No Replacements For Prepaid iPhone Users

iPhone owners using prepaid SIM cards better take extra special care of their pocket trophies. According to Apple and AT&T, prepaid SIM cards are eternally wed without consent to one lucky iPhone, an important caveat reader JD discovered after spending 32 hours trying to activate his replacement iPhone. JD warns:

If you activated an iPhone with a new AT&T prepaid plan, you *must* keep using that iPhone. You *cannot* replace that iPhone with another iPhone. The only way to use a new iPhone with your prepaid account, is to *create a new account with a new phone number,* and have them move your balance over. Period. Apparently this is a “security feature” and the system was “designed that way,” specifically for prepaid iPhone plans.

The discouraging verdict from both Apple and AT&T should make potential iPhone users think twice before using a prepaid SIM card to skirt the confines of a two year contract. JD’s full story, after the jump.

This starts out on July 1st, when I picked up an iPhone from my local (NYC) Apple Store. Went back to the office, and activated it. Right off the bat, I’m offered the choice of going to an AT&T Store to pony up a deposit, or choose a prepaid plan. My credit is not the best, and while if I had to guess, my deposit wouldn’t be more than $300 (based on experiences with other carriers), I didn’t know how well AT&T’s service would fare here in New York City. So, I chose a prepaid plan.

After a day of not being able to receive calls while my number was being ported over, and another two days after that not being able to send or receive text messages from anyone but AT&T subscribers, my iPhone was fully working.

Albeit with a pop-up message informing me of my balance after doing anything that used airtime, but that’s a story for another day.

A few weeks later, and I notice that there are these large, bright white swaths developing on the screen. They took up the top 1/3rd of the screen, and would get brighter the more I used the iPhone (the longer the screen was on). So like any picky consumer, I headed down to the Apple Store to get it replaced.

Sure enough, after 14 days, you can’t have it replaced in-store. They treat it like a computer rather than an iPod, which for most cases you can get an in-store swap past 14 days.

I inform the Genius that the iPhone isn’t a computer at all, as it resembles the functions of an iPod in every way except for the fact that it makes calls. The Genius would have none of this, and insisted that my iPhone would have to be sent in for repair. I stand by my statement that the iPhone, in its current incarnation, is not a computer whatsoever, but that also is a story for another day.

The Genius takes my iPhone, wraps it delicately in its cardboard coffin, and offers me a loaner iPhone. (Protip: the loaner iPhones apparently have a different build of “mobile OS X” than regular iPhones.) I take the loaner iPhone, and go on my merry way.

Fast forward a week or so. I go to check the status of my repair. To my surprise, Apple’s repair status page says that it has been delivered back to me! “But wherever could it be,” I wonder. Clicking the tracking link leads me to a FedEx page that informs me yes, my repaired iPhone has been delivered… to someone in Louisiana. If you don’t recall from earlier, I’m in New York. And no, my N’s dont look like L’s nor do my Y’s look like A’s. Besides, the paperwork from the Genius that sent out my iPhone had *printed* information, and it does indeed say that my shipping address is in New York. Thank goodness for that new-fangled laser printing technology, eh?

Anyway, after a day or two on the phone with Apple, I get a call from a very helpful gentleman at Apple Corporate, who apologizes for the situation and decides to just send me a brand new iPhone. Not too shabby.

I received the new iPhone yesterday. After erasing the loaner iPhone, I pop my SIM card into the new iPhone, and am greeted by the “Activate iPhone” screen. So I plug it into my MacBook Pro. iTunes pops up the screen, “Activating your new iPhone. Please enter your AT&T Wireless number, zip code, last 4 of your social.” I follow my master’s instructions, but after “verifying” my information, I’m informed that AT&T is “sorry, but your current account cannot be used with the iPhone.”

Huh. I was already using two iPhones with this account – my original one, and the loaner one. So I try again, and again and again. Old SIM, new SIM, no difference.

