iPhone for under $250 - Including an unlimited data plan

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By Ed

Actually, I'm pretty certain you could do this for under $200, but it would depend on your Kijiji/Craigslist skills.

Anyhow, Robin has been fishing for an iPhone for a little while now.  There are real reasons why it makes sense for her/our life; texting seems to be something that isn't going away, a phone that takes pictures is handy for a blogger and we are already knee deep in Apple stuff anyhow, so App Store purchases would transfer over for free.

Checking the weather while on the road could be useful.  I guess.

I decided to get her one for Christmas.  My goal was to make it easily reproducible for anyone else out there looking to Smart Phone up their life.  The actual steps are pretty easy, but to get to them, you'll have to sit through a rant...  or skim to the bolded headings to the steps.  At least humour me and pretend you read the rant.  Either way, read on.

Step 1 - The Rant. 

I know what you are thinking - I can get an iPhone for much less than $250.  I can get one for free (in some cases) with a contract from any number of cellular providers.  My problem with these deals is the that they are not deals.

To get your Free phone, you need to commit to a 3 year contract.  If you take the difference between the cheapest contract I could find ($50/month) and compare it to similar pay-as-you go options ($25-30/month) and then multiply it by 3 years ($20 savings X 12 months X 3 years) your Free iPhone 4 will cost you $720.  And if I wanted an iPhone 5?  Add at least another $80 to that price. 

And, if you are really only an occasional texter/browser/phoner?  You can do even better than the $25/month plan.  Rant over.

This How-To requires exactly 1 tool - a paperclip to pop out your SIM card tray

Step 2- Find a cheap iPhone 3GS from either Rogers (for 7-11 plan) or "Unlocked" for others.

The 3GS is still supported by the current iOS 6 update (as of February 2013 - iOS 6.0.1), meaning it will support virtually all current (and near-future) Apps.  The 3GS also has a compatible SIM card size with cheap Pay-as-You-Go providers.  If all that is gibberish, just look for the words "Unlocked" when shopping on Kijiji or Craigslist.  This means you can shop plans and find the best one for you.

Pop the SIM tray out with your amazing phone tool (paper clip)

I didn't do this, but if you buy an Iphone 4 or 5, you will have to cut the SIM Card down.  There are cool tools for this, or this handy printable.  Sharpen up your kitchen knife and make yourself a frugal SIM card.  Seriously.  The geek in me wants to try this just to say I did it.

Step 3 - Find a Plan

Find a plan from a provider that sells SIM cards on their own (ie - you don't have to buy a phone from them).  The best monthly plan that I could find that included browsing, texting and phone time was from Virgin.  $25 gets you 100 minutes, unlimited Canada and US texting and 100 MB of data.  Nothing to set the world on fire, but $25/month!  And it is not a contract, so if you see another plan you like, jump ship.

Our favourite provider is 7-11 and their Speakout Cell service.  It uses the Rogers network here in Canada, so don't worry if you don't have a 7-11 near you.  You can manage it all online here.  Pay $10 to get a SIM card and then top up your phone with any dollar amount - it will last you a whole year!  Yup, if you only want a phone for an emergency, get a 7-11 $25 credit and that is the only cost to your phone for the whole year.  Nuts.

Why 7-11 fits with iPhone is they have a $10 add-on for Unlimited Browsing.  We monitor our account and make sure there is at least a $15 credit every month, they take out $10, and our iPhone is web enabled anywhere that Rogers provides service in Canada.  There are some limitations, but things like checking email, the weather, looking up a map or an address (i.e. the stuff we actually need the data minutes for) all work.

Slide it back in with a SIM card of your choice.

Step 4 - Put it all Together. 

If the 7-11 iPhone sounds interesting to you, here is a very detailed tutorial to get you going.  I followed it exactly as written and other than having to reset our new iPhone once the SIM was installed, it worked flawlessly.  I'm sure ordering the SIM/plan from Virgin would work just as well.

The unlock.co.nz App lets you set up a profile for nearly any carrier you can imagine.

