Unlimited talk time, unlimited text messaging, and unlimited data on an iPhone for just $48 per month, including tax? Is this some kind of dream? No. This really is possible. Oh, and did I mention that you can do this even with your iPhone that's locked to AT&T?
So here's the deal. Straight Talk Wireless is a brand from TracFone Wireless that is sold exclusively through Wal-Mart stores. Up until a few months ago Straight Talk worked like pretty much any other prepaid wireless service provider: You buy a phone from them, and then buy airtime cards to refill your service each month. The plans are very competitive with Straight Talk offering a fully unlimited plan for just $45 a month. Add in your local sales tax and the total monthly cost is right around $48 in most areas. A good deal indeed, but of course Straight Talk doesn't sell the iPhone and you had to use a phone that you purchased from Straight Talk, so previously you were stuck choosing from their limited selection of Android or BlackBerry models.
In February Straight Talk began offering a significant new product: SIM card only service. This new service allows you to purchase just the SIM card directly from Straight Talk and use it in a GSM phone that you already own. The killer feature here is that since Straight Talk uses the AT&T GSM network they actually offer a SIM card that is fully compatible with AT&T locked iPhones. That's right, no jailbreaking or hacking required. The SIM card is available in either a standard size, or the micro size found in the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, making this service compatible with all models of the iPhone.
This will even work with the iPhone 5 if you are willing to modify the Straight Talk SIM card. See my other article for the iPhone 5 specific steps.
Make sure to check out my comparison of Straight Talk to the "Big Four" cell phone carriers to see just how much money Straight Talk can save you!
How to switch
If you're interested in this service it's very easy to get started. First visit Straight Talk's SIM Card Website to purchase your new SIM card for $15. The website will ask you what type of phone you have (choose AT&T if you have an AT&T iPhone, or unlocked if you happen to have purchased an unlocked iPhone at full price directly from Apple). You will also need to choose either a regular size SIM card or a micro SIM card. Choose the micro SIM card for the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S and the regular SIM card for any earlier models of iPhone.You can also go ahead and buy your first month's service card at the website for $45.
|What you need to get started|
Once your SIM card arrives simply pop out your AT&T SIM card (a paperclip works good for ejecting the SIM card tray on the side of the iPhone) and replace it with the new Straight Talk SIM card.
|The trusty paperclip at work|
Next you'll go to Straight Talk's website to activate your SIM card. During the process you will be asked to enter the code from your first monthly service card. You also have the opportunity to port an existing phone number over or have Straight Talk randomly assign you a new phone number in your area code.
Once the activation process is completed you'll be able to make and receive calls using your new service. You'll notice that the usual "AT&T" text in the upper left corner of your iPhone screen will now be replaced with "HOME". This indicates that you are using the Straight Talk service.
Updating your cellular data APN
[Update: There is a way to set the cellular data APN without using a profile. See my update at the bottom of this article.]
At this point your phone will be working for voice calls and text messages, but there is one last step that's needed in order to get mobile data services working. The cellular data APN setting on the phone needs to be changed to "att.mvno". This should be an easy change under the iPhone's network settings menu, but on AT&T iPhones this option seems to be disabled, preventing you from changing it. There is an easy fix though. The iPhone allows you to install a "profile" that will update the cellular data APN. This is a simple process and you can even get the necessary profile file online.
To get the profile that will update your APN settings just visit www.unlockit.co.nz from your iPhone. You can do this by connecting to a wi-fi network (since you don't have wireless data services working yet). Choose the Custom APN option and then choose Straight Talk from the list of carriers. Then click "Create Profile". Your iPhone will prompt you to install the APN Carrier Settings profile. You can choose more details to see exactly what settings will be changed (in this case it will be changing your APN name to "att.mvno" and adding a shortcut to the website, which can easily be removed, on your home screen). Once the profile is installed you can start using the wireless data services.
This is a great plan and is by far the least expensive service that will work with an iPhone. To top it off you get the same AT&T service that you previously had. Straight Talk Wireless operates as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) to multiple network operators. In this case they are acting as an MVNO to AT&T. What this means is that they are buying AT&T network usage in bulk and then reselling it. Straight Talk doesn't actually operate their own cellular towers and network, they just piggyback onto AT&T, so you literally are getting the same service at a much better price.