I grab the office phone, and give AT&T a call. Cutting a long story short, I’m informed that I “cannot use the new iPhone with my prepaid account.” So I call Apple. By the height of this Apple call, I’m on the line with one iPhone technician and two AT&T technicians at the same time. Helpful folks all around. But we just couldn’t get the iPhone onto my prepaid account. We all decide that it might be best to head over to the Apple Store to try another iPhone, to eliminate bad hardware as the culprit. I get my Apple case number and the Apple tech’s direct phone number. Total phone time: 4 hours.

Head over to my Apple Store, 10:10pm appointment. The Genius pops open a brand new iPhone, I put my SIMs in, and the same result – error messages. Genius informs me that they’ve “had nothing but trouble with prepaid accounts, if you were on a postpaid account it would work like (snaps fingers) *that*.” I thank him for his time, and head home. Ticked.

This afternoon, after trying unsuccessfully to contact the same Apple tech, I decide to call AT&T. After talking to and getting bounced around 14 or so different people (most at AT&T, a few at Apple), total phone time 3 hours, here’s the verdict, given to me from AT&T technicians and managers on high:

If you activated an iPhone with a new AT&T prepaid plan, you *must* keep using that iPhone. You *cannot* replace that iPhone with another iPhone. The only way to use a new iPhone with your prepaid account, is to *create a new account with a new phone number,* and have them move your balance over. Period. Apparently this is a “security feature” and the system was “designed that way,” specifically for prepaid iPhone plans. (Based on the number of people at AT&T that either were, or were not, aware of this, I can surmise that their internal communication is dreadful.)

This is a “security feature” despite the fact that the *helpful* AT&T techs were able to, and did, change all IMEI numbers, make sure the proper SIM ID number was on my account, basically checked every last detail of my account to make sure that it would recognize this new iPhone. But, no dice. Nutshelled, it’s all related to that first step where your iPhone is at the Activate screen, and it then requires communication with iTunes, which in turn communicates with AT&T, to really activate.

So if you have a prepaid account and you lose your iPhone, break it, have it stolen, anything that would mean getting a replacement iPhone, it cannot be used on your prepaid account. At all.

This poses quite a problem: I need to keep my number. I’ve had my number for at least 8 years, and I rely on my phone for *all* business and personal matters. Losing my number is not an option. If I want to use my iPhone with my phone number, I have to switch from a prepaid account to a normal postpaid postpaid account, by paying whatever my required deposit would be, simultaneously getting locked into a 2-year contract.

This situation allows me to state very simply: AT&T is holding my iPhone, and phone number, hostage. For me to use my iPhone with my phone number would require me to pay anywhere from $100 to $1000 dollars and be contractually obligated to continue paying AT&T for 2 years.

My other choice? Ditch my iPhone, pop my SIM into a regular GSM handset, and have them remove the add’l iPhone-specific items from my prepaid plan. Which is what I’m doing until I can figure out what to do. I have 13 days to decide (Apple’s return period), because beyond that point, I can’t argue that the new iPhone I received from Apple Dispatch qualifies as an item I can return to the Apple Store for a refund, even if I have to eat a restocking fee.

Whelp, that’s the story. If nothing else, I hope this serves as fair warning to anyone looking to purchase an iPhone while they’re AT&T-only devices. Especially if you think you’re doing yourself a favor by choosing that no-contract prepaid plan they may offer you.

(Photo: daddytypes)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Chicago7 says:

    Wow. You can use prepaid accounts with the iPhone?

    How does that work? Is the prepaid only for phone and for internet you have to use wireless, or what?

  2. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    I’m growing less and less interested in the iPhone…but I’m still interested in what the next gen iPods will offer.

    Why can’t a company make a phone like I want? Instead of spending the money on extra features, I want just a heavy duty phone, long battery life, ultra compact, with loud and clear sound. Strip all that extra crap out. Make it water proof too.

  3. ChrisC1234 says:

    This doesn’t sound like a “security” feature, but a load of crap dished out by AT&T.

