Grand Canyon

Buying a SIM Card in the United States

In Get Connected by Dave Dean102 Comments

There’s nothing quite like travelling in the United States. It’s a massive, incredibly diverse country. The non-stop action of New York City. The wide-open plains of Montana. Bubbling springs at Yellowstone, muscle-bound beaches in Miami, and much, much more.

For a country that leads the world in technology, though, the prepaid SIM card market for international visitors has long been surprisingly confusing, limited and expensive. With incompatible technologies between providers, locked phones, and post-paid plans the norm for locals, tourists have been poorly catered for.

Things have got slightly better in the last few years, although still a far cry from regions like South East Asia or even Western Europe. Still, you can now at least easily find a store, buy a SIM card that will work in your phone, pay a not-totally-unreasonable amount of money for a useful amount of calls, text and data, and get it all done in a few minutes. That’s a vast improvement.

Companies


  • We recommend T-Mobile for most travellers
  • Also consider AT&T if you’re spending time in more remote areas

There are four main cell service providers in the United States — but only two of them are of much interest to travellers.

Verizon (which has one of the largest networks) and Sprint used to only use CDMA technology that’s incompatible with almost any phone not sold by them. Both companies have, however, been rolling out GSM-based LTE service in recent years.

Note that most international phone models won’t get LTE service with any carrier, as the US uses different frequencies to most countries outside North America.

For Verizon, this means a small range of phones sold overseas (including recent iPhones) will now connect to its LTE network. Given that its prepaid service costs more than the competition, however, and many international phones still won’t work, it’s hard to recommend Verizon to international visitors unless you know your phone is compatible, and are travelling somewhere that only Verizon offers reliable coverage.

Sprint has the smallest network of the four carriers, and can’t offer voice service over LTE (so, no calls for anyone with a non-Sprint phone). There’s no reason for international visitors to consider using it.

Of the other two companies, AT&T has the largest (and often, most congested) network, offering coverage throughout most of the continental United States (map). It’s a big country, though. If you’re planning on road-tripping through lightly-populated states like Nebraska, Montana and a few others, you’ll still hit some very large dead spots.

T-Mobile has less coverage in rural areas (map), with particularly large gaps in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico and eastern California. On the upside, when you do have signal, data speeds will often be reasonably fast.

There are several resellers of service on both networks — and none are particularly great. Prices are typically only slightly less than buying direct from the provider, often with data speed limits, poor customer service and purchasing difficulties for overseas visitors without a local address or credit card.

With most of my trips to the US largely confined to the cities, coverage areas haven’t been a major problem with either provider. Pricing and data allowances have typically been quite similar between AT&T and T-Mobile, and in my experience, the knowledge and service levels of the instore staff have been much better with T-Mobile.

Note that both AT&T and T-Mobile use “4G’ to describe what the rest of the world knows as “HSPA+” or 3.5G. As a result, you’ll likely see 4G on your phone screen, but it’s not LTE!

How


Offering prepaid SIM cards at international airports doesn’t seem to have caught on in the US. I’ve flown into several in the country, and don’t recall seeing marked kiosks or signage at any of them. Fortunately, T-Mobile stores are quite common in large cities, and even smaller places should have at least one store.

I’ve bought SIMs in stores in Santa Monica in Los Angeles, and Seattle’s Capitol Hill. In both cases, I walked out with an activated SIM card in under ten minutes. It had cut-outs for both micro and nano sizes.

The process was simple — confirm you’ve got an unlocked phone, specify the plan you’d like, and hand over the money. You’ll get a receipt with your phone number printed on it.

It’s always worth putting the SIM in your phone and confirming it works straight away. I didn’t have any problems — mine took less than a minute to activate both times — but I’m always a little nervous when I don’t see the card working in my phone before leaving the store.

 

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Costs


While you shouldn’t expect any real bargains on prepaid cell service in the US, prices do seem to be getting better for light to moderate use.

Note: for extra bonus confusion, you often can’t get the same deals in-store that you can online, with either company. Since most international visitors will be buying their SIM from a store, I’ve focused on those options — but if you have a US shipping address you can use, it’s worth checking out the online-only plans as well.

Unlimited, or at least large numbers of calls and texts are common on most plans. AT&T’s prepaid monthly smartphone plans started at $35 for 1GB of data or $45 for 6GB. T-Mobile charged $45 for 4GB of data, or $55/6GB.

