I participated in an Influencer Activation Program on behalf of Influence-Central for Virgin Mobile. I received a sample device to facilitate my review and a thank you item for participating. All opinions remain my own.
The wee one are getting older, and at 9 and 11, I know their first cell phones are only a matter of time. I’m trying to hold off as long as I can so they are as mature as possible before providing them with a tool that has so many potential uses (and abuses). When I purchased a tablet for them, I did a lot of research first and found the one where I could set parental controls to help them make good choices. For their cell phones, I’ll be doing the same thing. This chance to do a Virgin Mobile Custom review gave me the opportunity to try out all the bells and whistles available on the plan.
What Makes the Plans So Attractive?
I’ve been testing out and playing with the Virgin Mobile Custom plan service for a little while now. It runs on the Sprint network, which is beautifully reliable around us in Chicago and has recently been upgraded here and in many other cities. The fact that it’s completely customizable – throughout the month and up to the day before your plan cycles – is one of my favorite features. The plans start at $6.98 per month, which is something that I could handle paying as an “emergency phone” now for the wee ones for the times when I want to leave Mister Man at home alone (he’s 11) for 20 minutes while I pick up Little Miss at gymnastics. Because we don’t have a landline, this would be a perfect alternative. The $6.98 per month includes 20 talk minutes and 20 text messages.
Granted, that’s not very much usage (and doesn’t include any data), but for an emergency phone, it’s a really cheap safety net. And since the phone could stay at home theoretically, we wouldn’t need any data, since it stays connected to our in home wifi which is no additional charge. If we wanted to add more minutes or texts, it’s incredible easy to do either from that phone, online, or from any other connected Android or Apple phone using the Virgin Mobile Custom app.
You simply choose manage plans and slide the desired section up or down as needed. Realize you’re almost out of minutes (and Virgin Mobile will text you when you’re running low)? No problem. Simply choose to add more minutes. Have a higher minute plan and realize near the end of the month that you haven’t used that many minutes? Simply slide it down to the desired level before your cycle closes and you are charged only that new amount. Brilliant, right?
Adding talk time is fairly cheap. You can choose to add minutes – 250 is $3 up to 1500 for $13 that you can share across lines in the account (each line pays the $6.98 monthly access rate, as well) or use unlimited talk time for $18 per line, depending on your needs. Texting is just as simple with 500 texts costing $4.50 up to 1000 for $8 or unlimited at $10 per line. Data is also an option – and always an add on – with 250 MB costing $8 up to 15 GB for $131.50 with all sorts of options in between. Even as a relatively steady user of data, I rarely use 2GB of data per month, which is a cost of $28 – and since it’s adjustable so easily, I can dial it down on months I don’t use much data and dial it up when I realize I’m using more data.
It takes just seconds to update your plan, and if you attempt to choose a limit that you’ve already passed (e.g., no data when you’ve used even just a little bit), that option won’t select. It has a red bar where you would normally select so you know what isn’t available to you. My advice? Set a calendar alarm to go off each month on the day before you cycle so you can adjust your plan to best fit that month’s usage.
Specialized Data and Phone Packages
Virgin Mobile Custom also offers special plans to fit specific needs that you can purchase on a one off or monthly basis. The creativity behind this is brilliant since it’s cheaper than a broader plan for those who use data for specific purposes.
For example, if you’re traveling and want to use maps and navigation to get around an unfamiliar area, you can purchase maps and navigation for either one day for $1 or a week for $3 and not be charged for data usage for that specific purpose. You can use Google Maps, Telenav Scout, and Waze for one day up to 50MB on a single device for the one day plan or 135MB for the one week plan. I love this idea for travel.
If you’re using this plan for a social media junkie (waving), there are other unlimited plans where you can use Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram withou data charges for $5 per month for each service or $15 for all of them. Once you realize how much data you’re using on those services, it can be a real savings since the 2GB data plan is $28. A $15 general data plan get you only 500 MB (for $13.50 as the 750 MB plan is $16 – more than the social plans) of data, so if you’re using most of your data for social networks versus surfing the web or watching video, this can be a huge win.
There’s also an unlimited monthly music program for $5 where you can listen to Pandora, Shazam, iHeartRadio, SoundCloud, and Spotify for $5 to avoid having your music count against your monthly data allotment. I know I love listening to my music no matter where I am, and that’s one place where I have to restrict myself with my current provider to ensure I don’t go over my data allowance.
