All right, after exploring the choice of wireless service MVNOs, which one would you want to pick? From my experience, it depends on your phone. So let’s start with the big elephant in the room, the iPhone. My assumption is we are using an officially unlocked iPhone. Don’t ask me about unlocking, ask your carrier or ask yourself why you bought a locked phone to begin with. Right now, Apple is selling unlocked iPhones openly in the US, so the days of having to import expensive iPhones or jailbreaking are gone. All iPhones, the 5, 4S, and 4, are available unlocked straight from Apple. Obviously, you’ll be getting a GSM iPhone. The unlocked iPhone 5 will be the “AT&T” version.
Now, what if you have an iPhone from a carrier. Currently, iPhones are officially offered by AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, plus the 4/4S are offered by certain Sprint MVNOs/regional carriers. iPhones from carriers are provider locked by default, with one exception. AT&T now will unlock your iPhone if you are done with your contract or if you bought the iPhone full price (no contract or pay ETF). Sprint will not unlock their iPhones, other than for international use. Same thing with Verizon (with one exception).
Then, there is the model. If you have an iPhone 4, the only one that is unlockable is the GSM AT&T version. Sprint and Verizon iPhone 4 are CDMA only. As for the iPhone 4S, it’s a hybrid GSM/CDMA device. AT&T version is unlockable. Verizon and Sprint version are only unlockable for international carriers, meaning that Verizon and Sprint are blocking US GSM carriers’ SIM. (More reason to hate CDMA carriers). The iPhone 5 is also a hybrid device, with versions supporting GSM and AT&T LTE, and another one supporting CDMA, GSM, and Verizon/Sprint’s LTE. AT&T version is of course, unlockable after meeting the requirement I mentioned above. Sprint’s policy is unlocking only for international use. Verizon iPhone 5, however, is unlocked OUT OF THE BOX! Yes, if you have a Verizon iPhone 5, you can put in an AT&T/T-Mobile SIM and it will work just fine. No need for unlocking. Of course, you won’t get LTE on AT&T as the LTE frequency support differs than the AT&T version, but hey, this is huge. Verizon is forced to do this due to an agreement they had with the US government when they got the 700 LTE band.
In short, if you are on AT&T, you can get your iPhone unlocked by paying ETF or after the end of your contract. If you are on Verizon, only the iPhone 5 is unlocked. If you are on Sprint, you are screwed.
First thing first, you want to decide on which of the two parent carriers you want to go with. The choice is either AT&T or T-Mobile. All GSM iPhones (4/4S/5) support quad-band HSDPA (850/900/1900/2100) bands. So for the longest time, to be able to have 3G speed, you have to use AT&T or their MVNOs. Luckily, T-Mobile started to refarm their 1900 band for 3G on certain areas. You can check their coverage here, a site with a map from users indicating which areas have sightings of 3G access on 1900 band on T-Mobile. I would go and see your area first. If your area has many people indicating 3G access, then good news, your choice of providers expanded considerably as you won’t have to be stuck with EDGE if you pick T-Mobile or its MVNO. Do note that even if T-Mobile has “rolled” out the refarm, coverage may still be iffy. T-Mobile has officially announced my area to be a refarmed area. When I get 3G signal, it’s fast, way faster than AT&T’s 3G, However, it is also often that the connectivity reverted back to EDGE, especially indoors. So caveat emptor.
After you decide on the operator you want, next step is buying the SIM. Apple is not making things easy by using a micro SIM for the iPhone 4/4S and a nano SIM for the iPhone 5. Most MVNOs now do offer micro SIM as they realize the popularity of iPhone 4/4S. However, not many offer the nano SIM. If your desired operator doesn’t offer the SIM size that you need, check Amazon and ebay. There are plenty of resellers that are selling pre-cut SIM to the size you desire for cheap (some even sell them for cheaper than buying the SIM straight from the operator). Of course, there are sellers using this to gouge you, especially if you are looking for a nano SIM. Just be smart and don’t spend more than what you would spend for buying the SIM directly with the operator. You can also buy a SIM cutter and do it yourself, but considering there are some sellers selling SIMs for a few dollars or even less, it’s probably cheaper and easier to just buy a pre-cut one. If you decided to stick with the main carriers, aka AT&T or T-Mobile, and if your existing SIM is not micro/nano, just go to the respective corporate stores and ask them for a new micro/nano SIM. They should be able to give it to you for free.
