New T-Mobile prepaid voice and data plans especially interesting for tourists

The U.S. prepaid mobile phone market is finally playing catch-up with the rest of the world. For years, prepaid options over here were lousy at best.

In recent months, we’ve already seen operators like Virgin Mobile and Verizon reduce their prices and offer better products for people looking for a prepaid way to make calls and get online.

Starting October 18, T-Mobile will be the next big operator to improve their prepaid plans, changing every aspect of what they have to offer.

Of course, the real advantage of prepaid voice and data is that you don’t lock yourself into a contract, and you don’t need to pass a credit check – making the plans ideal for short term use or tourists who can’t provide a Social Security Number.

The biggest change in the new plans is that prepaid customers can buy much larger bundles of minutes, messages and data – with a plan starting at just $1/day offering 1500 texts/minutes and 30MB of data. Even heavy users are taken care of, with a $70 unlimited talk/text plan that offers a generous 2GB of data.
The new plans:

New T-Mobile Prepaid Monthly Phone Data Plans:

  • $70/month Unlimited Talk and Text with 2 GB of Data
  • $50/month Unlimited Talk and Text with 100 MB of Data
  • $30/month 1,500 Talk and Text (mix and match voice and text messages) with 30 MB of Data
  • Unlimited Text and $0.10/minute
  • $1.49/day Web DayPass

New T-Mobile 3G mobile broadband data packages:

  • $10 week pass (100 MB)
  • $30 month pass (300 MB)
  • $50 month pass (1 GB)

Along with the launch of the new data plan, T-Mobile will also introduce a new prepaid USB modem, complete with a SIM card and online connection manager.

Gadling gear review – Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go

The Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service is one of the only true pay as you go mobile broadband products on the market. The service is as simple as it gets – you buy the adapter at your local Best Buy for $149.99, then you add money using your debit/credit card, or a prepaid Virgin top-up card (available at thousands of retailers) whenever you need to get online.

The adapter

The Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go adapter is made by Novatel Wireless. It is the same top of the line adapter sold by many other mobile operators. The adapter itself is quite small, and comes with the installation software stored in flash memory (for Windows and Mac). The adapter also features a built in MicroSD card reader, which means you can pop a card in and use your mobile broadband adapter to store important files.

Installing the adapter is simple – you plug it into a spare USB port, let the autorun installer do its work, and at the end, it’ll open a registration page. Once you provide some basic personal information, you go through a quick programming procedure, and the modem is ready to use.

The Virgin Mobile broadband service

The service itself is great – Virgin Mobile uses Sprint as their network provider. The Sprint broadband network is everything it should be – reliable coverage and good speeds. I did 10 different speed tests all around my area, and the average speed was always well over 1 mbps, which is on par with many residential DSL speeds.

When you plug the adapter into your machine (after installing), it activates the connection manager. Simply click connect, and you are online. I tested the connection extensively, and actually found it to be extremely smooth. On several occasions, I had switched from my home broadband to the Virgin Mobile service without even noticing any drop in speed.

The cost

This is sadly where we reach the one downside to the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service – the price. There is no way to beat around the bush – the Broadband2Go service is not cheap. To use the service, you pick from one of four different plans:

$10 – Expires in 10 days – 100MB data allowance
$20 – Expires in 30 days – 250MB data allowance
$40 – Expires in 30 days – 600MB data allowance
$60 – Expires in 30 days – 1GB data allowance

As you can see, access does not come cheap. That said – if you have ever spent $20 to access the WiFi in a hotel, you’ll find a $60 investment for one month of speedy access to be quite reasonable. For comparison – a postpaid mobile broadband account from one of the major operators costs the same as the 1GB plan on Virgin Mobile, but those plans usually come with a 5GB limit. In other words, for the luxury of no contract and no monthly fees, you lose 4GB each month.

There is however one major advantage to the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service – there is absolutely no commitment involved. You can add credit to your account when you need it, and if you don’t select an auto-replenish option, you will never be charged a penny for not using the service. Personally, I find the expiration periods (10 days/30 days) to be too short and the data allowance on the $60 plan is just too low.

Final thoughts

The pros of the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service outweigh the cons. The adapter is good, the speeds and coverage are good, and the connection software is well made. The cost upfront for the adapter and the price for access are a pain to deal with, but since Virgin Mobile is one of the only real pay as you go options, you won’t have any other choices. Other non-commitment services on the market include:

Verizon Wireless Daypass
– $15 for 24 hours unlimited usage.
Cricket Wireless – $40/month for unlimited data but the service
Slingshot – from $24.95/month (at the moment, no retailer appears to be selling this service)
Rovair – $63/3 days (Rovair is a mobile broadband card rental service)

There are several obvious target audiences for the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service. For starters, it is a great way for foreign tourists to get online if they are staying in the United States without any other connectivity option. With mobile data roaming rates around $20/MB, picking Virgin Mobile could save them a fortune.

I’m also convinced that anyone else who is regularly on the road could benefit from the service – keeping the adapter in your bag for emergencies is a great way to access the Internet when things turn sour. There are no costs involved in keeping the service active, and you can be online in a matter of minutes for just $10, as long as you are within range of the Sprint network.

The Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service only works in the US, and there is no option to roam. Since the adapter works on the CDMA sysyem, it will be of no use to anyone in Europe and there is no unlocking option that can make it work elsewhere.

Keeping in mind the this is the only real prepaid service available at the moment, I’m going to give the Mobile2Go service my two thumbs up.

Daily gear deal – T-Mobile prepaid Samsung phone + $25 credit for $30

Our daily deal for this morning is for a T-Mobile prepaid mobile phone with a bonus $25 prepaid card. This Samsung Stripe GSM phone is a step above most basic prepaid phones, as it has Bluetooth and a camera.

The phone is on sale for just $29.99. Now, you are probably wondering why I’m linking to a prepaid phone when most of you probably already have a decent (smart) phone.

Well, at just $30, this makes a brilliant little backup phone, plus it is great for anyone visiting the US who wants a cheap way to make some calls when they visit us.

The other reason is that this phone can be used with any T-Mobile SIM card, which means current subscribers to T-Mobile will be able to pop their SIM card in the phone and use it.

The phone comes with a charger, hands-free headset and SIM card with 10 minutes starter airtime.

Fly in South Africa – and pay by the minute

An upstart airline in South Africa is working hard to find somewhere to rent their planes and clear regulatory hurdles for their planned routes. Of course, upstart airlines are nothing new, they appear (and disappear) every month.

Airtime Airlines is different though, and grabbed our attention thanks to an innovative new pricing method.

The airline has taken a cue from the mobile phone industry, and plans to sell prepaid flight time, where passengers pay by the minute.

Basically, passengers will buy “air time” in advance. Flight time will cost 5 Rand per minute (about 53 cents) and the airline is quick to point out that the predetermined flight time is what you pay, regardless of any delays on the ground.

Of course, with just 3 routes (Durban to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth), the entire scheme sounds too wacky to succeed. If the whole prepaid plan doesn’t sound complicated enough, they are making things even harder by implementing fluctuating “top off rates”. The current rate of 5 Rand per minute could go up and down, depending on promotions and a host of other factors.

At the end of the day, the whole thing will result in fluctuating airfares, just like on every other airline in the world.

Still, upstart airlines are what shake up the industry, and we really need innovations like this to remind the legacy carriers that they are not going to get away with poor service and bad airfares forever.

(Airtime Airlines, via Wired)

The top 10 ways to make phone calls when you are abroad

Welcome to the Gadling top 10 ways to make phone calls when you are abroad. This top 10 list will take a quick glance at 10 ways you can save on keeping in touch with people back home. It’s a well known fact that international calls are quite the racket, and making long calls back home can severely deplete your vacation spending money. Thankfully, technology has opened up all kinds of ways to save on your calls, and I’ll list the 10 that I think are the most important.

Your own phone

The most common way to make phone calls back home when you are abroad is of course to use your own phone with your own plan.

This is all fine and dandy if you only plan to call someone to let them know you arrived safely, but if you plan to keep in touch every time you see a cute giraffe walking down the street you’ll owe your mobile operator quite a lot of money once you arrive back home.

Before you start splurging on the newest technology, decide how often you plan to make a call, and compare the price of those calls with what you’d plan to spend on a nifty new way of making calls. If you only plan to make 20 minutes of calls back home ($20), then spending $50 on a new prepaid card may not be the best solution.
Prepaid mobile phone cards

When it comes to making cheaper mobile calls abroad, the prepaid SIM card is usually the first solution people think of. Prepaid SIM cards are more popular abroad than they are in the US, and you’ll usually be able to find a prepaid SIM card at any store, including kiosks at the airport.

A SIM card is the small chip you slide inside your phone to let your phone know who you are, and what your mobile number is. SIM cards are primarily used in the US by T-Mobile and AT&T (the GSM operators). Verizon and Sprint use a different system, but to make things complicated, they DO have some phones that are GSM compatible, and therefore use a SIM card.

One thing to keep in mind with any SIM card that takes the place of your regular SIM, is that your mobile phone has to be unlocked. You will need to contact your mobile operator to get your phone unlocked and not everyone will be eligible for a free unlock.

Before you consider using a prepaid sim card, it pays to research the rates of the different international operators. The differences in prices of calls back to the US can be staggering. A fantastic resource of all prepaid operators around the world is It may take 20 minutes to pick the cheapest mobile operator at your destination, but that time could easily save you $100.

For example; if you purchase a Vodafone prepaid sim card in the Netherlands, your standard rate for calls to the US is €0.75 per minute.If you purchased a KPN Mobile sim card, the rate is a whopping €1.45 per minute. With rates like that you’d be better off using your US phone instead.

Where? Anywhere prepaid mobile phone cards are sold
Price? “SIM Only” starter packs usually cost about $20, packs with a SIM card and a phone start around $40

Global roaming phone cards

Global roaming phone cards are not the same as prepaid phone cards – the technology behind them is the same, but these new cards are often issued out of countries with cheaper roaming rates, which allow you to carry the cheaper plan along with you, no matter where in the world you end up. One of the most popular cards on the market at the moment is the MAXroam sim card, offered by Cubic Telecom in Ireland (don’t worry, they’ll gladly ship to the US). The MAXroam sim card replaces the sim card in your current GSM based phone.

