Why Your Next iPhone Should Be Prepaid

Why Your Next iPhone Should Be Prepaid

Earlier this week, we did the math and declared prepaid carrier Cricket Mobile to be the best iPhone deal around, but today’s announcement that Sprint’s Virgin Mobile will also be offering the iPhone 4S starting on June 24th changes the math substantially, and Cricket’s no longer looking like such a good deal.

Virgin Mobile’s iPhone deal requires you to purchase a completely unsubsidized iPhone from them up front at $649, $150 more expensive than Cricket. But that initial money spent up front can really pay off over time, depending on which plan you sign up for.

How much? You can save over $1000 over the course of two-years on Virgin Mobile compared to AT&T, Verizon or Sprint.

Here’s how it breaks down:

AT&TVerizonSprintCricketVirgin
Minutes$39.99 (450)$39.99 (450)$69.99 (Unlimited)$55.00 (Unlimited)$40 (1200)
Texting$20$20$0$0$0
Data$30 (3GB)$30 (2GB)$10 (Unlimited)$0 (Unlimited)$0 (Unlimited)
Activation$36$35$0$0$0
iPhone 4S (16GB)$199.99$199.99$199.99$499.99$649.99
2-Year Total$2395.79$2394.79$2119.75$1819.99$1609.99

A couple notes of explanation. In the above chart, we decided to not nickel-and-dime the big carriers. You can get cheaper plans with Verizon and at AT&T, but these are outlier cases when it comes to usability. We decided that 450 minutes, unlimited texting and at least 2GB of data was the bare minimum service most people expect when it comes to their carrier.

With that in mind, while Cricket’s a great deal, Virgin’s $40 a month plan is a real winner. You don’t get Cricket’s unlimited minutes, but you get more than the big carriers, and you’ll pay almosy $200 less over the course of 24 months than you would on Cricket.

If you’re willing to make do with fewer minutes, Virgin has an even tastier deal: a $30 a month plan that includes 300 minutes, unlimited data and unlimited texting. If you opt for that deal, you can have an iPhone 4S for $1369.99 over 2 years, which is over a thousand dollars less than an AT&T or Verizon plan.

Curiously, Virgin’s “truly unlimited” $50 a month plan is the worse deal compared to Cricket. It actually costs $30 more over two years than the equivalent Cricket plan.

The bottom line? Virgin Mobile runs on Sprint’s network, so it offers service roughly equivalent to Sprint, for budget prices. If you can afford $649.99 up front, this is the best deal on the iPhone 4S pretty much anywhere. These prepaid carriers are going to start drawing blood from the big three, mark my words.

  • bplano

    Marking those words sir!

    But I believe I agree – it’s about time the big carriers got rid of these ridiculously high prices.
    Especially for texting, which costs nothing for them :\
  • Manish Bhatia

    This is not just going to take a bite out of the carriers but Apple’s sales as well since there are very few people who would want a $700 annual phone upgrade….

  • atkpitt12

    If you have an iPhone 4s with a current carrier, would you be able to unlock it and use it on Cricket or Virgin after your current contract is over? 

  • Gary Bacon

    Their FAQ states that you cannot use a phone from another carrier. 

  • ken147

    If you have an iPhone 4s with a current carrier, would you be able to unlock it and use it on Cricket or Virgin after your current contract is over? 

    no, the networks are different, unless you have a Sprint iPhone.

  • Brianna Wu

    It’s very tempting. Like others here, I rarely use my phone – and mostly for talking to my husband. But, I think you’re missing something extremely important. 

    A. Tethering.
    B. Coverage.
    How do these players compare to AT&T and Verizon? I need to know before I execute. 
  • Justin Gilbert

    If you have an iPhone 4s with a current carrier, would you be able to unlock it and use it on Cricket or Virgin after your current contract is over? 

    Absolutely yes.  The iPhone 4s is a world phone so it operates on both GSM and CDMA.  You just have to jailbreak, and depending on what your moving from and to, use either a Gevey unlock tool or a software unlock.  How do I know?  I had Sprint and moved to Red Pocket.  One is CDMA, one is GSM.  Using the Gevey unlock method it worked like a charm.  Not for the faint of heart though since you’ll be doing things that could brick your phone.

