The best deal is from T-Mobile, which will give tablet users 200 MB of data per month for free just for activating a T-Mobile SIM in a device that T-Mobile recognizes as a tablet.
Verizon is another good choice. Its lowest priced LTE mobile broadband plan is $15 for 300 MB, and it's only a 7 day plan. For $5 more you can get a full gigabyte of data, good for a month, for a tablet. And Verizon allows you to use your tablet as a mobile hotspot. However, you do need to use a Verizon tablet, prices start at $199.99 for a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 LTE.
Here's a table comparing Verizon. AT&T and Sprint's prepaid tablet plans. Except for the 200 MB of free data deal, T-Mobile doesn't have separate tablet plans so I've included their prepaid mobile broadband plans, which can be used with tablets.
|$5||300 MB (1 day plan)||-||500 MB (1 day plan, no auto-renew)|
|$10||-||-||100 MB||1 GB (7 day plan, no auto-renew) or 1 GB (auto-renew required)|
|$15||-||250 MB||1 GB 1||1 GB||-|
|$20||1 GB||-||-||3 GB (auto-renew required)|
|$25||-||-||3 GB 1||-||-|
|$30||2 GB||3 GB||-||5 GB (auto-renew required) or 3 GB (no auto renew)|
|$35||-||-||5 GB 1||3 GB||-|
|$40||4 GB||-||-||4 GB (no auto renew)|
|$50||6 GB||5 GB||6 GB||7 GB (auto-renew required)|
|$60||-||-||-||9 GB (auto-renew required)|
|$70||-||-||-||11 GB (auto-renew required)|
|$80||10 GB||-||12 GB||13 GB (auto-renew required)|
|Allowed Devices||Verizon Tablets||iPads, AT&T Tablets||MetroPCS Tablet||Sprint Tablets||T-Mobile Tablets and Mobile Broadband Devices|
|Tethering||Yes||Only on 5 GB Plan||$5/mo||No||Yes|
These tablet plans all have their own set of rules, and in some cases, gotchas. Here's a run down of the details of each carrier's offering.
Verizon: A credit or debit card is required to activate any of Verizon's prepaid tablet plans. It's best to activate the prepaid plan using the menus on the tablet (On the iPad Tap Settings > Cellular Data > View Account and fill in the form). Users activating in store or over the phone have reported being activated on a postpaid plan in spite of being told they were getting the prepaid option.
Plans automatically renew one day before they expire. You can cancel your auto payment and resume it again anytime within the next 5 months (after 5 months without an active plan your SIM is deactivated and must be replaced to reactive service). The process for cancelling auto-payments on the Verizon iPad (and probably the Android tablets) is confusing, if you are not careful you can end up permanently deactivating your SIM. To safely cancel your auto payment on an iPad:
- Tap Settings > Cellular Data > View Account, log in if prompted.
- On the next screen (labeled "Account Overview") tap "Add Data or Change Plan".
- On the next screen (labeled "Add Data or Change Plan") tap "Cancel Plan".
- A dialog box will open, choose "Delete Account Later." Do NOT choose "Delete Account Now" as that will kill your SIM.
AT&T: It's not easy to find the prepaid tablet plans on the AT&T site. To get to them go to www.att.com/att/planner and select "Tablet" under "Device 1". Then in the bottom left of the page click "See other options" under "DataConnect Pass".
To set up an AT&T prepaid plan on an iPad go Settings > Cellular Data > View Account or online at http://www.att.com/ipadlanding using the iPad's browser. For other tablets go to https://buyasession.att.com. A credit or debit card is required.
AT&T's plans auto renew every month and auto renewal can be can be activated and deactivated as needed. If you suspend your service for more than 60 days your account is cancelled and the SIM is permanently deactivated. Unlike with Verizon, SIMs are readily available from AT&T stores as well as online from Ebay and Amazon. A special SIM is not required, any never activated AT&T SIM can be used.
Sprint: Prepaid tablet plans are only available for Sprint 4G LTE tablets. You can activate a prepaid plan on the iPad by tapping Settings > Cellular Data > View Account and filling in the form. A valid credit or debit card is required and the plan will renew automatically every month. As with Verizon and AT&T, you can change to a different plan or suspend auto payments using the Settings > Cellular Data > View Account menu. As far as I know Sprint doesn't permanently deactivate your SIM or account because a plan has been inactive too long.
Sprint prepaid iPad plans include a limited amount of off-network roaming (100 MB on the 1 and 3 GB plans, 300 MB on the 6 GB and 12 GB plans).
T-Mobile: doesn't have tablet specific plans. The mobile broadband plans listed above are the only prepaid plans that work with T-Mobile branded tablets, iPads, Google Nexus tablets and other devices that are recognized by T-Mobile as tablets. Auto refill is available, but not mandatory, for T-Mobile prepaid mobile broadband plans. You can let service lapse if not needed and reactivate it again up to one year after last use. After a year without service the SIM becomes permanently deactivated and can no longer be used.
Non-T-Mobile tablets can't easily be activated on prepaid Mobile Broadband plans but do work with T-Mobile phone plans, including the $30/month, 100 minutes, unlimited text, unlimited data (first 5 GB at full speed) plan which is a better deal than any of the mobile broadband plans.
MetroPCS, which is wholly owned by T-Mobile, has tablet plans but they only work with the MetroPCS ALCATEL ONETOUCH POP 7 not with other tablets. MetroPCS customers receive a $5 monthly instant discount on tablet plans when they add the POP 7 to their existing MetroPCS phone service.
Updated Oct 24, 2014: Added MetroPCS.