What T-Mobile's shake-up means for prepaid smartphone service

T-Mobile New Plans

T-Mobile's new Simple Choice plans are supposed to be all about simplicity -- but man, they sure are causing a lot of confusion.

The new contract-free plans, officially unveiled this week, bring down the base price of cellular service by separating out the cost of a new phone. One of the most perplexing things to figure out, though, is what that change means for the carrier's prepaid service, which had already offered a similar a la carte-style setup.

The answer isn't easy to find -- but after chatting with a T-Mobile media relations rep and several customer service agents, I've finally gotten to the bottom of it. Here's everything you need to know.

T-Mobile's prepaid plans are still available.

Prepaid plans are no longer prominently displayed on T-Mobile's website, but fear not: They are still there. (They're hidden under a link labeled "Pay in Advance" at the very bottom-right of the home page.) A T-Mobile representative confirmed to me that the prepaid plans aren't going anywhere; they'll just no longer be widely advertised or promoted.

That said, the prepaid plans have a new name -- they've shed their "Monthly 4G" moniker and are now just called "prepaid plans" -- and some things have changed with the way they're structured.

T-Mobile's prepaid plans are now very similar to the carrier's postpaid plans.

At a glance, it's actually hard to see how T-Mobile's tweaked prepaid plans differ from the carrier's new Simple Choice -- a.k.a. postpaid -- offerings.

On the prepaid side, you now have the following options:

  • $30/mo. for 100 minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 5GB at 4G speeds
  • $50 for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 500MB at 4G speeds
  • $60 for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 2.5GB at 4G speeds
  • $70 for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data at 4G speeds

On the postpaid side, meanwhile, the new Simple Choice plans provide the following options:

  • $50/mo. for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 500MB at 4G speeds
  • $60/mo. for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 2.5GB at 4G speeds
  • $70/mo. for unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data at 4G speeds

Other than the presence of the $30/mo. plan on prepaid, the two lineups look nearly identical, right? Hang on, though: There's more than meets the eye.

T-Mobile's prepaid and postpaid plans do have some differences -- like their availability of mobile hotspot functionality.

All right, this is where the real detective work comes in, as T-Mobile's website isn't exactly forthcoming with this info -- but beneath the surface, the carrier's updated prepaid plans and new Simple Choice postpaid plans have some important differences.

The first revolves around mobile hotspot functionality. If you want to use your phone as a mobile hotspot with T-Mobile's prepaid plans, here's what you're looking at:

  • $30/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is not officially available*
  • $50/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is included and uses the same data pool provided with the plan (up to 500MB of 4G data)
  • $60/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is included and uses the same data pool provided with the plan (up to 2.5GB of 4G data)
  • $70/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is not officially available*

On the postpaid side, things are slightly different:

  • $50/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is included and uses the same data pool provided with the plan (up to 500MB of 4G data)
  • $60/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is included and uses the same data pool provided with the plan (up to 2.5GB of 4G data)
  • $70/mo. plan: Hotspot functionality is included but limited to 500MB of 4G data; you also have the option of paying an additional $10/mo. to get an extra 2GB of high-speed hotspot data (that option is not clearly listed on T-Mobile's website but can be activated by calling the company once your service is up and running)

So, to sum up, then, on T-Mobile's prepaid plans, you don't officially get any option for hotspot functionality on the $30/mo. or $70/mo. options, whereas the postpaid plans provide hotspot functionality at all levels -- albeit with a fairly low limit on the $70/mo. setup. That low limit can be expanded if you want to pay an extra 10 bucks per month.

*With Android, you may be able to activate hotspot functionality on your phone regardless of official availability, though such rule-breaking can't officially be endorsed and may or may not eventually catch the carrier's attention and result in severe corporal punishment (or, you know, the carrier just blocking the functionality so you can't use it without paying).

NEXT PAGE: Different features, different discounts, and which is the better deal

T-Mobile's prepaid and postpaid plans also have some different features.

Hotspot stuff aside, T-Mobile's prepaid plans do have a few limitations in the features they provide.

First and foremost, with prepaid plans, you don't have the option to use the carrier's call forwarding service. This may or may not matter to you, but it's a difference that's at least worth noting.

Google Voice

Also, if you use Google Voice, T-Mobile's prepaid service doesn't support setting Google Voice as the default voicemail provider for your actual cell number (i.e. the number that T-Mobile assigns to you). Everything works fine in terms of regular Google Voice functionality, though; the only caveat is that you need to give out your Google Voice number instead of your T-Mobile cell number if you want to take advantage of the Google Voice voicemail system.

