December 23, 2014

Is there no such thing as a cheap, prepaid data SIM in the USA?

One of the coolest things I get to do these days as part of Tech Field Day is bring friends from all countries to the United States to meet with various companies. But too often, they find themselves isolated and unable to communicate because of our odd mobile phone network. Although prepaid SIM cards are more available these days, I’m having a tough time locating a data SIM for iPad or hotspot use.

Visitors: Good luck finding a prepaid broadband SIM in the USA!

Four Incompatible Networks

International visitors to the United States are usually surprised that our mobile phone and data networks are incompatible with those found in much of the rest of the world. The same is often true of Americans traveling abroad, with an extra confounding factor being that our phones are usually locked by our providers.

The four major American mobile phone providers each pose issues for international travelers:

  1. Verizon has historically used CDMA technology entirely incompatible with GSM phones from abroad, and Verizon’s new LTE network won’t interoperate at all either
  2. Sprint, too, is a CDMA provider, eliminating their excellent Virgin Mobile-branded prepaid services from consideration, and their WiMAX and LTE networks aren’t an option for foreign devices
  3. T-Mobile USA runs a GSM network on a unique frequency set that won’t work with many devices, though they are in the process of reconfiguring for compatibility
  4. AT&T’s “4G” GSM network is closest to international standards and most devices will work on it, but AT&T’s prepaid offerings are somewhat lacking

The fact that Verizon and Sprint use CDMA puts them, their prepaid offerings, and their MVNO’s out of consideration for international visitors wanting a GSM SIM card. But those wanting mobile broadband might consider buying a Virgin Mobile hotspot here in the USA just to use their prepaid CDMA/WiMAX service!

T-Mobile, too, isn’t a good choice for visitors to most of the USA. Their GSM frequencies won’t work give 3G/”4G” speed with most international (and even American) devices! Although their prepaid offerings are tempting and their SIM cards are widely available, visitors are wise to steer clear for now. But T-Mobile is reconfiguring their network to match AT&T, starting in the San Francisco Bay area, so this dark horse might gain ground in 2013!

AT&T Is The Only Option For Now

This leaves AT&T, which operates a GSM/HSPA network in the 850/1900 MHz bands. Most international GSM/3G devices will work just fine on AT&T’s network provided they have a proper SIM card and APN settings, so international travelers should aim for the “Death Star” when arriving in the USA.

Note that not all devices will work at 3G speed even on AT&T’s network: Since 3G service uses the 2100 MHz band in most countries, many cannot support high-speed data in the USA. This is the case with my Huawei E585 MiFi from Three, and I have observed it with some phones as well.

Still, as far as mobile phone SIMs go, AT&T’s “GoPhone” service is a reasonable choice for international visitors. For $25 per month, a GoPhone SIM offers 250 minutes of talk time and unlimited text messages inside the country. Step up to the $50 plan and get unlimited talk and texts. And AT&T GoPhone sells both traditional SIMs and Micro SIMs for the iPhone 4/4S and iPad.

But GoPhone SIMs do not include bundled data. AT&T requires smartphone users to buy an add-on data plan at $5 for 50 MB, $15 for 200 MB, or $25 for 1 GB. This is pretty expensive, and the limited service is disappointing. 1 GB might not be enough for some visitors, especially if they will be uploading photos and downloading maps the whole time!

And AT&T GoPhone has no data-only option. Although they do allow smartphone tethering with their voice+data combo, $50 is quite a lot to spend for just 1 GB of data. And AT&T has reportedly balked at selling GoPhone SIMs to iPad and hotspot users!

AT&T-Powered Alternative Providers

Although there are a few alternative providers using the AT&T network, I couldn’t locate a really great alternative to GoPhone for smartphone or mobile broadband users.

Walmart stores sell a special “Straight Talk” service that uses three different American networks (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon). They even have a 3-SIM package for “BYOD” customers that includes AT&T (standard and Micro SIM) and T-Mobile (standard only). So far so good! But the Straight Talk plans aren’t any good for heavy data users: They don’t allow tethering and apparently throttle performance after 80-130 MB per day! Although they advertise “unlimited data”, these limits would be a serious inconvenience for many international visitors and would likely kick in in the evening, just when they need maps and directions to their hotel.

Another MVNO, H2O Wireless, offers AT&T-powered GSM service including SIM and Micro SIM cards. But H2O charges $50 for 1 GB of data for “mobile broadband”. Their $60 mobile phone plan includes 2GB, however, so it’s an option to consider.

Net10 is yet another MVNO with AT&T service. They also sell SIM and Micro SIM cards and advertise “unlimited data” with a $50 plan. They even have a $65 plan which offers unlimited calling to many countries, which is nice.