  • Shane Bryson

    This is not just going to take a bite out of the carriers but Apple’s sales as well since there are very few people who would want a $700 annual phone upgrade….

    This is the exact opposite of true. How would offering the phone on a new carrier without a contract hurt sales for either? It’s likely that people will just make a choice, either go with a prepay company or go with a subsidized company. Either way, Apple makes the sale and in two years, the phone WILL be outdated enough that the person will make that choice again. Do I renew or go prepay? Do I stay prepay or go to another company with a contract. Learn a little more about Apple customer spending habits before making such assumptions my friend.

  • ICUDoctor

    This was my last iphone that I bought from the carrier–words marked–I’ll be happy to find a cheap (good) prepaid plan!  I’ll always buy an iPhone, and the benefit of a cheaper phone to have a contract you can’t break is CLEARLY gone.  Wonder what this will do to the product cycle?  Will people buy less often (or are they already waiting the 2 years to get every other upgrade?)

  • Shane Bryson

    It’s very tempting. Like others here, I rarely use my phone – and mostly for talking to my husband. But, I think you’re missing something extremely important. 

    A. Tethering.
    B. Coverage.
    How do these players compare to AT&T and Verizon? I need to know before I execute. 

    I can tell you this, Verizon has great coverage but TERRIBLE customer service and their prices are just plain stupid amounts of high. I have had both Verizon and AT&T, and I am aware I am probably in the minority here but AT&T has made me much happier. My service isn’t as great but it good enough and faster than Verizon in places where the signal is the same for both carriers. Their customer service at AT&T has been amazing.

    Now my sister has had bother Cricket and Virgin. Cricket’s service is terrible everywhere and customer service even worse. She switched to Virgin and swears by them. She has signal everywhere my mother does, (who has Verizon) and she has had not trouble getting things from customer service that she needs. I am very tempted to make my next iPhone a Virgin Mobile iPhone.

  • Shane Bryson
    If you have an iPhone 4s with a current carrier, would you be able to unlock it and use it on Cricket or Virgin after your current contract is over? 

    Absolutely yes.  The iPhone 4s is a world phone so it operates on both GSM and CDMA.  You just have to jailbreak, and depending on what your moving from and to, use either a Gevey unlock tool or a software unlock.  How do I know?  I had Sprint and moved to Red Pocket.  One is CDMA, one is GSM.  Using the Gevey unlock method it worked like a charm.  Not for the faint of heart though since you’ll be doing things that could brick your phone.

    Let’s talk legit ways to move from CDMA to GSM. There are none.

  • joewaylo

    It’s very tempting. Like others here, I rarely use my phone – and mostly for talking to my husband. But, I think you’re missing something extremely important. 

    A. Tethering.
    B. Coverage.
    How do these players compare to AT&T and Verizon? I need to know before I execute. 

    Coverage depends on your area. Looking at Virgin Mobile and Cricket from Nationwide View, they only have 25% of the nation covered. Both Cricket and Virgin Mobile use the same picture below to a close accuracy. Maybe even less based on an ugly looking picture. Doing a search on Bing, Virgin Mobile states on one phone back in March 2011 “The caveat, of course, is that because Virgin Mobile doesn’t support tethering, there’s the potential for blowback (though I think it’s very unlikely). Thus, use this tip at your own risk.”

    http://www.virginmobileusa.com/cell-phone-plans/beyond-talk-plans.jsp

     

  • Ty Givens

    unlocked iphone plus simple mobile or red pocket is all you need.

  • Jdsonice

    Here are some questions to consider.

    Will the prepaid phones be unlocked or will they be locked to the prepaid carrier ? If they are locked well then you are back to square one – locked to a carrier.
    Will you be able to use the phone internationally? If not that is a no no for a lot of people.
    Will the phones be capable of Tethering? What kind of coverage? Customer Service? Replacement policy?
    There is no doubt  that these phones are cheap but before you jump the gun and get them consider your specific needs and if these phones meet them. If you end up having to get a second device of some sort then you may loose the price advantage. 
    I have been with AT&T for 10+ years and while the road has been rocky, they have generally delivered on the service. 
  • atoms5

    Buyer beware: Virgin Mobile’s 3G network in Washington-Baltimore region is atrocious. I have a MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot gathering dust in a desk drawer because it’s essential unusable.

