This post is about prepaid mobile options for phones and only includes plans that allow voice calls and texts as well as data. For information about mobile broadband packages for USB modems and mobile hotspots see this post: US Prepaid Mobile Broadband Plans Compared
For plans for iPads and other tablets see Prepaid Tablet Data Plans Compared.
As it's difficult for travelers to order online and have a SIM shipped internationally, I've limited this post primarily to SIM-only offers that are widely available at US retail outlets.
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 GSM operators are T-Mobile and AT&T. T-Mobile has lower prices, AT&T covers more of the country than T-Mobile. If you are sticking to major cites, T-Mobile should be fine but for extensive land travel I recommend AT&T.
coverage map, current offers) uses the 1900 mHz band (LTE band 2) for 2G , 3G and 4G LTE, the 1700 AWS band (LTE band 4) for 3G and 4G LTE and the 700 Mhz LTE band 12 for LTE only.
To get started with T-Mobile you need a T-Mobile Prepaid 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 a T-Mobile SIM is at one of the thousands of company owned stores (store locator) throughout the country. At T-Mobile shops a SIM costs $15 but is often free if you activate a $40/month or higher monthly plan. Some branches of the chain electronics and department stores Best Buy, Target and Walmart also sell T-Mobile prepaid SIM kits for around $10. T-Mobile SIM kits are also available at independent mobile phone shops at prices ranging from free with airtime purchase to as much as $25. Unlike in much of the world, SIMs are not generally available at US drugstores or newstands.
T-Mobile Pay As You Go Plan:
Monthly charge: $3, includes 30 non-rollover minutes or texts. Additional minutes and texts (incoming and outgoing): 10¢ each
MMS: 25¢ each
Data on the pay as you go plan is only available in the form of two add-on data packages; $5 for you 500MB good for one day. A better deal for most visitors is the $10 1GB package good for 7 days.
T-Mobile Monthly Plans:
|Price||Talk Minutes||Texts||Included Data|
|$25/mo||unlimited||unlimited||data not available|
|$30/mo 3||100 (overage 10¢/min)||unlimited||unlimited (throttled 1 after 5 GB/month)|
|$40 Simply Prepaid||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (3 GB/month high speed) 1, 5|
|$50 Simple Choice 4||unlimited||unlimited|| |
?Unlimited (throttled 2 after 2 GB/month) 5
|$50 Simply Prepaid||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (5 GB/month high speed) 1, 5|
|$60 Simply Prepaid||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (10 GB/month high speed) 1, 5|
|$65 Simple Choice 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled 1 after 6 GB/month) 5|
|$80 Simple Choice 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled 1 after 10 GB/month) 5|
|$95 Simple Choice 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited, Un-throttled 5|
3 $30/month 5GB plan is available only when activating a SIM or 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 Simple Choice plans.
5 Tethering and hotspot are permitted on Simple Choice and Simply Prepaid plans, Hotspot/tethering are throttled after 14 GB on the $95 unlimited Simple Choice plan
The best deal for most visitors is probably 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 SIMs or phones purchased at Walmart. Unfortunately T-Mobile stores are prohibited from selling the un-activated SIM kit needed to activate online. SINs purchase online from T-Mobile come preactivated and can't be switch to the $30plan either. You can get around that by buying a SIM kit before your trip from an eBay seller who will ship internationally or at Best Buy, Target or Walmart store after you arrive in the US.
The monthly plans automatically renew every 30 days providing you have sufficient funds in your T-Mobile account. You can switch between monthly 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 (ma.web2go.com) or desktop (my.t-mobile.com) web sites. Plan changes from or between plans go into effect at the end of the plan period by default but customer support can make an immediate plan change on request.
Hotspot and tethering: allowed on all plans. Hotspot/tethering are throttled after 14 GB on the $95 unlimited Simple Choice plan.
Domestic Roaming: T-Mobile allows voice and text roaming at no extra cost on a number of regional operator's networks (areas labeled as "partner" on T-Mobile's coverage map). There's limited data roaming on "Simple Choice" monthly plans $50/mo and higher. Roaming on the $50 plan is limited to 10MB/month, $60 and $70 plan users get 50MB/month of data roaming. On other plans data roaming is not available
International calling and messaging:
T-Mobile Simple Choice plans include unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico. Unlimited Mexican and Canadian calling and roaming can be added to Simply Prepaid plans for $5/month.
T-Mobile offers two "Stateside" international calling add-ons which are available with the $50, $60, $70 and $80 monthly plans only:
- $10/month unlimited calls to landlines in 70+ countries, reduced international rates to 200+ countries
- $15/month unlimited calls to mobile phones in 30+ countries and landlines in 70+ countries, reduced international rates to 200+ countries.
Unlimited international texts are included at no-extra charge on the $30 plan and the $50, $60, $70 and $80 Simple Choice plans and cost the standard 10¢ each on all other plans. International MMS are 25¢ each on all plans.
