Travelling to the United States? Check out our guide to finding the best prepaid SIM card
Reduce your rates by using a local SIM card.
Using your home phone network in the United States of America can work out to be expensive, so consider switching over to a local SIM card to take advantage of better deals and plans. The US has some of the best prepaid SIM cards available, with deals that could reduce your bills. You can buy 1GB of data from the leading telco provider in the US for as little as US$10 (AUD$12.90). So, whether you’re planning a quick break or a tour of America, check out the best SIM card options on finder.com.au.
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Telco providers in the United States
There are four main operators in the United States: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. All four operators go through a strict approval process before being allowed to operate, and each one competes with the others to offer the best deals. Their services have all been tried and tested by both locals and travellers. According to OpenSignal’s network map, coverage is very good in the main towns and cities, though it can suffer as you head out toward the desert areas or countryside regions.
About the telco operators in the US
All four operators offer prepaid SIM cards, and you can buy them from supermarkets, kiosks, drug stores and official outlets, as well as at international airports. 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE plans are available on all networks, though they operate a little differently to how they do in many other countries.
American mobile networks use two different standards: Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). A phone must be specifically designed to support one or both of these standards; a CDMA-only phone will not be able to connect to a GSM network, for instance.
Most countries outside the US use GSM mobile networks. If you're travelling from one of those countries to the United States and you're bringing your phone with you, it's important to check that an American network supports GSM before buying one of its SIM cards.
You can buy a prepaid SIM card by showing your passport, and your telephone number is already active when you purchase it. To add credit, there are several kiosks around various towns and cities, and vouchers are stocked in most stores and supermarkets. Some carriers in the United States do allow you to purchase prepaid SIM cards but they have to be purchased with the handset as a package. Make sure you check the total price before purchasing, as they can work out to be expensive.
Below, we have broken down each telco provider to highlight exactly what they can offer you during your stay in the US.
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Verizon is the largest provider in the United States. It offers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services. It also offers both CDMA and GSM platforms, but check whether your device is compatible first, as only a limited number are supported on CDMA. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores and approved resellers, and credit can be purchased from the same retailers and most supermarkets across America. Verizon has the largest number of subscribers in the US, along with the best coverage and best speeds.
Prepaid SIM cards and "pay-as-you-go" plans can be added to the SIM cards as long as your phone is compatible with Verizon’s service. If not, you will have to purchase a phone with the SIM card in order to use it in the States.
Its 4G/LTE-compatible SIM packs can be purchased for US$49.99. This may sound like a lot, but it includes unlimited talk and SMS within the US, plus 2GB data. Credit can be purchased in the guise of “PIN cards” or “PIN codes” for anywhere between US$15 and US$150 from most stores and supermarkets across the country. Just look for the Verizon sign.
The following options are restricted to prepaid SIM packages that come with a Verizon smartphone. Prices vary depending on what smartphone you choose, but these deals are obviously much more expensive than just acquiring a SIM card.
The following data plans can be added (each valid for 30 days):
- US$40: 3GB
- US$50: 7GB
- US$60: 10GB
- US$80: Unlimited data
High-speed data can also be added:
Verizon’s APN: internet /or/ vzwinternet, website: www.verizonwireless.com
AT&T is the second-largest operator and the largest GSM-based provider in America. It offers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores and approved resellers, and credit can be purchased from the same retailers and most supermarkets across America. AT&T “GoPhone” prepaid SIM cards can be picked up for free, but packages must be added to use them.
There are two prepaid plans available: one includes data, voice and SMS while the other is a data-only SIM card for modems and tablets.
Credit can be added in many different denominations between US$15 and US$100, valid between 90 and 365 days.
