This post is about prepaid mobile options for phones and only includes plans that allow voice calls and texts. For information about mobile broadband packages for iPads, tablets, connection cards, USB mobile data adapters and MiFis see this post: US Prepaid Mobile Broadband Plans Compared.
As it's difficult for travelers to order online and have a SIM shipped internationally, I've limited this post to SIM-only offers that are widely available at US retail outlets.
Postpaid or paid monthly plans are the norm for most in the US and tend to offer the greatest value for heavy data users. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible for non-US residents to get as a US bank account, credit card and employment is generally required to pass the mandatory credit check.
That leaves prepaid which is gaining traction in the US and in the process is becoming more competitive and affordable.
In order to use your phone in the US with a local SIM it must be unlocked and support the US frequency bands, which are different from those used in most of the world.
The two national US operators are T-Mobile and AT&T.
coverage map, current offers) uses the 1900 mHz band for 2G GPRS/Edge and the 1700 AWS band for 3G/4G UTMS/HPSA/HPSA+. Very few non-US phones support this band.
In 2012, T-Mobile began deploying 3G on the 1900 Mhz band that most non-US phones, including iPhones do support. When complete, the 1900 Mhz overlay will cover most metropolitan areas.
As of Dec 21, 2012, 1900 Mhz is fully deployed in New York City, Newark, N.J., Boston, Cambridge and Springfield, Mass.; Providence, R.I., Philadelphia; Detroit and Warren, Mich.; Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio, Texas; Tampa, Fla, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Reno, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Fresno and Sacramento CA and a number of Southern California towns including Anaheim (Disneyland) but not LA proper.
There are pockets of 1900 Mhz service in other areas (I've seen it in San Francisco) but there's not enough coverage in those areas for T-Mobile to announce them as live yet. You can follow the progress of the 1900 Mhz spectrum refarming on T-Mobile's blog at blog.t-mobile.com/tag/refarm/. There's also a user-generated map of T-Mobile 1900 Mhz 3G sightings at airportal.de
To get started with T-Mobile you need a T-Mobile SIM Card Activation Kit which includes a SIM and a single use activation code. The code is required to activate a prepaid account. Do not buy an un-activated T-Mobile USA SIM on Ebay, etc. unless it includes a prepaid plan activation code. Without an activation code the SIM can not be activated on prepaid.
The easiest way to get on line with T-Mobile is at one of the thousands of company owned stores (store locator) though out the country. A SIM costs $10 and includes 10 minutes of starter airtime. The SIM is free if you activate on a $30/month or higher monthly plan.
The SIM kits are also available at independent mobile phone shops at prices ranging from free with airtime purchase to as much as $20. Unlike in much of the world, SIMs are not generally available at US drugstores, airports or newstands.
T-Mobile airtime refill PINs are readily available and can be purchased at T-Mobile and independent phone shops, "big box" retailers like Target and Walmart, Office Depot stores, 7-11 convenience stores, chain drugstores such as Walgreens, CVS and Publix and at electronic retailers including BestBuy and RadioShack.
Refills are available in the following denominations
|Cost||Minutes||Cost per Minute||Validity|
|$25||130 1||$0.19||90 days 1, 2|
|$30||160 1||$0.19||90 days 1|
|$50||4001||$0.12||90 days 1|
1 After $100 in airtime purchases you are automatically enrolled in T-Mobile's "Gold Rewards" plan and starting with the next airtime purchase all refill denominations have a one year validity. The $10, $25, $30 and $50 refills give Gold Rewards members more minutes: $10 - 35 min, $25 - 150 min, $30 - 185 min, $50 - 460 min.
2 The $25 refill has been discontinued and replaced by the $30 one but is still widely available.
No data is included with T-Mobile pay as you go. (The $1.49 unlimited Web Day Pass has been discontinued and is no longer available).
T-Mobile data is only available with a $2 or $3 Day plan or a $30 or higher Monthly plan.
There are two daily plans and five monthly plans in all.