  4. Toof_75_75 says:


    Also, install a laser beam in it with an effective range of say…1 mile.

  5. toddkravos says:

    So if *they* replace your iPhone (for whatever reason) and you meet these conditions you are horked?
    Wow, that’s really ‘raising the bar’ isn’t it..

  6. qwertybot says:

    @AlteredBeast: Clearly you’re not looking too hard; otherwise you would have found a whole lot of Nokia candybar phones selling for $100 or less without contract that satisfies almsot all your criteria. And if you were willing to buy used, they’d be even cheaper.

    Sorry, nobody sells waterproof phones. It’s the nature of the device, you see, Captain Ahab. They’d have to seal the battery in, for starters; you’d probably complain about that. The keypad would most likely be membrane-based; “no tactile feedback – oh noes!”. And then they’d never sell it as waterproof, only water-resistant, lest somebody sue them for false advertisement after dropping it into a lake or something and somehow manage to recover it.

  7. Buran says:

    I have NEVER heard of a prepaid SIM being locked to a particular phone. EVER. My experience with prepaid (T-mobile, Mom has a prepaid phone) is that you CAN switch the cards and they’re recognized without any trouble whatsoever — my bf gave my Mom one of his old phones, and I had it up and running in under two minutes and she was more than pleased with her new phone.

    I don’t know what the heck AT&T is thinking. If they’re so paranoid about prepaid SIMs being stolen, why wait so long to do this?

  8. yg17 says:

    @toddkravos: From what it sounds like, you’re correct. “Raising the bar” indeed.

  9. Skeptical_Geezer says:

    to ChrisC1234:

    Of course this is a security feature. Job security for AT & T who force you into a contract regardless of your desire!

  10. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    @qwertybot: I have had many (many) cell phones, various shapes, sizes, and manufacturers. I still prefer my flip phones, as I dont accidently dial anyone when my parot lands on it. What I am saying is, take the same expense that is spent on cameras, built in memory for mp3s, large displays, etc, and put that into longer battery life and a very sturdy design (like those toughbook notebook PCs). I’d have to say though, my favorite phone that Ive owned was an Ericson candybar phone from 4 years ago. Problem with that was, for some reason, the reception got worse and worse.

    Basically, give me a phone with basic functions, but with all the effort and expense of new technology making those basic features better, and scrap the extra crap.

  11. martymankins says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard of a pre-paid SIM card being locked into a single phone. I’ve swapped my Cingular prepaid SIM card into multiple phones without any issues. I’m currently using a Moto SLVR L7 and it works no different than the last 4 Cingular phones I’ve used my prepaid SIM card in.

    If Apple and AT&T want to keep good on all of this, they will find a way to port your number to allow it be used on any iPhone without forcing you to do the 2-yr contract and mega deposit.

  12. BloggyMcBlogBlog says:

    First step to repair your credit: stop buying overpriced gadgets.

  13. barrygeorge001 says:

    you could always activate the phone using another option besides itunes like iActivator as desribed at []

    for the mac or with windows go to


  14. zentec says:

    When my contract runs out with Verizon, I’ll tossing my phones into a drawer as a form of consumer protest about these contracts. Contracts have become nothing more than a way to keep you around while you explore crummy service.

  15. Toof_75_75 says:


    You might consider, instead, tossing them in a river…

  16. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    @Toof_75_75: If they were water proof, he could still use them!

  17. Scazza says:

    Just get yourself a 6800 and save your ass the chafing. Comes with WM6 and kicks major ass…

  18. greysky says:

    well it all sounds like too much of a hassle, I will no be buying one

  19. Geekybiker says:

    Fortnately for the rest of us, engineers have have these marvelous things called gaskets. There is no really why a company couldnt make a mobile phone that would survive a quick dunk in a toilet, etc.

    I too would rather have a simple phone that focused on battery like, and good reception rather than all the non-phone stuff.

