How to decide if Virgin’s $1 mobile plan is right for you – CNET

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If you’re willing to buy an iPhone from Virgin Mobile, your first year of service will cost only a buck.

Virgin Mobile

OK, who else did a double-take this morning?

I had to be sure I was reading the headline correctly: Virgin Mobile is offering a full year of unlimited phone service for $1? Did someone leave off a couple zeroes?

Nope. It’s real. Hot on the heels of Sprint’s free year of service, Richard Branson‘s Sprint-based carrier is offering a seemingly too-good-to-be-true plan of its own. One year, one dollar. After that: regular rates.

Is this the right option for you? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

First, buy an iPhone

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Virgin carries all the current iPhone models — at least one of them at a discount.

Virgin Mobile

Yep, this is likely to be the dealbreaker for a lot of interested parties. To join Virgin‘s “Inner Circle” and get the $1 plan, you must purchase an iPhone from an Apple Store or Virgin’s site and transfer your existing number. You can’t bring your own phone (not that you ever could with Virgin), and the company is no longer offering Android models.

Virgin’s lineup includes all current-generation iPhones, from the iPhone SE (which starts at $279) to the iPhone 7 Plus (from $770). Although most prices line up with Apple’s, the SE is the standout bargain: Apple charges $399 for the 32GB model, though it has the advantage of being unlocked. If you buy from Virgin, it’ll be locked.

Second, read the fine print

As with Sprint’s deal, the $1 plan isn’t really just $1: You’ll be on the hook for taxes and fees each month. Granted, these won’t amount to more than just a few dollars, meaning you still come out way ahead compared with a traditional plan.

Surprisingly, Virgin pulls no punches when it comes to its unlimited plan: You get unlimited calls and text messages, and up to 23GB of 4G LTE data per month — way more than most people consume. And there are no consumption limits at all on Virgin’s “mobile-optimized video, gaming and music,” though video tops out at 480p resolution, music at 500Kbps and streaming cloud gaming at 2Mbps. (These are common caps and very easy to live with on a phone.)

After the first year, your rate will return to normal: $50 per month (with AutoPay enabled). Because Virgin requires no contract, you can go elsewhere if you choose — but keep in mind you may have to jump through some hoops to get your iPhone unlocked.

Third, do the math

Because we’re talking about dirt-cheap service, let’s look at the aforementioned iPhone SE ($269.99 at Amazon.com) as it compares with some other options. Boost Mobile, another Sprint MVNO, currently has that model on sale for $160, for example. You can get a service plan for as little as $35 per month, which works out to $420 per year.

Needless to say, Virgin still wins by a mile. Your total out-of-pocket is $580, and that’s for a lesser plan (3GB of LTE data versus 23GB).

And to put this another way, whatever iPhone you buy, you’re essentially getting a year of free service. Period. Assuming you were paying, say, $50 per month before that, it’s a $600 savings.

Fourth, enjoy the perks

To sweeten the deal even further, Virgin is offering some extras that make T-Mobile Tuesdays look like chump-change. For example, how about a free flight to the UK? Buy one round-trip ticket there on Virgin Atlantic and you’ll pay just taxes and fees for a companion ticket.

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Membership has its privileges, or something — Virgin’s Inner Circle does offer pretty nice perks.

Virgin Mobile

Similarly, if you book two nights in a Virgin hotel, you’ll score a third night for free. You can also get 15 bottles of vino from Virgin Wines for $60 — a purchase that would normally cost at least $230. Other perks includes discounts on airfare and an upcoming Virgin Sport event in San Francisco.

So, is it a good deal?

Heck, yes, it’s a good deal! Provided you were already planning to buy an iPhone, that is. The other consideration, of course, is Virgin’s backbone: Sprint is widely regarded as the US cellular network with the worst coverage. And although the company recently unveiled the Magic Box, a free signal booster for the home, it’s not likely to be available for Virgin customers.

Best bet: Talk to friends and family members who use the service and see what their experience has been. (Likewise, check the comments section here; I suspect lots of readers will have opinions to share.)

Maybe you’ll get lucky and find that coverage and reliability are awesome in your area. Or maybe you’ll be willing to accept less-than-stellar network performance knowing that it’s costing you almost nothing to be on that network.

Your thoughts?

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