  • atoms5

    Buyer beware: Virgin Mobile’s 3G network in Washington-Baltimore region is atrocious. I have a MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot gathering dust in a desk drawer because it’s essential unusable.

  • Benjamin Horter

    So what about the ability to browse and talk at the same time?  That’s the only reason I’m still with AT&T.  If another carrier had this option,  I’d switch in a heartbeat.

  • MMudassir

    StraightTalk Rulles! $45 unlimited talk and text AND 2GB of data! What else you need? Bring your out-of-contract AT&T iPhone and then enjoy it!

  • Shane Bryson

    Marking those words sir!

    But I believe I agree – it’s about time the big carriers got rid of these ridiculously high prices.
    Especially for texting, which costs nothing for them :\

    Actually texting costs carriers more than anything but also makes them more money than anything. Its been in the news quite a bit lately that texting is an archaic and expensive technology. It costs them a lot.

  • ApplePr0n

    I will admit, it is tempting. Especially since VZW is taking away my unlimited data. However, my only issue is that Virgin’s 3G data is that of Sprint’s – painfully slow. Also, going from VZW to essentially Sprint doesn’t seem so awesome either

  • repleter

    No mention of Straight Talk which has a bring your own GSM phone, including iphone, option.

  • Solowalker

    This will be very very tempting next year when Sprint gets LTE everywhere and if Virgin gets to use their LTE. Sprint is the only US carrier who has stated they are committed to VoLTE, which will be awesome for not just voice quality purposes but because it will also overcome the CDMA limitation of not being able to use voice and data at the same time.

    I will be watching this closely when Sprint gets their LTE rollout moving.
  • cjg800

    The problem with this (and many similar calculators I’ve seen), is that it assumes all of us are paying the Big Three for texting. Many of us have realized there are great apps on the iphone (along with imessage) that allow you to text unlimited for FREE. If you remove that assumed $20 for texting from the equation, the gap between narrows significantly. Then, if you are someone like myself still on the unlimited data plan from at&t ($20/month), you actually come out ahead with at&t over any of the prepaids.

  • bbypnda

    please add in the unlimited mobile to any mobile with the texting plan for at&t, 450 minutes is only used for landlines with the unlimited text plan for at&t

  • soursquid

    What will make you even more insane is if you compare the big 3 carriers prices/offerings to what people in Europe get. We pay twice the price for half the service.

    If Virgin gets the Samsung Galaxy SIII I’m all over that. I’ll probably stick with Sprint for my iPhone though unless Virgin also gets the iPhone 5 immediately in late September.
  • Wayne Luke

    On an AT&T Family Plan with 5 iPhones. Three of these are the 3GS, one is a 4 and one is a 4S. We pay $55.00 a month per line. $275.00 total. 

    Minutes mean nothing. We get 500 a month and roll over between 450 and 475 a month. All calls to any mobile are free. We currently have 4800 rollover minutes. We pay $30 a month for unlimited texting on all five lines. My teenage daughter uses about 5,000 of these text messages a month on her iPhone. No one has gone over their 2 GB a month limit in data. Not even my autistic stepson (yes, he has an iPhone) who watches YouTube on his phone for many hours per day. He knows enough that he can’t use YouTube in the car and that is all it takes.
  • ApplePr0n

    As long as I have my unlimited data on VZW I will keep them. Now they are announcing that it’s done, then I will seriously consider who will be my carrier for the next iPhone

  • prawnfiesta

    It is a painful price.. BUT I LOVE IT

  • Jessica Newell

    .

  • Matthew Newell

    cant you jailbreak any iphone and put it on any network?

  • Dylan Clements

    Okay, this has been confusing me, so can someone explain?

