Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How I got the Wal-Mart Special, $30 unlimited text/data plan

How to pay only $30 a month for unlimited text and web and make free VoIP calls

Most people in the USA think they pay too much for cellular phone service. If you are reading this, you are probably one of them.

Specifically we are not talking about just cell telephone service but smartphone service, which includes internet, aka "data" service. Carriers tack on all sorts of extras for every little thing. For example, to make your Verizon smartphone a Wi-Fi hotspot it can cost an extra $20, which can easily push your smartphone plan over $100 a month. And of course you are locked into a two-year contract, and you paid $200-300 for that smartphone which will probably only work with that carrier, in the case of Verizon, Sprint and other CDMA carriers.

Suffice to say the big US carriers have us right where they want us: confused as to why we are paying so much!

So here was my goal:  Setup a new Nexus 4 phone with $30 unlimited text/web and 100-minute voice plan with hotspot feature for no additional charge and no contract to sign. The idea is I will not use the voice very often because I can make and receive calls via Skype (cheap) or Google voice (free).

Note that this $30/mo includes all taxes and fees!

The only catch is every month you buy the $30 card from Walmart.com and “refill” the phone every month. Oh and you must use the number they give you, not one you want to bring. Oh, and all the steps I had to go through below to  get it to work, which is why you are reading this, right?

I am certainly not the first to do this. This Wal-Mart plan was announced in the fall of 2011, as far as I can tell. I scoured the T-Mobile user forums to find most of what I learned.

So here is how I did it:

I ordered via web a Nexus 4 from Google Play store and it took 10 days to arrive. Then I ordered via web a SIM card activation kit from T-Mobile.com and it took 8 days to arrive. Then I ordered a SIM card-cutter off eBay, took two days to arrive, $5 with free shipping. Then I ordered Wal-Mart $30 100-minute unlimited text/web card and it was delivered in one hour via email with PIN code.

When I tried to cut the SIM card down to MicroSIM the cutter from eBay was not strong enough to cut the plastic T-Mobile card! But it left impression of outline of MicroSIM shape on the full-size card and then I could trace and cut by hand with razor knife. Be careful!

I inserted the cut-down card, power-cycled the phone, and then called support number on T-Mobile SIM card activation kit to activate the SIM with the Wal-Mart. I had to do this because the website and automated telephone method did not recognize the Wal-Mart PIN code. Don’t even try, just call them.

I called the T-Mobile on 1-877-234-4299 and explained the trouble I was having. The rep said he would make it work, no problem. Because I had read horror stories about T-Mobile activating the wrong $30 plan, I asked the rep to confirm I am getting the $30 unlimited data, 100-minute and not the unlimited talk with only 30MB data. He read back to me the exact name of the service better than I had, $30, 100-minute unlimited text/web. I agreed. He said we are done and you will have to wait up to two hours for the service to work. The phone and the data service worked great after a reboot right after we got off the phone.

After about a half hour of surfing using the Nexus 4 as a hotspot for my Nexus 10 tablet, the data service suddenly died. I then noticed on the Nexus 4 a text message stating I had reach my data limit.

I called T-Mobile again at 1-877-234-4299. I tried to select the correct voice-jail option but none were appropriate so I just pushed zero and then the first option for PDA. This took me to tech support.

Tech support rep told me my T-Mobile security PIN was incorrect which was weird as I know what I asked to be setup on the first call. To fix this he had to call me on the T-Mobile phone and ask me for the last four numbers of any number I called in the last 24 hours. This was successful as luckily I had made a couple test calls.

Then I explained what happen and that the rep from before must have signed me up for the wrong plan.  Then, basically ignoring what I said, the rep told me, “I see you ran out of data because your plan has only 30MB. Were you watching video?” I told him I am on the Wal-Mart special plan, so it should be impossible to run out of data. Well, apparently “Wal-Mart special” was the key phrase because he then had clarity and said he was unable to make the change himself but would transfer me to Customer Care.

It took 10 minutes for him to be able to finally transfer me. The CC rep got on the line and apologized for the issue and said he would make the change to the plan but I needed to wait up to two hours for a text message confirming the plan.

I noticed the data service was restored when my Gmail inbox updated about 10 minutes later. Teh text came about an hour later.

I turned on the Netflix app on the phone and let it run for about 15 minutes, then checked the data usage on the phone and it said Netflix had used over 100MB so I reckon I am in the clear.

So there you have it, month to month, contract-free, and only $30 a month.  If you think it is worth doing all this to save big buck and be contract free, please give it a try and let us know how you do. And tell a friend!

Update: A friend rightly pointed out that coverage is king and should probably be your first consideration. In my case I had already leaned on friends in the area who are long-time T-Mobile customers - on a regular contract family plan - so I knew going in my coverage should be good. Living in Silicon Valley of course, it was going to work. And I was right. 15Mbs down and 4Mbps up is good enough for me.-Bob

Update 20130213: Last night I got a rude mesage that I had not subscribed to a plan which includes hotspot. T-Mobile says to use this feature within their terms of service I must subscribe to a plan. Apparently for $15 a month I can add that. I'll hold off for now. Surprisingly, I could still use sites which used SSL, i.e. https, like google search and Facebook. -Bob