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Airvoice Wireless and Automatic Refills

Since October 2012 I've been using Airvoice Wireless for my wife's cell phone and we can't be happier. She used to be on a regular phone plan with AT&T and in 2010 we moved her onto T-Mobile Pay as You Go prepaid plan. At that time, T-Mobile had an interesting option if you would buy 1000 minutes for $100:
Fast forward to 2012 and things have changed quite a lot. Bing no longer has the 35% promotion, T-Mobile has started to block off most of those free sites, and for some reason my wife's minutes just started to disappear. One major drawback of T-Mobile's prepaid plan is that there are no reports that you can see to look at the calls/texts made. All that you can see is the minutes remaining. The straw that broke the camels back was that somehow her number got subscribed to some service that would charge to send her some fitness texts and would drain her account. I called T-Mobile and they straightened it out, but I would have hoped that they would have been a little more pro-active in weeding out scammers.

So after checking out HowardForums we decided to go for Airvoice Wireless. The reasons:
  • They are an AT&T MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator).  In layman's terms, they buy minutes/text/data in bulk from AT&T and package and market their own plans.  Since she was going to get my AT&T compatible iPhone 4, we wanted to be on the AT&T network (she's not a heavy data user, but we wanted her to be able to get onto 3g instead of having to fall back onto T-Mobile's 2g network).  Although T-Mobile and AT&T are both GSM operators, the iPhone 4 cannot use T-Mobile's 3g network.
  • They have a $10 / month plan which gets you:
    • $0.04 / minute
    • $0.02 / text
    • $0.33 / MB data
  • As long as you refill your minutes before your Airtime Expiry date, the dollar value in your account will rollover! That means that if you have $5 on your account and you put in $10 to continue for another 30 days, then your new account balance will be $15.
  • When you refill with Airvoice, your new expiry date will be exactly 30 days from the date when you refill. Unless your balance is running down to $0, it is therefore a disadvantage to refill early. But you also don't want to forget and have your dollar balance wiped out. It reminds of the Price is Right: refill as close as you can without going over.
  • I've confirmed with Airvoice Customer Service that the Airtime Expiry date is based off of the Central Time Zone.  That means that if you're on the West Coast, you must refill your minutes prior to 10pm or your dollar balance will be reset to zero. Of course you can use the Central Time Zone to your advantage if you're on the West Coast. Refill your Airvoice accounts at 10pm the night before the expiry date and you can rest easy for the next 30 days.
One thing that you might have noticed is that your current cell phone plan might have a whole bunch of taxes and fees tacked onto your bill.  One really nice thing about the Airvoice $10 Plan is one simple transparent fee.

Getting Started

Airvoice is nice because they support BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). In our case it was an unlocked iPhone 4 (although AT&T locked iPhones will work on Airvoice as well).  To get a SIM card, just go to eBay and look for Airvoice.  Not only are the SIMs on eBay super cheap (about $1-$4 including shipping), but vendors sell official Airvoice SIMs that have trimmed down.  The iPhone 3 (and earlier) takes a normal SIM, the iPhone 4 takes a Micro SIM, and the iPhone 5 takes a Nano SIM. Get the right one and there is no need to get a SIM cutter or anything like that.

Activation on Airvoice is a snap. Their customer service is great and can be reached at 1-888-944-2355. The only thing that is a little weird is that if you want the $10 plan, make sure that you specify that you want their monthly plan and not a prepaid plan.

Setting Up Data for the iPhone on Airvoice

To activate data on the iPhone, their customer service will ask you to get onto a WIFI network with you iPhone and then go to http://unlockit.co.nz with your iPhone.  The unlockit site is a bit weird, but awesomely functional. You'll select Airvoice as the carrier and then opt to Create APN (Access Point Name).  You'll then be taken to a spot in the Apple App Store where you will install an application that will correctly change the settings.  As I said, weird but awesomely functional.You will have to power on and off your iPhone after installing and running the application.

Setting up data on an iPhone for Airvoice wireless

The screen that you will see when you browse to http://unlockit.co.nz/. When you choose Create APN, you'll get taken to an application in the Apple App Store that will change your cellular data settings for you. 

One think that you should definitely consider is turning off your cellular data on the iPhone (go to Settings - General - Cellular - Cellular Data: OFF).  Airvoice charges $0.33 / MB and all sorts of apps send data back and forth and the charges can start to add up. My wife only uses the data network when she really needs to.

Automatic Refills....not!

So my wife uses about $6 a month on Airvoice and to take advantage of the $10 Plan rollovers, you have to pay $10 before or on your Airtime Expiry Date. If you fail to add the $10, your dollar balance will be reset to $0 (ouch!). At one point, you were able to stack dates
by adding a succession of $10 recharges, but this is no longer the case. So while Automatic Refills no longer work for the $10 Plan, here is a technique that you can use to minimize the chance that you will lose your minutes.  The following technique is especially useful if you need to refill family accounts via the web. 

Sample of what the appointment would look like:

Airvoice Automatic Refill


When your renewal date comes:
  • Copy the PIN into the clipboard (press down on the PIN and wait for the "Copy" balloon to appear
  • Click on the URL in the calendar event to get to the refill web page page
  • When you're on the refill page, enter your phone number and then paste the PIN
  • You'll see the Airtime Expiry Date and the Balance updated
  • You might see, "Refill was added but ILD was not added. Subscriber not found." Don't worry about that - it just means that International Long Distance was not added.
  • You'll notice that the expiry date is 30 days in the future and not simply the same date next month. So expect to see the actual day to vary from month to month.
  • Now go back to your calendar event and change the expiry date and delete that PIN that you just used

Example of checking Airvoice Account Information (minutes etcera...) and Refilling with the web interface.

Airvoice Refill Web Interface


This technique works really well if you are taking care of other people's phones (spouses, parents, etc...) and don't have access to their device.  If you have the actual Airvoice handset you can also dial: *888* + (pin number) + # + SEND

What's all this talk of refill PINs?

So coming from the traditional monthly plans, refill pins might seem a bit confusing. Basically, PINs are a simple currency that can be used to refill your account. You can buy several PINs ahead of time using a credit card, and I usually buy 2 or 3 ahead of time. It's unclear if these PINs have any kind of expiry dates, but I just buy two or three at a time to minimize any funky risk.  If you do decide to buy a couple of PINs at a time, consider going to a site like CallingMart where you can get 5% if your purchase meets the minimum order of $18 - you will have to use the coupon code PRD135 and the discount ends on March 5, 2013. Sure it just means that your $10 plan will cost $9.50.... By the way, CallingMart is a pretty cool site as your one stop shop for cell phone refills and calling cards.  It's especially handy if you travel or if you have relatives abroad.

Free Long Distance

One thing that every cell phone user should do is have a calling card for International Long Distance.  My wife and I have used Google Voice for years and we've used it primarily for it's free long distance to Canada option.  Its international rates are fairly competitive too. A golden rule for cell phones is to make sure that you have a calling card or Google Voice for International Calling!  Cell phone companies make huge profits on international long distance calls.

Free Texts

OK - so I'm a real cheapskate. Since both my wife and I have iPhones I decided to give iMessage a try to cut down on text costs. We thought about going full on with Google Voice, but that would involve giving friends new numbers and then use Google Voice as an outgoing dialer.  I'm sure we could have figured something out, but frankly the iMessage option was so easy to get going that we decided not to bother with a conversion over to Google Voice.

Bottom Line

So what's the BikesKidsMoney verdict?

Traditional plan: $70/month; Airvoice: $10/month

Yearly savings: $840



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