So, I bought a smartphone recently (and reviewed it here). Because AT&T wanted to almost double my already outrageous phone bill ($110/month after taxes and fees for two feature phones, set number of minutes, unlimited texts, and NO DATA AT ALL), my wife and I discussed switching providers. After a LOT of research, we went with Straight Talk Wireless. This is my review of the process and the service.
First off, Straight Talk is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that operates on both the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. What is an MVNO? Essentially they are third parties that purchase network access to a mobile service provider that actually owns and maintains a network, then resells that access to customers for a profit. They are almost all in the prepaid cell phone market, and they compete with the big guys mostly on price of service, and boy is the price nice.
My wife and I have modest phone needs. It should, above all, make phone calls in the places where we travel, and be able to send and receive text messages. The data is a nice thing, but we've not really used it in the past because it cost us an extra $3 every time we accidentally hit the wrong button on the phone. I finally got sick of it, and looked into the cost of actually getting a data plan and a couple of smart phones. Yeah, AT&T wanted to charge us $150/month for two smart phones, 4GB of shared data, with unlimited talk and texts...before taxes and fees, which, of course, I couldn't know. It DID include a subsidy for the new phones, so we could one of the “latest and greatest” phones for approx. $200 each. Still, DAT MONTHLY BILL.
Looking at Straight Talk, the bargain offered seemed almost unbelievable. $45/month per phone for unlimited talk, texts, and data? Outrageous! That’s $90/month for two phones before taxes and fees! But, of course, I had to buy unlocked phones AND get SIM cards and otherwise fiddle. Looking around, a pair of new phones would cost between $800-$1200. That’s a LOT of money, but the monthly bill would be much, MUCH lower. I did the math, and decided that yes, it would be worth it. I bought two Nexus 5s and ordered a couple of AT&T SIM cards from Straight Talk, along with a couple of “prepaid” cards. Eventually, they arrived, and it was time to start our journey down that MVNO road.
According to the website, it should be as simple as “slap in the SIM card, check to make sure it’s working, and make sure the settings are right.” Oh, but I wanted to port my number, is that cool? “Sure!” said the website. Yeah, not so much! In order to port the number, you have to fill out a bunch of information about your current account (which should be active) along with the usual stuff like your name, address, etc. The process itself seems straight forward, but the forms to enter the data are all slightly off in their wording, so I was constantly second-guessing myself and double and triple checking to make sure I entered the information correctly. Finally, everything was in, and I clicked “Submit”. Then waited the recommended 8-10 hours for everything to go through. Would it work? Spoilers: NO.
Somewhere along the line, something screwed up. It might have been me, it might have been some mysterious timeout on the site, or possibly swamp gas. All I know is, my old phone worked fine, and my account showed the new SIM card as being “unactivated”. Hokay, I’ll just try again. Success! Everything seemed to go through just fine! Wait, why isn't my number showing on the account? To make a long story short, something had gone awry and I contacted their technical support. The first try was a complete failure, and resulted in me being “transferred” to another group...where the phone told me “We have too many calls, try again later.” and hung up. Uh, what? After a few hours, I eventually got through to a tech. This resulted in the current SIM being deactivated and them sending me a replacement SIM card.
Many days later, I went through this process a second time, finding out that THIS time I did screw up the data entry, but in THIS case, I finally got an error message and a help desk case. After plodding my way through the menus, I finally got to a low level tech. To be fair, this time I was quickly escalated to their next level and DIDN'T disconnect me, and 30 minutes later I was the proud owner of a brand new functioning smartphone.
The activation of my wife’s phone took 30 minutes and required no human interaction, since I had already learned all the ins and outs of their weird setup process. I suspect if I hadn't wanted to transfer an out of state phone number that this process would have been much smoother, but at NO point did anyone warn me this might be tricky. Still, kudos to that second level tech. He knocked it out of the park, and if you don’t care about getting a new number it is ridiculously simple.