Okay, you have an unlocked iPhone, and you rather stick with AT&T. Then refer to my second post on the selection of AT&T MVNOs. There is a catch though. Unlike normal phones or Android, Apple put the control of certain carrier settings to the carrier. This setting is usually known as the APN setting, a setting for access point names that will tell your phone how it would connect to the network for data and MMS. Normally, this setting is accessible by the user. It’s been the case on cellphones for ages, even on Android. But not on iPhones. AT&T, being AT&T, chose to lock out this setting from users as they “know better” than the users. Unfortunately, this restriction extends to the AT&T MVNOs as Apple thinks you are on AT&T. Meaning if you put in a SIM from those AT&T MVNOs into your unlocked iPhone, even the one purchased overseas or straight from Apple, options like APN settings and portable hotspot will be unavailable. So right off the gate, your iPhone won’t be able to obtain data connectivity nor MMS.
There are workarounds. First one is through a website called unlockit.co.nz. You have to have internet connectivity via wifi on your iPhone first. Simply go to that website via Safari and it will give you options to create a custom APN based on your operator. The site will install the setting on your iPhone and you will have data connectivity. Unfortunately, no MMS.
The second workaround will enable MMS, but it’s much trickier to perform. It’s called a SIM swap method. DISCLAIMER: *Since I’m on Simple Mobile now, I have not tested this method again since Simple Mobile doesn’t lock out the APN setting screen. However, I did try this method on Straight Talk’s AT&T SIM and iOS6, and it worked, both data and MMS.* First, you have to have a T-Mobile SIM (or any of its MVNOs), since T-Mobile, unlike AT&T, doesn’t lock out the APN setting option in iPhone. You will also need to write down the APN information of your provider of choice (most provide it on their website). Basically you will put the T-Mobile SIM first, turn-on your phone, open an app, go back home and then go to Settings and the Cellular sub menu, and Cellular data network setting. These options are locked out when you use AT&T or its MVNO’s SIM. While you are on that screen, use the multitasking feature to switch to the app you first opened. Then open the SIM slot without turning off the phone and put in the AT&T MVNO SIM. Use the multitasking app switcher to go back to Settings and you will find that you are still on that APN setting screen that would normally be inaccessible. Type in the information, and make sure they are correct as this menu will be inaccessible once you go out and you would have to do it all over again. Note that you will be able to enter all information, including settings for MMS. Once you are done, get out of the screen and reboot your phone. The settings will remain even if you turn off your iPhone and remove the SIM as long as the same SIM is inserted again before you turn it on, but it will be reset if you switch to a different SIM or update iOS. So you have to do this everytime Apple updates iOS. Annoying, but blame it on AT&T. Note that you will never get ability to do portable hotspot/tethering unless you jailbreak.
In general, AT&T MVNOs will provide better coverage than T-Mobile’s. However, speed wise, it’s AT&T. Depending on your area, AT&T connectivity is just poor, and easily overwhelmed when there is a lot of people in the area (eg. an event).
Now, let’s move on with T-Mobile. Let’s say you find that T-Mobile has refarmed the 1900 spectrum for 3G in your area. This allows you to safely pick any of its MVNOs as I have stated on my third post. Even better, T-Mobile doesn’t lock out the APN and MMS settings so you can easily enter the necessary information without having to do any workarounds. Even the portable hotspot/tethering menu is available. Of course, the catch is that you are depending on that 1900 spectrum as the iPhone doesn’t support AWS, which is T-Mobile’s main 3G frequency, so you may still get EDGE here and there. Still, I consider the savings in my pocket is worth it as I picked Simple Mobile.
What if you are not sure. You see T-Mobile has refarmed the 1900 spectrum in your area, but you don’t want to commit to switching. Well, this is the beauty of prepaid/MVNOs, no contract required. Don’t cancel your current plan/carrier yet though. Best bet is to buy T-Mobile’s SIM online for 99 cents, sign up online for their $30 plan that gives you 5GB of data. Note that you will not be able to get this plan at T-Mobile physical stores. It’s only available at Walmart and online. Then you have 1 month to test the coverage, data speed and connectivity on your preferred locations. 5GB should give you a ton of room to do many things. After you are convinced, then pick your desired operator at the price/feature you want.
And that’s about it. Enjoy your iPhone without paying an arm and a leg.