There are also International calling plans where you can purchase minutes to call Canada, the Dominican Republic, India, Mexico, or anywhere in the world (from a select list but it includes 50 different countries, though verify first as I was surprised to see countries like France and Brazil not on there but Venezuela, Martinique, and Iran are). The minutes are valid for 30 days from the date of purchase, so use them or lose them! The cost ranges from $2 for 30 minutes to Mexico, Canada, or India to $10 for the 100 world minutes.
The talk minutes and data allowance in general are available only on the Sprint network and don’t cover when you’re roaming. I am in an area that is well covered by Sprint, as is much of the country, but if you are traveling somewhere you know you will want service off the Sprint network, you can also purchase voice or data extended coverage for $5 for 50 minutes of talk time or $5 for 15 MB of domestic data coverage. As with the international calling rates, the purchases are valid for 30 days from when you purchase them. This would have been very handy for my family when traveling through the American West to the Grand Canyon where we knew we were roaming off network frequently.
Parental Controls Available for Virgin Mobile Custom
The biggest win for me is the parental controls available on the Virgin Mobile Custom plans. Our school is giving every 6th grade child iPads currently, and I’m hearing stories about how they are being inappropriately used, not to mention the news stories of what kids are doing. Often the kids know so much more about what’s out there technologically than parents and the controls aren’t there to protect kids. With this service, you now have those controls.
My first win is being able to assign minutes, texts, and data allowances to each phone. You can manage all the settings within the Virgin Mobile Custom app, whether on the Virgin Mobile device or any other Android or Apple running the app and connected to your account. You select “Manage Devices” and choose the phone you wish to work with. From there, you can choose to share the plan you’ve purchased in any way you please. If you want to give 0 data to a given phone, you can, and they won’t have access to data usage. The same holds true for texts and voice. You can assign a decile percentage anywhere from 0% to 100% for each device as to how much of your allowance each phone may have. Even better, the options show how much data 20% is or how many minutes or texts 40% is so you know exactly what you’re allowing. Once they hit that limit, they’re done unless you choose to adjust this.
In addition to being able to assign minutes, texts, and data to each phone, you can also control what they are able to do with their phones and when. There is an incredibly cool function called curfews and restrictions on that same page where you can add whatever restrictions you like – as broad or as granular as you choose – to each phone. This includes data limits, calling limits, and texting limits. You are not held to a single restriction or curfew either. So far as I’ve been able to figure out, you can add as many as you need to set up the controls you’re comfortable with. Be sure to name each restriction so that it’s easy for you to find and adjust any controls you wish to alter at a later date.
Restrictions can happen on school days, school nights, weekend nights, all weekend, all day weekdays, all day every day, or at custom times set by you. You define what days and what hours – down to the minute – you want the restrictions, which is a nice benefit. If I don’t want my child able to access games or YouTube or the internet at school, I can set that for the hours school is in session by locking down access to the apps and selecting the exceptions I choose, which would be things like memos and calendar and other school related apps.
If you don’t want your child to be able to download new apps, simple block the Google Play store, which will eliminate his ability to add any potentially inappropriate apps to his phone – hiding them from you by smartly deleting them before you check so you don’t know about them. Removing temptation until they’re mature enough to use the device appropriately and understand the responsibility is something that is important to me and part of why I’ve been so reluctant to hand my children phones to date. I’ve seen what they’ve downloaded to my parents’ phones (who do let them play unrestricted), and I’m not proud of their choices. That said, I know they’ll get there and that I’ll be able to lift restrictions as they get older and show me they can handle the responsibility.
You can also restrict calling so that no one is calling or texting your child after curfew or after bedtime. Because you know there are emergencies, you can set it so that no one can call your child (which I personally wouldn’t recommend) or that everyone in your contacts list can contact your child (again not what I would personally recommend), or you can set specific exceptions for people who can contact your child during the restricted period like relatives, close family friends, etc. as you choose. I love that this means I don’t have to remember to collect my child’s phone every single night to ensure he isn’t hiding it under his pillow to use after bedtime.