Our Straight Talk SIMs use the AT&T network and in the month I have used them, I have had zero problems. Data speeds are relatively consistent, texts both SMS and MMS go through without issue, and phone clarity has been rock solid. I haven’t strayed too far outside of major urban and suburban areas, but I was able to get reasonable data rates even out at Red Top Mountain, at least in most areas. The ability to look up the cost of a 7 foot Gummi Python in the middle of the woods is awesome! My wife has yet to complain about signal strength or data speed. To be fair, in the decade or so that we used AT&T for wireless service, I think we called them once maybe. This was actually a major factor in why we went with Straight Talk. The AT&T network is a known quantity. In short, the service is very good, well within our “usual” use cases.
We went with the $45/month plan that includes unlimited talk, texts and in theory, data. They recently added LTE 4G service to Straight Talk, so it seems like an unbelievable deal! And you know what? It IS unbelievable, for the reasons you might think. There is a soft cap on the data. Currently, if I exceed 2GB of usage, my data speed slows from LTE 4G down to 2G until the next billing cycle, so it’s “unlimited” in the sense that if I exceed I’m not cut off entirely or charged a premium for it, but it isn't what I would call truly unlimited. Lucky for me, I simply do not use enough data to worry about it but a heavy data user might need a more robust plan...which Straight Talk doesn't offer. There are also plenty of Internet Horror Stories about people getting nasty emails when they start to get close to their data caps, but I've heard just as many “I use a ton all the time, never get anything” stories so maybe they've improved their service over the years. It is a little shady that the soft cap, while mentioned, is relegated to an * item in their advertising, but every other company does something like that (except T-Mobile, which is very upfront about it).
Paying $101/month after taxes and fees is great. Really, really great. It is prepaid service, so I pay upfront for 30 days of service, but you know what? It’s still great. I don’t have to fiddle with bills, or worry about if this months bill will be wildly different from last month’s because I clicked a button I wasn't supposed to. The taxes and fees actually make sense and are consistent on my statement. It is remarkably simple in that respect and I am super happy.
The web site experience is what I would call stilted. They've recently redesigned it, but it’s still sort of chunky in both presentation and navigation. There are a lot of options but I don’t really use them, because I signed up for their Auto-Refill option, which charges my credit card every month without me having to do anything. I get notices and emails about it, so it is never a surprise. If you know what you are doing during setup, the website is also super quick, which is pleasant.
Of course, there are a few spines on the rose. Big ones. With additional tiny spines around additional tiny roses. It’s a bit dicey is what I’m saying. The customer service department is clearly a call center in some foreign country. They speak pretty reasonable English, but the turns of phrase are unfamiliar and honestly I would be happier if they just owned it rather than pathetically trying to pretend that “no really, we’re totally in North America.” It’s kind of insulting really, and is a total crap shoot in terms of what kind of service you will get. I ended up calling 4 times: 3 during the setup process and once because I did something dumb. Two of those times were awful experiences. I was either hung up on, or told horribly bad information. The other two were “mixed to amazing”. When I got the replacement SIM, I was told that my previously activated “scratch card” for service would be preserved and carry over when I got the new SIM. Yeah, that was a total lie, though the new SIM fixed all the other problems, so that was $50 down the drain. The stellar call was the tech support guy who identified the problem in setup, immediately escalated me to second level, and I got the awesome tier two dude.
One of the bad calls deserves a special call out. I did something dumb while exploring my new phone and deleted the number for my voice mail. I tried to fix it using the instructions on the website, but failed horribly, so I called in. The guy I got was just awful, telling me he couldn't give the information, and that I would need a new SIM card. I cursed and hung up. In desperation, I tried their “help chat” feature. This? This was amazingly good. I got connected, explained the problem, and in 5 minutes had everything working the way it was supposed to. Kudos to that person too. Overall, I hope I never have to speak with anyone there ever again, and so far, so good. And seriously, that monthly bill is so nice.
In conclusion, on the FACE Rating System, Straight Talk Wireless gets a tentative two smiley faces. I love the price and the quality of the phone/data service. I am not so crazy about the customer service experience, but I don’t feel I will have to USE those options much or ever, so it should be fine. For me, this was a great choice since I’m pretty tech savvy enough to know how to slap a SIM card in a phone, and pick and purchase my own phone without issue. For anyone with heavy data usage OR a need to have excellent customer service available frequently, you might be better served elsewhere, but for everyone else I recommend trying it out. Bonus, it’s not a monthly contract so if you hate it, you can go elsewhere without any problems!