    They claim that Virgin has the same coverage as sprint, but why is it that when I look at the coverage map on Virgin Mobiles website it shows a very crappy coverage? 
    I noticed that the coverage on Virgins map is the same coverage as sprint’s own ‘Direct Connect’ network, which from my research is the old Nextel network.
    So is it that you only get coverage from those old Nextel towers, because if so, that is not very good for coverage. I mean.. look at this map! http://www.virginmobileusa.com/check-cell-phone-coverage
    Someone please help explain if I am wrong.
  • jf181

    Aren’t the prepaid plans also tax free? That makes it an even bigger savings.

  • jf181

    Aren’t the prepaid plans also tax free? That makes it an even bigger savings.

  • Alex Liebensfeld

    There’s also StraightTalk; they give out unlimited plans (unlimited data included) for $45 a month, you just have to get your phone from elsewhere (in the case of the iPhone, directly from Apple for $650). They run on AT&T’s network so you’ll get an HSPA+ connection

  • RmcTech

    Just did a post about this recently – I’m interested in it too. I think it’s an awesome thing, a huge change in the mobile service provider arena, will certainly effect some bigger companies, and does a lot of other cool stuff (like put more iPhones out there in people’s hands) – Things like that, for example (more iPhones out there) helps companies like us (we repair the screens). Way cool. 

  • Alakawak

    A word of caution…you DON’T get the same service as a Sprint customer. I have had Trac Fone or Straight Talk for 4 years nowm and my father has a Virgin Mobile phone. And while it is fine for our uses, it IS a slight downgrade from the service of their regualr customers. (My Trac Fone was AT&T while my Straight Talk is Verizon) They give their own customers first priority

  • nynanny

    I have an iPhone 3GS that used to be on an AT&T contract. I haven’t done anything to jailbreak it. If I switched to StraightTalk, would it work? Or do you have to jailbreak? And does anyone have experience with StraightTalk in NE, MO, or NYC? How’s the service?

  • blazzingsaddle

    Okay, this has been confusing me, so can someone explain?

    They claim that Virgin has the same coverage as sprint, but why is it that when I look at the coverage map on Virgin Mobiles website it shows a very crappy coverage? 
    I noticed that the coverage on Virgins map is the same coverage as sprint’s own ‘Direct Connect’ network, which from my research is the old Nextel network.
    So is it that you only get coverage from those old Nextel towers, because if so, that is not very good for coverage. I mean.. look at this map! http://www.virginmobileusa.com/check-cell-phone-coverage
    Someone please help explain if I am wrong.
     

    Sprint roames on Verizon towers – giving their customers better basic voice/data coverage.

    Cricket partnered with Sprint in 2010 to use their towers – but that doesn’t include roaming on verizon.

    While roaming on Cricket you may be required to enter a crcedit card number or flex bucket account to use your phone.

     

    Not as familiar with Virgin Mobile, but it seems as though it is similar to Cricket in coverage.

     

     

    BTW – once the LTE networks are substantial enough – there won’t be a need for voice plans – as VOIP/WEb/Tethering on LTE will only need data-only plans.  Which will make it easier for subsidized carriers to hide cost.

     

    Also these prepaid companies are paying the big 3 for access to their towers for their users.  It’s like an retail in-store brand (Walmart has GreatValue and SamsChoice) or a store owner that owns the shopping center his competitor is leasing – they may lose a few customers but they make it up by collecting rent w/o the headache of staffing/inventory…   

     

     

  • ApplePr0n

    When Virgin can offer me good coverage with 4G LTE, then i’ll gladly leave VZW for them. Until then, i’ll gladly pay a premium for premium service

  • theforsh

    “These prepaid carriers are going to start drawing blood from the big three, mark my words.”  What?!  You are now predicting yesterday’s weather!  Great job!  

  • MrSarcy

    It is insane to spend that kind of money on a phone. Who the hell talks 450 minutes per month? My plan expired 2 months ago so I am on prepaid now. Turns out I can get by on 50 MB per month (mails, some tweeting on the road) and 75 minutes calltime. That sets me back 12 dollars per month and I will keep dong that for as long as there is life in my 3GS. No wonder unlimited use is off the table with most providers, the way a lot of people appear to be using it. What are you, homeless? I have wifi and a landline in my house, you should try it.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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