If you’re in the country for three weeks or less, though, T-Mobile’s tourist package is the best value. For $30, you get 2GB of high-speed data (plus unlimited, slow data if you exceed that limit), plus 1000 minutes of domestic calls and 1000 domestic or international texts. That’s the plan I went with.

At both the AT&T and T-Mobile stores I visited, the SIM card itself was free. This isn’t always the case, however, so definitely check before committing.

Don’t forget, you’ll pay sales tax on top of the quoted price, ranging from nothing to nearly 10% depending on which state you’re in at the time.

Note: T-Mobile doesn’t offer any prepaid data-only plan instore. AT&T does — but only for tablets. If you happen to mention you’ll be using it in a phone, they won’t sell it to you! I’ve read reports of problems activating an AT&T data-only SIM in a phone as well, so don’t necessarily expect it to work if that’s what you want to do.

Topping Up


The T-Mobile tourist plan I purchased expires after 21 days, and can’t be renewed or added to.

For other plans, you can top-up your account online, using just your phone number and a credit or debit card. Since international cards work with this method, it’s probably the easiest way to do it.

Failing that, any T-Mobile store will be able to help you out, as well as authorised retailers. You can check locations here.

 

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Coverage and Data Speeds


As mentioned above, T-Mobile coverage is good in most large towns and cities, but drops away in rural areas, with large dead zones in several states. Compare the service map to your intended destinations, and if you’re going to be spending significant time driving or staying in places without signal, consider AT&T instead.

“4G” speeds in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and elsewhere were all good, with strong signal both inside and outdoors. Voice calls were clear, and SMS delivery was reliable.

T-Mobile 4G speeds

T-Mobile “4G” speeds in Seattle

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.

Everything a traveller needs to know about buying a prepaid SIM in the USA: which company to use, where to buy, how much it costs, coverage and more.
About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer.

When he’s not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. You should really check out Cricket in the US. It’s on the ATT network (and is owned by ATT I believe) so same coverage. It’s $40 for 2.5 GB a month (if you sign up for autopay they knock off $5) and all taxes/fees are included. Additional GB are $10 for 1GB.
    Service was friendly and getting a SIM swapped and activated took 10 minutes.

    1. Author

      I considered them, but in the end opted not to use Cricket because they throttle data speeds quite heavily. For most international visitors who won’t have a phone that supports US LTE frequencies and will only get 3G, the max speed will be 4Mbps. That’s not terrible, but since there’s little price difference between Cricket, T-Mobile and even AT&T, I decided to go for T-Mobile’s unthrottled option with a bit more data.

      If I needed to be on the AT&T network for coverage reasons and didn’t care so much about download speed, though, I’d likely choose Cricket.

    1. Author

      Most will work, but it’s more to do with how much you want to pay — you’ll typically be paying roaming fees in whichever country you didn’t buy the SIM in. Most carriers have some sort of roaming package available for the other country, but they’re typically not great value if you want to use your phone much at all.

      1. Will you have “Getting a SIM Card in Canada”?

  2. When I come to a store and buy a SIM card, will I also be able to register for a 3G/4G data packet or will it already be part of the prepaid plan? Many thanks,

    1. Author

      It will probably be part of the prepaid plan already. You may be able to get a talk/text-only plan if you really want one, but most plans include a data allowance.

  3. Hi Dave,

    Are you able to recommend the best prepaid SIM providers in Canada? I’ll need txt and talk but mainly data for maps. Many thanks.

  4. Apart from the sim for my iPhone, will I be able to obtain wifi access for my iPad?

    We are doing a road trip around Co, Wy, Ut and SD so will be in some quite isolated spots, therefore I need access to my gadgets!

    1. Author

      I can’t answer that with certainty, as it depends a little where you’re going, but given that most hotels, hostels, chain restaurants and many other places in the US offer free Wi-fi of some description, you should be fine. I did a road trip from Denver to Seattle through some pretty isolated spots a few years ago, and was able to find Wi-fi anywhere I needed it.

  5. Regarding data speeds for iPhone 6, is AT&T preferred over TMobile? I read older posts from ~2013 that mentioned iPhone incompatibility with TMobile.
    Also, which provider is best if you need calls to/from international cellphones?