International roaming: T-Mobile Simple Choice plans include unlimited voice, text and data roaming in to Canada and Mexico. Unlimited Mexican and Canadian calling and roaming can be added to Simply Prepaid plans for $5/month. High speed data is available while roaming up to normal plan limits with unlimited throttled roaming thereafter. T-Mobile SIMs must be activated and used in the US before they will work in Canada or Mexico.
T-Mobile's data settings:
APN: epc.tmobile.com or fast.t-mobile.com (for LTE devices)
MMSC proxy: not set
MMSC port: not set
MMS protocol: WAP 2.0
T-Mobile airtime refill PINs in $10, $30, $50 and $100 denominations 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.
T-Mobile Support: 1-877-778-2106 ( 611 from handset) Web Site: prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com
coverage map, current offers) uses the 850 and 1900 MHz bands for GPRS/Edge. 3G UTMS and 4G HSPA+. Most areas have both 850 and 1900 coverage but some are 1900 only (map).
LTE data is available to prepaid users. AT&T mainly uses band 17 (700 Mhz) for LTE but also uses bands 5 (850 Mhz). 2 (1900 Mhz) and 4 (1700 Mhz) for supplemental LTE service in some urban areas.
AT&T uses the brand AT&T GoPhone to refer to its prepaid services.
Pay As You Go Plans: AT&T's basic pay as you plan charges 10 cents/minute for calls and 20 cents each for SMS and MMS. SMS/MMS bundles are available at 200 texts for $4.99, 1000 for $9.99 and unlimited for $19.99.
Daily Plan: Unlimited voice and texting is available at $2/day (only charged on days when you make or receive a call or send a text). A 100 MB for $1 one day pass is available to daily plan customers only. Purchasing the data pass and using data does not trigger the $2 charge
Data is automatically enabled on the pay as you go and $2/day plans for non-smartphones only at the exorbitant rate of $0.002/KB ($2/MB).
For phones AT&T recognizes as smartphones, including all iPhones and many popular Android phones, data is disabled and unavailable on the pay as you go plan and only available on the daily plan by purchasing a $1 daily data pass which provides 100 MB good for 24 hours.
Monthly Plans: AT&T has prepaid monthly plans ranging in price from $25 to $60. Details of all the AT&T prepaid plans are listed in the table below.
|Monthly Plan||$30||unlimited||unlimited domestic and international||1¢ per 5 KB ($2/MB) or |
50 MB for $5
|1¢ per 5 KB non-smartphones only. |
100 MB for $5 OK for all phones
|Monthly Plan||$45||unlimited||unlimited domestic and international||unlimited, throttled to 128 Kbps after 2 GB. Additional high speed data 500MB for $10|
|Smartphone Monthly Plan with Data||$60||unlimited domestic and to Mexico.||unlimited domestic and international||unlimited, throttled to 128 Kbps after 5 GB. Additional high speed data 1 GB for $10|
AT&T stores charge $10 for a SIM although the charge is often 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.
Hotspot and tethering: allowed on $45 and $60 smartphone plans.
International calling and messaging:
$60 plan includes unlimited calls to Mexico including to mobile phones.
A $5/month International Long Distance package can be added to any plan including the 10¢/minute and $2/day plans. It provides 250 minutes of calling to cell phones and landlines in Canada, India, China and several other countries and to landlines in over 50 countries (list of countries).
There's also a $10/month Mexico Long Distance Plus package that can be added to $45 and $60 monthly plans only. It includes 1000 minutes of calling to cell phones and landlines in Mexico, Canada, India, China and several other countries and to landlines in over 50 countries (list of countries).
Without an international add-on. AT&T's voice rates are better than T-Mobile's but are still high. Calls to the UK and most Western European countries cost $0.49 per minute, for India, Australia and Japan the surcharge is $1.09/min.
Unlimited international texts to 100 countries (list) are included with the monthly and $2 daily plans. On pay as you go international texts are 25¢ each to send and 20¢ to receive.
International Roaming: GoPhone roams in Mexico and Canada.
The $60 Monthly Plan includes unlimited voice and messaging and 4 GB of high speed data while roaming in Mexico and Canada.
On other plans calls are 25¢ per minute in Mexico and 39¢ in Canada. In both countries texts are 25¢ to send and 20¢ to receive, MMS are $1.30 to send and 25¢ to receive and data is $1.95/KB.
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 SIMs are also available at many Walmart stores for $10 and from independent mobile phone shops at widely varying prices.
AT&T's prepaid coverage area (map) is larger than T-Mobile's but unlike T-Mobile, AT&T doesn't allow off-network 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 - Phone or PRODATA (no user id, password or proxy needed)
MMS proxy: proxy.mobile.att.net
MMS Port: 80
Authentication type: Not set
Tethering: Tethering and hotspot is allowed on AT&T monthly plans that include smartphone data.
AT&T Support: 1-800-901-9878 Web Site: wireless.att.com
MVNO Alternatives. AT&T and T-Mobile are the only national US GSM operators, but there are dozens of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) in the US that resell service from either AT&T or T-Mobile. MVNO SIMs are sold online and by independent mobile dealers. MVNOs typically have lower rates than T-Mobile or AT&T but SIMS can be hard to find.
Here's a sampling of some of the better MVNO deals.