I've listed some pros and cons below that may help you decide if switching your iPhone to Straight Talk is right for you.
- Unlimited talk, text, and data for just $45 a month plus local sales tax.
- You can save even more and buy an entire year's worth of service for $499 plus local sales tax.
- Will work on a locked AT&T iPhone! - No need to jailbreak or hack your phone.
- Operates on the AT&T network so your service area should be exactly the same.
- You can port your existing number to the service.
- You can setup "auto-refill" to automatically add another month of service to your account each month and charge your credit card - No need to go to the store and buy a physical airtime card each month.
- No contract
- Visual Voicemail is not offered with Straight Talk. The voicemail option on your phone will function like a standard phone and simply call the voicemail service where you can listen to your messages one by one.
- Currently MMS settings cannot be updated on an AT&T locked iPhone. Regular text messages will still work fine, and you can use iMessage to send picture and video messages to other people with iDevices, but MMS messaging to other cell phones will not work. This doesn't matter at all to me but some people might use MMS a lot if their friends don't also have iPhones. [Update: There is a way to get MMS working, see my update at the bottom of this article.]
- You have to have an iPhone already. This means either buying an iPhone at full price from Apple ($649), using an older out-of-contract iPhone, or breaking your current contract with AT&T (and paying the early termination fee). In the long run you will still save money even if you buy the phone at full price, but this may be a turn-off to some people who would rather just pay a higher monthly rate and get the phone at a lower cost to being with.
- If you use a significant amount of wireless data each month you might not be able to use Straight Talk. Although the plan is sold as "unlimited data" it is mainly intended for web and e-mail usage. If you go over 2GB per month playing videos, music, etc. then Straight Talk may warn you and eventually cancel your service. This is another area that doesn't really matter to me as I think the majority of iPhone users come in well under the 2GB per month mark.
- Will not work with locked Verizon or Sprint iPhones.
UPDATE: Set the cellular data and MMS settings directly on the phone
There is now a way to get your MMS messages working and at the same time you can "hard set" the ceullar data APN on your iPhone so you don't need to use the profile method I mentioned above. Once you do this you will have full MMS and data ability using Straight Talk.
I have tested this method on an iPhone 4S. It may not work on earlier models. If it doesn't work on your phone you can always use the cellular data APN profile method I described above, you just won't have MMS working.
To do this you will need a working SIM card from another carrier (not AT&T or Straight Talk). A good source is T-Mobile. I actually found that the SIM card from a Verizon iPad works as well. So if you have or know somebody that has either a Verizon iPad or a T-Mobile phone then you're in business. Note that the extra SIM card is just used to make the settings change. Once you are done you no longer need the extra SIM card.
Here are the steps to follow:
- Start your iPhone with your Straight Talk SIM. (If you previously installed the cellular data APN Profile then you will need to remove it before continuing.)
- Open an app (such as notepad).
- Go into your Settings -> General -> Network menu. Make sure you have Cellular Data turned on.
- While still in the Network menu eject your Straight Talk SIM card and replace it with your extra SIM card.
- You will see a new Cellular Data Settings menu appear. Select it.
- Once the new menu opens swap your Straight Talk SIM card back into the iPhone.
- Double-click the home button and switch to the app you started earlier. Wait a few seconds, and then switch back to the Settings application. You should see the data fields update with information.
- Enter the correct settings for Straight Talk into the appropriate fields:
MMS Proxy: 126.96.36.199:80
MMS Message Size: 1048576
MMS UA Prof URL: <blank>
- Once you have entered the settings just exit the menu back to the Network menu. You will notice that the Cellular Data Settings menu has now disappeared.
- At this point your iPhone should be working with Straight Talk data and MMS services. To be sure you should toggle Airplane Mode on and then off to resync the signal. Test out your data and MMS (make sure that you have WiFi turned off so you know that you are actually using the Straight Talk data services).
- Reboot your iPhone and make sure everything still works once it turns back on. If so you're good to go!