    1. Author

      It really depends where you are. AT&T has coverage over a wider area, but in big cities, the network is often more congested than T-Mobile, which means lower data speeds.

      There’s no incompatibility between recent iPhones and the T-Mobile network — I imagine what you were seeing was problems with older international models and the frequencies used by T-Mobile’s higher-speed network. Both the phones and the network have changed since then.

      Regarding international calling, you’ll need to check each company’s rates for the countries you plan to call — there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to your question.

  6. Dave thank you so much!! Your article was a God sent as I have a teenage boy and he is going away to the USA to school and I tried looking over a bunch of phone options and that was becoming a very wearisome so I decided to check for just switching the sim card to the country you are in (old school) and found your article.

    I am so relieved I can just look now into the other aspects of his time as as student.

  7. Did you see a price hike for Data sim cards lately? The prices I see now for 10GB in T-Mobile and at&t for pre-paid SIM cards are around 80-85 USD.

    1. Author

      I didn’t, but to be honest, I haven’t been monitoring them. After T-Mobile said they didn’t sell data SIMs instore, and AT&T refused to sell me one for use in a smartphone, I just gave up on the idea for most US-bound travellers.

      Those prices don’t seem very surprising, though — 10GB is considered quite a lot of data for a prepaid monthly cell plan in the US, so I’d expect the prices to be relatively high.

  8. Headed to US for a two week road-trip and plan to be in some remote areas as well as cities. This will help a lot in reducing my time to get started once I land.

    I have used your advice for local SIMS in South East Asia previously and it was dead accurate, so thank you for both series!

  9. Thank you for the wonderful site. I am arriving Seattle International Airport next week. Is there any store at the Airport I can buy the prepaid Sim from either AT&T or T-Mobile?
    Would be great to have a local number and internet to use when landed.

    1. Author

      I didn’t see any AT&T or T-Mobile branding on arrival at Seatac earlier this year. This thread suggests it might be possible from Hudsons or Kens Baggage, but I don’t have any first-hand experience of that, or even where in the airport those stores are.

  10. Hi, I will be arriving San Francisco in 2 weeks time, will be spending couple of days in SF and LA, thereafter move to NYC for 2 weeks. Could you advise whether there are any kiosk in SF airport to purchase SIM for both calls, text and data. Also which is the best operator for SIM ? As I will be using mainly datas with few calls, please advise the best package to purchase.

    Thanks.

    1. Author

      I don’t know whether there is anywhere to buy a SIM at San Francisco airport. In terms of what to buy, please use the information in the article to make your decision about that.

  11. Hello, i will be in New York for 1 week in december for the christmas. Can you recommend me a simcard for just one week. I have a samsung S4 mini and it’s unlocked. What do i need to pay attention to. I will be making calls in USA and maybe on the street send an app. The rest i will do in my hotel room. What do you recmmend?

    Thank you.

    1. Author

      Just go for whatever the lowest cost call/text/data package option is at the time, with either AT&T or T-Mobile. There’s unlikely to be much difference between the cost or quality of service you get with either carrier in New York.

  12. Hi! I live in Buffalo, NY and I have a French exchange student with a 3 year old Nokia phone that died last night. He only uses it when connected to wi fi (and to listen to music.) I know absolutely nothing about cell phones! I believe it has a micro sim.What should we do?
    Thank you for any advice!
    Jackie

    1. Author

      Hi Jackie,
      You can find our recommendations for the best smartphones in various price ranges here.

  13. Hello, I would like to let you know that most supermarkets, chains stores electronic and pharmacies and even convienence stores sell prepaid sim card kits and refill cards now. Prices vary by location. One does not have to go to the Carrier store to get one. The sim card kit will come with instructions on how to activate it as well (very easy).Just to let you know that AT&T’s prepaid service is called Gophone. The current pricing plan is as follows

    $30 unlimited monthly voice/SMS, no data
    $45 plan ULTD Voice,SMS, intl SMS and 3GB of data (30Days)

    $60 plan ULTD voice,SMS,intl sms in the US,Canada,& Mexico with 6 GB of data. add more for $10 a gigabyte. (30days)Also, if you are on the monthly plan and you do not refill after 30 days, then you have 60 days to refill your account. If not, the account will be terminated and your phone number be lost.

    Hope this is helpful to anyone.

    1. Thanks Ryan, I’m from UK and was casually keeping an eye out for mobile phone and some card kiosks (like the ones in UK) in Berkeley today and your posts explain why I saw none. The 30 dollar option will be fine for my calling needs.

  14. Hi Ryan,
    The article and links are very good. Can you update me on any changes or suggestions for a three week visit to the US – prepaid sim?
    We used ZipSim last year – and like many products has its strengths and weakness. Would you suggest KnowRoaming over ZipSim or is there a better sim on the market now? Needing Data & Voice packages (data for google maps when driving).
    Thanks!

    1. Author

      Looks like a good option, if you’ve got a shipping address you can use in the US. Nice to see T-Mobile making things a little easier for travelers!

  15. I just want to suggest to look at H2O Wireless. They are an MVNO on AT&T and have a $40 8GB plan with Unlimited calls.

    1. Author

      Unusually for most US MVNO’s, it actually gets reasonable reviews from users! 😉 Worth a look for high data users, given the SIMs are sold in convenience stores etc so they’re not as hard to get hold of as some of the competition.

  16. Hi Dave and others,
    I’ll be arriving in the USA shortly and will be volunteering there for a couple of months. I really enjoyed your post, since I was completely confused on my options for a cheap SIM deal. I’m used to pay 10 euros a month for calling, texting and 4G. So paying 30 dollars a month was not something I was looking forward to. I’ve looked at the T-mobile website and found something that might work for me. The pay as you go plans (https://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/pay-as-you-go). Does anyone have experience with this? Is it really as cheap as they make it appear?

  17. Hi Dave, PagePlus Cellular is a payasyougo that works off Verizon network. So you can buy any compatible phone and pick a plan that works. Verizon has by far the best coverage in remote areas, better than ATT,in my ho. They have a “sim” that costs $80 gives you 2000 minutes, good for a year. They have monthly plans that are no better than Verizon itself. I mention this because somes Verizon connectivity is the only thing that works. Otherwise, googling alternative prepaid, brings stuff like Consumer Cellular and others.

    1. Author

      Yeah, the problem is the ‘buy any compatible phone’ part. Most travelers looking to use a prepaid SIM in the US will want to use their existing phone, not buy a new one just for that trip.

      It used to be almost impossible to use other phones on Verizon’s network due to incompatible technologies, but that’s slowly starting to change since Verizon moved to 4G/LTE. Even then, there are only a few phone models from overseas that support the right LTE bands, so most travelers still couldn’t get their phone to work, and are still better off with one of the other providers.

  18. I’m travelling to California, Arizona & Nevada from Ireland for 5 weeks travelling in an RV. I plan on bringing my iPhone & iPad. I’d welcome your advice on the cheapest way to be able to use both while I’m away. Appreciate your help. Best regards

    1. Author

      Well, the cheapest way would be to rely on Wi-fi in camp grounds, restaurants etc.

      Assuming you want cellular data, and that one or both of your devices has an unlocked SIM card slot, I’d suggest buying a SIM card from T-Mobile, AT&T, or one of the AT&T resellers like H20 Wireless mentioned elsewhere in the comments, and using the Wi-fi hotspot feature on that phone/tablet to share the data with the other device. You may be better off on the AT&T network, if you’ll be spending much time away from major towns while in your RV.

      You’ll need to check the latest pricing on the various company’s sites to find a plan that best fits your needs. If you’re likely to use a lot of data, H20 Wireless may be the best bet, otherwise it won’t make much difference from a price perspective.

      1. Hey
        We are going to America for 2 weeks. We have a Huawei E5786s-32a mifi all working on 3g there. And want data sim of about 10 gb where thetering is allowed naturally. Is it better to buy in the usa or through the internet at home (Three, Usasim, Prepaidzero, etc).

        Greets from Holland

      2. Author

        Without knowing your costs for buying at home, I can’t really answer that, sorry. 10GB is viewed as quite a large amount of data by US carriers, though, so don’t expect a US-based service to be as cheap as you might hope!

  19. Thank you for the quick response.
    These are the prices of prepaid data.

    Three data 12gb 50 euro UK
    Roammobility 5 gb $ 60 USA
    Usasim 10gb 100 euros ????
    Simoption 12 gb 50 euro UK
    Prepaidzero 12 gb 65 euro for mifi works on At & t

    But how do you make a choice?
    Prices in the USA are higher or the data is much lower,

    greetings from Holland

    1. Author

      I guess those prices might make your decision for you, as long as you can use all of that Three / Simoption / Prepaidzero data in the US without extra cost or limitations. They’d also mean you’re set up and ready to go in advance, rather than having to deal with it on arrival.

      The only US-based provider I’ve come across that offers something similar is H2O Wireless (mentioned in an earlier comment), which has 10GB of LTE data for $50, or 12GB for $60. I’ve got no first-hand experience with the company, though.

  20. Hi Dave
    Do you know if you can buy a data nano sim card for a 4GEE MINI in New York?
    I will be in NY for 10 days and was planning to buy a data sim card for this device so I can use it as a hotspot for all my devices.

    Thanks

    1. Author

      You can certainly buy nano SIMs from any of the providers, but I’m not familiar with that specific model of MiFi device, or whether EE locks it to its own SIM cards. If you’re not certain about that either, you’ll need to confirm with EE beforehand.

  21. Hi Dave, my son is coming out to work on a crusie ship, Rehearsing in LA and then flying out to Vancover where the ship will tour around north and south Alaska for around 2.5 months then back to the US/Mexico/Panana Canal/Aruba.. etc.. He is planning to buy an unlocked phone in the UK and get a sim when he arrives in LA.. could you tell me which one would be the best for him.. he is keen on data rather than mins/txts.. and will use wifi where he can but it not alwasy easy on the ship. Many thanks for any advice.. its seem a bit daunting trying to get the best info..

    1. Author

      There are so many variables here, it’s hard to know where to start. The first thing I’d say is that no matter which SIM card your son buys, he won’t get (affordable) coverage unless he’s in port or very close to land. Most major US carriers have free or relatively affordable roaming in Canada and Mexico, and less so elsewhere.

      Since he’s not a US resident (or at least, presumably doesn’t have a credit card with a US billing address), it likely rules out the best option (Google Fi, which has $10/GB roaming in most of the world, as long as he has a recent model of Google phone).

      I’d probably suggest checking out the coverage maps for the AT&T and T-Mobile networks in the parts of Alaska he knows he’ll be going, and make the choice based on that. If he needs lots of data, H20 Wireless is on the AT&T network, but has lower prices. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, though, I have no personal experience with that company.

      When it comes to roaming, especially beyond Canada and Mexico, it’s going to cost a bunch of money no matter what he does. He’ll need to check the prices with whichever company he goes with, but personally I’d probably just try to buy a local SIM for each country if I was there for any length of time, or put up with using Wi-fi (perhaps in port, rather than on the ship) while outside North America.

      Hope that helps!

  22. Hi Dave, my family and I are going to New york, las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco in a couple of weeks. We have 2 sons, so we like to know what the best options will be. I want my kids to be able to call us, and of course call them, and we like to have some data to surf and use maps.
    We all have iPhones and iPad. If we buy sims, can we use them in different states?

    1. Author

      Hi,

      Yes, as long as you’ve got cell signal wherever you happen to be, you can use the SIMs throughout the country. Since it sounds like you’ll be in major cities, the T-Mobile recommendation in the article should be fine for your needs.

  23. Hello sir i am in usa right now planning to goto india dor few months can you please tell me which sim card is best for me
    I am only using text messages service send and receive
    I need cheap unlimited sms plan with international roaming

  24. I checked everything tmobile sprint and at&t have coverage there

    1. Author

      Are you asking about buying a local SIM card in India, or using a SIM card from the United States while traveling in India? If the first of those, then the post I linked to should help. If you want to use a US SIM card in India, you’ll need to do your own research I’m afraid, since we typically recommend buying local SIM cards to keep costs down.

  25. Hi Dave, Your article gave EXACTLY the information I needed! Thanks for making it easier to get connected in the USA. I’m a traveler from South Africa. SA is pretty easy for visitors to get connected.

  26. Hi Dave We are travelling from Seattle to Portland and then along the coast to San Fran and onto Yosemite. Can you recommend a service provider for Oregon
    I will be using a UK unlocked IPhone 5

    1. Author

      I can’t add much more than what’s in this article, really. Check the coverage maps for AT&T and T-Mobile against the places you plan to visit and drive through, and that should help you decide.

