As someone who cares about such things, I’ve decided to do a detailed review of Walmart’s Straight Talk Cell Phone Service Plan.
- Previous Carriers: I was a customer of AT&T for 7 years (2000-2007). I switched to Verizon and stayed with them for 3 years (2007-2010), then switched to Straight Talk in August of 2010.
- Type of user: One a scale for 1-10, 1 = can’t text and 10 = uber-techy, must have the latest/fastest/app-iest phone in existence, I’d say that I’m a “7″.
I’m fairly “techy,” and while not a power user (didn’t/don’t have a smart phone), I talk on my phone around 2000 minutes/month, and sent over 100 texts/month. I was just about to switch to a smart phone to help with my job when I went on a maternity leave and ended up taking time off from the full-time work force. I decided that it would be overkill to have a smartphone as a stay at home mom (especially given the costs of data plans).
- Why StraightTalk?
In short: Verizon/ATT Coverage for half the price!
I was drawn to StraightTalk b/c they’re purported to use the networks of AT&T and Verizon for their coverage (this is not stated anywhere in the literature, but most in-store employees will tell you this verbally and it’s fairly easy to verify online).
Since those are the two main companies that own the most bandwidth and cell towers, I thought I’d be better off going with them than with Boost or some of the other cheap alternatives that have to fight the big companies for the tiny amount of remaining, available bandwidth.
And indeed, when I emailed myself from my phone, the phone’s address had an “att” line in the address, indicating that it was part of the att network. When the phone boots up, it says it’s part of “Tracphone” (which is part of Verizon’s network. Also, this article states that StraightTalk is part of Verizon’s network).
- Area of use: I have used Straight Talk extensively in CT, NY, and in Southern CA.
- Straight Talk phones Used: Samsung T255G (basic flip phone with picture message, blue tooth, web access, etc)
Also, the Samsung T401G (slider phone w/ QWERTY keyboard, bluetooth, web browsing, fairly large screen, etc). Both phones are functional but NOT fun.
- How StraightTalk Works:
You sign up online at their website, or you can go into Walmart and purchase phones and service cards there. They charge $30 for 1000 minutes, 1000 MB of data, and 1000 texts/month. Or you can pay $45 for unlimited everything, including picture messaging. The minutes don’t “roll over” from month to month, and there’s no refund for not using minutes within the allotted 1 month period.
If you go over your minutes (on the $30/month plan), your phone just stops working until you refill. There’s no chance of getting overage charges. You can set it up to automatically refill if you have your credit card debited every month.
No contracts or credit checks are required. If you don’t have a credit card, you can prepay for a year’s worth of service or you can simply keep purchasing the service cards and add them to your phone as needed.
You can port over your existing phone number for free. I had a Verizon phone with no Sim card, and it took over a week to get my number ported over b/c StraightTalk had to send out a special “replacement” sim card for my new StraightTalk phone in order for it to connect with my existing number.
My friend who went from AT&T to StraightTalk said that it literally took 90 seconds for her number to port over to her new StraightTalk phone.
Important: for now, there are NO “deals” or insurance available on their phones other than buying a reconditioned one (online only). In some Walmart stores, there are better phone selections than online.
If your phone gets ruined, etc., you can’t exchange it for another one or get a discount on a replacement. You’ll pay full price for whatever phone you decide to get. In my case, I had an $80 phone that my toddler threw into the bathtub. It was totally ruined, so I bought a cheap $30 phone to replace it.
**UPDATE** I was just in Walmart on 9/23/2011 and they now offer a replacement plan for purchase with any new phone. I was buying a $50 phone, and the replacement plan (good for 18 months after purchase) only cost $9.
Service is ONLY available in the USA. NO options for international coverage. (A non-issue, in my mind, as international coverage from ATT or Verizon is prohibitively expensive unless your job is willing to pay for it).
Now, on to the actual review! :)
Phones offered: Pretty lousy selection, but functional. Like I said, StraightTalk is not for power users. StraightTalk is best for someone who wants a phone that can text, take pictures, and talk to other people, and who wants to go online for fun, but not for anything one needs to do in a hurry.
- Talking: Overall, the coverage is virtually indiscernible from ATT/Verizon about 90% of the time. When I’m driving, at someone’s house, or out and about running errands, I generally have full reception, only occasionally dipping down to 3 bars.
