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Sprint's free year of unlimited data -- what's the catch?

No, it's not a joke, but it is a limited promotion. Here's how you can get access to the deal.

Now playing: Watch this: Sprint's free unlimited data offer has some limits

Sprint's free offer is an attempt to nab customers away from rivals. 


Sprint must have lost its mind.

That's probably what you're thinking after hearing that the carrier is offering a year of unlimited data for free. Let that sink in for a moment: FREE.

Your next thought is likely: What's the catch?

Fortunately, CNET has taken a close look at this promotion, and while there are some limitations, we haven't found any red flags.

The deal is an indication that, well, it's a good time to be a wireless customer. Between an increasingly scrappy Sprint and T-Mobile riding a wave of consumer goodwill, the carriers are bending over backwards to win your business. Heck, AT&T is even throwing in HBO for free. This latest offer takes the cake.

"With handset lives longer than ever in the US wireless industry, there are an awful lot of customers now off-contract for whom a year of free service might sound pretty appealing," said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. 

Here are the details you need to know:

How do I sign up?

Sprint is keeping a low profile on this offer, so you won't see any commercials about it. It also won't be available at its stores or retail partners. You can only sign up online here.

Here's how Sprint plans to make this work financially. Allan Samson, senior vice president of acquisition marketing for Sprint, said that by using an online-only process and skipping things like commercials, sales staff and tech support, it can afford to offer the service for free. He said the usual costs of adding a customer means Sprint doesn't make money until after the first year anyway.

Who is this for?

Well, as the promotion is called "Stop felling ripped-off by Verizon," it's obviously targeted at Verizon customers. But AT&T and T-Mobile customers are also welcome, although current Sprint subscribers are not.

Sprint requires that you bring an unlocked phone that you can use with the service (you can keep your number too). The company is going after Verizon customers who have been reluctant to switch because of the cost of a new phone and the hassle of moving.

What do I get?

You get a year of free "Sprint Unlimited" data, which includes unlimited talk, text messages, a 4G LTE connection, HD streaming video and 10 gigabytes of data per line for mobile hot spot access each month. The company said it has the right to de-prioritize your data during times of congestion, but that doesn't kick in unless someone uses 23 GB that month. 

What happens after that first year?

After July 31, 2018, the prices go back to Sprint's normal monthly rate of $60 for one line, $40 for a second line and $30 for each additional line (up to five lines).

Can I just leave Sprint after the free offer is expired?

Yes. And surprisingly, there are no catches here. You're not stuck on a contract, and are free to leave.

But Samson notes that Sprint offers the lowest rates for unlimited data, so a customer would have to make a choice to pay more if they switched after the first year.

"I really like my chances to keep a large majority of these customers with the Sprint family," he said.

This isn't completely free, right? Where are the expenses?

You will have to buy a SIM card for $2.99. There's also a $10 shipping cost to get it to you overnight.

Again, you can't go into a store for this promotion. The salesmen won't be able to help you.

There's also a $30 activation fee that you initially pay, but a credit for that amount will appear two months later.

Are there any other fees?

There's a monthly $1.99 administrative fee, 40 cents for a regulatory fee and other taxes and fees.

Sprint requires that you enroll in its eBill and AutoPay program to cover the monthly costs. If you cancel the AutoPay option, you will be charged $5 a month per line. Removing both AutoPay and eBill will incur a $7.99 fee.  

How long does this promotion last?

It runs until the end of June, so it's a short window. Samson said the company will evaluate the success of the program, which could be extended.

Do you need to pass a credit check?

Sprint will run a standard credit check to verify that you are, in fact, a human and not a scammer looking to set up a fake account. But you don't need to have a specific credit level to qualify for the promotion -- anyone is welcome.

Do I need to keep my old phone?

After four months on the service, you're eligible to buy a new phone through Sprint. You'll have to pay for the device through monthly installments, a lease or buying it outright, but service remains free. 

What phones are eligible?

  • Apple iPhone 5C (Verizon only)
  • Apple iPhone 5S (Verizon only)
  • Apple iPhone 6
  • Apple iPhone 6 Plus
  • Apple iPhone 6S
  • Apple iPhone 6S Plus
  • Apple iPhone 7 (Verizon only)
  • Apple iPhone 7 Plus (Verizon only)
  • Apple iPhone SE
  • Google Nexus 5 (Verizon only) 
  • Google Nexus 5X
  • Google Nexus 6
  • Google Nexus 6P
  • Google Pixel
  • Google Pixel XL
  • Motorola E4 
  • Motorola Z2 Play
  • Motorola G4
  • Motorola G4 Play
  • Motorola G4 Plus
  • Motorola G5 Plus
  • Motorola X Pure Edition
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 edge Special Edition
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Special Edition
  • Samsung Galaxy S8 Special Edition
  • Samsung Galaxy S8+ Special Edition

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