Additionally, you can restrict data usage. You can keep them off all networks, allow data only on mobile networks, or allow data only on wifi networks – again for specific timeframes that you define. I really like this idea not so much for an initial setup but for kids who have shown that they have made mistakes with their usage in the past to have that as a fallback to ensure they don’t do it again or as a punishment for a given period of time for failing to adhere to the rules.
Who Sets the Controls?
When you receive the phone and set it up, under manage devices, there is account control for each phone. You determine if a given phone has access to purchase, share plans, or manage devices. What does this mean? If you set this to allowed, your child could potentially take off all the controls you put on. Your child could add minutes or data or text without your permission (though on your own phone you would receive notification of the change if your phone is part of the Virgin Mobile plan with your child’s phone. Otherwise, until you checked things via the app on your own phone, you may not realize it. For kids’ phones, simply select not allowed, and they can’t access those controls.
Honestly, select it for your own Virgin Mobile phone, too, so your kids can’t be sneaky and go into your phone and change settings while you’re making dinner and they’re “doing homework” in the same room where your phone happens to be sitting. Once a phone is not allowed to make changes, any time you access a screen that would require these permissions, you have to enter your account password. This is helpful in case you need to make changes from your child’s phone but still provides protection.
I have a similar protection for my children’s Kindles, but I have to enter the password at every new screen, which drives me batty. Here, you have to enter it only once and you can do all you wish to do with your phone. Once the phone falls asleep, however, you will see the screen that requests your log in to continue. Just remember to ensure the phone has fallen asleep – or that you’ve signed out at the top of the screen – before you hand the phone back to your way too smart for his own good child.
Other Things To Know About Virgin Mobile Custom Plans
The phones come with everything you need right out of the box. They are partially charged so you can start setting them up without having to wait to charge the phone. There is an outlet USB charger provided, but you have to purchase your own car charger if you want one and a case for your phone (critical!). It also includes a prepaid envelope for you to return your old cell phone for recycling which I like. And best of all, once you set your phone up, there is no activation fee like with most providers. Walk yourself through the setup and you’re good to go!
While I was able to control my Virgin Mobile device from my own Android, I did have a minor issue. I was able to change my plan and see how much data and talk time I’d used easily. I could set restrictions and curfews, but when I wanted to exempt certain apps from the curfew, my phone needed to sync with the Virgin Mobile phone to determine what apps were installed so it knew what I could and couldn’t exempt from restrictions. Though I tried this a few times, I never got past the message that it was currently synching with my Virgin Mobile device, no matter what I tried. This may be an issue I alone face, but be aware that you may need to set the app restriction specifics on the Virgin Mobile device rather than via the Virgin Mobile Custom app on your own phone if it isn’t part of the network.
The phone I am using is an LG Pulse. It is able to operate only via 3G. If your phone is 4G LTE capable, it can access the faster network speeds, but most of the phones that are part of the Virgin Mobile Custom plan are not. Personally, I’m fine with that. If my kids’ data is a little slower, they won’t know the difference, and they aren’t going to be hard core data users at this point anyway. If you want to be sure you have access to the 4G network, be sure to purchase a phone that can access that network. Right now, only the LC Unify is 4G LTE enabled.
This is a no contract plan. As long as you have money in your account and pay your bill, you continue to have access to the network and your plan features. There is no need to cancel or be locked into a contract, which is something I value with children who may or may not behave appropriately with their phones. If they need a timeout, they’ll get one. And if I choose to allow them only the $6.98 plan for a month for whatever reason, there is that easy option, as well.
The Virgin Mobile Custom plans are available only at Walmart. You can order them online or purchase in stores. Or do the combo of picking it out online and having it “ship to store” so it’s ready and waiting for you to save time.
This plan isn’t for everyone. It is a la carte and designed to fit certain needs. For me, I can see this being an ideal phone for my children where living where we live, it will be really hard for me to hand them anything but a smart phone. At the same time, I am not willing to hand them that much freedom and temptation at such a young age knowing my children – who they are and how they react. They aren’t ready for it. Being able to flexibly adjust the plans and at the same time put on the controls I feel comfortable having in place makes this a win for me.
I’m happy to give the wee ones wings, but I’m also going to make sure there’s a safety net below. Just today there’s another news article about 3 teens in our area being arrested due to online – and I’d be willing to bet via their phones – sexting and cyberbullying. I cannot and will not have that be my own children.