The rates on these cards are substantially lower than the rate offered by your own mobile operator. Per-minute rates from most European countries back home to the US are about $0.30.

Of course, you often can sometimes get even cheaper rates with a normal prepaid sim card, but the low rates on these global roaming cards means you won’t have to buy a new prepaid pack in every country you visit.

Another great advantage of these global phone cards is the ability to assign a normal US based number to them, which means you can give your friends and family an affordable way of contacting you when you are abroad, without them having to call an international number.

Where? Research global roaming cards at
Price? Starts at around $20


MagicJack is a tricky one; they offer a quality product, but cheapen the brand with horrible early morning infomercials and a never ending “buy within the next 4 hours” hard sell.

MagicJack is a $30 USB stick for your PC that provides unlimited local and long distance US calls. You will have to bring your laptop along with you if you want to make a call. Magicjack comes with a local US number, which means your friends and family won’t have to call a foreign number.

MagicJack also offers cheap international calls. I’ve been using MagicJack for some time now, and it’s never let me down. Of course, you will need to be connected to the Internet to get a dial tone. Calls can be made with a regular analogue phone, or by using a headset plugged into your PC.

Price? $39.99 (includes the MagicJack dongle and 1 year unlimited local and long distance phone calls)

Blackberry from T-Mobile

I’ve written about this option before, so I won’t go into too many details. The Blackberry Curve from T-Mobile (along with several other T-Mobile Blackberry smartphones with Wi-Fi) have the ability to roam onto Wi-Fi instead of a foreign mobile network. As long as you can get online, you’ll be able to make and receive phone calls. The advantage of this, is that as far as T-Mobile is concerned, you are “at home”, and will be able to take advantage of the local US rates or minutes included in your plan.

Of course, once you leave the Wi-Fi coverage, you are back on the expensive cellular network. T-Mobile is also the cheapest option for international data because they offer a $20 Blackberry flat-rate and unlimited plan for any email sent or received when abroad.

Where? or any T-Mobile authorized dealer
Price? From as little as free on a 2 year agreement + monthly service charges


Skype is one of the most popular Internet calling applications on the market. It provides free Skype-to-Skype calls, as well as fee based calls to landlines and mobile phones. Skype is available for your computer, as well as several brands of mobile phones, and even on portable devices like the Sony Playstation Portable.

To make a Skype call when you are abroad, you’ll of course need Internet access.

Price? Free Skype-to-Skype calls, $2.95/month for unlimited calls to US based phone numbers

Mobile phone add-on plan

Before you leave, be sure to call your mobile operator. You’ll want to do this for 2 reasons; first to make sure you are allowed to roam abroad, and second to ask whether
they have any international calling add-on plans.

These add-on plans don’t just apply to your regular mobile plan, many foreign prepaid cards also offer options to lower your per-minute rate for international calls. Using Vodafone in the Netherlands as an example again, their normal rate of €0.75 per minute for calls to the US can be lowered to just €0.30 by calling them and paying a one-time fee of about €10.

Where? Your mobile operator
Price? Starts at $5.95 (for example; the AT&T Wireless “World Traveler plan“)

Type, don’t talk

With roaming charges often as high as $4 per minute, it often makes more sense to send a written message instead of a spoken one. Many mobile operators offer add-on plans that add fairly large amounts of international data for as little as $20. Sure, an email may not be the most personal way of staying in touch, but at the end of the trip you’ll have a lot more money to spend on crap at the airport souvenir store than if you had made a bunch of phone calls.

Many mobile phones can be outfitted with instant messaging or Twitter clients that allow you to communicate in real time with anyone who has Internet access.

Just be sure to keep the data to a minimum as international data charges can be even more painful than phone call charges.

Where? or search for “mobile instant messaging client”
Price? From free

Picking the right roaming operator

When you arrive at your destination, your mobile phone picks the strongest signal it can pick up. This may not always be the cheapest provider. When your mobile operator negotiates prices with foreign operators, they won’t always get the same deal. A simple rule of thumb is to always try and stick with partners of your own operator, if you use T-Mobile in the US, pick T-Mobile in the UK and anywhere else you can find it.

Where? Check the international rates of your operator on their own web site.

Not making the call…

This one sounds pretty lame, I know. There is however some logic to it. Before you pick up the phone, always decide whether it’s really worth the money. Sometimes it makes more sense to just drop the folks back home an email. Just 15 years ago people survived fine without a mobile phone, and it can often be quite liberating to spend a week at the beach without the constant interruption of your Blackberry. I would not suggest leaving your mobile phone at home, as it always makes sense to have access in case of an emergency, but you do not need to keep your phone on 24/7.

One other tip to consider before leaving, is to turn off voicemail on your phone before you leave for your destination. If someone tries to call you abroad and reaches your voicemail box, you will actually pay the international rate for them to leave a message.

Do you have any other tips or ways you call the folks back home when you travel? I’d love to hear them, so please leave them in the comments!