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How to activate your iPhone 6 on T-Mobile

If you went the prepaid route and ordered T-Mobile's no-contract iPhone 6, you may have no idea what to do once it arrives.

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Apple

Did you preorder a T-Mobile iPhone 6 or 6 Plus from Apple? I did. Read on for my tale of woe, or skip ahead to "Options for Activation," below, if you just want help getting service.

No more two-year phone contracts. Not now, not ever.

That was my thinking when I splurged on the no-contract iPhone 6 from T-Mobile. Reselling my previous iPhone would help defray the cost, and I'd be free to try T-Mo for a month or two, then take it to a less-expensive MVNO if I wanted (more on that below).

But when the new iPhone arrived, I didn't know what to do next. There was no information in the box about activating the phone, creating a T-Mobile account, porting my current number, or anything else. Because I'm not currently a T-Mobile customer, I didn't have a SIM card I could just pop in.

(For the record, if you are a T-Mo customer and do have a matching SIM card, it's probably just a matter of, well, popping it in.)

Sure, I was able to set up the iPhone, sign into my iTunes account, and restore my backup from my old phone. But then what? I still didn't have service.

Instructions not included

Because calling customer-service departments ranks up there with getting a tooth filled, I went to T-Mobile's Web site. Surely they'd have some big, splashy banner: "New iPhone 6 owners, click here!" Nope. In fact, I couldn't find anything related to activating a phone. (After a Google search, I did find T-Mobile's phone-activation page -- but the first thing it asks for is an activation code, which was nowhere to be found.)

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Um, what activation code? My iPhone 6 arrived without one. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Plan B: Find a store and get help from a human. The store locator told me there was a T-Mobile outlet in my nearby Walmart. Easy enough, right? Except, no: Walmart apparently no longer handles prepaid T-Mobile phones, only postpaid. (Whatever that means. I mean, I know what it means, but it makes no sense. I might have better luck at an "actual" T-Mobile store, the guy told me.)

Ultimately, I gave in and called T-Mobile customer service. After a 7-minute wait on hold, a heavily accented gent (who I could barely understand) told me, sure enough, I'd need to talk to the Prepaid Department, and transferred me over there.

That's when it got really terrible. This time, I had a very difficult conversation with a heavily accented woman, who seemed to be working from a script (natch) and got totally thrown when I diverted her from it. She asked for my T-Mobile account number; I explained that I didn't have an account, that's why I was calling. After a long silence, she asked for my phone number. Er, which phone number?

We went around and around like this for some time. I frequently had to repeat myself, and she frequently asked questions that didn't pertain to what I wanted -- which was simply to create a new line of service and port my existing number. In the end, it seemed like everything was all set -- but I still found myself without a confirmation number, any kind of T-Mobile account information, or even a phone number to call for updates.

A day later, when I still didn't have service, I decided to visit the "real" T-Mobile store in my nearby mall. There I had to pay $10 for a new SIM card, despite the fact that the iPhone 6 had arrived with a T-Mobile SIM already installed. What the heck, T-Mo? The CSR I'd spoken with on the phone didn't mention this. And if I she had, would I be looking at a week-long wait to get the SIM in the mail?

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Note to T-Mobile store staff: This exists. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Also, two reps at the store had no idea that T-Mobile's Simple Starter Plan ($45/month for unlimited talk/text and 2GB of capped data) even existed. When I insisted it did (having seen it online), they "found" the option and got me all signed up. Finally. (Note to anyone who might be porting a number from Virgin Mobile: You'll need to supply T-Mo with your Virgin Mobile account number, and the only way to get that number is to call Virgin Mobile. Sigh.)

Bottom line: This was a terrible customer-service experience from start to finish. Maybe some crucial document got left out of the box, or maybe T-Mobile assumes people who order a phone from Apple will instinctively take it to an Apple or T-Mobile store for activation. Maybe the oversight actually lies with Apple. Whatever the case, I suspect anyone new to T-Mobile will run into the same head-scratcher: Got the iPhone 6; now what?

Options for activation

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New customers will need to buy a Nano SIM for the T-Mobile iPhone 6, even if it came with one. T-Mobile

If you didn't slog through my story, the key takeaway is this: For new customers, the fastest way to get your iPhone 6 or 6 Plus activated on T-Mobile is to take it to a proper T-Mobile store (by which I mean a standalone store, not one shoehorned into a Costco, Walmart, or the like). I have no doubt you could accomplish the same thing at an Apple Store, but those aren't nearly as ubiquitous -- and good luck getting anywhere near one in these initial post-launch weeks.

You can also call 877-453-1304 to take a stab at getting your phone activated by a CSR. If you're porting your number from another carrier, make sure you have the corresponding account number and PIN/password.

Finally, if you don't mind waiting a bit, you can head to T-Mobile's Bring Your Own Phone page. Although the iPhone 6 isn't listed (um, what?) and doesn't even appear if you search for it, just scroll down a bit and select the T-Mobile SIM Starter Kit - Nano SIM. It's $10 -- but, oh, wait, it's "free with promo code FREESIM." (Thanks a lot, T-Mo store! I want my $10 back.) From there you can choose a plan and so on. Just keep in mind it'll probably take at least a few days for the kit to arrive in the mail.

Or you could skip T-Mobile altogether

According to a T-Mobile rep, if you paid full price for the iPhone 6, it's already unlocked. That means you can take it to any other GSM carrier, including AT&T, Consumer Cellular, Cricket Wireless, H2O Wireless, Straight Talk, and so on.

As with T-Mobile proper, you'll need a SIM card, and you'll have to go through the porting process if you want to bring your number. But that's the beauty of the unlocked phone: You're not tied to a single carrier for two whole years.

If you ordered a T-Mobile iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, share your activation story in the comments.