequent purchase will qualify for Gold Reward benefits) or they can instantaneously purchase a $100 airtime top-up (immediate access to Gold Rewards).

T-Mobile prepaid charges long distance to call outside of the US. To call Canada, it is an extra $0.50 per minute added to the per minute rate which will give an effective rate of approximately $0.88 per minute downto $0.60 per minute. T-Mobile prepaid also offers roaming in both Canada and Mexico (but no other countries). The per minute rate to use the phone in Canada is $0.69 per minute while in Mexico, it is $1.49 per minute.

T-Mobile prepaid charges for incoming SMS and outgoing SMS. They don't offer any SMS packages nor do they allow for SMS to be disabled on the account. They also don't offer call forwarding and if the voice mail is disabled, the caller will go to the voice mail system without an option of leaving a message. If the caller is paying for the call, it will be interpreted as if the call was completed and he/she will be charged for the call (ex: calling from a payphone/cellphone). When in Canada, I've sometimes gotten charged $0.69 for calls to my T-Mobile number that I don't pick up and go to my non-existent voice mail box while other times, I don't get charged.

Unlike with Canadian prepaid, there is no 911 chargs and no other monthly charges for T-Mobile prepaid.

Some useful T-Mobile prepaid free short codes:
  • #NUM# or #686# - Displays phone number of current SIM
  • #999# - Prepaid balance.
  • *#06# - Display IMEI of phone
  • *ADD or *233 - Refill Account Airtime

A few of the things that I don't like about T-Mobile prepaid:
  • They don't offer any form of "true" data (even pay per use)
  • They  don't offer call forwarding
  • They don't allow for the disabling of SMS
  • They don't offer any online means to track/monitor your cellphone usage/charges
  • They charge an extra $0.50 per minute to call Canada.

A few things that I like about T-Mobile prepaid:
  • Gold Rewards expiry date policy
  • They allow roaming in Canada and Mexico

Since I've already achieved "Gold Reward" status, I currently keep my T-Mobile prepaid account active by topping up my account with a $10 airtime purchase every < 365 days. Because of my $10 top-ups, my per minute rate however is now not $0.10 per minute but it is less than $0.33 per minute (since I had airtime remaining from my initial $100 airtime purchase).

T-Mobile prepaid (Pay As You Go) makes a good choice for someone who visits the US occasionally and does not want a high cost to maintain/keep the account. After the first $100, as mentioned above, it will only take $10 per year to keep the prepaid account. The airtime balance will carry forward as long as the airtime top-up is done before the expiry date. Granted, the per minute rate after a few years will approach $0.33 per minute when this is done but for Canadians, $0.33 per minute to use a phone in the US is often times a lot cheaper than the roaming rates that some Canadian (or non-US) carriers will charge when using the phone in the US. For example, with Rogers prepaid, the charge to use the phone in the US is an incredible $2 per minute!

If you have any questions/comments regarding my review on T-Mobile prepaid, please don't hesitate to leave a comment in the comments section.

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