United States (USA)
Based on travel in 2014
Buy an AT&T GoPhone SIM card and Credit at an AT&T store (or a Walmart if you can’t find one). Maybe. Lot’s of options here but not necessarily good ones.
Moderate to Difficult: Personal information not required. Online/over the phone activation possible. APN settings may need to be manually changed.
Providers and Networks:
World Phone Compatible:
AT&T (Fully Compatible)
T-Mobile (2G Data Only!)
Due to our somewhat complicated recommendation, you can skip to a step by step description of how to get connected using an AT&T GoPhone SIM card on a tablet (data only) plan. Read on for our reasoning and a discussion of other options.
The United States of America. Land of the free. Not so much for cellphone companies though. I have not travelled to the US in the sense that I have “travelled” through South America or Europe, for months at a time, but being that I generally reside 250 kilometres away, I end up there reasonably often. Experience with the data networks are from Michigan, New York, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Montana and Idaho.
US cellphone companies have a few quirks. The main one being that AT&T is the only network fully compatible with the GSM 850/1900 “world phone compatible” network. So bringing a phone from anywhere else, your best bet is immediately AT&T. T-Mobile will work for you for calls, texts and (really) slow data access over 2G/Edge networks. And, with some phones, it will allow 3G data access. This will only be if your phone has the AWS 1700 frequency radio. Googles Nexus phones are options as well as a few others, but most will not have it. Verizon operates on the CDMA standard, and while it likely has the best nationwide coverage (I’m sure some would argue), it is not compatible with GSM networks and phones that are used in the rest of the world. Sprint also operates on the CDMA standard.
So, where does that leave you? Well the US, being the US, has a multitude of prepaid SIM card options available from stores and online. The one common thread with all of these, is that invariably, with very, very few exceptions they run on T-Mobile’s network. Data is all but useless at the 2G/Edge speeds that you will get with most phones from the rest of the world on T-Mobile’s network and, it has absolutely horrible coverage in some areas of the US. There are entire states missing from its network.
Now, many of these prepaid options are worth considering, due to the price, but only if you happen to have a compatible phone, and only if you are planning to stick to large, urban areas. And very close to them. Even then, I’ve found AT&T more reliable within the urban areas I’ve travelled to, many times getting kicked down to a 2G network even in the core of the city when relying on T-Mobile.
However, despite my apparent love for AT&T, for its position as winner by default, the major disadvantage is their apparent unwillingness to sell access to their network. If you want to access the AT&T network, you are all but forced to buy a prepaid AT&T GoPhone SIM card and credit. They do not offer any really enticing short term options that include phone/texting service. However they do offer lesser advertised “tablet” or “iPad” plans that are a bit more palatable. You’ll find that data access is generally the priority here at NeedaSim, and it really is possible to live with only data access now. Messaging can easily be solved by a multitude of programs and both Google Hangouts and Skype (amongst others) will facilitate calls-over-data to actual phone numbers.
Due to this, and the dearth of any better options available, our recommendation is to purchase an AT&T GoPhone SIM card and credit. Both of these can be purchased at the ubiquitous Walmart, or at an AT&T store, the SIM card was $10 USD at time of writing, outside of Walmart and AT&T stores you may get charged more. The latter are common, and likely the better option. At an AT&T store they will be able to assist you with activating the sim as well. Otherwise you’ll likely need to make a phone call, but this can be done over the phone using the purchased sim card. You’ll need to provide a zip code which will be used to assign you a number. Picking whatever area you’re planning on travelling in the most is the best option.
AT&T store staff may also give you a hard time about using a tablet SIM in a phone, going so far as to tell you it will not function. This is not correct. It will work fine in any GSM 850/1900 world phone compatible phone or tablet. You will however have to set the APN name to Broadband. Tablet plan SIM cards will not connect to a data network on the AT&T phone APN. To avoid this discussion, just ask them if they can activate the sim card for you without your “iPad” that you left at home. Then take the activated sim, plug it into your phone and manually set the APN name to Broadband. Easy peasy…
This does sound complicated, and, well, it kind of is, but it’s the best I have for reliable, high speed, data access.
Tablet plans at the time of writing were “monthly” but they offered a $15 USD for 250mb option which would be suitable for short trips. For anything longer than a weekend, or maybe a week for light use, a $30 USD for 3GB plan is next up, which should easily last most users the month you have to use it. Credit can be purchased at Walmarts or AT&T stores as well (online payment only works with a US credit card). This is currently my go to for travel of any length to the United States. I keep my GoPhone SIM in the second slot of my Dual Sim Motorola Moto G.
The last unfortunate part is that a phone call is currently necessary to change to different tablet plans (the 250mb or 3gb). If you do require voice (or actual SMS based texting) it’s actually simpler, albeit a lot more expensive, as plans can be changed online. Other settings (such as autorenew) can be adjusted online as well.
USA, land of the free…I’m getting annoyed just writing this. AT&T I just want pay per use data at a reasonable rate! Would that be so hard?
Onto other options for a moment. As mentioned earlier, there are a fair number of prepaid options but all on T-Mobile’s network. It is possible to get an AT&T SIM through Straighttalk, also sold by Walmart, but the version you will generally find runs on T-Mobile. They do have a monthly unlimited everything plan if you need it, but otherwise pricing is not drastically different from AT&T’s GoPhone options. RoamMobility, although mainly operating on the T-Mobile network, does claim that 3G/4G access is possible in “many urban centres” on a world phone, but they do not provide additional details. I remain suspicious. Our favourite multi-country option Knowroaming operates on T-Mobile only.
Happy travelling, and feel free to discuss other options in the comments, or contact us.
1) Find an AT&T store. Most towns will have one. Go to a Walmart if you can’t find one.
2) Pick a GoPhone plan. Tablet plans are the most economical, and will work for data access in a phone, though you may be told otherwise. Purchase a GoPhone SIM card (Nano, Micro and Regular are available) and sufficient credit .
3) Ask the AT&T store staff to activate your SIM on a tablet plan. (Tell them you left your AT&T compatible “iPad” at home). They will assign you a phone number you can use to change options online.
4) Leave the store, put the AT&T SIM card into your phone. Manually set the APN. Create and select a new APN with APN Name: Broadband. All other info can be left blank
5) Your phone should now connect to a 3g/4g data network.
6) Additional credit can be purchased at Walmarts and AT&T stores.
7) Tablet plan changes may require a phone call to AT&T, some settings can be adjusted online. AT&T can be phoned for free using your AT&T GoPhone SIM card (even if it is activated on a tablet plan).