  20. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    A little off topic but my wife is stuck in a At&t contract till January and her phone is fast approaching the end of its chain. I was checking out the prepaid phones and was wondering can you use a regular contract SIM in the prepaid phones? Anyone know, cause the prepaid ones are a lot cheaper than the regular ones they try to sell you. Anyone anyone…bueller bueller?

  21. VANO says:

    Yes, you can use a postpaid sim card in a prepaid phone. :)

  22. mauser says:

    What BloggyMcBlog said.

    What a retard, spending how much on a phone he can’t afford. Shoulda spent that money on paying his bills or funding an IRA. I’ve no bloody sympathy at all.

  23. 2Legit2Quit says:


    you would be better off buying a phone off Ebay. It could just a crapper that lasts till January, or just buy a phone she wants. That’s the cheapest route.

  24. tnkgrl says:

    How about this:

    Port your # to T-Mo, Sprint or VZN (all prepaid), then cancel within the trial period and re-port your # to AT&T (prepaid) by activating your new iPhone.

  25. ColoradoShark says:

    I call BS on ATT/Apple for this one.

    The SIM card worked in the loaner iPhone so clearly the SIM card and iPhone are not locked together forever.

  26. TechnoDestructo says:

    Man, the iphone sounds worse and worse every day.

  27. Chicago7 says:


    I had a phone from Tracfone that I bought about 3 years ago that was locked to that phone.

    You could change to a new phone, but you had to deal with a live customer service rep to do it. Which is why I kept that crappy fone for 3 years.

  28. Buran says:

    @Chicago7: Yeah, I guess I should append that to say “major cell phone carriers”, meaning “those most people have heard of”.

    Certainly I have never heard of AT&T doing this.

  29. Buran says:

    @Nemesis_Enforcer: Why not pick up a Cingular or unlocked phone on eBay? As long as it’s GSM and a US model or a quad-band phone, it’ll work.

  30. bnosach says:

    iPhone dissapoints once again.

  31. tande says:

    @ColoradoShark: Thats what I was thinking. If the loaner was supposedly some “magic iphone” why not just do whatever they did to the loaner to the new phone?

  32. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    @Buran: Thats probably what I am going to do. I just don’t trust Ebay for stuff like phones..Oh well Thanks!

  33. ministryoftruth5 says:

    Has he tried the activation hack on the web? Seems like that should work. After the phone has been activated, it should be able to make calls with the AT&T SIM card inserted.

  34. mikeluisortega says:

    I was kinda turned off by the fact that the Iphone used 500MB of the 4GB of advertised memory, I have 3GB of music so I figured all my music should fit on my Iphone with room to spare for Podcasts. Well that’s not the case, I went to the Apple store and asked Why a 4GB Iphone is really only 3.5GB and not 3.9 or 3.8GB, like if I bought a USB thumb drive or something. The guy said that the OS took up space too and that if I wanted to exchange it I had to pay a restocking fee, I asked him why there wasn’t any disclaimer on the box like hard drives or other items sometimes have saying “hey we know it says 500GB but it’s more like XXX GB’s.? I was told it’s not and too bad but they would gladly charge me a restocking fee if I wanted to exchange it. I declined, I’ll never by a Apple product again after some of the worst customer support this Gadget freak ever had at the Apple Store in Mayfair mall in Milwaukee Wi.

  35. Antediluvian says:

    @qwertybot: The Verizon G’Zone is waterproof.
    View it here: []

    It was seriously considering this phone because I’ve broken 3 other clamshell phones. But I really needed a PDA phone so I was leaning towards a Treo.

    I ended up leaving Verizon and buying an iPhone, and I haven’t looked back since. I love it.

  36. Antediluvian says:

    To the story author’s point trying to claim the iPhone is an iPod and should be subject to a 30 day return period: It’s been well-publicized that you have 14 days to return it No Questions Asked, or to exchange for any reason. After that, you have the standard warranty for defects, and you can return it up to 30 days but will pay a 10% restocking fee. If you try, you might be able to sweet-talk the Apple Store reps into waiving the restocking fee.

