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How to tell if a phone will work on T-Mobile

Discussion in 'T-Mobile' started by FillInThe_____, Apr 5, 2013.

  1. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    Mod edit: There's a new site that aims to take some of the guesswork out: http://www.willmyphonework.net/

    T-mobile's latest mantra is BYODD: Buy Your Own Damned Device err, Bring Your Own Device. That's great, but which devices can you bring? I was wondering this recently, and had a very difficult time figuring out which phones were and weren't compatible with T-Mobile's network. I couldn't find a nice, clean, comprehensive guide, so I was left to cobble together information from all over the web. My goal here is to consolidate this information in a novice-friendly format for others to use as a resource to be able to tell which phones are and aren't compatible with T-Mobile's network.


    First of all, you must have a GSM phone. There are several ways to tell if a phone is GSM. If the phone is from T-Mobile or AT&T, then it is GSM. If the phone is referred to as a Global or World phone, then it is GSM. GSM phones are also sometimes called quad-band phones. If you aren't sure, then you can check the phone's specifications. If the phone is GSM, the specifications will list something like "GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz". If it is not, then it will list something like "CDMA: 800, 1900 MHz". Some phones may have both CDMA and GSM in their specifications. These phones are GSM compatible.

    Having a GSM phone just means that you will be able to make and receive calls on T-Mobile's network. I'm guessing you'll also want to use some data.


    Let me take a step back. For a phone to work on a network, there are two things that need to happen. First, the phone must support the technology the carrier uses. Then, the phone must support that technology on the frequency the carrier uses. That may sound complicated, but we've already seen it at work. Let's take another look at the specification "GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz". Here, GSM is the technology, and 850, 900, 1800, and 1900MHz are the frequencies the phone supports. T-Mobile uses 1900MHz for their GSM network, so now we can see that since our phone supports the GSM technology on the frequency 1900MHz, our phone is compatible with T-Mobile's network.

    The technology for 3G is called UMTS. T-Mobile uses two frequencies for their UMTS network: 1900MHz and 1700/2100MHz. So if you check your phone's specifications and see that it has either 1900MHz or 1700/2100MHz listed as one of the UMTS frequencies, then it will support T-Mobile's 3G network.

    4G - HSPA+

    T-Mobile did a bit of marketing on this one. What T-Mobile calls 4G can more accurately be called HSPA+. This is not really a new technology, rather, it's an upgrade of the 3G technology UMTS. Therefore, if your phone supports the UMTS frequencies 1900MHz or 1700/2100MHz, then we just need to check to see if the phone supports HSPA (slower) or HSPA+ (faster). If it does, then it will be compatible with T-Mobile's 4G network.

    4G - LTE

    This is the 4G technology you're probably more familiar with. Just remember that just because a phone is branded as LTE doesn't mean it will work with T-Mobile. T-Mobile's LTE network runs on the 1700/2100MHz frequencies, and if your phone doesn't support that, then you can't use it on T-Mobile's LTE network.


    There is another factor that will determine whether or not your phone will work on T-Mobile, and that's coverage. In order to be able to use T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, you need to be in an HSPA+ area. The same is true of GSM and LTE. T-Mobile has a coverage map available here (for more info on the map, see this post). Currently, LTE coverage is limited to select markets (at least Baltimore, MD; Kansas City, KS; Houston, TX; Las Vegas, NV; Phoenix, AZ; San Jose, CA and Washington D.C.). More will be added as T-Mobile continues to build and grow their LTE network.


    To summarize, here are the specs you should be looking for when you're trying to determine if a phone will work on T-Mobile's network:

    GSM: 1900MHz
    UMTS: 1900MHz or 1700/2100MHz
    HSPA and HSPA+: Designates phone is capable of faster speeds on UMTS frequencies
    LTE: 1700/2100MHz (also designated as LTE Band 4 or Band IV)

    The only specification a phone must have is GSM 1900MHz. If a phone has, for example, GMS 1900MHz and UMTS 1900MHz, then it will still work, but the data will be slower than a phone that is HSPA+ capable, and it will not be able to use the LTE network.