T-Mobile Daily Plans:
|Price||Talk Minutes||Texts||Included Data 1|
|$2/day||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 120 Kbps)|
|$3/day||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled after 200 MB/day)|
T-Mobile Monthly Plans:
|Price||Talk Minutes||Texts||Included Data 1|
|$30/mo||1500 (combined minutes and texts) overage 10¢/min||1500 (combined minutes and texts) overage 10¢/text||30 MB 2|
|$30/mo 3,4||100 (overage 10¢/min)||unlimited||unlimited (throttled after 5 GB/month)|
|$50/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled after 500 MB/month)|
|$60/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled after 2.5 GB/month)|
|$70/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited, Um-throttled|
2 $30/month 1500 minutes/texts plan is only available in T-Mobile stores, not online.
3 this plan is available only when activating a new phone purchased at Walmart or when activating a new SIM at www.t-mobile.com/PrepaidActivation. If you switch to another plan you can't switch back to the $30/month unlimited data plan.
4 For BlackBerry users there's a BIS add-on available at no extra charge on $50/month and higher plans. The BlacBerry add-on is $10/month on the $30 5GB plna.
The best deal for most visitors would be the $30/mo 5GB, 100 minute, unlimited text plan. It's also the hardest to get as it's only available for online activations or with phones purchased at Walmart. Unfortunately T-Mobile stores are prohibited from selling you the un-activated SIM kit needed to activate online. You can get around that by buying a SIM kit before your trip from a eBay seller who will ship internationally.
The monthly plans automatically renew every 30 days. You can switch between monthly, daily and pay as you go plans (except for the $30 unlimited data plan) by calling 1-877-778-2106 on any phone or 611 on your T-Mobile phone or by using T-Mobile's mobile (m.web2go.com) or desktop (my.t-mobile.com) web sites. Plan changes go into effect at the end of your plan period.
One thing to watch out for with T-Mobile is that data only works when you are on the T-Mobile network itself. T-Mobile allows voice and text roaming at no extra cost on a number of regional operator's networks (areas in gray labeled as "partner web" on Data tab of the coverage map) but data generally does not work when roaming,
The above prices are for calls and texts within the US only. International calls (rates below) are expensive. I recommend that you use a calling card or international call-back service for international calls. Or if you are using a $50 or greater monthly plan you can add unlimited calls to 50 countries and unlimited texting to 220 countries for $10/month. Full list of countries covered (PDF).
T-Mobile international calling rates. On pay per minute plans these rates are in addition to the basic per minute rate of 10-33 cents.
|Canada and Mexico||$0.50 per minute|
|Guam||$0.90 per minute|
|Jamaica and island countries||$0.90 per minute|
|Tuvalu and Vanuatu Islands||$5.10 per minute|
|All other countries||$1.60 per minute|
T-Mobile's data settings:
APN - epc.tmobile.com (no user id, password or proxy needed.)
APN - wap.voicestream.com
MMSC URL http://126.96.36.199/servlets/mms
MMSC proxy: 216.155.165.050
MMSC port: 8080
T-Mobile Support: 1-877-778-2106 ( 611 from handset) Web Site: prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com
Simple Mobile is a MVNO using the T-Mobile network. Data coverage (map) and bands are the same as T-Mobile's but the voice calling area is much smaller because, unlike T-Mobile, Simple Mobile doesn't allow voice and text roaming.
There are two Simple Mobile monthly plans which include unlimited voice and text. The $40/month plan includes 250 MB of full speed data unlimited data per month. After 250 MB are used speeds are throttled to about 240 Kbps for the rest of the month. For $50/month you get "unlimited 3G/4G data". Although data is advertised as unlimited, users have reported that their data speeds were throttled after 2 GB/month and cut off when then hit 3 GB in a month. For BlackBerry users the $50 plan includes BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) which is needed for BlackBerry Messenger, Email and the BlackBerry App World.
A plus for Simple Mobile is that international texting to most of the world is free and international voice rates are very low (1.25 cents per minute to the landlines in the UK and most of Western Europe, 2.4 cents or less to all numbers in India). However International calling works like a calling card and requires calling a 10 digit access number plus the number you wish to call. New Simple Mobile accounts come with $1 in international calling credit, addition credit can be added in $10 increments.