The following voice and data plans are available:
|US$30||Unlimited in US||Data charged at US$2 per MB or 250MB for US$5|
|US$35||Unlimited in US||1GB included|
|US$45||Unlimited (to Mexico and Canada included)||6GB included|
|US$65||Unlimited (to Mexico and Canada included)||Unlimited US data|
There are also US$1-per-day data add-on packs that can be purchased, valid per calendar day.
|US$25||2GB||500MB for US$10 add-on available|
|US$50||5GB||1GB for US$10 add-on available|
|US$75||8GB||2GB for US$10 add-on available|
AT&T’s APN for smartphones: phone, APN for modem, routers and tablets: broadband
T-Mobile US is catching up with both Verizon and AT&T. Its plans are very popular with the younger audience, and it offers better prices than its competitors. Prepaid SIM cards come labeled as “activation kits” with a SIM card, detailed information about how to set it up in both Spanish and English, and/or a smartphone. SIM cards can be purchased for US$25, but they have only US$3 of credit. Dial *611 from a T-Mobile phone to activate. Credit can be purchased from most stores or supermarkets from US$10 up to US$200. Prepaid SIM cards are valid for 90 days after credit is added.
The following data packs can be added to prepaid SIM cards:
- US$5: 500MB for 1 day
- US$10: 1GB for 7 days
There are also monthly prepaid plans available:
|US$45||Unlimited data||Unlimited cap: 4GB|
|US$55||Unlimited data||Unlimited cap: 6GB|
|US$75||Unlimited data||Unlimited cap: 30GB|
There are also the following data-only SIM plans available:
- US$20: 2GB
- US$35: 6GB
- US$50: 10GB
- US$65: 14GB
- US$80: 18GB
- US$95: 22GB
T-Mobile’s APN: epc.t-mobile.com, and website: www.t-mobile.com
Sprint is the smallest operator but has some good deals available. It offers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores and approved resellers, and credit can be purchased from the same retailers and most supermarkets across America. The only catch here, though, is that you must buy a prepaid SIM card pack, which comes with a smartphone. Prices vary depending on which phone you select, but this makes these SIM card packages extremely expensive. We therefore suggest you choose one of the other providers mentioned, as they offer better services and better deals. However, if you do find a better deal on this network, then go ahead and use it because it be trusted.
Sprint's APN: cinet.spcs, and website: https://www.sprint.com/
Some top tips from finder.com.au staff:
- Locals call a SIM card a “SIM” or “chip”.
- Ask the sellers to set up the SIM for you, because they will know how to do it. If not, follow the instructions we’ve highlighted above or go to the official operator website to seek advice.
- Remember, it’s always better to get things done early, before the shops get too busy. That way you’re more likely to receive better assistance and avoid the crowds!
While it’s well known for reviews, booking hotels, flights and holidays, TripAdvisor also has many user comments that can help guide you through what SIM cards have been tried and tested in the US.
Here are some top tips from TripAdvisor users:
“What I do is use a standard AT&T SIM card in my phone, and it gives me all the features I want. As long as your iPhone is unlocked, you'll be perfectly OK.”
“The prepaid phones are everywhere, the drugstore/pharmacies will have a selection IE CVS, RiteAid, Walgreens. You may find a RadioShack not too far from your stay and they usually have a better selection.”
“I have a $2 per day plan with T-Mobile. I bought a SIM card, it was $25 but $15 went toward the prepaid plan so it ended up costing only $10 for the activation of the SIM card. The plan is talk-text-data unlimited. This is very good cost wise.“
Pros and cons of the top telco providers in the US
All networks require you to have a SIM-unlocked, GSM-compatible international phone (or CDMA if you plan on using those services). To double check you have this phone, or whether it’s possible to unlock your device, contact your provider before you leave.
- Good value for money
- The United States has good coverage
- Prepaid credit when required
- No in-store contract needed
- Could be compatible with your current phone
- Cheap handsets are sold in stores
- Most providers only offer prepaid SIM cards with devices, which pushes up the price
- Can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones or unlocked CDMA devices
- Signal can suffer in the desert or far-flung regions
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