2014-08-27

T-Mobile's free 200MB/month

I was in the US for the first time since T-Mobile announced their "Free Data for Life" offer for owners of 3G/4G-enabled tablets and laptops in the US, so I was anxious to check it out.

For those who haven't heard of it, if you buy a T-Mobile pre-paid SIM card, you can activate it for free and use 200MB of data per month without ever having to pay a cent or even provide T-Mobile with a credit card. Sometimes you can even get the SIM card for free, so it costs you nothing at all! It's their teaser to get you hooked on having a connected tablet, which they hope will lead you to either buy a monthly plan or purchase a bigger block of data for pre-paid use.

Read on to see how it worked and find out about the minor snags I ran into along the way.



Supported Devices


The list of supported devices at http://support.t-mobile.com/docs/DOC-9700 includes most of the name-brand tablets and laptops that are available in North America with 3G/4G capabilities. Obviously you need something that works on T-Mobile's frequencies, so if you have a data-enabled tablet that you don't see on the list, it's either very new or (more likely) doesn't use the same frequencies as T-Mobile's network.

I've got a US-edition HP Chromebook 14 that came with a T-Mobile SIM card, but it was shipped to Canada so it still hadn't been activated; you need to be within T-Mobile's network coverage in order to activate the SIM and setup your account so I couldn't do anything until I was in the States and had the Chromebook with me.


I also have a 2012 Nexus 7 3G tablet that I've used in Europe as well as with Telus here in Canada. I wanted to see how difficult it would be to get things setup so that I'd have 200MB/month anytime I was in the US with the tablet.


Note that T-Mobile says that any SIM card you use with their free 200MB plan will only work with the device used during activation, so if you're like me and have two or more 3G/4G-enabled devices, you'll need a separate SIM for each. Given that the SIMs are fairly cheap that's not a big deal, but it would be nice if you could move the SIM from device to device, otherwise upgrading your tablet means getting another SIM card. The plan will not work on a phone, so if you had a notion to use it with your cell phone to stay connected while in the US, forget it - ROAM Mobility is probably a better option for your cell phone if you're a Canadian.


Also keep in mind that the free 200MB plan only works in the US. Other T-Mobile plans get free worldwide data roaming at 2G (slow) speeds, but the free one only works on T-Mobile's network in the US. It's great for US residents or travellers to the US, but don't expect it to work elsewhere in the world.



Getting a SIM Card

My Chromebook already had a T-Mobile SIM card but my tablet didn't. The town I was staying in didn't have a T-Mobile store near my hotel, but there was a Wal-Mart store five minutes away and they carry T-Mobile products. Wal-Mart's web site lists the T-Mobile tablet SIM card for $10, but in store it was $20. Hmmmm, that doesn't seem right, but no amount of complaining was going to get the clerk to knock $10 off the price so I paid the $20. The kit comes with a nano-SIM plus adapters to allow it to fit in devices that require a micro-SIM or full size SIM - that's a good move by T-Mobile since it means having just one kit instead of two or three. I paid my $20+tax and went back to the hotel to activate the devices.

The SIM kit I got looks like this:

Tablet SIM Package Front


Tablet SIM Package Back


The package opens up like a book, with instructions printed on the inside and the SIM card and adapters popping out when you pull on the tab labelled "PULL".
Tablet SIM Package Inside


Activation

Activating on the T-Mobile network requires the device to be connected to T-Mobile, so you have to turn off WiFi and enable 3G, then wait a few seconds for the device to connect to T-Mobile's network. On my Chromebook, it automatically recognized that the SIM I was using wasn't activated and took me to the registration page. The setup instructions at T-Mobile walk you through this, but it's pretty straightforward. First, you need to create an account using an email address to login, and you'll need to provide a US ZIP code. I used the ZIP code of the small US town closest to my home, but when I tried to complete the account registration I got this generic error page:


T-Mobile Activation Error Page

That wasn't terribly helpful. I thought I may have mistyped something so I tried again but got the same error. Then it dawned on me that there's no T-Mobile service in that small town, so I tried again but used the ZIP code of the hotel instead, and bingo - everything worked. T-Mobile assigns a telephone number to every device on their network; that appears to be the main purpose of asking for a ZIP code at this stage of the registration - it selects a phone number appropriate for that region.


