Friday, March 27, 2009

Phone unlocking – Nokia phone from AT&T to T-Mobile Pay as You Go

For safety reasons I wanted my 10 yo to carry our unused Nokia 6555b GSM mobile phone on select occasions, but I didn’t want to pay $10 a month to add him to our family plan.

I looked at Pay as You Go plans instead. I could have gone with AT&T's Pay-Go plans, but, I don't trust 'em; I particularly disliked AT&T’s minute expiration policy. T-Mobile’s plan looked clean so I sent for a $10 SIM kit that includes some talk time as well. (Oops, see Update. They're as crooked as the rest of 'em.)

The kit came fairly quickly, and that’s where my education began.

In brief

  1. The phone needs to be unlocked; switching the SIM Card was not enough. AT&T/Nokia will do this if you’ve been more than 3 months on a contract. In my case I’m 9 months into the contract and I’d switched to an iPhone, but I don’t think the switch mattered. The key is the 3 months. It’s not clear if this is an AT&T rule or a Nokia rule.
  2. The unlocking procedure required extensive help from a saintly AT&T service rep who spent over 25 minutes on the phone talking to Nokia. At one point the AT&T rep had to read my email address over the phone and the Nokia rep had to transcribe it correctly. I’m amazed it worked.
  3. After the phone you should do a full phone reset, which restores it to a factory state. (Maybe you could do this first). You might want to reformat the memory card while you’re at it.
  4. The T-Mobile activation procedures is very painful.
  5. When you’re all done you’re still stuck with lots of AT&T crapware, but it was no less annoying when the phone was an AT&T phone. Actually, since it’s now all inactive, it’s a bit improved.

I’ll provide select details below.

Unlocking the Nokia 6555b (legally)

The AT&T rep recommended leaving the AT&T SIM card in place during this procedure. The directions say it will work without a SIM card. I did have the AT&T card in place.

About 1-2 days after my AT&T rep went through the long phone call I received my unlock directions (obviously I’ve changed the numbers below). They were pretty scary looking for a fumble-fingered geek, but miraculously I got it in one …

This email contains the device unlock code you requested for your Nokia imei 111111111111111.

The unlock code is 111111111111111. You have 5 tries to unlock the equipment. Device unlock codes are specific for the imei number. Please verify the imei number on the equipment by entering *#06# on the keypad of the equipment before entering the device unlock code in the equipment. If this process is unsuccessful five times in a row, the phone will be permanently locked to the AT&T network.

The following process can be completed with or without the AT&T/Cingular Wireless SIM card in the phone

  1. Press the # key once
  2. Press the * key three times (will display a "P")
  3. Press the * key four times (will display a "W")
  4. Press the * key two times (will display a "+" sign)
  5. Enter the unlock code 111111111111111
  6. Press the * key two times (will display a "+" sign)
  7. Press the 1 key
  8. Press the # key one time

Well, that was impressively ugly.

Activating the T-Mobile account

Once you’ve done that you complete all the numbers on your “10 minute” activation card and enter voice recognition hell.

Yes, the T-Mobile bot insists on trying to recognize voices. It hated mine of course, all the bots do. The children’s advice didn’t help the bot. For numeric data entry I could mute the microphone and use the keypad. That’s the reason I’m still sane – it’s hard enough to enter 15 digits perfectly by pushing buttons.

There are a lot of buttons to push prompts to suffer through. It felt like it took hours. At the end the account activates. It’s supposed to take up to 24 hours, but I think it mostly activates in a few minutes to a couple of hours.

I’ll update this post in a while with my T-Mobile experiences. I believe I can switch back to AT&T by putting my iPhone SIM in the phone – such as when my iPhone battery is being replaced.

Update: A few more observations

  • Communication is 32 cents/minute, rounding up to nearest minute (of course).
  • A text message counts as a minute (32 cents).
  • I thought minutes lasted a year, but turns out that's only true if you buy $100 at a time. Here's the fine print: "... Partial minutes rounded up for billing. Service is available for 90 days (one year for $100 refill cards) following activation. Void if not activated within 90 days from purchase. If you don't refill within 90 days after your last refill expiration date, you will lose your account. If you transfer your number to another carrier, you will lose your balance."
  • I registered with You need to enter your phone number and then you get a text message with a password (see below). The same method is used if you ask for a password reset, so if you lose your phone anyone can get at anything in this t-mobile account. Better treat it as public. It doesn't seem to store the credit card number.
  • The account balance takes a while to change after you add minutes. (Credit card security measure?)
  • Probably because this was an AT&T phone the text messaging didn't work at first. It didn't get the password I requested. I poked around and decided to see if I could SEND a text message from the phone. I sent it to my Google Voice number so it wouldn't cost me anything to receive it. Once I sent a message it sort of worked, I got a ring/alert and the messages were buried away in an insanely obscure location on my Nokia 6555. I had to go to Messaging/Message Settings/Options then find "Smart Chip messages" then I could move the message to the Saved Items folder. After this, however, two more text messages simply appeared in my inbox. So maybe it will work now.
At this point I'm wishing I'd signed up with AT&T's Pay as you go plan as T-mobile doesn't seem to have any REAL advantages. I'll give it a bit more time, I think changing back won't be hard.

Once Google Voice is open again everyone in the family will get a Google Voice number, so phone swaps will be simple.

Update 6/21/09: Incidentally, T-Mobile has one of the least competent web sites I've ever seen. It hung on me once, and it's very persnickety about number formatting. I couldn't get my payment to submit because I entered my full 5+4 zip code. I don't think T-Mobile has a future.

Update 9/17/09: I was late to figure this out, but voice mail on a pay-per-use phone just burns costly minutes.

Not coincidentally, you can't disable voice mail from the web site, you have to find the secret number (877-778-2106), phone when they're open, say "representative, representative, representative ..."to fight through the voice menu demons, and ask to have it removed. You need to know the "PIN" you set on the phone.

This phone doesn't need VM.

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