T-Mobile MVNOs (Unlike with T-Mobile itself, off network roaming is not available on most T-Mobile MVNOs ):
- MetroPCS (not a true MVNO, owned by T-Mobile but not sold in T-Mobile stores). Off-network voice and text (no data) roaming is available. Hotspot allowed. Monthly plans with unlimited talk and SMS All include unlimited 2g (128 Kbps) data: $40/month 3 GB 4G; $50/month 5 GB 4G; $60/month unlimited 4G on phone, 8 GB for hotspot. Unlimited roaming in Canada and Mexico available for $5/month on $40 and higer plans. Dealer locator.
- Lycamobile Monthly plans with unlimited talk and SMS (int'l included). All include unlimited 2g (128 Kbps) data: $19/month 100MB 4G; $29/month 500MB 4G; $35/month 2 GB 4G; $45/month 4 GB 4G. Hotspot not allowed. Dealer locator.
- Ultra Mobile Monthly plans with unlimited talk and SMS (int'l included): $19 100 MB data and unlimited calls to 10 countries; $29 1 GB data, unlimited calls to 40 countries. Hotspot not allowed. Dealer Locator
- Go Smart Mobile (owned by T-Mobile) $40 monthly plan, unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, unlimited data, throttled to 128 Kbps after 5 GB. HSPA+ only no LTE, hotspot allowed. Dealer Locator
- Ready SIM, is a T-Mobile MVNO that ships internationally and sells SIMs preloaded with a 3 day, 7 day, 14 day or 30 day plan. All plans include unlimited talk and text, including international texting. Plans with or without data are available. A 7 day ReadySIM with unlimited talk and text and 500 MB of data costs $25. Worldwide shipping is about $10 extra. Ready SIM is also available from Amazon,com. For more about Ready SIM see Good For International Visitors - Ready SIM's Disposable Self Activating SIM with a Built-in Plan.
- Air Voice Pay As You Go: 4¢/min, 2¢/SMS, 6.6¢/MB, $10/30 days minimum top up. Monthly plans with unlimited talk and SMS (int'l included). $20 100 MB; $30 1 GB; $50 5 GB. No LTE First half of monthly data allowance is at full HSPA+ speed, second half is throttled to 128 Kbps. Low international calling rates. Plans priced at $30 and higher include unlimited international calls to 70+ countries. Hotspot not allowed. No LTE. No dealer locator
- H2O Pay As You Go: 5¢/min, 5¢/SMS (10¢ int'l), 10¢/MB, $10/90 days minimum top up. Monthly plans with unlimited talk and SMS (int'l included). $30 500MB; $40 1GB. low international calling rates. Hotspot not allowed. No dealer locator but available at Best Buy stores.
- Cricket (not a true MVNO, owned by AT&T but not sold in AT&T stores) Monthly Plans: both include unlimited minutes, unlimited domestic texts, and unlimited 2G data: $40 2.5 GB 4G; $50 5 GB 4G, $60 10GB. Hotspot use is $10/month extra and only works with some Cricket branded Android phones. $50 and $60 plans include unlimited roaming in Mexico and Canada. Dealer locator. Dealers charge $10 for a SIM and a $35 activation fee. SIMs also available at Walmart stores with free activation.
Global SIMs: There are many brands of global or travel SIMs which are work in multiple countries. Global SIMs are convenient but rates tend to be high. The best global SIM for US visitors is from Truphone. Truphone is pay as you go and US rates are 9¢ per outgoing minute or text and 9¢ per MB of data. Incoming calls and texts are free. Truphone uses both the AT&T and T-Mobile networks as well as some regional networks in the US. Truphone SIMs are sold in the UK, US, Australia, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Spain. In the US they cost $29.99 and include a $15 airtime credit. There's no requirement to top up regularly, pay as you go credit never expires as long as you make a call, send a text or use some data at least every 90 days.
Recommendations T-Mobile and T-Mobile MVNOs tend to be less expensive than AT&T, especially if you need lots of unthrottled data per month. T-Mobile's coverage is inferior to AT&T's but T-Mobile works well in all major cities and provides at least 2G coverage along most highways.
If you demand the best possible coverage with 3G and 4G data speeds in the most places, AT&T is the best choice. The least costly option that includes data is the $30 Monthly Plan with a $5 - 100 MB data package. The $60/month unlimited plan with 4 GB of high speed data is a better choice for serious data users
Buying a SIM and service at an AT&T and T-Mobile store near your hotel is the quickest and most convenient way to get mobile service in the US. However it's not the least expensive. It's possible to save money with an MVNO if you are able to buy SIMs online or are willing to spend some time to finding a dealer.
Truphone is cost effective for light use and it's convenient, especially if you can buy an activate a SIM in your home country before leaving for the US.
Updated 22-Jan-2016: T-Mobile Simply Prepaid Plans are no longer restricted to 8 Mbps and get more data.
How to Get The Best Deal on Prepaid Mobile Data
How To Find The Best Prepaid Voice and Text Plan
New York City Montage image by Bleff (compilation) some rights reseverd [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons