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This question already has an answer here:

In a few weeks' time, I will be visiting the US for 14 days. Coming from the EU, roaming is very expensive, so I am considering getting a temporary SIM card. However, looking around for the options, I ran into a few things that seem to work differently that I'm not sure about.

What I would like is the following:

  • Something that works with my European Samsung Galaxy phone
  • Reasonable coverage in Utah and adjacent states (I understand there's no reception at the bottom of Grand Canyon, but it would be nice to have coverage most of the time while driving down I15 from Salt Lake to Vegas).
  • Small data bundle to look up addresses and stuff along the way (500 MB or 1GB will do, doesn't have to be 4G all the time)
  • Will use mostly for calling within US, but would be nice if there's a reasonable rate for calling to (or being called from) the EU so I can call home a few times.

Looking at the options, I got really confused about a few things.

  • Since I have my own device, can I get a SIM only without buying a phone?
  • It seems that I need to buy the credit separately, or is a starting credit usually included?
  • Is it possible to get internet access on a prepaid card? Do I buy this separately or is it included in the credit, at $ xx / MB?
  • Should I order anything in advance or can I just walk into a local AT&T store or Walmart and walk out with a local phone number?

Since I'll only be there for two weeks, ideally I'd like to keep the total around $30. Is that reasonable?

marked as duplicate by JonathanReez Sep 13 '17 at 10:28

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • Related but outdated: Are there data plans for travelers in the USA? – mts Aug 11 '16 at 13:29
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    Note that your phone must support the frequency bands used in the US, which differ from those in Europe. There are many different Samsung Galaxy phones and many different variants for each region. – choster Aug 11 '16 at 13:52
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    @CompuChip That is a great resource. Unfortunately, the GTi9515 supports only one 4G LTE band used in the US, band 5, which is used only by U.S. Cellular. You should be able to get AT&T service at 3G speeds, however. – choster Aug 11 '16 at 14:09
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    Two years ago a prepaid T-Mobile plan with 1GB of data for 30 days was about 80 USD in California. I thought that was horrendously expensive at the time, but we couldn't find anything cheaper. – simbabque Aug 11 '16 at 14:55
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    @simbabque beats the 2,500$ that amount of data would cost me in roaming charges :P – CompuChip Aug 11 '16 at 14:59
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+50

Cell provider employee here... I'm not gonna recommend our services, so I guess that makes this not a disclaimer? Also, edited as a result of noticing your link to your phone radios...

Your best bet for having coverage in the middle of nowhere in the United States is Verizon Wireless. Unfortunately, they are a CDMA provider, so if you wanted to go with them, you would need to purchase a compatible phone. This may be worth it for the places you're traveling. (On a recent trip to Italy, I chose to buy a cheap phone compatible with local networks. It was $99 and I re-sold it for $75 afterwards.)

As others have mentioned, the two primary GSM providers in the US are AT&T and T-Mobile. They'll likely have good coverage in cities and on major highways, but you'll be unlikely to have coverage out in the middle of nowhere on back roads. The coverage maps on their websites will be helpful.

It appears your phone would get good coverage for talk/text/3g data on AT&T, but AT&T primarily uses the 700mhz band for LTE coverage, which your phone does not appear to support. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AT%26T_Mobility#Radio_frequency_summary)

It looks like your radios would be slightly more compatible with T-Mobile's frequency bands. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-Mobile_US#Radio_frequency_spectrum_chart)

However, I'm not an engineer, and I don't work for either of those companies, so your mileage may vary.

Whatever you do, I'd recommend sticking with one of the big carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, or Sprint) or one of the brands/companies that resell service from the big carriers (Cricket, MetroPCS, etc.). There are some smaller carriers (US Cellular) that only have good coverage in certain areas - avoid these. Wikipedia should be your friend here.

As for your specific questions...

  • Yes, you can definitely buy a SIM separately from a phone. Providers will charge you anywhere from $0 to $15 for this.
  • Starting credit will not be included with a SIM. Usually, in the US, we just have a concept of a monthly plan. You'll want to look for prepaid plans specifically. You can pay for one month with no credit check, and simply cancel before your next month of service.
  • Yes, you can definitely get prepaid plans that include data.
  • In the US, it's most common for people to sign up for wireless service at the store of one of the major wireless providers. Any relatively large city is likely to have at least one store from each carrier, and you could probably get up and running in well under an hour. So, yes, you can walk in and walk out with a US phone number in a matter of minutes.
  • Something around $30 is probably doable. T-Mobile offers a prepaid plan with unlimited talk & text, plus 3gb of LTE data for $40/month. https://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/prepaid-monthly-plans?icid=WMM_PD_SMPLYPRPD1_AAW88WBN93755 So, you could walk into a T-Mobile store, buy a SIM (you might be able to talk them into giving it to you for free), tell them you want to sign up for this plan, and be on your way.

Update about payment... I just did a quick Sales Chat with a T-Mobile representative. You do not need a US billing address in order to sign up for a prepaid plan, but you do need a US credit card. A prepaid VISA or AMEX card will suffice for this. I imagine other US carriers have similar policies, but I'll let OP do the legwork on that. Chat contents below:

You: If I were to travel to the USA, and I had an unlocked, compatible, GSM phone, would I be able to sign up for a prepaid or pay-as-you-go T-Mobile plan?

Eldwin: Thank you for visiting T-Mobile today! I would be happy to provide you with information regarding the phones you can use with T-Mobile.

Eldwin: Yes, you can.

Eldwin: Our SIM cards are a great option if you already have a phone and would like to bring it to T-Mobile. Our only requirement is that your phone is GSM-capable and Unlocked, so that you can start using T-Mobile services.

You: Even without a US billing address or credit card?

Eldwin: You will need a valid US credit card to process and order though.

You: I see.

You: There's no way to pay my bill in store?

Eldwin: You can pay and order in store though.

You: OK. Would it work to use a prepaid VISA debit card?

Eldwin: I recommend that you order here online since it is easy and one less trip to make.

Eldwin: Yes, it would word.

You: Great - and I wouldn't need a US billing address?

Eldwin: Yes, that is correct.

You: Awesome, thank you!

Eldwin: You are welcome. Have I answered all of your questions regarding our services?

You: Yes, thank you.

  • By prepaid do you mean pay-as-you-go? Because I don't recall that being monthly, but I might be misremembering since it's been a while. – Mehrdad Aug 12 '16 at 7:02
  • @Mehrdad There both options. You can have pay-as-you-go or pay once for a month and than by paying next month you in essence renewing your "contract". – Karlson Aug 12 '16 at 11:03
  • As you guys point out, there are definitely companies that offer pay-as-you-go options, rather than monthly prepaid plans. I glossed over that for simplicity and because (at least as far as I know) you can't buy those types of plans directly from the carriers. But it's definitely an option as well! – John Chrysostom Aug 12 '16 at 11:27
  • @JohnChrysostom: Maybe things have changed, but three years ago I walked into an AT&T store with the exact same requirements as the OP. They gave me a chip for free, but to use it I was supposed to phone AT&T to open an account and get a plan that I could cancel after a month, and they wanted more info than just my name and credit card, and the cc had to be a USA one. All this over a pay phone, it was really cumbersome and I ended not doing it. – Martin Argerami Aug 12 '16 at 12:47
  • Fair point... I hadn't considered whether or not carriers would require you to have a US billing address. That's an interesting twist that merits investigating. I'll update my answer if I find anything. – John Chrysostom Aug 12 '16 at 12:57
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There are many options you can have as far as mobile phone/data prepaid plans are concerned.

Since you need coverage along the route between major metropolitan areas you may want to look at getting a plan from one of the major carriers directly like:

or

There are other providers that you may be able to look at but they have pretty decent coverage in the metropolitan areas like LA or Las Vegas but may have problems outside cities.

The coverage maps area fairly accurate for both AT&T and T-Mobile so you can look at those.

  • Thanks for the reply Karlson. The A&T site is one of the things, that confused me. I looked at the $2/day option. As I understand it, I pay about $5 for the SIM card, then $2 per day that I actually place or receive a call or text (I guess, inside US). Somewhere else I found "Customers on any phone plan: $5 International" - is that one-off or also per day? In addition, on the daily plan I can buy $1/day to get 100MB that day. [1/2] – CompuChip Aug 11 '16 at 14:47
  • When I click through to the shopping cart, it adds a $25 "Refill card". I assume that's like a prepaid credit that all the costs above will come out of (and I could pick another amount if I expect to need more or less)? I guess I need to choose up front and unused credit is non-refundable. Sorry for sounding so n00b, but I've never done this before (even at home I don't use prepaid) so I'm trying to get an overview of all the implicit and explicit costs. [2/2] – CompuChip Aug 11 '16 at 14:48
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    A couple years ago I went with T-Mobile for a 30 day SIM with data. Took about 5-10 minutes in one of their retail locations. The deciding factor for me was that T-Mobile allowed tethering whereas it was explicitly prohibited by AT&T on the quasi-unlimited plan. About USD 70 at the time. – Spehro Pefhany Aug 11 '16 at 15:02
  • @CompuChip I would suggest going to a retail location of any sort like AT&T or a T-Mobile store or Best Buy to pick up the card and they will do the activation directly as well rather than you needing to go online to do it. Plus you cannot "Manage Your Account" you will need to Activate it first. – Karlson Aug 11 '16 at 15:16
  • @Karlson was planning on doing that anyway, when I order online one of the problems would be getting the physical SIM card overseas. But if the people in those stores are anything like they are here, they will try to have me walk away with the two-year $70 per month package with a "free" phone :P So I just want to make sure I understand the available options before I do :-) – CompuChip Aug 11 '16 at 15:18
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You may want to check your existing phone plan, for example quite a few providers in the UK offer free (Three) or cheap roaming with data included, this often has the benefit of roaming over multiple US providers giving you better coverage. Some providers even do this with Pay as you Go plans.

Last time I was in the USA I was flipping between Verizon and T-Mobile which ever offered better coverage. Although doing this calls home will be cheap, calls to US numbers will still be expensive, but we worked out it was cheaper than getting a US SIM.

On your phone it should cover most things but the big bands its missing is the 700mhz required for T-Mobile LTE and any form of CDMA (Verizon although they do have GSM bands as well). My phone (Lumia 930) didn't have those either and I was still able to use it everywhere I wanted to but I found 3G fast enough.

Also make sure your phone is unlocked IE Not locked to your local phone provider.

If you decide to get a US sim, quite a few of them are available on eBay so you can buy and get it setup and tested before you leave so if you have to get your phone unlocked you can do it at home.

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    Thanks Jenni, I did check with my own provider: outgoing €1/min, incoming €0.50/MB, data €2.50/MB. Or I can get a daily (4MB) or monthly (25MB) package for €5 / €30 respectively. Those prices are quite unacceptable to me, even if I call for just 10 minutes or use 50MB of data I am better off with an "expensive" $60/month local subscription. I don't expect to need much, so I figured I should be able to get a better deal for, say, 100 minutes and 100MB. – CompuChip Aug 11 '16 at 14:54
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willmyphonework.net is good for checking a phone's compatibility with the various networks.

Suggestion: before departure, print out a list of the carriers your phone will work with. Hard copy is the way to go here -- otherwise, you'll find yourself (as I once did) standing in a Walmart, using your home provider's expensive roaming to sort through the huge array of SIM choices on offer...

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If your main goal is price, MetroPCS has no-contract, $30/month plans which have unlimited calling (US numbers), unlimited SMS, and "unlimited" data in the US (That is, 1GB of data up to LTE speeds, then unlimited throttled data, but I can never find solid information as to what the speeds are throttled to...)

