The AT&T GoPhone plan allows you to pay 10 cents a minute only for minutes you use.
UPDATE 12/27/2012: We have been with Gophone for a couple of years now, and are happy with the plan. I have updated this posting to reflect some things I have learned. If you just want a phone for emergencies and to call someone and tell them you are running late, this plan works well. If you want to yak a lot, maybe not so much. I did not address texting or data plans, as I do not use either. Sorry.
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I called AT&T today as I was thinking of switching to a goPhone plan. It was so painless, I ended up doing it. As I noted in an earlier post, I was thinking of switching plans, but thought I would have to go to an AT&T store to do so.
To recap from that posting, what I learned from comparing plans from the major carriers is that there are no great savings by switching carriers. They all have the same or similar plans, if you are going to buy one of their regular rate plans. So switching from AT&T to Verizon might have saved me little or nothing, or actually cost slightly more.
But if you want to change plan types, you can save a lot of money, particularly if you don't use your phone a lot. Last month, we used two phones a total of 56 minutes. We have a 450 minute plan that costs, with all those excise taxes, 911 fees, federal access fees, and the "we just made this up" fee, $63.00 per month (it can vary from $63 to $68 based on the phases of the moon, apparently).
If you do the math, we were spending over a dollar a minute for 56 minutes. Even if we used our allotted 450 minutes, we would be paying over 14 cents a minute for the plan. So overall, we are paying at least $756 a year (usually more) and not even approaching our minutes usage.
The GoPhone plan charges 10 cents a minute for the minutes you use. There are some caveats (it is, after all, a cell phone plan!). If you buy 1000 minutes ($100) they are "good" for a year. You can "recharge" the phone online, or by calling, or by hitting *729 on your phone. But after a year, you lose any minutes you don't use - if you don't renew the plan. When I renewed the plan in 2012, my unused minutes carried over.
I called first to make sure my existing contact had "expired" and I was not obligated to stay on it for more months or pay early disconnect fees. I explained what I wanted to do and the operator switched me to a GoPhone specialist.
I was able to switch over my phones while on the phone. No new phones needed, no new SIM cards needed. No new phone numbers needed. Even my VoiceMail box stayed the same. Within a few minutes (15 or so) he had converted both phones to GoPhone status.
I could have logged in right then and purchased my first "card" online, but instead had a purchase agent do it on the phone. Total cost, $200 (for two phones) or less than three months' service. And this will provide, on average, 83 minutes a month per phone, which is more than we use today.
The phones switched over immediately, and the password for my GoPhone account was sent to me by SMS (which is otherwise disabled on my phone). I logged in to the website (the AT&T website recognized I was a GoPhone customer and forwarded me to the correct site automatically!) and checked my balance and saw it go from $0.00 to $100.00 almost the instant the agent authorized my credit card (I hit "refresh" of course). You have to log into separate accounts for each phone, of course, which is a slight hassle.
I made two test calls, one on each phone. After each call, the screen displays the cost of the call and the remaining balance. Very handy.
My voicemails for each phone remained the same, even the incoming messages. Calls that bounce to voicemail do not cost you money, and you can access your voicemail from a land line with no charges.
So, sometimes this technology crap actually works as advertised - even at AT&T!
While everyone at the call centers at AT&T were helpful (and I had to talk to five people, overall, the general wireless person, the GoPhone person, the Minutes Card Purchase Person, the Billing person, and finally a "credit card verify person") it did take nearly an hour on the phone to get everything set up.
NOTE that messages are extra, and I had SMS messaging disabled on both phones. Messages from AT&T still go through. They have a $19.95 flat rate unlimited message feature for this phone, which I imagine might be handy for someone who rarely talks but constantly messages or uses other data features on the phone.
GoPhone also has a $2 a day unlimited (you pay $2 for each day you use the phone) but that seemed to me like an interesting choice, but too expensive if you just want to make a 1-2 minute call once in a while.
Obviously, the GoPhone plan isn't for everybody. If you yak a lot, it will cost you. But considering that I was paying 14 cents a minute on my old plan, this new plan is still cheaper if my monthly usage is less than 630 minutes (!!!!) based on what I was paying before.
The plan also works in Mexico, albeit at 25 cents a minute, Canada seems to be a staggering 79 cents (Note: this dropped to 45 cents, I believe, the last time we were in Canada. Service works only in areas with Rodgers Wireless). Service in other countries is not available, from what I can tell. And they do have an overseas calling plan as well as an International Long Distance Plan. But I do not anticipate making a lot of overseas calls, even when traveling (again, the point of traveling is not yakking on the phone!).
If we stick to less than 83 minutes per month average, we will save over $556 per year, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Subscription services can really drag down your personal economics, so it is beholden on you to track them carefully and evaluate costs and benefits regularly. Even $25 a month, which doesn't sound like a lot, adds up over time. And $25 here, $25 there, pretty soon you are talking hundreds of dollars over time.
The only other caveat I can see is that coverage is different between the GoPhone plan and regular AT&T plans. For example, parts of Montana seem to have no coverage. But overall, it seems that the signal strength is about as strong as it is for a regular AT&T phone.
Overall, this plan should work well for us. Sprint does offer a similar plan (10 cents a minute) but we would probably have to buy a new phone or change numbers. TracFone is more expensive (15 cents a minute) and requires purchase of a phone. Doing the migration from an existing AT&T account was painless and free.
We could have gone to a smaller minutes account, but lost a phone in the process. Sprint has a $29.95 a month account, which is the cheapest I could find. But it is only 200 minutes and every minute over that is 45 cents (!!!). Again, the basic rate on most "minutes" plans is over 14 cents. GoPhone is ten cents.
Is this plan for everybody? Obviously Not. But if you are not using your cell phone much, but want to keep it "in case of emergencies" or those few times you need to take a call while traveling, GoPhone can be a lot cheaper than even the cheapest "minutes" plan.
I will update this plan and let you know of any pitfalls or hidden "gotchas" in it. It it turns out to be a big rip-off, well, it will be goodbye AT&T and hello Verizon!
UPDATE: No "gotchas" so far, except that when I renewed the plan in 2012, they tacked on a 75-cent tax for some reason. I am not sure why. But compared to my regular phone plan, this is still very, very cheap - and no long-term obligation.