  27. Hey Dave, I’m American living in Thailand. I’m travelling into the US with my unlocked Xiaomi phone. I went to “Willmyphonework.com” and apparently Virgin, Sprint, and Verizon work but NO ATT and TMO only 2G. I wonder, though, whether it’s possible to get a family member in the US to get me a sim card on their family plan. Is this a possibility?

    1. Author

      The type of plan won’t affect the physical compatibility of the SIM card, so if it’ll work in your phone and the carrier doesn’t have a policy preventing it, I can’t see why not. I’d double check whatever that site is telling you against the actual frequencies supported by your phone, though, as it’s the opposite story to most international phones.

  28. i love my aunt who is in america but i cannot contact her because i do not have the sim card

  29. A friend from France is coming to visit the US. I told him to buy a sim in France. At free.fr for 10€ for the card + 20€/month he gets unlimited calls US to US and US to Europe + 25Go in US and 100Go in France.

  30. Hi Dave,

    I’m planning to visit the US tomorrow and I asked my brother about getting an AT&T sim and he said I need to have a social security number to have one. Previously I bought T-Mobile (without social security number) but their internet speed was slow in California. Additionally I have the option to get roaming package (10gb) on T-Mobile or AT&T for 80$. The last option has the convenience of using my main number, but I would like to know if I will be getting the same speed as the US sims given that my phone is compatible with all US LTE bands.

    1. Author

      I’ve never heard of people needing a social security number to buy an AT&T prepaid SIM. If for some reason that’s a requirement at the store you intend to purchase from, maybe get a SIM from Cricket instead — it has similar if not better pricing, and operates on the AT&T network.

      As for data speeds, it’s so dependent on where you are, what frequencies your phone can handle, and how much congestion there is on the particular cell tower(s) you use. I’ve generally had good speeds with T-Mobile, but lower coverage overall. Regarding the roaming package, if your phone supports all the US LTE bands, there’s no physical reason why you wouldn’t get full speeds, BUT you’ll need to check with your provider whether they impose any speed restrictions while roaming. They often do!

  31. I will check with my provider if there are any restrictions related to roaming in the US. This should make deciding easier.

    Additionally, thank you dave for the quick feedback and for helping other visitors in this website for more than a year!

  32. Thanks Dave! I am a USA citizen but travel out of the USA almost all the time so it’s nice to know this simply for when I am in the USA (often for less than a month at a time!!). Regardless I can buy a USA SIM. Thanks:)

    P.S. Have you heard of Project Fi? I’ve been considering buying Fi next year when I’ve got a bit more $.

    1. Author

      No problem!

      I checked out Google Fi about 18 months ago, and reviewed it here. It’s not quite as good value as it used to be, but if you travel regularly, you’ll still save plenty vs most of the other US roaming options.

  33. A bit of a correction…

    Sprint and Verizon use CDMA only for 2G service. They have been migrating to GSM.

    An iPhone purchases ooutside the US will work fine on either network using LTE..

    1. Author

      Hi Gary,

      Agreed, and I’ve tweaked the wording a little to make things clearer. Given that Verizon’s LTE service only works with a limited range of international phones, though, and costs more than the competition, I still wouldn’t recommend it to most visitors. Sprint’s coverage is the smallest of the four main carriers, and has even more compatibility problems for international visitors (no voice service, to start with), so there’s no reason to consider it.

  34. Good article. I never realized how screwed up our cell phone companies were until I traveled to SE Asia.

    I have a Moto G4 which is compatible with all US networks. What I don’t know is if the international version will support all bands.

  35. Dave will i lose my apps when inserting american sim card. or more importantly whats app contacts etc?

  36. Thanks for the site and all the info from everyone.
    My question is pretty specific: As a US ex-pat living in France, I have a French provider whose sim I use on an unlocked double-sim Galaxy Note 5 which I bought specially 1)to use in the US when I visit, 2) to get a US tel number to keep indefinitely, where I can be contacted from the US even when I am in France, as many offices, bureaux & banks do not accept foreign numbers. (For these organisations it seems we fall off the earth when we go beyond US borders!)
    I will be visiting Hawaii and Los Angeles at the end of the year for 3 weeks. After looking at the coverage maps, it seems I will do best with AT&T.
    What is the best/cheapest solution (plan? pre-paid sim?) for me 1) to get a US tel number, 2) to use the number only to receive calls when outside the US (my French plan includes calls from France to the US but not vice versa) 3) that I can keep the number indefinitely outside the US, and 4) that will cost the least as I will only make calls when I visit the US, usually not more than a few weeks a year? (I probably won’t need roaming as I can limit myself to using wi-fi for internet)

    1. Author

      Personally, I’d sign up for a Google Voice number, and set it up on your phone (details here). It costs nothing to have, and calls to/from the US and Canada are also free. As long as you have a data connection of some sort, anywhere in the world, it’ll ring on your phone, and let you receive/send calls and texts.

