US Mobile Data and Voice Options For Travelers

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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 Logo

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 –  (no user id, password or proxy needed.)

MMS settings:
MMSC proxy:
MMSC port: 8080

AT&T Logo

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.)

MMS settings:
APN – wap.cingular
User name – [email protected]
Password – CINGULAR1

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)
$0.20 each
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

Related Posts:
The Best US Prepaid Data Deals
The Best U.S. Prepaid Voice and Text Deals

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17 thoughts on “US Mobile Data and Voice Options For Travelers

    • Hey Dennis

      With FlexPay being phased out and not available to new subscribers as of the 12th of March, what would be the best option data wise? It looks like we will be in the US for 27 days in total, so the $1.49 a day would be about $40.

      Calls and texts really are secondary – more of a ‘just in case’ rather than anything else, so not really a need to purchase a bundle of minutes – happy to pay for what I use.

      Really appreciate all the advice being given here – it’s a huge help!

    • T-Mobile is still probably your best bet, The only GSM alternative is AT&T which charges $20 per 100 MB for data with one month validity. If you think you can keep your usage under 100MB AT&T would be cheaper.

    • Thanks Dennis – I have settled on T-Mobile, but was more wondering about what pre pay plan to go with. I’m guessing the $1.49 web day pass is my best bet.

      Thanks again!

  1. Hey Denis – thanks so much for the info. I’m heading over from New Zealand – second time to the States, and really looking forward to it. We are going to be starting in New York but then fly to Denver and do a large amount of travel by car, visiting a number of the national parks.

    I’ve checked T-Mobile’s coverage map on the route we will be taking and I think that should do the trick. Even if full download speeds can’t be reached, I’m sure it will be good enough. Aware that we will lose data access here and there, but not a major problem. I think I will look at downloading some cached maps onto my phone before I go to ensure I can get around even without a data connection.

    The data costs for AT&T seem absolutely exorbitant!

  2. I’m heading over to the US for a month holiday/sight seeing in April and this article has been incredibly helpful. I’ve got an unlocked HTC Desire and data (google maps/navigation) is the main reason I’m wanting to get a sim card and perhaps make the occasional voice call too.

    As the HTC Desire is a GSM phone, I assume both T-Mobile and AT&T will work and Verizon is out of the question being CDMA? Just want to check if that is the case. Intending to go with a Prepay sim card for the month I’m there – just need to decide on the network.

    Keen to hear from anyone else and their experiences.


    • AT&T and T-Mobile are the only nationwide GSM networks in the US. Verizon are CDMA and will not work on your GSM phone.

      The main pros and cons of the two are:

      $1.50/day unlimited data makes it generally less expensive for data especially for short stays or heavy usage
      More reliable data in cities, especially New York and San Francisco
      Extensive off-network roaming at no extra cost
      Less expensive domestic text rates $0.05-$0.10/each

      No 3G with most non-US model phones
      Data generally doesn’t work when roaming
      More expensive domestic voice rates: $0.10-$0.33/minute depending on refill denomination
      Very expensive international voice rates $1.60/minutes to most of Europe, Asia

      3G on most non-US phones
      Cheaper domestic voice rate of $0.10/minute
      Cheaper (but still overpriced) international voice rates $0.49/min to most of Europe, $1.09/min to India, Japan

      Generally more expense data, $20 for 100MB
      More expensive texts $0.20/each
      Network is over capacity in San Francisco and New York causing dropped calls and data slowdowns and glitches

      If you are going to be traveling outside major cities check both operators coverage maps to be sure you will have service where needed

  3. I am heading to Hawaii in Dec this year – Maui & Oahu and wanted to know best option for coverage – will be needing 3-4 numbers with free calls between them – and data for a couple of iPhones (mainly need for navigation apps) – any suggestions on best carrier ? I was in NYC April and a guy at a phone shop recommended getting T Mobile month by month call plan with a data add on – cant remember the exact method ? sorry for the long post – any help is appreciated

  4. Actualy i dont know what happened with my message, it was bigger than that posted… anyway, i couldnt find easily any prepaid data plan, althought voice plans form Booster was very cheap and acessible (i found it at a convinient store). I am going again next november to US, and i hope this time things be easier to me.

  5. I’ve been in US for 3 times, and i am going again next november, all the other times i just could’n find any $25. And at the airports we can never find nobody for help !

    • As I mentioned in the post you can’t buy SIMs at US airports, you need to go to an AT&T or T-Mobile store. I don’t understand what you mean by “couldn’t find any $25”. What

  6. It sickens me that I can travel to most third-world countries and have more options for temporary, prepaid cell and data services than are available in the U.S. Americans have no idea how backward our telecom structure is, and it’s all thanks to the mindless subsidized phone culture we’ve developed. Consumers are willing to give up all sorts of options if they’re given a “free” phone.

  7. Yeah, another great post with some good news. I didn’t realize that the flex-pay plans were available to non-reasdents. Last year I used the ATT paygo plan with 100MB for 19.99. This year it is going to be T-mo and a flex pay plan. Great news.

  8. great job, dennis. the pickings were slim, to say the least. t-mobile really outshines afee&fee, once again.

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