    But trying to call the iPhone not a computer so not subject to their posted policy? Fail.

  37. Killfile says:

    Ok — if you want to do this it’s *very easy* to keep a single number.

    Here’s what you do:

    Step 1: Head on over to and sign up for a free account. They just got bought by Google so they’ll be around for a while.

    Step 2: Set up your various sundry phones with Grand Central. What this means is that if someone calls your GC number (which GC will issue you) all or some of your existing numbers will ring.

    Step 3: Activate your iPhone with your pre-paid card and add that number to your GC account.

    Call to your heart’s content. If you have to set up a new account – no worries, just change the number in GC and you’re good to go.

    Also, this gives you a bunch of other very cool features and doesn’t even break caller ID.

  38. E-Bell says:

    Apple has turned planned obsolescence into an art form, with a new iPod coming out every 6 months and now the iPhone. Apple fans drool over every new iteration and don’t hesitate to shell out the bucks for the latest and greatest device.

    Granted, Apple makes a pretty good product, but they’re hardly original ideas.

  39. jeblis says:

    Why would you use a prepaid account with an iPhone?

    Prepaid is more costly and if you can’t afford a monthly account, you probably shouldn’t be buying an iPhone.

  40. FLConsumer says:

    Who the hell uses pre-paid for business calls? I read the article and can somewhat understand the guy’s predicament with prepaid vs. contract, but still…

    As for AT&T/Apple, they both deserve every bit of bad press they can get over this deal. The iPhone is a decent 1st generation product that is being crippled & slowed down by ineptitude of BOTH companies.

  41. dotorg greg says:

    image credit: actually me, not the tool who took it from my flickr stream and reposted it under his own credit and with a cc-license. wtf?

  42. olim says:

    I’ve had trouble with AT&T in the past when trying to keep my number. I have not been able to efficiently move from business to personal contracts while retaining my number.

    Solution? Go to Verizon or T-Mobile and do a number port and get a new phone; activate your new iPhone with a new pre-paid account, and port the number back to AT&T. Voila. New iPhone, same number, no phone calls to customer service. There may be some limits on how often you can port a number – so I would look into that first, but this is how I resolved to deal with it after I almost lost my 8yr old number last time I changed contracts. Just make sure you can return your “new” phone within the return policy period.

  43. rhololkeolke says:

    I already own an mp3 player. I don’t get why cellphone companies keep making phones that have all these extra features. I still use a startac motorola phone. It gets reception everywhere. It also has a great battery life despite being so old. I don’t want a battery sucking, picture, taking, mp3 playing $700 phone. I just want one that gets good reception and makes calls.

  44. guspaz says:

    Doesn’t this violate number portability laws?

  45. jwigum says:

    Something jumps out at me from your service at the Apple store:

    If they were able to give you a loaner iPhone, then they’re able to give you a replacement. They may not want to, but it is obviously possible.

    Is there something about the differences between the loaner version of “mobile OS X” and the stock iPhone variety that would make this situation undesirable?

  46. aprilstar says:

    This isn’t true. I have an iPhone with prepaid service. Had it replaced because of a bad speaker and the new one works just fine. No such problems.

  47. mrrbob says:


    Tried to sign up for grandcentral and got this:

    GrandCentral is currently a private beta service, which means you must receive an invite from GrandCentral or a GrandCentral user to sign up. Let us know where you would like a number in the form below and we will invite you as soon as the service is publicly available.

    Anyone got an invite for me? send to mrrbob(at)

  48. Solo says:

    Smell that? It’s a big lawsuit coming on, mixed with a healthy dose of BS.

    Clearly ATT is more eager to tie the rope around your neck for 2 years than sell you a cheap ass sim card in pay as little as you go money saving scheme.

    If you can pull your regular sim card and put it in another iPhone, you can too with a prepaid sim card.

    Security feature? Just about as efficient as banning real silverware on airplanes.