      I’d then just get whichever SIM and cell package makes sense for each trip to the US (in your case, AT&T). I’m in a similar-ish situation to you (visit the US for a few weeks a year, need a consistent US number for various reasons), and this is the approach I use.

      1. Author

        Yes, it can — in fact, it can only create US numbers. You need to be in the US when you’re setting it up (or using a VPN that makes it seem that way), and have access to an existing US-based number to do the setup verification. If that’s difficult to achieve while you’re in France, you can ask someone else to do the setup for you, and just tell you what the new Voice number is once it’s created — it’ll work fine on your phone in France (or wherever) via the Google Voice or Google Hangouts app after that.

      2. Trying to clearly picture getting a Google voice mail number, supposing I have no access to a US based number (as a working hypothesis of a worst case scenario), it seems that I will need to get a US sim card, after which I can then do everything on my own including getting the Google Voice and or Google Hangouts app. Can I get this app in France, and then use it with the new number I will create in the US? Which app is better: voice or hangouts?

        You speak about a tourist plan from US providers: what’s that? who offers them? how do they work? which is the cheapest?
        Btw do you know who has a sim that will work on a Galaxy Note5 double sim (Asian model which works perfectly in Europe)

        Thanks for all your info and help in the much improved but somewhat more complicated world of travelling & international telephone communication.
        (For the record, I remember trying to call my parents collect from a funny coin phone in the street in Paris as, under de Gaulle who didn’t believe in telephones (no kidding!) it took 2 years to get a fixed telephone line.)

      3. Author

        That’s correct — if you can’t get access to a US number to do the verification, you’ll need to get a US SIM yourself, do the Google Voice verification, and then you’ll be able to use the Voice or Hangouts app anywhere in the world. You are able to download either app while outside the US (or at least, you could, last time I did it), and then use it with the new Voice number. I’d probably go with Hangouts, since it has more features, and is a bit nicer to use.

        A tourist plan is just a SIM card and package marketed at tourists — it typically offers a useful amount of calls, texts, and data, but only for a relatively short period. T-Mobile is the only major US carrier offering such a package as far as I’m aware. When I bought it a few months ago, it lasted for three weeks, and couldn’t be renewed. T-Mobile and AT&T SIMs will work in that phone, at least for calls, texts, and 3G data.

        I’ve made my share of dodgy calls from phone boxes in Europe too, back in the day — it was definitely a great exercise in frustration!

  37. thanks for a simple answer to a complicated question. i looked at the site, but can google give me a us number?

  38. Hi Dave,

    My wife will be travelling to the USA with an unlocked iPhone 6. She will be in Fort Lauderdale & Miami in Florida, then onto Akron, OH and then further to Chicago all in the space of a 2 week period. Have been reviewing Verizon for its Prepaid plans. I personally wasnt very happy with AT&T coverage in multiple locations when I was there last year. Would be great to get your recommendation.

    1. Author

      I don’t have firsthand experience of using a Verizon SIM, but if the pricing and coverage levels in the cities your wife is visiting seem ok, it should theoretically work over LTE with her model of phone. She’ll want to double-check with the sales rep at time of purchase, however.

      The Verizon coverage map is here.

  39. Hi. If I buy my own T-Mobile prepaid SIM card for Note 8, I know it needs to activate it but do I really need to register if I am an International visitor when I visit to the US? Or no need to register it?

  40. Ah I see. Because I remember back in December 2007, I did bought a prepaid T-Mobile with phone (because I didnt bring my own phone before I went to the US). I do remember about activating the SIM card when I register with my details after I bought TMobile phone kit (SIM card and nokia phone) for the first time.

