Straight Talk SIM: The BFF of a Galaxy Nexus or iPhone

Now that Google is selling an unlocked, no-contract version of the Galaxy Nexus for $399, will it change the U.S. mindset on subsidized smartphones? Probably not in any meaningful way, but for those who want to regain some control from their carrier, or actually choose which carrier to use their phone on, the Nexus is appealing. The radios inside the Android 4.0(s goog) smartphone can work on either AT&T’s(s t) or T-Mobile’s voice and HSPA+ data networks. Of course, you need a SIM card to make this happen.

Straight Talk, a brand of TracFone’s MVNO service, offers a SIM for the Galaxy Nexus or any other GSM phone that’s compatibile with these two carrier networks. That includes the AT&T iPhone(s aapl) handsets, even if not unlocked since the phone will see this as an AT&T card.

This past Sunday, I ordered a SIM card and one month of service from Straight Talk. The card should arrive later this week and I’ll simply pop into my own Galaxy Nexus and go. Aside from the no-contract, month-to-month terms, the deal is a sweet one: $45 gets you unlimited voice minutes, messaging and HSPA+ data.

A comparable contract plan for that service can easily be double that amount. Sprint (s s) is probably the most apt in terms of comparison as it is the only major U.S. carrier that truly offers unlimited services without any throttling or data caps. And it charges $99 per month, or more than twice what a Straight Talk account costs. You’re not going to get 4G LTE service with this plan, but depending on your coverage area, HSPA+ could be more than fast enough. I routinely see 10 Mbps peak download speeds on T-Mobile’s network where I live and I’ve seen even faster on AT&T’s network.

A few points worth noting:

  • Until just today, Straight Talk’s coverage maps didn’t seem accurate as the non-Android map looked like AT&T’s map, while the Android coverage image looked like T-Mobile’s footprint. In this Google Plus thread on the topic, Straight Talk customers have said that HSPA+ service on Android devices has worked on AT&T’s network even though the map indicates they won’t. Regardless, the coverage map now looks up to date; there’s just one.
  • Yes, the iPhone is supported and when you order from Straight Talk: you not only choose your GSM provider, but also your SIM form factor: standard or micro SIM.
  • Although advertised as unlimited, some have reported that their data was cut off after excessive use, so don’t expect this solution to work as a full-time mobile hotspot; in fact, using the SIM for tethering purposes is not allowed per the TOS. You might be able to tether in a pinch for limited use but typical smartphone activity is likely no issue.
  • You can refill the $45 service as needed, or if you find it more convenient, you can set up an auto-refill. There’s still no long-term contract, but this makes it easier to maintain service.
  • Straight Talk does permit number porting if you want to make this your full-time phone service without losing your current number. I was actually considering a number port of my custom Google Voice number, which is supported, but since I’m going to test the waters with a new SIM, I think I’ll hold off on that for now.
  • Part of the reason I’m testing this out is because I have a data-only SIM — from a tablet — in my Galaxy Nexus now. For $30 a month, I get 2 GBs of data, unlimited messaging and no voice minutes. I’ve worked around the voice situation through VoIP and SIP but I have missed a few calls due to areas with limited data coverage. Plus, after I add in a few dollars for calls and my SIP account, I’m paying closer to $40 a month anyway.

Given how expensive a long-term unlimited contract can be, plans such as this one can save a ton of money, provided you’re willing to buy a phone at full price. Ricky Cadden, one of my mobile peers that used to run the now-defunct Symbian Guru site, did a little math and found the Straight Talk plan saves around $1,600 over two years:

Btw, I did some quick math last night – AT&T for 2 smartphones at 700 shared minutes is ~$190/mo in Texas (taxes estimated at 20%), plus $200/phone, you’re looking at about $4960 over 2 years. Straight Talk is ~$90/mo (assume taxes are included), plus $600/phone, you’re looking at $3360 over 2 years. That’s a savings of $1600 over 2 years, or about $67/mo. Only difference is you have to pay the bulk up front, with $1200 for phones (estimated, of course).

When you take a hard look at the numbers, you can see why this type of no-contract plan appeals. Aside from my iPhone 4S this past October, I haven’t bought a subsidized phone since January 2010, when I nabbed Google’s Nexus One. With a $45 plan and choice of carrier, I’m more unlikely than ever to buy a handset that commits me to a long, pricey contract.