    Where to find the specs

    There are several ways to find the specifications for any particular phone. For carrier-branded phones, (e.g. Sprint, Verizon, AT&T) you can check the carrier's website. It will have the technical specifications for the phones they carry, though sometimes it can be difficult to find the specifications relevant for T-Mobile. You can also go to the manufacturer's website (e.g. Samsung, HTC, LG). They will list the full specifications, but sometimes it can be hard to find information on older models. You can also check retail websites like Walmart, Amazon, or Newegg (sorry, gotta plug Newegg. I'm a fan.), but my preferred option is to visit dedicated websites like PhoneArena.com and GSMArena.com. These websites have all of the technical specifications for a wide range of devices. The only caveat here is that sometimes manufacturer's can have several devices with the same name. For example, there are several different versions of the Samsung Galaxy S3, so you'll want to be sure that you are checking the same version of the phone that you are looking to purchase.

    Other Considerations

    The spec sheet can tell you if your phone has the hardware to work on T-Mobile's network, but if you are considering using another carrier's device, (e.g. Sprint, Verizon, AT&T) then you may need to take additional steps to configure your phone for T-Mobile's network.


    Cell phone carriers can 'lock' their phones to their network. For example, a 'locked' AT&T phone will only work on AT&T's network, even if the phone meets all of the other requirements above. In order to use a 'locked' phone on T-Mobile's network, the phone will need to be 'unlocked' first. You will need to contact the original carrier in order to have your phone unlocked, and under current US law, it is the carriers discretion as to whether or not to grant the request.

    Configuring your phone for T-Mobile

    Once your phone is unlocked, it may need to be reconfigured to work on T-Mobile's network. Fortunately, this is not something you have to do on your own. If you take your phone into a T-Mobile store, or call T-Mobile's support line, they will be able to help you get your phone configured for T-Mobile's network. If you want to do it yourself, you can also post a question to your phone's forum on this site and someone might be able to help you with the configuration.

    Still have questions?

    If you still have questions, don't feel bad. It can be difficult to tell whether or not your phone is T-Mobile-ready. If you are uncertain, you can ask at a T-Mobile store, or call T-Mobile's support line. They might be able to help you determine if your phone will work on T-Mobile's network. My suspicion is that though they may tell you a compatible phone isn't, they are unlikely to tell you a non-compatible phone is. If you have any questions or concerns, you can also post a question to either the phone's forum or this T-Mobile forum and someone will be able to help you determine if your phone is compatible.

    Frequency Bands

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of different ways to say the same thing. You've heard me talk about the 1900MHz and 1700/2100MHz frequency bands, but these frequencies can be described in different ways. 1900MHz is also known as the PCS band. The combination of 1700 and 2100MHz frequencies is also known as the AWS band. For LTE applications, the AWS band is also known as LTE Band IV. It's important to note that there is a difference between a phone that supports the 1700 and 2100MHz frequencies independently (e.g. UMTS: 1700MHz, 2100MHz) vs collectively (e.g. UMTS: 1700/2100MHz) The latter is the designation for the AWS band, and is what is required for T-Mobile compatibility.

    Please let me know if you have any feedback. Thanks!

    #1 FillInThe_____, Apr 5, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 13, 2015

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  2. gtbarry

    gtbarry Android Expert

    One thing people should note that there is no standard for speeds for 4g (i.e. must be at least xx download speed). The definition is with the individual carrier and their 4g speed must simply be faster than their 3g speed to qualify.
  3. SuperAfnan

    SuperAfnan Android Expert

    This is a good guide. It should help people but tmobile still uses 1700 Mhz in most areas. Not all areas are UMTS yet. I recommend buying a quad band phone like the nexus 4 or HTC amaze or galaxy s3 t999. Tmobile phones have all four bands so it helps a lot. An unlocked at&t phone will be missing the 1700 band so you may be getting only 2g in your area unless tmobile has refarmed your area's towers. (which they probably did but they aren't finished.)
    JohnJSal and tube517 like this.
  4. Crashdamage

    Crashdamage Android Expert

    Generally correct, but T-Mobile LTE does *not* use the 1700/2100 data bands like HSPA+.

    Also, let's put some of this a different way...
    Assuming your phone is GSM, how well it works on T-Mobile depends on the data frequencies it is capable of using and your location. It gets kinda confusing, but basically...

    If you have a 1900 data band-capable phone *and* are in an area T-Mobile has 'refarmed' for the 1900 band, (most places have been by now) you are good to go on HSPA+ 4G. 1900 is found on AT&T-compatible phones and unlocked international models.