Simple mobile SIMs cost $12.99 and are available from thousands of independent mobile phone retailers through the US (dealer locator). Refills are available from the same dealers.
Simple Mobile's data settings (from mysimplemobile.com/Support-Center.aspx):
Proxy address: 216.155.165.050, Port: 8080 (no proxy may also work)
no Username or password
No username, password or proxy
Simple Mobile Support: 1-877-878-7908 Web Site: mysimplemobile.com/
map). Unlike T-Mobile you will have service if your phone supports either band although a phone with both the 850 and 1900 bands will give you better coverage.
AT&T's prepaid data pricing used to be pretty bad, but seems to be slowly getting better. AT&T's basic pay as you plan charges 10 cents/minute for calls and 20 cents each for SMS/MMS. Unlimited voice and texting is available at $2/day (only charged on days when you make or recieve a call or send a text) and there is also a $50/month unlimited voice and text plan which includes unlimited data for feature phones only. Details of all prepaid voice plans are here. SMS/MMS bundles are available at 200 texts for $4.99, 1000 for $9.99 and unlimited for $19.99. AT&T charges a whopping $20 for a SIM although this is generally waived if combined with an airtime purchase. There is a 0.20 to $1.50 monthly 911 fee charged in some states in addition to applicable state sales taxes.
Ad hoc data is automatically enabled on non-smartphones only at $0.002/KB. The following data packages are available: 50 MB for $5.00, 200MB for $15 and 1 GB for $25.00. Text and data bundles expire after 30 days but unused texts or data rolls over if another bundle is purchased before the expiration date. Effective April 18, 2012 data packages are only available on $25 and $50 prepaid monthly plans.
To add a data or text package to your account you can either call 611 from the handset and follow the voice response prompts or use AT&T's Pay As You Go Online site.
AT&T's international voice rates are better than T-Mobile's but still high. Calls to the UK and most Western European countries cost $0.49 per minute extra, for India, Australia and Japan the surcharge is $1.09/min. A $10/month International Long Distance Feature Package is available that provides 250 minutes of calling to over 50 countries (list of countries).
Surprisingly the International Long Distance Feature Package does not include any free or reduced price international text messaging. Unlimited international texts to 100 countries (list) are included in the $50 monthly and $2 daily plans. On pay as you go and the $25 monthly plans international texts are 25¢ each to send.
Getting data working on an unlocked iPhone on AT&T is problematic. iPhones default to an APN that only works with postpaid accounts and most iPhones don't let you manually edit APNs. You can get around this with the following procedure. (Note that I haven't tried this personally but have seen numerous reports that it does work).
1. Obtain an un-activated AT&T MicroSIM or a cut down un-activated AT&T regular SIM. Both are available on eBay. SIMs can also be purchased at AT&T stores. Store clerks will probably tell you that prepaid data doesn't work with iPhones. Ignore them as data will work once the you do step 4, below.
2. Activate the SIM in the store or online at https://www.wireless.att.com/activations/ You are required to enter an IMEI when activating. It must not be an iPhone IMEI or the activation will fail. You can enter 15 zeros as the IMEI and it will work.
3. Put the SIM in the iPhone, voice and SMS should work
4. To get data working go to unlockit.co.nz/mobilesettings/ with the iPhone browser using WiFi, choose "AT&T" and follow the instructions.
For the Apple iPad and other tablets, there are three pre-paid data-only (no voice, SMS or MMS) packages: 14.95/month for 250 MB, $30/month for 3 GB and $50/month for 5 GB. The SIM must be activated in an iPad or a tablet to get these prices.
As with T-Mobile the easiest way to get a SIM and pay for service is at an AT&T corporate store (store locator). AT&T's prepaid data coverage area (map) is larger than T-Mobile's but the voice coverage area is smaller because AT&T doesn't allow voice, text or data roaming on prepaid plans. Refill PIN cards are widely available at AT&T and independent phone shops, "big box" retailers like Target and Walmart, Office Depot stores, 7-11 convenience stores, chain drugstores such as Walgreens, CVS and Publix and at electronic retailers including BestBuy and RadioShack. Refill denominations are $15, $25, $50, $75 and $100.
