If you’re planning a trip to the U.S. or you’re a local wanting to avoid an expensive monthly plan, here are some of the best options for prepaid SIM cards in the U.S., including options for both voice and data plans, as well as data-only plans.
First things first: I’ll only be covering options which use either T-Mobile or AT&T’s networks, as they’re the only two national networks which use GSM, the standard used by the rest of the world and thus compatible with many more devices, including those of basically anyone visiting from overseas. For locals in the U.S., know that one of the big advantages of GSM is that it means you can buy any “unlocked” device and use it on either of these networks, or in most any country in the world, just by popping in a SIM card. In short, service is tied to the SIM card — not to the phone.
It gets more complicated when you add data into the picture. While T-Mobile and AT&T both use this same GSM standard and even the same GSM frequencies for 2G, they use different frequencies for 3G, so assuming you want high speed data, this means your device might be better suited for one network over the other. Here’s where it will help if you find out what 3G frequency bands your device supports:
- Go to gsmarena.com
- Use the search box in the upper right to look up the model of your phone. If you’re not sure, look in “About phone” in settings if you’re using Android, or if your battery is removable, try looking under the battery for a model number. Or ask a tech-savvy friend.
- Once you find your phone on GSMArena, look in the section titled “3G Network”.
- If the numbers listed include 1700, your phone is compatible with T-Mobile’s network.
- If the numbers listed include 850 and 1900, your phone is compatible with AT&T’s network.
If you’re outside the U.S. and you only see 900 and 2100 under 3G Network, your phone won’t work on 3G in the US. However, if you look on the line that says 2G, it will probably say “GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900″. As long as it includes the numbers 850 and 1900, your phone will at least work on 2G — which means you can make calls and send texts no problem, but data access will be quite slow.
If your not sure what phone you have or can’t figure out what bands it supports, and you plan on using data, you may be best off going with a service that uses AT&T’s network, as the bands they use are generally more well supported on phone sold internationally than T-Mobile’s. You will, however pay more for it, so you may want to consider buying a cheap T-Mobile-branded smartphone (often under $100 these days) if you’ll be in the U.S. for an extended period.
A quick note on LTE (or “true 4G”): the frequency problem is such a mess that I won’t even get into it other than to say that if you bought an LTE-capable device outside of North America, you should assume it won’t work with the U.S. LTE frequences, so you’ll be on 3G or 2G (above). Some newer flagship models are exceptions.
Now, on to the services.
LycaMobile (T-Mobile network) – The cheapest option for “pay as you go”
LycaMobile is a virtual operator that uses the T-Mobile network for their service, and they’ve got the best rates out there if you don’t want to bother with any plans or packages. You buy credit which gets deducted on a per use basis.
- Calls: 2c/min (outgoing and incoming) – Update: rumor has it that this will soon change to 5c/min
- Texts: 4c/text — outgoing only (incoming texts are free)
- Data: 6c/MB of data at up to 4G speeds
The cheapest recharge option is $10, and this credit will apparently never expire as long as you use the service once every 90 days, which is kind of a rare thing in the world of prepaid SIM cards (usually you have to add more money every so often).
As for getting the SIM card, you can get it “free” through their website, but they’d like to charge you a hefty shipping cost, which kind of kills the deal — especially when you can get a SIM card for as little as one cent ($.01) through Amazon with free shipping. If you have an iPhone 5 or newer iPhone, or any device which uses the tiny Nano-SIM cards, look here. Once you get the SIM just follow the activation procedure online for their “Pay As You Go” plan and then add some credit.
H2O Wireless (AT&T network) – The cheapest pay as you go option using AT&T
If your phone doesn’t support T-Mobile’s 3G bands, or if you’ll be outside of major metropolitan areas and you’re willing to pay extra for better coverage, virtual operator H20 Wireless uses AT&T network, which is widely recognized as having better coverage than T-Mobile when you’re away from populated areas. Their Pay As You Go plan offers the following rates:
- Calls: 5c/minute (outgoing and incoming)
- Texts: 5c/text (outgoing and incoming)
- Data: 10c/MB
You can get these rates for as little as a $10 recharge, which will last you 90 days. You’ll need to recharge again before those 90 days are up to keep your account active. This outfit offers free shipping, but they charge $10 for the SIM card, so once again, Amazon to the rescue, having all SIM card sizes available for $.01 with free shipping.
T-Mobile $30/Month “Unlimited” Plan - 5 gigs of data and unlimited texts.
This offer isn’t well-advertised, but if you activate a new T-Mobile SIM using their website, you can select the following plan for just $30 a month:
- Calls: 100 minutes/month (incoming and outgoing combined — 10c/minute if you go beyond 100 minutes)
- Texts: Unlimited texting including internationally to “virtually anywhere” (Countries not included: Wallis and Fatuna, St. Helena. Hint: they’re tiny islands)
- Data: 5GB of data at up to 4G speed. After 5GB you can continue using data, but at drastically reduced 2G speeds.
Obviously, it’s not so unlimited, especially if you need voice minutes. But if, like many smartphones users, you prefer to communicate through text and internet messaging, and can wait until you’re on Wi-Fi to do longer voice calls over Skype, Viber or another VOIP service, this is by far the best plan to get a large amount of data for your money.
You can order your SIM directly from T-Mobile’s website, but be sure to check the prices on Amazon, as they may be cheaper depending on whether T-Mobile is running a promotion or not (sometimes they sell SIM cards for $.01, instead of the usual $10).
H20 Wireless (AT&T) – Unlimited voice with 500MB.
If you really need unlimited voice minutes, or you really need to be on AT&T’s network, I suggest you check out another option offered by H20 Wireless (mentioned above), their $30 Monthly Unlimited Plan.
- Calls: Unlimited calls nationwide + $20 in international calling credit (check their site for rates)
- Texts: Unlimited texting + send 100 international texts and receive unlimited
- Data: 500MB (additional data can be purchased at $5/100MB through “Feature Card” add-ons)
As you can see, if you want cheap data, the previously mentioned T-Mobile offer is really where it’s at.
MOBILE BROADBAND PLANS (Data SIM Only)
The options below are only for use with a tablet, USB modem, hotspot or laptop. They don’t include calling ability.
Red Pocket Mobile Internet – The best option using AT&T
If your tablet, USB modem or hotspot device is only compatible with AT&T’s 3G bands, this is the best option.
- $10 gets you a SIM card (shipped free) which includes 512MB of data to start you out.
- $10/1GB (4G speeds)
- $30/3GB “unlimited” (reduced speeds after 3GB)
- $50/5GB “unlimited” (reduced speeds after 5GB)
- All of the above work on 30-day cycles.
You can order a SIM card here, but make sure you read about the other data options below. And if you want a good laugh, look at AT&T’s pricing for prepaid mobile broadband ($50 for 1GB).
T-Mobile Free 200MB/Month for Tablets (Data Only) – You can’t beat free.
T-Mobile made a bold move with this offer: if you have a qualifying tablet (iPad, Nexus 7, Galaxy Tab are on the list) which supports mobile broadband through a SIM card (i.e. not a “Wi-Fi only” device), you can get 200MB a month absolutely free through T-Mobile as part of their Free Data For Life promotion. Simply get a T-Mobile SIM card, insert it into your tablet, open the browser and follow the instructions. You shouldn’t have to pay a dime — unless you want to go above 200MB, of course.
- Data: 200MB/every 30 days (free)
If do use up that 200MB within your 30-day cycle, you’ll be prompted to buy an On Demand Pass: currently $10 for a 500MB day pass, $15 for a 1GB 7-day pass, and $30 for a 3GB 30-day pass.
T-Mobile sometimes has promotions where you can get a SIM card for $1 or less on their website, otherwise the cost is $10 (free shipping in either case). As such, this is really only a deal if you can get a SIM card for cheap during one of their promotions, or you’re in the U.S. long-term. Since it seems you may need a specific type of SIM for this promotion, I’d stick to ordering directly from T-Mobile on this one.
T-Mobile Monthly Data Pass – The cheapest for big data.
If you just want gigs of data at the best price possible, T-Mobile has the best options by far.
All the above are monthly passes which will auto-renew unless you cancel.
If you don’t have a T-Mobile compatible device, it might be worth buying a T-Mobile compatible mobile hotspot just to have access to their service (and these rates). If you’re someone who travels internationally, I can personally recommend the T-Mobile Sonic 4G Huawei UMG587 (not to be confused with a similar looking T-Mobile Sonic 4G made by ZTE), a device which supports all five bands of 3.9G spectrum, which means it will work in any country in the world (quite a rarity as far as hotspots go) at up to 42Mbps.
Regardless of which option you go with, here are some quick tips to keep your data use to a minimum, possibly allowing you to get by with one of the cheaper plans.
- Avoid using any music or video streaming services, such as Spotify or Youtube, while on the go.
- Disable any options for apps to update automatically (often this can be set to update over Wi-Fi only).
- Use the pre-cache function in Google Maps to download map data over Wi-Fi before you need it.
- Keep mobile data turned off when you aren’t actively using it. Note that this may prevent updates of email and messaging services from coming in, since the device won’t have an internet connection (assuming you’re not on Wi-Fi). If this is a problem for you, you may only want to disable data when you’re asleep.
- If you have an Android phone, use Llama to automatically configure when and where your mobile data is active.
Have a question? Feel free to ask in the comments below.