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Christmas Gift Guide
Mobile

Get totally free global phone service and messaging

You bring the unlocked GSM phone, FreedomPop and WhatsApp will give you unlimited messaging and a small stipend of no-strings-attached data every month.

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 noontime sandwich gratis.

OK, but free cell service? Definitely no such thing. Except, yes, there is, thanks to a new offering from FreedomPop and WhatsApp. For about $13, you can get a free basic service plan that includes 100 voice minutes, 100 text messages and 200MB of 4G LTE data every month -- plus unlimited WhatsApp calls and messages. In 31 countries around the world.

Once you buy your SIM card, you can enjoy free basic service and unlimited messaging via WhatsApp.

FreedomPop

The price of FreedomPop

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

  • An unlocked GSM smartphone or tablet (you'll know it's GSM if it has a SIM card slot)
  • A FreedomPop SIM card, which is $12 to $13 including tax and shipping

When you first sign up for service, FreedomPop will try to steer you to a free trial month of the WhatsApp 1GB plan, which costs $20.99 after that first month. (You can also opt for a 2GB plan for $29.99.) Choose WhatsApp Basic if you want to stick with the totally free option -- the one we're talking about here.

Just to clarify, all these plans include "unlimited WhatsApp," meaning you can use that app all you want without any impact on that 200MB data plan. (For those unfamiliar with it, WhatsApp looks and operates like a traditional messaging app, but uses data instead of cell towers and SMS.)

Additional data costs 2 cents per megabyte, or $15 up front if you want a gigabyte.

FreedomPop definitely tries to up-sell other options along the way, including a data-rollover plan ($3.99 per month), usage alerts ($1.99 per month) and voicemail ($2.49 per month). Without this last option, callers who don't reach you will hear a generic recording, though you can use FreedomPop's visual-voicemail app to play your messages.

Pay close attention to all these items at checkout, especially those marked "free," because next month you may get billed for them.

How I fared

FreedomPop sent me a SIM card to test; I popped it into a Verizon Galaxy S6, which comes unlocked out of the box and supports both CDMA and GSM networks.

Following the simple Android-specific instructions that came with the 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.

And presto! I immediately had phone, messaging and data service. I was also pleased to find usage numbers just one tap away in the FreedomPop Messaging app's slide-out menu bar. I didn't have the option to choose (or port) a phone number, but I suspect that's because the SIM arrived already activated.

Unless you sign up for the aforementioned usage alerts, it'll be up to you to monitor your consumption. And let's be honest: 200MB of data probably won't last you long. But if you're traveling, especially in a foreign country, there'd be a certain amount of no-brainer genius in using the FreedomPop SIM card. You'll temporarily have a different number, but you'll also enjoy free (or at least super-affordable) global service.

During my tests, calls came through loud and clear (no reason to think they wouldn't, given the AT&T backbone), and SpeedTest reported a download speed of nearly 10Mbps. Solid.

Don't forget WhatsApp

One thing that's easy to overlook: actually installing WhatsApp. If you rely solely on the FreedomPop app for messaging and calls, it'll deduct from your 200MB monthly allotment. But, remember, when you use WhatsApp, all calls and messages to and from other WhatsApp users are completely free, with no impact on your plan.

It's worth noting that you can also get 200MB of monthly data free from T-Mobile, but that's only for tablets -- and it doesn't included unlimited messaging on WhatsApp. The FreedomPop/WhatsApp option seems like an excellent choice for anyone traveling to other countries, but my immediate plan is to stick the SIM in a backup phone. That way I'm covered just in case my primary phone gets lost, stolen or broken.

FreedomPop isn't all that competitive when it comes to larger data plans, but if you want to operate a phone or tablet for free (or as close to it as you can get), this is a truly compelling option.