AT&T data settings:
APN - wap.cingular (no user id, passwpord or proxy needed.)
APN - wap.cingular
User name - WAP@CINGULARGPRS.COM
Password - CINGULAR1 (case sensitive)
MMSC URL - http://mmsc.cingular.com
AT&T Support: 1-800-901-9878 Web Site: wireless.att.com
Here's a table summarizing all three operator's plans that include data:
|Plan||Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||SIM Cost or Activation Fee||Voice||Text||Data|
|T-Mobile Pay By The day||$2/day||$10||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 128 Kbps)|
|T-Mobile Pay By The day||$3/day||$10||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 128 kbps after 200 MB/day)|
|T-Mobile Monthly4G "Walmart" plan||$30/month||$10||100||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 128 kbps after 5 GB/month)|
|T-Mobile Monthly4G||$30/month||free||1500 (combined minutes and texts)||1500 (combined minutes and texts)||30 MB|
|T-Mobile Monthly4G||$50/month ($60 with BlackBerry BIS)||free||unlimited||unlimited ($50 with BlackBerry BIS)||unlimited (throttled to 128 kbps after 500 MB/month)|
|T-Mobile Monthly4G||$60/month ($70 with BlackBerry BIS)||free||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 128 kbps after 2.5 GB/month)|
|T-Mobile Monthly4G||$70/month ($80 with BlackBerry BIS)||free||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited, unthrottled|
|Simple Mobile Unlimited||$40/month||$12.99||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled to 240 kbps after 250 MB/mo.)|
|Simple Mobile Unlimited Everything||$50/month (no extra charge for BlackBerry BIS)||$12.99||unlimited||unlimited||"unlimited" (throttled at 2 GB, capped at 3 GB)|
|AT&T 10¢/Minute Plan||$8.33/month 2 + $0 - $1.50 911 fee||$20 (often free with airtime purchase)||$0.10/min||$0.20 each, 200 - $4.99, 1000 - $9.99, unlimited - $19.99||$0.002/KB 3|
|AT&T $2 Daily Plan||$8.33/month 2 + $0 - $1.50 911 fee||$20 (often free with airtime purchase)||Unlimited $2.00 (charged on days used)1||Unlimited $2.00 (charged on days used) 1||$0.002/KB 3|
|AT&T $25 Monthly Plan||$25 + $0 - $1.50 911 fee||$20 (often free with airtime purchase)||250 (overage 10¢/minute)||unlimited||$0.002/KB 3,|
$5/50 MB, $15/200MB, $25/1 GB
|AT&T $50 Monthly Unlimited Plan||$50 + $0 - $1.50 911 fee||$20 (often free with airtime purchase)||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited for feature phones.|
$5/50 MB, $15/200MB,
|AT&T $65 Monthly Unlimited Plan with data||$50 + $0 - $1.50 911 fee||$20 (often free with airtime purchase)||unlimited||unlimited||1 GB|
2 $8.33 is the minimum monthly cost based on a $25 top up every 90 days
3 $0.002/KB pay per use data is not available with smartphones.
Tethering is prohibited by all three operator's terms of service. People do it anyway and I've never heard of anyone 's service being terminated because of it, although T-Mobile will block you from tethering if they detect it.
Recommendations If you want the best coverage with 3G data speeds in most places, AT&T is your only choice. The least costly option currently is the $25 Monthly Plan with a $25 1 GB data package.
Otherwise T-Mobile offers better value, particularly for short stays. $25 at a T-Mobile store buys you a SIM and $15 in call credit. Activate on the $2 or $3 per day plan. Be sure to have Web Guard disabled before you leave the T-Mobile store.
Updated 24-Mar-2012 - T-Mobile plan changes.
How to Get The Best Deal on Prepaid Mobile Data
How To Find The Best Prepaid Voice and Text Plan
Suitcase image by Producer Some rights reserved via Wikimedia Commons