    Unlike last May 2016, I bought a SIM card online and it doesnt really need to activate or register it. They activate it for me before travel. I didnt include details so it’s pretty good. I had TMobile SIM card last year. So thats why I dont really know if I will do the same thing back in 2007 if I will buy a cheap SIM card with a recharge card or I will do the same thing like last May 2016 (a bit too costly but it’s pretty good which is I get unlimited calls & text to the nationalwide like CA, NYC etc, and 6GB data – Except that If I want an additional options like I can add $10-$15 or whatever just for International call from US).

  41. Bought T-mobile tourist plan for 50 USD.

    10GB surf, 1000 min phone and 1000 text messages.

    Then assuming as with sim-card in Sweden I should be able to call and text anyone in the world.

    But discovered I just can call and text US citizens (or others with a US SIM card).

    As being here with my family (all with Swedish phone numbers) I wanted to be able to call and text them.

    So, I should have been checking this before buying the T-mobile plan.

    Writing this as memento for other tourists to the US who wants to be able to call/text their accompying their family members/ travel companions.

  42. I am from the USA but have been sailing through South Pacific & South east Asia for the last 3 years. I have a USA iPhone and I would like to buy a SIM card at LAX or near there. I will be in the USA for 2-3 months. I am heavy user of texts, WhatsApp, Messenger, gmail, and I also like to make regular phone calls. What do you recommend?

    1. Author

      Since you’ll be there longer than three weeks, the T-mobile tourist plan won’t work for you, so you’ll need to pick an appropriate option from their (or AT&T’s) monthly packages. For $45, you’ll get 4GB of data with T-Mobile, or 6GB with AT&T, plus unlimited calls and texts. AT&T also has a $35 1GB plan, if you can get away with not using much data (none of the things you mention are particularly data hungry). As I mentioned in the article, I’ve never seen much in the way of stores selling prepaid SIM cards in US airports, so you may need to wait until you’re outside LAX to get one.

  43. Hi Dave,

    My family has relocated to the US, so I’ll be visiting 2 to 3 times a year. (I am currently in Europe.)
    My question is, do you know of a provider that let’s you keep the phone number that has been assigned to the prepaid SIM card.?
    So every time I visit I upgrade or reactivate the plan, while keeping the same number.
    Thanks

    1. Author

      Hi Debbie,

      I don’t know of a company that lets you retain the number once the SIM becomes inactive, which is typically 60-90 days after the last top-up / expiry of whatever package was purchased. There may be some kind of long-expiry plan available that you can switch to just before you leave each time, but you’d need to ask whichever vendor you chose about that.

      What I do instead is use a free Google Voice number, to retain a US number that works wherever I am including back in the US, as long as I have a working data connection of any sort. I wrote a bit more about it in this comment and the one below it. To sign up for it, you’ll need to be in the US, or using a VPN that makes it seem that way.

  44. My friend gave me a brand new, expired Tmobile simcard. He said i can just activate it once i got into usa. Is it true? Thanks

  45. Hi, If we buy a SIM card in the US, can we have them configured the settings into my phone before I leave the store?

  46. Hi Dave, as Canadians we will be travelling to USA during holidays seasons for less than 21 days. Both of us, just acquired new iPhone8 and were told we could get SIM cards to lower the roaming fees involved, if using our phones from our Cdn provider. First, I understand T-Mobile seems to be our best bet, however what are the steps to go; should we go to a carrier location, get SIM cards ( which ones is the best alternative) and will we be able to carry on our phone numbers. I will eventually go back in USA in May for a little over 45 days, what will then be my best choice considering that we are travelling 3/4 times a year to South Eastern area with various time frames. Thanks! Looking forward for your advice.

    1. Author

      Yep, for this upcoming trip, just head to a T-Mobile store, buy the tourist SIM package I mention in the post, and you’re good to go. You will have a US number while that SIM card is in your phone — if you need to access your Canadian number for some reason, just switch back to your original SIM (but turn off data roaming first!).

      If you’re traveling in the US for more than three weeks / several times a year, you’ll need a different package. Prices and details will have changed by the time next May rolls around, so there’s little point advising something specific right now. As I mentioned in this comment reply above, there may be some sort of inexpensive long-expiry plan you can switch to that keeps your US SIM active while you’re not using it, but you’ll need to check that at the time with whichever carrier you choose.

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