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 connection cards, USB mobile data adapters and MiFis 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 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 operators are T-Mobile and AT&T. T-Mobile has lower prices, AT&T covers a bit more of the country than T-Mobile.
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 the AWS band.
In 2012, T-Mobile began deploying 4G HSPA+ on the 1900 Mhz band that most non-US phones, including all iPhones do support. As of Dec 23, 2013, HSPA+ on 1900 Mhz is deployed in: Anaheim. CA; Ann Arbor, MI; Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Cambridge, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; Fort Worth, TX; Fresno, CA; Houston, TX; Kansas City, KS/MO; Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; Minneapolis, MN; St. Paul, MN; Modesto, CA; Napa, CA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Oakland, CA; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Providence, RI; Reno, NV; Richmond, VA; Sacramento, CA; Salinas, CA; San Antonio, TX; San Diego, CA; San Francisco, CA; San Jose, CA; Santa Ana, CA; Santa Cruz, CA; Santa Rosa, CA; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; St. Cloud, MN; Stockton, CA; Tampa, FL; Tucson, AZ; Vallejo, CA; Virginia Beach, VA; Warren, MI; Washington, DC.
In 2013 T-Mobile started adding 4G LTE on the 1700 Mhz band. As of Nov, 2013 T-Mobile has deployed LTE in 255 markets (list). LTE data is available to prepaid users with on any plan that includes data.
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 on line with T-Mobile is at one of the thousands of company owned stores (store locator) thoughout 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 Pay As You Go Plan:
Texts: 10¢ each (incoming and outgoing)
MMS: 25¢ each
Cost per voice minute on T-Mobile Pay As you Go varies with refill denomination:
|Cost||Minutes||Cost per Minute||Validity|
|$30||160 1||$0.19||90 days 1|
|$50||4001||$0.12||90 days 1|
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.
A problem with T-Mobile Pay As Yo Go is that no data is included and there is no way purchase data access. T-Mobile data is only available with a $2 or $3 Day plan or a $30 or higher Monthly plan.
T-Mobile Daily Plans:
|Price||Talk Minutes||Texts||Included Data 1|
|$2/day 1||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled to 120 Kbps)|
|$3/day 1||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited (throttled after 200 MB/day)|
T-Mobile Monthly Plans:
|Price||Talk Minutes||Texts||Included Data|
|$30/mo||1500 (combined minutes and texts) overage 10¢/min||1500 (combined minutes and texts) overage 10¢/text||30 MB 2|
|$30/mo 3||100 (overage 10¢/min)||unlimited||unlimited (throttled 1 after 5 GB/month)|
|$50/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled 1 after 500 MB/month) 5|
|$60/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited (throttled 1 after 2.5 GB/month)|
|$70/mo 4||unlimited||unlimited||Unlimited, Un-throttled|
2 $30/month 1500 minutes/texts plan is only available in T-Mobile stores, not online.
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 plans.
5 Tethering is permitted on $50 and higher plans. It's limited to 500 MB on the $50 plan and 2.5 GB on the $60 and $70 plans
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. You can get around that by buying a SIM kit before your trip from an eBay seller who will ship internationally or at a Walmart store (Find this item at a Walmart store)
The monthly plans automatically renew every 30 days providing you have sufficient funds in your T-Mobile account. 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 from or between monthly plans go into effect at the end of the plan period.
Domestic Roaming: 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). There's limited data roaming on 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: International calls are expensive on T-Mobile. Sample rates per minute: Canada 49¢, Mexico 69¢, Western Europe, Japan, India, China, Philippines $1.99. Most other countries (full list) are even more expensive. On pay per minute plans these rates are in addition to the basic per minute rate of 10-33 cents.
I recommend that you use a calling card or international call-back service for international calls. Or if you are using a 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).
International texts are 10¢ each, MMS are 25¢ each
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 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 both GPRS/Edge and 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 on band 4 (1700 Mhz) in a few areas
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).
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).
Monthly Plans: AT&T has several 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||$25||250 minutes, overage 10¢/min||unlimited domestic and international||1¢ per 5 KB ($2/MB) or |
50 MB for $5
|1¢ per 5 KB non-smartphones only. |
50 MB for $5 OK for all phones
|Monthly Plan||$35||500 Minutes, overage 10¢/min||unlimited domestic and international||unlimited||non-smartphones only|
|Monthly Plan||$40||500 Minutes, overage 10¢/min||unlimited domestic and international||200 MB, Add 100 MB for $5||smartphones only|
|Monthly Unlimited Plan||$50||unlimited||unlimited domestic and international||unlimited on non-smartphones||No data for smartphones|
|Smartphone Monthly Plan with Data||$60||unlimited||unlimited domestic and international||2 GB, Add 1GB for $10||smartphones only|
AT&T charges $10 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.
AT&T's international 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. A $5/month International Long Distance Feature Package is available that provides 250 minutes of calling to over 50 countries (list of countries).
There's also a $10/month Mexico Long Distance Plus package can be added to $50 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).
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.
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 is about the same 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 $100.
AT&T data settings:
APN - Phone (no user id, password or proxy needed)
MMS proxy: proxy.mobile.att.net
MMS Port: 80
Authentication type: Not set
Tethering: Tethering is prohibited on AT&T. People do it anyway and generally get away with it in moderation. If you are using an iPhone, tethering is blocked by iOS whenever an AT&Tbased SIM is detected.
AT&T Support: 1-800-901-9878 Web Site: wireless.att.com
MVNO Alternatives. There are dozens of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) in the US that resell service from AT&T or T-Mobile. MVNO SIMs are sold online and by independent mobile dealers. MVNOs have lower rates than T-Mobile or AT&T but SIMS can be hard to find.
Here's a sampling of some of the better MVNO deals.
- Ptel Pay As You Go: 5¢/min, 2¢/SMS including international, 10¢/MB, 10$ minimum top up, low international calling rates. Dealer locator
- Lycamobile Pay As You Go: 2¢/min, 4¢/SMS (free incoming) 6¢/MB, 10$ minimum top up, low international calling rates. Dealer locator
- Ultra Mobile $29 Monthly Plan: unlimited minutes, 1000 international minutes, unlimited texts including international, 100 MB, Dealer Locator
- Go Smart Mobile (owned by T-Mobile) $45 monthly plan, unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, 5GB (throttled to 910 KBps) Dealer Locator
- Air Voice $10 Plan Pay As You Go: 4¢/min, 2¢/SMS, 6.6¢/MB, 10$ minimum top up, low international calling rates. no dealer locator
- H2O Unlimited $30 Monthly Plan: unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, 500 MB, low international calling rates. no dealer locator
- Aio (owned by AT&T) $55 Monthly Plan: unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, 2GB. Dealer locator
Recommendations I consider T-Mobile to be the best choice for most visitors, especially for stays of 20 days or less. $25 at a T-Mobile store buys you a SIM and $15 in call credit. Activate on the $2 or $3 per day plan for 5-7 days of unlimited talk, text and data. 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, but it's not cheap. The least costly option that includes data is the $25 Monthly Plan with a $5 - 50 MB data package. The $60/month unlimited plan with 2 GB of 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.
Another easy, relatively cost effective option, especially for short visits, is Ready SIM, a T-Mobile MVNO that sells SIMs preloaded with a 3 day, 7 day, 14 day or 30 day plan. Ready SIM's Amazon storefront offers worldwide shipping for about $10. 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. For more about ReadySIM see: Good For International Visitors - Ready SIM's Disposable Self Activating SIM with a Built-in Plan.
Updated 24-Dec-2013 - Completely rewritten.
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