Of the American carriers, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint offer subsidized pricing at $199 / $299 / $399 for the iPhone 6 configurations, and $100 more for each iPhone 6 Plus configuration. You can buy these phones off contract for $450 more. Apple currently sells the T-Mobile edition of the phone for $649 / $749 / $849 for the iPhone 6 and again, $100 more for the iPhone 6 Plus.
Now you may be thinking that the T-Mobile prices are higher than their subsidized versions, but you would be wrong. Sure, the carriers are giving you a $450 credit on the purchase price of the phone, but they more than make up for it over the length of that 2 year contract.
If you want to save yourself hundreds of dollars, opt for paying for the full price of the phone upfront. If you go this route on the Verizon, AT&T or Sprint, you will forgo many of the ‘gotcha’ fees that the carriers attach to cover their outlay of that $450 subsidy.
If you want to save yourself even more money, buy the phone unlocked and off contract (with a T-Mobile SIM), and choose a carrier who isn’t going to handcuff you to a 2 year contract.
Apple has traditionally offered a ‘Unlocked’ model of the iPhone, but it usually doesn’t go up for sale until 30-60 days after the initial launch (probably to appease the carriers who see huge spikes in membership during the iPhone launches). This year however, Apple is offering the T-Mobile edition of the iPhone at launch.
Now, here’s the secret: If you buy the phone from T-Mobile (even though you are paying full price for it), the phone will be locked to their network. If you buy the phone directly from Apple, and don’t go through the activation process with the T-Mobile SIM card that comes with it, the phone is unlocked to a carrier, and will work with any GSM network.
Here are the options you have for contract free GSM networks here in the U.S.:
1) Straight Talk Wireless – Run by Walmart, using AT&T’s & T-Mobile’s network as a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). Straight Talk has one plan for $45/month for unlimited talk, text and data. On Straight Talk, ‘unlimited’ data means 3GB of data in a 30 day cycle. After you use that up, you are reduced to 2G (or EDGE) speeds. Straight Talk recently added LTE (if the phone you bring is LTE capable) speeds to their plan.
2) Cricket Wireless – Cricket is a venture by AT&T to offer a contract free, low cost offering. Cricket uses AT&T’s networks and offers great nationwide coverage. Cricket has 3 plans that start at $40/month and increase by $10 depending upon data offering (1GB data for $40/month/3GB of data for $50/month/10GB data for $60/month). Cricket also has a ‘auto pay’ discount. Give Cricket your credit or debit card for your monthly bill and have them auto bill you each month, and you’ll receive a $5/month discount. Cricket offers LTE speeds (where available) and is overall a great option. There’s one small downside though: Cricket limits your top LTE speed to 8mbps. 8mbps isn’t slow by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are used to LTE speeds double that (any many LTE offerings can burst to 2x-4x that speed), this might be deal breaker for you. But Cricket overall has the most rounded plans and offerings in the no contract world at the moment. $55/month (with prepay discount) for 10GB of high speed data on AT&T’s network is an amazing deal.
3) T-Mobile Monthly 4G – T-Mobile has prepaid offerings in addition to their standard ‘Simple Choice’ plans. Their most popular prepaid offering is their $30/month plan for unlimited data and 100 minutes of talk. To get this deal, you will have to go to Walmart and buy the T-Mobile SIM Starter Kit for iPhone. Walmart charges $40 for this kit, but you get a $30 credit on your first month of service, so you are getting the SIM for $10 essentially. This plan gives you 5GB of LTE data (after which you will be throttled down to 2GB speeds, and 100 minutes of talk. Additional talk minutes are available for 10 cents/minute. T-Mobile’s prepaid plans don’t require a credit check, so if your credit is in the crapper, this plan can be helpful in re-establishing your credit.
These 3 MVNO GSM carriers are your best bet for low cost, no contract cell service in the U.S. Depending upon your location, there may also be regional MVNO carriers available to you.
If you do a lot of talking, and can keep your data under 3GB/month, Straight Talk is a great option now that they are offering LTE speeds. If you want flexibility and want the best network possible off contract, Cricket Wireless can’t be beat. They offer a 3GB plan for the same $45/month as Straight Talk, but it’s on AT&T’s network, and you have the option to ramp it up if you need more data (10GB for $55/month) or down (1GB for $35/month). That level of flexibility can’t be matched by any of the other MVNOs at the moment.
If you are a cheapskate who doesn’t like talking to other people, and can keep your minutes at 100 or less each month, the T-Mobile $30/month plan will save you lots of money. T-Mobile is also the only carrier (when used with the iPhone 6) that will give you Wifi calling, a nice feature if the carrier’s signal in your home isn’t very strong. One thing to note however, is that even though your call may go out over wifi, it’s still counting against your minutes. Of course, there’s always Google Voice or calling with Facetime Calling to avoid using minutes.
AT&T and Verizon still dominate the landscape with their draconian wireless plans, but things are steadily improving. You now have many options for low cost, great feature, no contact smartphone plans nationwide. And if the trend continues, we should see many more pop up over the next couple of years.