The actual pain involved in moving smartphones to no-contract plans

A little SIM shuffling to escape Contractville. Credit: Photo via Kai Hendry/Flickr

Wondering what kind of hoops you have to jump through to get a no-contract data plan up and running? Wonder no longer.

How much should a husband and wife pay to tote around smartphones with reasonably reliable service and not really call that many people? For my wife and myself, I didn't think that amount was $120 per month. But that's where we ended up, after signing onto Verizon more than two years ago and picking up an iPhone and an Android.

I've pondered (read: blogged) about "open phone marriages", and looked at no-contract smartphone plans that don't suck. To actually make the jump, however, would require more than just flipping a few switches. What kind of pain is required for moving from the easy comfort of Contractville to Pre-Paid Junction? I will tell you, having just (almost) moved my small smartphone family.

I started out with a Galaxy Nexus and an iPhone 4 on an expired 2-year Verizon contract, now running month to month on a technically unlimited "4G"/LTE data allowance. I ended up with two phones using unlimited talk, text and data on AT&T's own "4G" service (HSPA 14.4, or maybe HSPA +21, depending on who you ask on Straight Talk. My wife and I don't use scads of data, but she occasionally pulls a long day streaming music or watching (mostly listening to) a Netflix or Hulu show or movie in the background. or I will do something stupid like download a CyanogenMod ROM directly onto my phone, over the air. We have Wi-Fi at home, but my wife does not at her office.

Maybe the biggest stumbling block, at least for a phone nerd who would even think about this kind of thing, are the "4G" data speeds are not cutting-edge "LTE" speeds. However, they are, for our purposes, absolutely fine. We text, email, check in on Foursquare, watch very rare videos, and download a few apps here and there.

So there is giving up the ultra-modern LTE life, but what other pain is involved? A short, realistic list:

  • Buying unlocked, used, or like-new phones at full price, on the open market, with quite a bit of sticker shock—even if, ultimately, you pay less this way than through a subsidized contract.
  • Choosing which carrier reseller would work best for where we live and where we frequently travel.
  • Learning how to pop a micro-SIM card out of a modern phone and replace it.
  • Learning how, in the case of the iPhone 5 and beyond, to literally cut a micro-SIM card down to a Nano-SIM size, praying you don't cut too much out of the contacts (though there are easy-to-use kits for this that cost $7 or so on Amazon).
  • Walking through, in the case of one phone, the rather simple activate-and-pay process on Straight Talk's website. Since the main phone number was a Google Voice number, there was no need for porting, and any number in the area code would do. Google Voice: still quite good at its core function, if somewhat left behind on others.
  • Learning how annoying it can be to port a phone number out, if your intention is to never call the company that holds it and have to hear from their retention team about why you should stay.

On that last point: my wife's phone number matters quite a bit to her. It's the same number she's had since her college days, and giving it up would likely result in months of missed calls and text messages, and lots of annoying catch-up. These days, porting your number should be simple enough, and not require you to actually inform your carrier that you're breaking up with them. When your new carrier demands your number, with your name/address/social/PIN details, it should automatically grab the number and cancel the contract on the old carrier's side.

But after a half-dozen attempts to port my wife's Verizon number over to a new account on Straight Talk, I encountered a variety of error messages. I called Straight Talk's support number and asked to run through the process with a representative. We got all the way through registering the new SIM, buying at least a month of service, and entering the account number, PIN, and other details of my Verizon account. And then:

Straight Talk rep: "Sir, there is a security question here. What is your pet's name?"

Me, thinking about typical security questions: "My first pet, or just, 'my pet'?"

ST rep: "The question is just your pet's name."

Me: "Apricot?"

ST rep, after a minute: "That does not seem to work."

Me: "Do I get another chance?"

ST rep: "Can I have another name?"

Me: "Cork?"

ST rep, after now 4-5 minutes: "There was another error, which is not explained. I am writing up my notes on this to generate a case number."

I believe Verizon will release my wife's treasured number, eventually. I have faith that my pet's true name will be revealed, even if it requires actually tipping Verizon off to my looming infidelity.

After a few days, a few delicate scissor cuts, and some coverage map checking referenced against friends' recommendations, my wife and I are paying $90 a month for unlimited talk, text, and web use, on pretty decent speeds. I'm almost happy. Almost.

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