The next step is to select what kind of plan you want to use for this SIM. I wasn't smart enough to get a screen shot from the Chromebook when registering, but you're given a list of choices that looks pretty much like this:

T-Mobile Plan Options
For the free 200MB/month plan, click on the "Plain and Simple" option and select the 200MB plan. Then you proceed to the next screen to select a PIN code for the SIM and you're done. You'll get a pair of email confirmation messages, one with the PIN code and another saying that everything is ready to go, at which point your laptop/tablet can now use up to 200MB of data per month and you won't have to pay a cent. 200MB isn't all that much of course, but it's plenty if you just want to check email, Twitter, or Facebook the odd time you're away from WiFi.


Thank-you Wal-Mart

The Chromebook activation went smoothly so I figured I'd just do the same thing with the tablet. I put the nano-SIM from the kit in the micro-SIM adapter, popped that into my Nexus 7 tablet, then fired up the tablet.

Once the tablet was up and running I took it out of Airplane Mode and then turned off WiFi to make sure that it was only using the 3G cellular connection for data. Surfing to http://T-Mobile.com/ConnectMe/ gave me the same options I'd seen on the Chromebook, but this time I already had an account, so rather than create another I used the same one to sign in.


Once again I selected the "Plain and Simple" 200MB/month plan and entered the hotel's ZIP code, but no matter what I tried I could not get the tablet SIM to activate - I kept getting the generic error screen. Eventually I gave up and decided to call the T-Mobile support number from the error screen to see what was wrong. After about 30 minutes on hold I found out that the SIM package I'd bought at Wal-Mart must be scanned by the clerk in order to activate it with T-Mobile - it even says so right on the front of the package and there's a separate bar code for activation on the back. I guess this is to render the SIM useless in the event of theft and I just assumed the clerk (in the checkout of the "Mobile" section of the Wal-Mart store) knew what they were doing. Unfortunately for me, T-Mobile couldn't do anything about it and I was going to have to return to Wal-Mart with the SIM package and my receipt. The second time around there was a more experienced clerk behind the counter and he swapped my old package for a new one and made sure to scan the activation bar code.


Back at the hotel I repeated the process of activating and selecting a plan and this time everything worked as expected - my Nexus 7 now has 200MB/month to use for free anytime I'm in the US.



Buying More Data

If you use up your 200MB and need more, you can sign-in to your account and buy various amounts of data or even convert to a monthly plan. To sign in, visit http://mim.t-mobile.com/ and use the email/password you gave at activation time. You'll see a list of devices on the account (I've got the Chromebook and tablet on the same account), and for each you can view the status of the plan. Here's the status page for my Nexus 7:
T-Mobile Account Status


If you need more data, the "get day/week data passes" button currently gives you these choices:


T-Mobile Recharge Options
The data amount, duration, and dollar values will probably change over time as T-Mobile adjusts their pricing, but they're comparable to pre-paid rates from other vendors and should remain competitive. A 3-day option would be nice for weekend trips to the US, but then again it's hard to argue with the pricing of the 1GB 7 day pass at $10.

Once you select an option and click [Next], you're taken to a payment screen that accepts all major credit cards, and presumably has no issue with Canadian credit cards since the "State" selection box lists all of the Canadian provinces.



Summary

The "Free Data for Life" plan is a smart move by T-Mobile. For the one-time cost of buying a SIM, you get 200MB/month, and if you need more, you're likely to pay T-Mobile for a 1/7/30-day pass rather than get a prepaid plan from another vendor. Incompatible hardware or lack of T-Mobile network coverage are the only reasons to look elsewhere. You can check out network coverage ahead of time at http://www.t-mobile.com/coverage.html

Just watch out for the 2 things that almost tripped me up if you're signing up for the plan: failure to scan the activation bar-code at Wal-Mart, and use of a ZIP code outside T-Mobile's network coverage.
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