MetroPCS and Cincinnati Bell both offer compatible national GSM service, but both are limited in terms of the geography they will sell into. So they’re out, too.

I doubt the “unlimited data” on H2O and Net10 is really unlimited, and worry it’s like Straight Talk, throttling performance on a daily basis. It’s hard to believe it, but that’s about it in terms of prepaid SIM offerings compatible with international phones!

Get an American Mobile Broadband Device

Since just about every prepaid SIM option in the USA is phone-oriented, it doesn’t make much sense to try to use one of these for mobile broadband. A better option is to buy an American mobile broadband or MiFi device and use the service that comes with it!

A local MiFi device offers better broadband value if you’re planning to use lots of data

I’ve used the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 in the past and was satisfied with their 3G CDMA service. At $35 per month for 2 GB or $55 per month for 5 GB, once the hotspot is paid for it’s a bargain compared to the SIM-only alternatives listed above! And Virgin devices are widely available on eBay and often discounted: For example, their 3G/WiMAX “puck” is currently on sale for under $60 at Best Buy. We just bought one for Tech Field Day use!

I’ve also known folks to pick up a prepaid Android phone on T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon and use it for tethering only. There are usually a few $99 Android phones available and service ranges from $20-$60 per month.

The Verizon iPad makes a great mobile hotspot and has solid international resale value!

Then there’s the iPad: The Verizon “new” iPad is a screaming deal as a mobile hotspot device and is unlocked for international use. If you’re visiting the USA and want mobile data and an iPad, I highly recommend picking up a Verizon iPad at the Apple or Verizon store! $629 sounds like a lot, but tethering is included (with Verizon only) and data is just $30 or $50 (3 or 5 GB) with no contract. And you can always re-sell it when you get back home!

Stephen’s Stance

It’s hard to believe that a true prepaid mobile data SIM doesn’t exist in the USA, but it’s true. A GoPhone, H2O, or Net10 SIM isn’t a bad idea for your smartphone, but it’s not exactly cheap. The best option for those needing just mobile data is a local Virgin Mobile hotspot or a brand new Android phone or iPad!

  • http://etherealmind.com Etherealmind

    Der Crappentastic. :) Thanks for looking though – that’s a comprehensive review.

  • http://twitter.com/DmitriKalintsev Dmitri Kalintsev

    Not a SIM, but probably as close as it gets; saw it just yesterday: https://www.freedompop.com/

  • http://twitter.com/JeffOConnorAU Jeff O’Connor

    http://www.att.com/shop/wireless/plans/dataplans.html

    $30 for 1GB no plan… last year it was $20 and if you paid cash, they never cut you off after 1GB, but after 30 days.

    good for travellers, and it supports tethering. cheaper than hotel broadband.

  • Jacob Lyles

    http://goredpocket.com/ Red Pocket Mobile is another interesting alternative via AT&T’s network.

  • gennadiy

    Simple mobile

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.hughes.104 Steve Hughes

    lots of diffrent options here and fantastic customer service.

    http://stores.ebay.co.uk/usasims?_rdc=1

  • Leovinius

    I bought my iPad in Las Vegas and took the one that came with the AT&T card (because that’s the one that also works in Europe). Although I had to make up a USA address, I was able to set up an account and deposit $25 for 2GB valid for 30 days. I was able to repeat that a year later. I think it’s a great deal, actually. And I’d be able to top up if I ran out before the 30 days were over. So maybe an AT&T microsim (which I think you can get for $5 from Walmart and such) has that option?

    Edit: I checked it just now, it’s $30 for 3GB and $50 for 5GB so it matches the plan on the AT&T website. Which is good, it means you can get it too.

  • Jules

    I’ve been collating all the prepaid providers in the US, and publishing them at http://prepaidfinder.com. It would be great to get some feedback, and please let me know if I’ve missed any too please!

  • Rossyjordin

    Interesting and informative one…thanks for share the blog!!!i liked your blog,,,really awesome blog!!!
    Cheapest Broadband Service

  • dpowers

    Try g3wireless. G3 is based in Toronto and offers competitive rates to over 70 countries at the moment. Just make sure you have an unlocked 3G phone. The SIM card costs $30 and includes $10 of free airtime credit. Plus you can choose between a US or Canadian phone number. https://www.g3wireless.com

  • http://freesimusa.com/ prepaid sim cards

    I havent any word to appreciate this post…..Really i am impressed from this post

  • rchrd881

    Consider Cricket. The current Cricket; not the old CDMA Cricket. Uses the AT&T network and no daily limit shenanigans as with Straight Talk.