For use in the US, I decided to use T-Mobile's prepaid pay as you go plan (1000 minutes of talk time @ $100 with a 1 year duration). The following is some information on how to do this (though as of this initial writing, is not complete yet). Sure, if you search online for this information, there is a plethora of articles at sites like eHow and internet forums. Furthermore, both Amazon and eBay have individuals selling T-Mobile SIM cards. The problem is that the information is often times not completely accurate or lacking in details. So I'm writing this as a means to provide more details and specifics.
The iPhone 4 and 4S use a micro-SIM. The following shows the micro-SIM which is cut out from the regular sized SIM.
T-Mobile used to sell the prepaid activation micro-SIM on their online shop for $10. That however is no longer the case as of this writing; the card is given away free
but requires signing up for a plan with a 2 year contract. To make matters more confusing, they also sell SIM cards that are essentially replacements only and therefore do not come with an activation code. Most of the cards being sold on eBay and Amazon fall into this category; there is this one on Amazon which says it is a prepaid activation kit
but several of the feedback says no activation code is included - the ones which said it worked don't really specify if they were doing a new activation; this overall lack of clarity in addition to none of the sellers providing any further solid followup as to whether this is an actual activation kit (with the necessary code) or actually just a replacement SIM, tells me that you should just stay away from these SIM's. Some eBay sellers are also selling T-Mobile SIM's which have been "professionally" cut for use in the iPhone 4/4S. The descriptions in some of these are somewhat misleading because it says these cards can be used either for activation or as replacements. The reality is that most of these cards also do not come with an activation code. What some sellers do is they will assist you with the activation once you receive the micro-SIM from them for a small fee. The confusion lies in the terminology; there are two activations - one is being able to activate the unlocked iPhone itself while the other is activating/provisioning the micro-SIM. Most of the T-Mobile SIM's up on eBay are the former and not the latter.
To make matters even more confusing, buried in the contract free portion of the T-Mobile site is a link to a T-Mobile SIM card activation kit
. This is a standard sized SIM which includes 10 minutes of free air time (allowing you to perform some testing) and costs $4.99. A micro-SIM version however is unavailable. Why the price difference from what they were selling before in both the standard and micro size before the 2 year contract clause was put into place? And why the overall difficulty in being able to easily acquire an official prepaid micro-SIM activation kit in the first place? From what I've read, going into a T-Mobile store is hit/miss in also acquiring this micro-SIM. I suppose its being done on purpose to make it slightly difficult since the iPhone does not support the frequencies which allow it to run on T-Mobile's 3G data network (anyone who will jump through all these hoops will understand and knowingly have no issues with the limitations). Whatever the actual reasons, this $4.99 version is the card which makes it pretty easy to get up and running on one of their pay as you go plans. Several sellers also have this same kit listed on Amazon
at a lower price (WorldWide Distributors has a large amount of positive responses for selling a product that is accurately described unlike some of the other ones). The only caveat is that you will need to purchase a SIM cutting tool (Amazon has listings with the average price being around $5) in order to use it in an unlocked iPhone 4/4S.
As mentioned, there's a bunch of pretty useless and/or outdated information on eHow (I mention this because if you perform a search, you will come across these links
which leaves out far too much information) and other sites. Postings on various forums including T-Mobile's own discussion site either lack details and/or contains outdated information (like the before mentioned $10 micro-SIM activation kit). This is one of the reasons why I'm writing this.
So exactly what happens if you use a SIM which does not include the activation code? Well first of all, with an unlocked iPhone 4/4S, it will allow you activate the phone with Apple's servers so that you can get to the home screen. From there, the iPhone will act like a better version of the iPod touch. T-Mobile will show up on the upper lefthand corner of the screen (see image below) but at this point, the micro-SIM itself is not activated; being able to activate it with the code allows setting up an account, select a plan, paying for that plan, and receiving a phone number. Without the activation code, the card cannot be activated from T-Mobile's website.
There are several options though. One of them is to head over to a T-Mobile store and try to get the activation performed in person. Another way which may or may not work (YMMV) is to launch the Phone app and follow the prompts in the voicemail message which is left for you. The first thing you say is "activate new service" when prompted. Once you get to the part where it asks you if you need a new SIM or not, when you answer "no" (because you already have a T-Mobile SIM inside the phone), the voice tree will connect you to a customer service representative (you're basically saying that you are a new activation/line who wants to use the pay as you go plan and already have a T-Mobile SIM). YMMV as to whether or not the CSR will be able to get your SIM activated via this route (according to others who did not have success, they were told various reasons including the SIM being damaged or outdated (where they would need to visit a T-Mobile store for a replacement).
The cut T-Mobile SIM that I have pictured above is NOT the activation kit version as all I wanted initially was a micro-SIM to be able to activate the iPhone itself. I do have the abovementioned prepaid activation version on order from T-Mobile, but what I plan on doing once I receive it is to try and see if I can get the current micro-SIM that I have installed activated by talking with a CSR. This way, I can report back the details and overall experience of the process. If that doesn't work, then I can just cut the prepaid SIM down to a micro-SIM and do the activation that way.
(To be continued)