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I get a lot of questions in comments on what options visitors to the US have for using a local SIM to avoid the exorbitant international roaming charges that almost all operators charge. So here’s a break down of the easiest and best value options for visitors. As it’s difficult for travelers to order online and have a SIM shipped internationally, I’ve limited this post to offers that are widely available in US retail outlets.
Postpaid or paid monthly plans are the norm for most in the US and tend to offer the greatest value for heavy users. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible for non-US residents to get as a US bank account, credit card and employment is generally required to pass the mandatory credit check.
That leaves prepaid which is slowly gaining traction in the US and in the process is becoming more competitive and affordable.
In order to use your phone in in the US with a local SIM it most 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 uses the 1900 mHz band for GPRS/Edge and the 1700 (downlink) and 2100 (uplink) bands for UTMS/HPSA/HPSA+. 2100hz is the standard 3g band in most of the world , however for a phone to work with T-Mobile 3G, both 1700 and 2100 are required. As far as I know, the only non-US market phone that supports 1700/2100 is the unreleased Nokia N8. So your non-US phone will only get Edge speeds with T-Mobile US. This is unfortunate as T-Mobile has better prices and better prepaid coverage than AT&T.
T-Mobile: Other than a small walled garden of free sites, T-Mobile has no data options at all for their traditional pay as you go plans.
To get real data you have to go with the Flex-Pay hybrid option that lets you use any of T-Mobile’s “Even More Plus” post-paid plans on a month to month basis. The cheapest plan is $29.99 for 500 “anytime” voice minutes, unlimited calls to other T-Mobile phones and unlimited nights (9:00 PM to 6:59 AM) and weekends (Midnight Friday to Midnight Sunday). More voice minutes are available at a higher monthly price. (all plans) There is a $1.21/month 911 fee on FlexPay accounts in all states and you may have to pay state sales tax which varies between 0 and 10.75% depending on state (sales tax rates).
Data can be added to any Even More Plus plan for $10/month for200 MB, $25/month for unlimited or $30/month for BlackBerry BIS. T-Mobile does not cap their unlimited plans but will throttle service to Edge speeds in any month where you exceed 5GB.
Unlimited SMS/MMS is a $10/month add-on. Without the add-on incoming and outgoing SMS or MMS cost 20 cents each.
The easiest way for travelers to get a Flex Pay SIM is at a T-Mobile company operated store. These are quite common in the T-Mobile service area (coverage map) (store locator). If you are staying in a city there will generally be a T-Mobile shop within a few blocks of your hotel. Unlike in some countries SIMs are not generally available at airports or convenience stores. T-Mobile lists a $9.99 charge for a Flex-Pay SIM although I’ve heard that this is often waived. Update: Flex pay is being phased out and will not be available to new subscribers after Mar 12th, 2011.
T-Mobile’s data settings:
APN – epc.tmobile.com (no user id, password or proxy needed.)
APN – wap.voicestream.com
MMSC URL http://126.96.36.199/servlets/mms
MMSC proxy: 216.155.165.050
MMSC port: 8080
AT&T uses the 850 and 1900 mHZ bands for both GPRS/Edge and 3G. Most areas have both 850 and 1900 coverage but quite a few are 1900 only (map). Unlike T-Mobile you will have service if your phone supports either band although a phone with both the 850 and 1900 bands will give you better coverage.
Except for a special iPad plan, AT&T’s prepaid pricing is pretty bad, especially for data. The operator recently discontinued their hybrid plans and now offers only pay as you go with a basic rate of 25 cents/minute for calls and 20 cents each for SMS/MMS. The voice rate can be reduced 10 cents/minute and free to other AT&T phones with a $1/day fee (charged only on days when you make or answer a call). Unlimited voice is available at $3/day (only charged on days used) and there is a $60/month unlimited voice and data plan. Details of all prepaid voice plans are here. SMS/MMS bundles are available at 200 texts for $4.99, 1000 for $9.99 and unlimited for $19.99. AT&T charges a whopping $20 for a SIM. There is a 0.20 to $1.50 monthly 911 fee charged in some states in addition to applicable state sales taxes.
Ad hoc data is automatically enabled on AT&T prepaid at $0.01/KB. The only data packages available on AT&T are 1 MB for $4.99 and 100 MB for $19.99. Text and data bundles expire after 30 days but unused texts or data rolls over if another bundle is purchased before the expiration date.
AT&T offers iPad owners a free micro-SIM with data only pricing of 14.95/month for 250 MB or $25/month for 2 GB. The SIM must be activated in an iPad. There’s reportedly a hack to activate the iPad SIM with a PC browser with a modified user agent to impersonate an iPad. Once activated it’s possible to use the micro-SIM with an adapter in other devices. The iPad SIMs are data only, there is no option to use voice or text.
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 coverage (map) is inferior to T-Mobile’s but iPad band users get the the benefit’s of the operator’s much larger post-paid coverage area (map).
AT&T data settings:
APN – [email protected] (no user id, passwpord or proxy needed.)
APN – wap.cingular
User name – [email protected]
Password – CINGULAR1
MMSC URL – http://mmsc.cingular.com
Here’s a table summarizing both operator’s plans:
|Plan||Monthly Base Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||SIM Cost||Voice||Text||Data|
|T-Mobile Flex Pay “Even More Plus||$29.99 + $1.21 911 fee||$9.99||500 Min included (overage – $0.45/minute)||$0.20 each
Unlimited – $10/month,
|200 MB – $10/month Unlimited – $25, BlackBerrys – $30)|
|AT&T Go Phone||0 + $0 – $1.50 911 fee||$20||$0.25/min
10/min with a $1/day fee (charged only on days used).
Unlimited voice is $3/day (only charged on days used)
200 – $4.99
1000 – $9.99
unlimited – $19.99
|ad-hoc – $0.01/KB
1 MB – $4.99
100 MB – $19.99
|AT&T GoPhone Unlimited||$60+ $0 – $1.50 911 fee||$20||unlimited||unlimited||ad-hoc – $0.01/KB
1 MB – $4.99
100 MB – $19.99
|AT&T iPad Plan||0||0||voice not available||text not available||250 MB – 14.95
2 GB – $25
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