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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Mobile

Get totally free phone service and messaging

You bring the unlocked GSM phone, Freedompop will give you a small stipend of no-strings-attached service every month.

freedompop-sim-card-sale.jpg

Watch for sales on Freedompop SIM cards. Normally they run as much as $19.98 shipped.

Freedompop

People say there's no such thing as a free lunch, but if I rack up enough points on my Which Wich rewards card, eventually I'll be eating a sandwich gratis.

OK, but free cell service? Definitely no such thing. Except, yes, there is, thanks to Freedompop. For the price of a SIM card (about $20, but much less if you're able to find a sale -- see below), you can get a free basic service plan that includes 200 voice minutes, 500 text messages and 200MB of 4G LTE data every month.

Unfortunately, the company no longer includes unlimited (zero-rated) global WhatsApp calls and messages in its free offering for US customers. But if you spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi or you want a plan for your backup phone, Freedompop is worth a look. Let's take a look at how this freebie really works -- and how you can protect yourself against unexpected charges.

The price of FreedomPop

To sign up for the service, you'll need the following:

  • An unlocked GSM phone or tablet running Android or iOS.
  • A FreedomPop 3-in-1 LTE SIM Kit.

That SIM kit normally runs $9.99, plus $9.99 for shipping. But at the time of writing you can grab one for 99 cents shipped as part of a limited-time offer -- I'm not sure when it's set to expire. However, if you start at the Freedompop store (as opposed to the special offer page) and pay full price, you'll get 5GB of bonus data. But it's not clear if it expires after the first month or rolls over.

Either way, when you get to the checkout page, stop. Now look at the fine print. Look closely:

You'll get free service (and some extras!) for the first month, but after that your service will automatically renew with premium options. You have to manually switch to the free plan.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

I suspect a lot of customers kind of gloss over these details, and are then infuriated by the $33 charge in their second month of service. So don't forget to manually switch to the free plan after that first month.

On one hand, I understand why Freedompop structures the checkout process this way. The company needs to make money, and paying customers support the customers who live off the free plan. (Interestingly, 55 percent of Freedompop customers pay nothing, according to a company representative.) On the other hand, seeing all this "FREE" stuff in your shopping cart makes you think you're getting, well, free stuff -- not agreeing to premium services that kick in after the first month.

On top of that, I've heard a lot of complaints about Freedompop. Some users have reported billing that continues even after switching to the free plan, others have noted poor or non-responsive customer service. Your mileage may vary, of course, but you should definitely read some of the comments connected to this post as well as those from previous posts I've written as The Cheapskate -- like this one.

How's the service?

Having recently made the move to AT&T's network for GSM users, Freedompop offers much better coverage than when it was a Sprint-only MVNO.

Following the simple Android-specific instructions that came with my SIM, I installed the FreedomPop Messaging app, manually configured the phone's APN settings (a simple two-step process outlined in the included instructions), and enabled data roaming.

In my tests with the Freedompop SIM and an unlocked Galaxy S6, data performance seemed no different to what I've seen from AT&T proper. Calls and messages, however, were a little inconsistent.

That's most likely because Freedompop's phone and messaging app relies on voice-over-IP. That means if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network, you can enjoy free calls that won't count against your monthly allotment of minutes -- but you may also experience, well, inconsistency. (No Wi-Fi? The app will switch over to the cellular network.)

To its credit, the app makes it easy to check your plan usage via a slide-out menu bar. But let's be honest: 200MB of data won't last you long, which is why you should at least know your other plan options.

What's beyond free?

I've long found fault with Freedompop's website, which borders on the user-hostile. Indeed, try finding a list of the carrier's service plans. Click Shop and you'll see only phones and SIM cards. You actually have to click My Account -- even if you don't have one! -- and then Plans. That's where you'll get a chart outlining the various options -- but apparently that's for Freedompop phones, not SIM cards. For options specific to the latter, check the "For our SIM cards" section of this support page.

What happens if you use more minutes or data than you get with your free plan? Yeah, that's not easy information to find, either. Freedompop does use automatic top-up, meaning you'll get billed $15 if you exceed your data limit -- but it's not immediately clear what that $15 gets you. It took some digging, but it appears extra data is billed at a pay-as-you-go rate of $0.025 per megabyte.

If you decide you like Freedompop and want to move to a more robust plan, the service has some reasonably competitive offerings -- including a Global 3GB Premium option priced at $39.99 per month.

My advice: Try the free plan first to make sure you're happy with performance and customer service. And, hey, for a phone or tablet that you use only occasionally, that freebie deal is hard to beat.

If you've had experience with Freedompop, good or bad, share your feedback in the comments!

Editors' note: This article was originally published on August 31, 2016, and has since been updated.