So - here is the grand total for an iPhone with unlimited browsing plan.
  • iPhone 3GS (8GB) - 179.99 plus Tax/shipping (Since it was a gift, I wanted a return policy - Kijiji is definitely cheaper though)
  • 7-11 SIM Card $10 (plus taxes)
  • Sign up online, add credit and activate $10/month Browsing option.
  • Total: $240 (give or take - you may be able to avoid shipping/taxes on the phone with Kijiji or Craigslist)
Facebook App via 7-11 Speakout wireless 3G

And the following months?  They'll cost us at least $10 for browsing plus whatever text and voice usage.  We plan on monitoring this and perhaps adding the Texting option.  Still, that would be $20/month, plus the occasional phone call.  Ask a teenager how often they use their phone to call someone.

One final rant.  $240 isn't cheap.  The cellphone-free people of the world (or those who haven't done the math on their free phone plans) will argue it isn't even frugal.  And we have gotten by just fine with our $40 phone for a long time, so this decision wasn't taken lightly. 

What plan are you on?  Would you recommend it to someone else?



  1. I do not consider my iphone plan to be frugal to other people's standards HOWEVER that being said - because it replaces a home phone, a computer, an iPad (yes I read on it), provides GPS services etc etc etc I find it the best tool I carry with me daily. I use my iphone to call, text, read, google, mapquest, control my home thermostat and more! I use Fido as my service provider and for the last 15 years (yes, an original, loyal customer) they have given me great service, lots of plans to choose from, and no penalty for switching plans and options mid month when I see a better alternative to what I currently have. I read your rant about "what the phone ends up costing" but I DO have a monthly plan, and DID take out a three year contract to get my phone "free". And what I am paying for is * the service* - not the phone. I could have had a cheaper phone I bought outright - but I would still pay the same amount for my "services" Ed - so this time your logic was lost on me. LOL The "free" phone part comes from showing my loyalty to commit for the next three years. I had no problem doing that after realizing I had already used Fido as my provider for 12. :)

    1. You are right Pam, there are some out there (those who rely on their phones for all the things you listed) for whom a full service plan is probably the way to go. And if you were an early adopter on the iPhone train, the three-year contract was likely the only way to get one.
      I'm more or less arguing that as a late adopter (very late), there are deals to be had on used phones and fairly decent plans in the $20-$30 range. There is a very limited range of features an iPhone 5 offers above the iPhone 3G, and I don't think they are worth the several hundred dollars extra many people end up paying (teenagers/ 20-somethings, I'm looking in your general direction).

  2. I still have an old flip phone that I use for emergency or occasionally when I meet up with someone and we're off schedule. Our provider is Virgin- we use a pay-as-you-go plan as it was the cheapest we found at the time. I've been pleased with their service.
    All of my sisters have smart phones (3 blackberries and an iphone) and two of my sisters have eliminated their home phone. This does justify some of the cost but we still pay less for my land line, cell and internet than they do for their phone service. And it makes me crazy when I'm speaking with them and they disconnect mid-conversation b/c they've lost signal. Happens at least once a week speaking to one of them- to be fair, they often call me at home while they're in their car, en route. But it makes me crazy.

    1. I am juggling the math on going home-phone-free and still not sure. Most Internet providers require an active phone line to run your service through so you can totally cut that bill out. There are nerdy options (Dry-loop) and bundle options (cable internet) but I still have a feeling that if I ever sit down and crunch the numbers, it will come out 50-50. Someday I may actually give it a shot.

  3. FYI - Looks like the $10/month unlimited data option is gone as of July 2013: http://www.speakout7eleven.ca/prepaid-cell-phone-rates

    1. Yes, we have been eyeballing this lately and weighing options. Likely we'll see what 7-11 replaces it with and how it fits our life. If it doesn't fit... Wind Mobile and Virgin have unlimited plans in the $25-30 range that could work. Not nearly as frugal as 7-11 though. Boooo. Hissss.


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