Another potentially relevant distinction relates to roaming: While postpaid plans support domestic roaming for both voice and data service, prepaid plans support only voice service in that scenario. In other words, if you're in an area with no T-Mobile coverage and on a prepaid plan, you may still be able to make and receive calls using a "partner" network but won't be able to utilize data; with postpaid, both voice and data service would be available (assuming, of course, that a "partner" network actually has adequate coverage in the area).

Last but not least, with a prepaid plan that doesn't have unlimited minutes -- i.e. the $30/mo. plan -- you literally get the minutes you pay for. That means there are no free nights and weekends or mobile-to-mobile minutes; you have a set pool of minutes to use as you wish, and any minutes beyond that pool will cost you 10 cents apiece. (Being that it's prepaid service, you'll never get any unexpected bills; instead, additional monthly minutes are available only if you opt to leave an extra balance on your account.)

T-Mobile's prepaid and postpaid plans are structured differently in terms of payments and discount options.

Now that their rates are so similar, the biggest differences between T-Mobile's prepaid and postpaid plans come down to how you pay for them and what discount options you get.

With prepaid service, as the name suggests, you always pay a month ahead. If you don't prepay, your phone doesn't work. As a result, you never have any overage charges or surprise fees; you pay for what you want and get exactly that. (You can set up your account to use autopay and automatically deduct your monthly total at the start of each month, which -- for all practical purposes -- makes it feel no different than a regular postpaid setup.)

Postpaid service works the way you're probably more accustomed to: You get a bill at the end of each month for the previous 30 days' service. You have to pay it by a certain date in order to avoid a late fee. Theoretically, you could have overage charges from the past month's usage -- but since T-Mobile's new postpaid plans are pretty much all unlimited, that isn't really an issue here.

Prepaid service doesn't require you to undergo any sort of credit check or approval; you just sign up, pay, and go. The postpaid service does require those more traditional steps. Postpaid service also allows you to apply any corporate discounts you might get via your employer, while prepaid does not support such arrangements.

Finally -- and for some folks, this may be a big one -- T-Mobile's postpaid service gives you the option of buying a new phone from the carrier at a slightly discounted price and with payments spread out over the course of two years, interest-free. With prepaid service, you pay full retail price for a phone or bring in your own device.

Putting it all together...

All right, so here's the bottom line, starting with a pleasantly bullet-pointed breakdown:

  • T-Mobile's prepaid and postpaid plans are now pretty damn similar.
  • One key difference: the presence of the $30/mo. plan on the prepaid side. That level of service for that low of a cost is something you won't find in the postpaid world.
  • The $50/mo. and $60/mo. options are now more or less the same on the prepaid and postpaid sides. The postpaid versions have the benefits of including call forwarding and support for Google Voice voicemail on your actual cell number, along with both voice and data support for domestic roaming -- but aside from those factors and the general differences in payment structure, there's not much separating one approach from the other.
  • The $70/mo. option is arguably a better deal on the postpaid side, as it includes 500MB of mobile hotspot usage with the option to buy more hotspot data. The prepaid version of that plan offers no official hotspot support.

If you can make 100 minutes a month work -- and there are ways to do it -- T-Mobile's prepaid $30/mo. plan remains a uniquely valuable option, especially for Android users bringing in their own devices (like, say, a Nexus 4 bought directly from Google). The setup isn't for everyone, but in the right scenario, it can save you a heck of a lot of money.

If you need more than a hundred monthly minutes, T-Mobile's postpaid plans are actually now a bit better than their prepaid equivalents. From the $50 level up, the postpaid and prepaid plans are almost identical -- only the postpaid versions offer a few extra perks that their prepaid siblings don't provide. Unless you need to avoid a credit check, there's really not much reason to pick prepaid over postpaid within T-Mobile once you hit that $50 level.

Of course, T-Mobile isn't the only provider of prepaid service -- and there are other low-cost options. Straight Talk, for instance, has a $45/mo. plan that actually uses T-Mobile's network and gives you unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and supposedly unlimited 4G data. Some Straight Talk users have reported being throttled down to slower-than-4G-level speeds after hitting the 2GB mark, but still, 2GB is a far cry from the 500MB cap you'd get from T-Mobile for five dollars more per month.

Another popular provider is Solavei, which has a $49/mo. plan that also uses T-Mobile's network and gives you unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data with the first 4GB at 4G speeds. Solavei also offers discounts for your service if you refer friends and if those friends refer other friends -- a system that has a slightly obnoxious pyramid-like quality to it -- but you can also just sign up for regular service without participating in that program.

Android Power Twitter

Whew! Lots of options. The level of choice can certainly be overwhelming, but trust me: That's a fantastic kind of problem to have. After years of being shackled to outrageously one-sided ripoffs from the major carriers, the power is finally in our hands.

SEE ALSO:

Android off-contract: My prepaid journey, 3 months later

How free Google services can help shrink your phone bill

Cut the contract: How prepaid smartphones can save you money

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