    If you are *not* in a 'refarmed' for 1900 area, you need a phone with both 1700 *and* 2100 band capabilities. One frequency is used for upload, one for download. This is the 'default' nationwide T-Mobile data bands and are found, with a few exceptions such as the Nexus 4, mostly only on T-Mobile phones.

    Therefore, if your phone does not have the 1900 data band, it would be limited to Edge (2G) speed in non-refarmed for 1900 areas.

    As for LTE, T-Mobile is building the best LTE network in the country. But until it is up and running in your area (it might be already) T-Mobile's HSPA+ will not disappoint you.

    Linux user #266351. Android since v1.0
  5. agentc13

    agentc13 Daleks Über Alles

    Lots of good info here folks, thanks. I'll sticky it for the time being. Feel free to continue discussing/updating/correcting info as needed.
    tube517 likes this.
  6. tube517

    tube517 Android Expert

  7. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    Thanks for the feedback!

    Technically, 4G speeds are defined by the International Telecommunications Union-Radio communications sector. According to the standard, people in trains and cars should be able to see peak downloads of 100 Mbit/s, and people walking around or loitering in a parking lot should be able to see peak speeds of 1 Gbit/s (thanks Wikipedia!)

    HSPA+ is not capable of reaching these speeds, but since no other 4G technology has been able to achieve them either, and since HSPA+ is capable of achieving speeds comparable to (or better than) current 4G networks, T-Mobile started calling their HSPA+ 4G.

    I omitted the refarming discussion in an effort to keep things simple and straight forward. The iPhone 5 has an official launch date of April 12th, and I presume they need to finish their refarming effort before bringing that phone to their network (oficially, at least). If I'm mistaken, let me know and I'll add a bit about the refarm, but if their efforts are more-or-less complete, regardless of official announcements, I say it adds an unnecessary layer of confusion.

    I've added a discussion on coverage and other considerations, and I've added the quad-band terminology to the frequency band section. I've also changed the subject to be more descriptive. I was going to list the different LTE markets, but I wasn't sure I had it right. I found a source listing Baltimore, MD; Kansas City, KS; Houston, TX; Las Vegas, NV; Phoenix, AZ; San Jose, CA and Washington D.C. as LTE markets. Is that current, or is that out-of date?
    ymor likes this.
  8. gtbarry

    gtbarry Android Expert

    You are correct with this.

    But take a look at the infographic here (admittedly from 2010) and see if it makes you laugh or cry:
    4G is a myth (and a confusing mess) - Dec. 1, 2010
  9. new optimus

    new optimus Android Expert

    I would like to point out one thing you mention in the first post
    Not entirely true, I dont know how verizon or Sprint(both cdma providers) handle the LTE provisioning, but Metropcs uses a sim card for its LTE provisioning and cdma for its 3g and voice network.
  10. KOLIO

    KOLIO Guest

    Who should I contact @ T-MOBILE to find the exact bands/coverage in my area?

    The maps that I've seen are extremely vague & list the area blanketed in 3G/4G & nothing more specific than that.

  11. new optimus

    new optimus Android Expert

    where do you live?

    I would think most of the customer service reps could tell you the same as the web page, most dont know anything more.
    The map I looked at after putting in my zip code shows different colors for the excellent/very good/good/ etc. when your in a excellent/very good location it means hspa + will work, probably hspa + 42 there fastest non-LTE coverage. They dont have any LTE coverage listed as of yet. probably because they only have 7 cities with LTE up and running.
    I would imagine that if the coverage is just good or lower, except where they specify 2G your speeds will be in the hspa only.
    KOLIO likes this.
  12. KOLIO

    KOLIO Guest

    The map shows 'EXCELLENT' coverage in my area, that's why I'm switching to T-MOBILE from SPRINT.Even though T-MOBILE is the last of the major carriers to get in the 4G LTE game, I'm betting they'll finish upgrading their network well before SPRINT does.
  13. SuperAfnan

    SuperAfnan Android Expert

    Lol you made the right decision. :) Sprint can't get their data speeds faster than dial up unless you are using wimax or lte. :rolleyes:
  14. KOLIO

