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Before you buy an iPhone from Virgin Mobile, read this

Commentary: The hardware is fine, and so is the service. But if your iPhone ever needs replacing, watch out.

Virgin Mobile offers some unbeatable iPhone deals, but beware the hassles of getting a replacement. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Back in March, having decided that Android wasn't for me, I decided to buy an iPhone 5S from Virgin Mobile. The deal was too good to pass up: 30 percent off the phone itself and $30 per month for service -- no contract required. ("Too good" here means relative to other deals. Was the iPhone cheap? Hardly. Was it the cheapest possible way to get the model I wanted? Definitely.)

The 5S itself has been great (especially compared with the 4S it replaced), and Virgin's Sprint-powered coverage has been, let's just say good enough.

However, last week I dropped the phone, busting its screen (sob). My attempt to replace it myself was unsuccessful, so I decided to pony up the dough (double-sob) for an Apple Store repair. (Had this been a warranty claim, that would have been my destination as well: Apple handles all service issues for iPhones purchased from Virgin Mobile.)

So I made an appointment, took the iPhone in, and got a replacement. (Apple Stores don't currently do screen repairs for the 5S, so what happens is they swap your whole phone -- same as if, say, your Wi-Fi stopped working.)

That's when the trouble started.

They should call it Virgin Nobile

Virgin Mobile

In a nutshell, my Genius Bar Genius (who, I just have to say, really needed a shower) couldn't get the replacement phone activated. I'll spare you the blow-by-blow, but after a full hour of trying this and that, he got on the phone with Virgin and was told that activation was "locked." It would take 24 hours to complete the process.

Nearly as exasperated as I was, he handed me the phone, said, "Good luck," and sent me on my way.

That was disappointing, to say the least, but it was only the beginning. After 24 hours, my phone still hadn't been activated. I called Virgin (and reached a live, admirably apologetic human almost immediately) and was told that the Apple Store had done it wrong: They'd registered the iPhone with Sprint, not Virgin Mobile, and there was no way to switch it over. I'd have to go back to the store.

Aggravating though this was, it helped explain the previous day's problems. Every time the "Genius" plugged the phone into a Mac, iTunes popped up a Sprint activation screen (one that wouldn't accept my VM number and password).

The second visit seemed to go smoother. I explained what had happened, and the guy helping me grabbed the store's resident Virgin Mobile expert (self-proclaimed). They swapped the "locked" iPhone for another replacement, and this time the guy vanished to the back with it, promising to go right through to Virgin's "tier 3" support so it would get activated right away.

After 35 seemingly endless minutes, he returned. This time: "It's all set, but just needs to link up with the local towers. Should be good to go within two hours."

Second verse, different than the first

That was around 5 p.m. I gave it till the next morning. Although the iPhone was activated, it wasn't getting service. I called Virgin Mobile again, and again reached someone right away. Here's where it gets even more interesting.

Once again I was told that the phone was tied to Sprint, and needed to be registered with Virgin Mobile. However, this courteous and apologetic rep told me they could make the switch at their end. (Note the disparity: I'm not sure which side got it wrong the first time, Apple or Virgin.) The process would take 2 to 4 hours, after which I'd receive a call back.

I waited five hours -- no call. So I called Virgin again. Got right through, apologies all around, and this time was told that the serial-number transfer was complete -- now they just needed to make a few more changes at their end. They kept me on the line all of five minutes, had me punch in a couple numbers on the dial pad, and presto! I had service.

Why do you hate me, universe?

It was a vexing couple days, but other than wasting a few hours, no major harm done. The price you pay for saving money, right?

Turns out the replacement iPhone (my third, if you're keeping score) is defective. The rear camera doesn't work, and I can't hear callers through the earpiece. So it's back to the Apple Store, and I get to go through all of this yet again.

What's the takeaway here? Several thoughts:

  • My local Apple Store may not be too swift when it comes to dealing with Virgin Mobile, but everyone I've dealt with his been very friendly. It's still the model of retail customer service, in my opinion.
  • Virgin Mobile may not be too swift when it comes to transferring your service from one iPhone to another, but the company has excellent customer reps. They speak in slightly accented English, but they're polite, apologetic, and seemingly very eager to help. And I never waited on hold, not once. (This was also true with a previous experience a couple months back.)
  • If you buy an iPhone from Virgin Mobile and need to have it replaced for some reason, expect hassles and delays. As a couple different Apple Store geniuses told me, when they swap a phone on, say, AT&T or Verizon, it takes mere minutes. Couldn't be easier. With Virgin, it's a slow and, obviously, often aggravating process.

Would all this stop me from buying another phone from Virgin? No, because despite all the headaches, the everyday experience is fine -- and much less expensive than with most other carriers. I sure do dread the idea of ever having to swap phones again, though.

By the way, if you need to reach Virgin Mobile phone support for an activation issue, call 888-322-1122, enter your mobile phone number when prompted, then press 4, then 2, then 2 again. That's the fastest way to a live human.

Have you ever had to replace a Virgin Mobile iPhone? If so, hit the comments to describe your experience with both that company and Apple. I'm curious to know if anyone had an easier (or harder) time.