For your requirement of international communication, you can add a $5/month service which has international SMS

For international calling, I would strongly suggest setting up Skype, Google Voice, WhatApp, or some other VoIP service. These will be much cheaper than any other option and, provided the mobile data works reasonably well from your phone, just as convenient as normal calls.

Unfortunately, the kicker here is your phone supports AT&T's frequencies much better than T-Mobile's (MetroPCS uses T-Mobile's towers). The good news for you is T-Mobile has been expanding into the 1900 MHz band for years in order to make it easy for them to poach AT&T's customers, so they actually have pretty good service on the 1900 MHz band. It's been a long time since I researched it thoroughly, but word on the street (from a T-Mobile employee) is that where there is 1700MHz LTE, there is 1900 MHz 3G. My (T-Mobile) phone supports only 1700MHz LTE, so I can verify that both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas have 1700MHz LTE. Unfortunately, I can't specifically remember if I had coverage on the freeway.

As for a place to buy the SIM card: I assume you are starting in Salt Lake City, since there is no other large airport in Utah. Gateway Mall, on 100 S and 400 W (Fair warning, the locals will refer to such an address as "first south fourth west"). As of last summer, this shop in Gateway Mall was closed for renovations, and I haven't been back since. I would start there but, if they are closed, the Ranchero Mall on 900W and North Temple also has an authorized MetroPCS dealer.

Be careful with both of these shops, because the employee makes a commission off of sales... When we visited the Ranchero Market, my non-native-English-speaker, jet-lagged visitors were fast talked into a far more expensive plan than they needed :).

I can't remember the exact price of a SIM card at the store, but I don't remember it being terrible.

  • I am not currently in Salt Lake, but if you are interested in this I will go see if the Metro PCS store in Gateway is open and how much a SIM card would be in about a week when I go back – Sompom Aug 11 '16 at 17:22
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In the US, the only GSM networks (i.e. the only ones that will be compatible with your phone) are AT&T and T-Mobile. However there are a lot of MVNOs that operate on one of these two networks. AT&T has better coverage, and there's an MVNO that uses AT&T's network and offers affordable unlimited data ($40/mo, first 2.5 GB high-speed, pay for more high-speed if desired): Cricket Wireless.

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One method that hasn't been mentioned is SIM cards intended for travellers. One major example is ZipSIM which provides prepaid plans from $15 for 500MB of data.

Another is Good2GoMobile / US Travel (warning: their ssl certificate has expired.) They offer a Pay-as-you-go deal, and use the AT&T network. However, you can only buy their SIMs in stores rather than online.

There are numerous others like Roam Mobility, One SIMCard, WorldSIM, Similicious and TravelSIM. They all offer competitive deals which are worth it for short stays. You can find many of them on WillMyPhoneWork to check compatibility, and if they're not on there they're likely to be prepaid cards on major networks.

Disclaimer: I am not linked with any of the above companies. However I am planning to buy a ZipSIM in the future and am wondering if it's worth it.

  • Expired 450 days ago?! I don't think I'd touch that with a barge pole – Berwyn Aug 13 '16 at 14:44
  • @Berwyn - at least they don't sell their SIMs online. – dylan-myers Aug 14 '16 at 8:42
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One provider that hasn't been mentioned yet is FreedomPop. As far as I can tell, they don't have any physical stores, so you would need an address that they can mail you a SIM card to (maybe whatever hotel / friend's house your first stop is at?)

I just plugged in some phony (haha) information to see if it would come up with any options for addresses in downtown Salt Lake City -- it worked and offered their Unlimited Talk/Text + 1GB Data SIM pack on a free one month trial ($20/month thereafter), so it could be completely free.

Disclaimer - I have ordered one of their free SIM packs myself, but I haven't received it yet, so I have no idea what their coverage is like. But for $0, there's really nothing to lose. Maybe check it out as a backup option?

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