I’ve noticed at difference when I go into large buildings or into houses that are in hilly areas. With StraightTalk, I will completely lose all reception and the phone will read “NO SERVICE” when I try to dial or text, whereas when I had ATT/Verizon, I would just notice that I’d get LESS reception (maybe just 1-3 bars) and always be able to text.
- Texting: Like I said, the texting is much more finicky with StraightTalk than with ATT/Verizon. However, it works perfectly 90% of the time, and if you have a very long text it breaks it up automatically and sends it as up to 12 separate messages.
- Web Browsing: Both of the phones that I’ve had are capable of online browsing. The screens are tiny and the speed of browsing is so frustratingly slow that I never use the feature unless I’m, say, in a waiting room and don’t have a magazine to read. It’s like the speed of old-school dial-up. I don’t understand why this is the case—either the phones just have terribly slow processing speed, or the bandwidth is being “throttled” by the provider. I’m friends with someone who installs/maintains cell sites, and he assures me that whenever there’s an upgrade to 4G, etc., all of the old technology is ripped out and replaced by the new. In my experience, the speed is basically non-functional unless you just want to browse something like Facebook.
- Picture Messaging: Spotty. Within the network, it’s not much of an issue, though my husband has sent me pictures that the network couldn’t retrieve (and he’s a StraightTalk user too). Outside of the network, I’ve found it to be hit and miss. When my friend sends me pics from her AT&T SmartPhone, sometimes I can view them and other times the network refuses to retrieve them, giving me a “service denied” message. Also, you can only use picture messaging if you have the $45/month unlimited plan.
- Apps: Haven’t seen any.
- Customer Service: Outsourced to India. The reps are very polite and fairly good at getting things done. Their English is totally understandable, and their comprehension is good, too. One annoyance: you can tell that they’re forced to use overly-formal scripts (calling people “Ma’am” and “Sir” and asking for permission before doing ANYthing: “May I put you on hold for 2-3 minutes while I confirm this with my supervisor?” When I had the Sim Card issues, it took almost an hour on the phone with customer service to get the situation figured out.
POSITIVES: I’m thrilled to only be spending $75/month on our combined cell phone bill (plus around 80 cents in tax). I’m able to talk and text as needed, and never have to worry about overage charges. There are no hidden fees, which is a nice change from AT&T and Verizon. (I remember having a $79.99 family plan with an additional line for $9.99 that ended up costing me $120 every month after all the taxes and fees were tacked on. And that was when I DIDN’T go over my allotted minutes/texts).
Given that my husband and I don’t use our phones for work or for entertainment (gaming, video streaming, etc), this is a good plan for us.
NEGATIVES: The service is slightly worse than what I had with Verizon or AT&T—less reliable and less available. The web browsing speed is a joke (dial-up speeds). This was a huge disappointment to me, b/c the internet is such a huge part of my life that I was hoping to be able to have mobile access to it. I wanted to be able to look up directions on Google Maps or check the price of something on Amazon.com, etc., but the phone screen is so small and the browsing speed so low that it’s not practical. The phone selection is awful—I used to always choose phones at Verizon or AT&T that 1) fit my budget and 2) had features that I really liked. That’s not an option with StraightTalk’s crummy lineup.
So, am I happy that I made the switch? Was it worth switching to save $45/month ($540/year)? YES! I don’t think that what I had with Verizon was worth an extra $500 +/year, and with StraightTalk, I don’t have the built-in consumer-driven pushes to “upgrade” for a discount or for “free” that I did with the big companies. In reality, with moderate use like mine, a phone can last for at least a few years (if a toddler doesn’t throw it into a bathtub!). It’s nice to be able to easily make the choice to just hang on to what’s working.
**Update, Sept 21, 2012: I just bought a smartphone from them (Samsung Optimus Q) and had a terribly customer service experience. Porting my number over from my OTHER Straight Talk phone took 24 hours with a horrible, long, unproductive customer service call thrown in. I got a “we’re too busy to take your call” message, and on another occasion, when I signed up for them to “call me back in 14-18 minutes”, they never called. I’m not sure what has changed–perhaps they’re too busy now that Walmart is heavily advertising their services?–but I’d classify their customer service as basically nonexistent, since it’s so hard to access. Overall, though, once my phone was activated, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the great reception and coverage wherever I’ve gone. The speed of the internet (via my home WiFi network and via 3G is also very satisfactory).