I’d like to start this post by saying the following:
Softcard, your business model is crazy. There is no way your service can catch on given the hoops that users have to jump through to sign up for and use your service. It took a week just to understand why I couldn’t use your service, and then another two weeks to actually come up with a cheap enough option to use your service. Of course I did all of this because I actively wanted to use your service. Someone who’s just interested in trying out the service is much less likely to jump through any of the hoops I jumped.
Before getting into how to sign up for Softcard for cheap, I’ll illustrate just how hard Softcard is to setup and use.
Who Can Use Softcard
As of writing the following are the requirements for using Softcard:
- AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile customer: No Sprint, or other MVNO providers, even those who resell AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile service will work.
- Carrier Locked Phone on the softcard supported list: Older iphones may work with a ISIS wallet case, but the case must be branded to match your carrier. This is the dumbest requirement of all. Many, many phones have the hardware necessary for NFC payments. If your phone is unlocked you won’t be able to use Softcard.
- Secure Element SIM card from your carrier: This means a trip to the carrier’s store and a swap out of your SIM card.
- Android phones cannot be rooted: if they are you fall into a gray area, where you may be able to use rootcloak to use softcard.
If somehow you are one of the 10 people in America who fall into the above categories, CONGRATULATIONS you can simply start using your phone with softcard, provided you make a trip to the wireless store, and get that new Secure Element SIM card.
Update on Unlocked Phones: Not for the faint of heart, but Reader Boris commented with great tips on running Softcard on an unlocked phone. Unfortunately, these steps can also turn your phone into an unusable paperweight, so unless you’re comfortable with the risk, stick to the tips in this post instead.
For the Other 99% of Us
I strike out on all four of the above criteria: My carrier is an AT&T MVNO, my phone is unlocked (but has all the hardware for mobile payments), I can’t get a secure SIM card and I’m running CyanogenMod. 0 for 4. Even if you’re missing one of the four requirements you’re in the same boat as I am. In order to use softcard you’ll need at least a new phone and possibly also a second line of service for use only with softcard.
Currently, my cell phone bill is low. Super low. In fact, since I left Sprint and became a free agent I’ve paid just $10 for the last 5 months’ of unlimited service. Switching to an unlimited plan which supports softcard would cost me $40-$50 more per month. Great promotions softcard has had in the past, and my recent Google Wallet shut down pushed me to figure out how to sign up successfully for Softcard.
What follows is the way in which I set up service for softcard, with an initial outlay of ~$70 and a monthly cost of $3.33.
Identifying the Cheapest Monthly Service
Verizon and AT&T Postpaid accounts are both far too expensive, now that I am a wireless free agent. Only T-Mobile supports cheap monthly pre-paid plans and softcard secure Element SIM cards. The plan you’ll want to go with is the $3.00 monthly Pay-As-You-Go-Plan which includes no minutes, and no data:
Each minute costs 10 cents, and each text also costs 10 cents. Your minimum monthly commitment is $3.00 with this plan. Start with a T-Mobile SIM starter kit, sign up for service and then go into the store and get a Secure Element SIM card. Or go to the store and sign up directly there and get the Secure SIM.
Reader Andrew reminded me that the initial setup has to be on the T-mobile data network, so be sure to buy a 1 Day High-Speed Data Pass for $5.
This plan technically does not qualify for Softcard service, because you don’t have data on this plan. To get around this you’ll need a phone which can create a Wi-Fi hotspot for your main phone. The softcard phone piggybacks on this wifi signal without any issue. Even when your service is on hold you can still make purchases with Softcard, so you could pay $10 (minimum) for 3 months, not pay for a month, and then turn the service back on. Just make sure you don’t push it too far or Tmobile will cancel your service.
Identifying the Cheapest Supported Phone
Going with the above T-Mobile plan You’ll want to grab a cheap phone that is supported by Softcard. Some older phones like the Samsung Galaxy S2 are probably pretty cheap. I was hesitant to buy a 3 year old phone, and instead looked at new options. I’ve identified the three best phones:
New or nearly new these three options are about $75 on ebay. Make sure you buy a T-mobile banded and carrier locked phone. The unlocked versions of these phones are usually cheaper than the carrier locked versions, an unfortunate tax you’ll have to pay to use softcard.
You’ll also need to verify that your current phone can create a wifi-hotspot in order to connect the softcard phone to the internet. I’ve only used the service a dozen or so times, in order to earn promotional credits but have had no trouble with paying over wifi.
What Good is Having a Softcard Account?
The main reason I wanted a softcard phone is because they’re actively giving away money and now miles in an effort to gain users. Admittedly the offers have cooled, but I’m hopeful another good promo is announced any day now as the United promo is close to ending.
Softcard has a second major benefit. When you sign up for softcard you’re given a chance to enroll in a softcard enhanced version of American Express’ Serve Prepaid card. On this Soft-Serve card the monthly Credit card load limits are bumped up. You’re allowed $1500 a month in credit card loads versus $1,000 per month for non-softcard accounts. The per load amount is higher as well, at $500 per load versus $200 per load for regular Serve customers.
Could I be shut down again by Google Wallet?
In a wonderful twist of fate news recently spread that Softcard was in talks to be acquired by Google Wallet. I’m not surprised there have been talks to buy Softcard. They’re not a sustainable business model in my opionion because they rely too heavily on carrier integration. What I do find funny would be if Softcard was absorbed into Google Wallet, at which point I’m sure my account would be shut down. Before that happens I hope to squeeze out at least one or two more decent promos between now and then.
If you’ve wanted to play with Softcard but haven’t been able to, give the above a try. Worst case you can always sell the phone back on ebay for a portion of what you paid for it.
– Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I’ll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.