One month with the $30 T-Mobile prepaid plan: Is this the best smartphone plan available?

On paper T-Mobile's $30 prepaid plan may look like the best smartphone plan available in America.  When I got my unlocked Nexus 5 I had to put it to the test.  I recently used the plan for a month, including a drive across the country.  Here are my thoughts on the plan specifically and T-Mobile's service in general.

$30 buys a lot on T-Mobile

The $40 starter kit includes one month of service and a SIM card

The $40 starter kit includes one month of service and a SIM card

The $30 prepaid plan includes 5GB of high-speed data after which data is throttled to 2G speeds, unlimited texting, and 100 voice minutes.  It is only available from Walmart online or in-store.  The $40 starter kit includes one month of service and a micro SIM card.

My Nexus 5 uses a micro sized SIM card but iPhones 5 and newer use the smaller nano SIM.  More phones will likely use nano SIMs in the future.  You can cut the micro SIM down to size if you have an existing nano SIM to use as a guide, or buy a SIM cutter online.  I recently cut a micro SIM down for my iPad and it wasn't too difficult with a sharp knife and metal file.

Is a plan of this structure the best smartphone plan for you?

A plan with minimal voice minutes and 5GB of data may not be for everyone.  I don't talk on the phone very much, and I use free calling apps to make calls on wifi and cellular data, so I wasn't concerned about running out of minutes.  If you use your phone in a similar way this may be the best smartphone plan for you.  There isn't another plan with this much data at such a low price that I'm aware of.  See our overview of all the best prepaid cell plans for other options.  If you need  lots of data this is a phenomenal deal.

Setup was pretty easy with an unlocked phone and Google Voice

I use Google Voice, so I didn't need to port my phone number over.  I went through the activation online but encountered an error.  Fortunately, a call to T-Mobile got me up and running in a few minutes.  I decided not to set up a recurring payment with my credit card since I was just trying the plan out.  After account setup I could check my usage, balance, and other details online or through text messages.

T-Mobile is faaaaast - if you have coverage

HSPA (top) and LTE (bottom) speeds with my Nexus 5 on the $30 T-Mobile plan

HSPA (top) and LTE (bottom) speeds with my Nexus 5 on the $30 T-Mobile plan

Once up and running I had to check out the speeds I could get with the plan.  In the suburbs of Philadelphia I got great speeds on HSPA and crazy-fast speeds on LTE.  However, a few miles away I might drop down to 2G (EDGE) speeds.  I was right on the line where T-Mobile's 4G coverage ended.

On my cross-country road trip I typically had solid 4G coverage in larger cities.  In the mid-atlantic and midwest I was usually on EDGE in between cities.  However, once I got further out west my coverage would drop to GPRS, and I also had long stretches along route 80 where I had no coverage at all.  My experience mirrors T-Mobile's coverage maps, but I was still surprised such a large portion of T-Mobile's network was GPRS.  My co-pilot had Verizon, which consistently had better coverage, although it did drop out from time to time on long stretches across Utah and Nevada.  Last year I also drove cross-country with my Verizon iPad Mini and was pleasantly surprised at the amount of 3G and LTE coverage across the southern part of the country.

If you spend most of your time in a city or suburb where T-Mobile has solid 4G coverage, and don't mind dropping down to 2G speeds every now and then T-Mobile will work great for you.  However, it's hard to recommend to people who live in rural areas or smaller cities, especially in the midwest/western part of the country.

Wrap-up: the best smartphone plan for some, but not for everyone

I love the idea of this plan: tons of high-speed data for just $30 with no contract.  However, the coverage just isn't good enough for me here in the Lake Tahoe area.  When I'm back in the northeast I'll probably switch back.  Is this the best smartphone plan?  It very well may be for you, but it's definitely not for everyone.