    KOLIO Guest

    Sooooooooo,what would be the best & worse case scenarios for getting this phone for use on T-MOBILE:

    HTC One
  15. SuperAfnan

    SuperAfnan Android Expert

    KOLIO likes this.
  16. new optimus

    new optimus Android Expert

    KOLIO likes this.
  17. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    I moved the 'Coverage' section above the 'Summary' section and added a bit on where to find the phone's specs, and what to do if you have more questions. Starting to get a bit complicated, but hopefully it's still novice-friendly. I thought about adding a short list of compatible phones, but I think that's a bit too far outside my goal. I'd rather encourage people to ask about a specific device than make it seem like they are limited to a specific selection.

    Could you expand on this? I know UMTS uses 1700 for up and 2100 for down, but I thought that was a property of the AWS spectrum, and therefore applicable to UMTS, HSPA, LTE, and whatever other technology T-Mobile wanted to implement in that spectrum. FWIW, I do have a note in the 'Frequency Bands' section differentiating between 1700, 2100MHz and 1700/2100MHz, but as you say, this is almost exclusive to T-Mobile phones. Usually, if a phone supports both 1700 and 2100 independently (which AFAIK is rare), it supports AWS as well.

    Nice! Yeah, this really is just marketing run amok. Still, not the first case of empty branding the US has ever seen, and we all know it won't be the last.

    Out of curiosity, what phone do you have? AFAIK, if a phone has a SIM, it is GSM compatible. It may not support UMTS or LTE, but I'd expect it to support GSM quad-band. My Verizon LG Spectrum 2 has a SIM slot for Verizon's LTE network. From what I understand (I haven't received my T-Mobile SIM yet to verify), the SIM allows it to double as a global phone, as it's SIM-unlocked out-of-the-box. My presumption was that this was common among all LTE SIMs, though I don't know if the SIMs can be carrier locked.
  18. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    T-Mobile's coverage map is not the best one around. The closer you zoom in, the more detail you will get. At the furthest distance, you just see 'Coverage' or 'No Coverage'. As you get closer, this will be further refined to 'Excellent', 'Very Strong', 'Good', Satisfactory', '2G', 'Service Partner', and 'No Service'. In order to tell if an area has 3G or 4G coverage, you need to zoom in all the way and click on the map. This will give you a popup showing you the coverage type (3G or 4G), and the approx. signal strength in a building, a home, a car, or outside. I have not been able to distinguish between HSPA+ and LTE coverage.
    KOLIO likes this.
  19. new optimus

    new optimus Android Expert

    Well I have the nexus 4 GSM phone on t mobile.

    My wife has the LG Esteem, on metropcs. again I dont know how they do it but I can not take the sim from her phone and put into mine, nor can I put the sim from mine and put into her's. The esteem uses cdma technology for the voice and 3g data network and the LTE is provisioned with the sim card.
    one article I found on it.
  20. KOLIO

    KOLIO Guest


    I already had an idea that my coverage was going to be decent,but,if the map is anywhere close to being accurate,I'm sooooo ready for the HTC ONE to drop on 4/19/13.

    I've got 4 bars for all service,voice & data(4G HSPA+),in all conditions.:D
  21. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    Yeah, you're right! PhoneArena has this phone listed as CDMA: 800, 1700/2100, 1900 MHz and LTE: 1700/2100 MHz, 1900 MHz, which is really strange considering that I thought T-Mobile was the only carrier using the AWS band. Looks like I have another edit I need to make. Not tonight though. Later.
  22. new optimus

    new optimus Android Expert

    One of the reasons all the metro and t mobile subscribers are excited for the merger, more lte spectrum, some markets will have 50mhz with that much 60mbs down should be the norm.:D
  23. FillInThe_____

    Thread Starter

    Edited to remove the statement that phones with SIM cards are GSM. I also removed the discussion on HSPA+ 21 vs 42 and cleaned up most of the sections from "Where to find the specs" on.
  24. chong67

    chong67 Android Expert

    It is just too bad that the HTC One Unlock (you can get on their website) will not work with Tmobile. Boooooo!
  25. Crashdamage

    Crashdamage Android Expert

    It will if you're in an area T-Mobile refarmed for HSPA+ in the 1900 band, which is most places now. But yes, it would be limited to Edge speed elsewhere.
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