Buying a Prepaid SIM Card in the United States Guide

Heading to the United States soon? Visiting Time Square at the Big Apple or visit iconic Grand Theft Auto locations in Los Angeles and Santa Monica? The United States has everything you need like insanely large cities you know from movies or traditional rural towns in Mississippi. Whatever you plan on doing in the US, you want to make sure to post your adventures online to make your friends jealous.

But what are your options then? Roaming with your provider can be expensive if you cannot roam in the US for free. That is why many travelers tend to buy a local SIM card when traveling; in this case, an American SIM card. This way, you can use your phone without having to worry about spending thousands on a roaming bill when going back home. Let’s see what our local SIM card options are for the United States.

Telecom Providers in the United States

The United States has four major carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. What SIM card should you buy when visiting the United States? If you want to buy a SIM card in the United States, then T-Mobile will be the most interesting for most travelers because it offers more options for lower prices than AT&T and has good coverage. If you are going to remote areas or states, then AT&T would be recommended because they have better coverage than T-Mobile.

Unless you have a compatible phone that works with Verizon’s network, I would avoid them (especially if you do not have a CMDA-compatible phone, which is almost every phone in the world). Sprint has the smallest network of the four and does not offer voice calls over 4G/LTE, meaning that you will not receive calls if you have a none-Sprint phone – not useful.  

Most phones will not be able to take advantage of the 4G/LTE network in the United States because they use different bands and frequencies in the US than in other countries. If you manage to see 4G/LTE on your phone, your phone may be lying to you (or you are lucky – it is often the former, based on my experiences).

When I was traveling around the US for 1.5 months back in 2015, I went with H2O Wireless, which is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) on AT&T’s network. As it has been more than four years I used them, my recollection of their service is not the best.

However, I do know that I was not too pleased with the service I got for the money I spent. Nowadays, data packages start at $20 for 1 GB, which is high compared to other countries in the world. Not only was it expensive, but the speeds were questionable, and the coverage was not impressive.

My partner, however, used T-Mobile earlier in 2019 and was happy with it. My partner traveled in California (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mobile Alabama – even by bus between Los Angeles and San Francisco) and did not complain about coverage, while I was struggling with having some sort of coverage while roaming on AT&T’s network with my Danish provider, Tre Danmark (3 Denmark), who offered free roaming in the US (although my connection was much better when roaming on T-Mobile in Dallas, Texas).

I understand that as a roamer, I get a lower priority on AT&T’s network than actual customers, but it was remarkable to see the considerable difference between roaming on AT&T in Los Angeles and T-Mobile in Dallas. As my partner has great first-hand experience with T-Mobile, and many travelers vow that T-Mobile did them well, I would highly recommend getting a T-Mobile SIM card while in the US.

Do note that all four major networks have many MVNO (for example, AT&T has H2O Wireless, Cricket Wireless, and Net10, while T-Mobile has Metro, GoSmart Mobile, and SimpleMobile), I recommend sticking with the carriers themselves because they have a proven track record with travelers. You may end up with whacky service with an MVNO like me while paying first-class prices for them. Either way, I will mention a handful of popular ones for comparison reasons.

With that out of the way, let’s see what options we have with American providers.

Tip: Looking for cheap flights? Book with AirWander and add stopovers! Not in a hurry yet? Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices for your preferred route(s) drop!

T-Mobile US

T-Mobile Logo

You can buy a T-Mobile US (just T-Mobile) activation kit in T-Mobile stores, authorized dealers, or many other stores like Best Buy. Buying a SIM card in a T-Mobile store will cost you $10 (plus local taxes – remember, taxes are calculated at the time of purchase and are not calculated within the listed price). Other stores may charge you much more for these SIM cards.

Some travelers report that buying a SIM card on eBay or Amazon may save you money. Sometimes, T-Mobile has promos where they sell SIM cards for $1, which get bought in bulk and resold on online marketplaces. Either way, be careful with buying SIM cards online because inactivated SIM cards will not work unless it comes with a prepaid plan activation code.

You can take advantage of T-Mobile monthly packs, which come with the following allowance:

  • 2 GB for $10
  • 6 GB for $25
  • 10 GB for $40
  • 14 GB for $55
  • 18 GB for $70
  • 22 GB for $85

These monthly packs are valid for 30 and renew automatically (although the renewal will fail if you do not have enough credit) – remember, taxes are not included in the price. If you go over your allowance, your speed will be reduced to “up to 2G speeds”, which I assume is 128 kbps. All I can say is that the speed is insufferably slow.

T-Mobile used to sell tourist plans, but they have been discontinued, and visitors who are interested in them can buy a tourist SIM card from Ultra Mobile, one of T-Mobile’s MNVOs.

Ultra Mobile Tourist SIM Card

Ultra Mobile Logo

You can find the Ultra Mobile tourist SIM card in some T-Mobile stores, or T-Mobile Preferred retail stores around the country. The SIM card comes with 1000 domestic minutes, 100 minutes to 80 countries, unlimited international texting (this includes domestic texting as well), and unlimited data, of which 2 GB on 4G/LTE speeds, which are all valid for 21 days for $30 – not a bad deal.

AT&T

AT&T Logo

AT&T is the biggest (GSM) provider in the United States and provides nationwide coverage. AT&T does not have a 2G network anymore. This should not be a problem for most travelers unless you are traveling with a “dumb phone.”

You can buy an AT&T Prepaid SIM card kit for $20 (pre-tax) in AT&T stores. It will cost you $10 if you order it online (and ship it to a US address), or stores like Best Buy, Target, or Walmart. Some stores or kiosks will charge you more because they can. Other stores will waive the fee if you top the card up immediately at the store – it is worth asking.

You can buy the following AT&T prepaid plans. Do note that these plans are monthly packages valid for 30 days that can be automatically renewed. If you choose the auto-pay option, you could pay $5 to $10 less per month than the listed price below. However, if you are staying in the US for less than a month, you cannot take advantage of the deal. I am not sure if you can use foreign details to sign up for auto-pay.

  • $30: Unlimited calls and SMS within the US with no data (or 250 MB for $5)
  • $35: Unlimited calls and SMS within the US with 1 GB in the US (after full usage, unlimited data at 128 kbps)
  • $50: Unlimited calls and SMS within the US, to Canada and Mexico with 8 GB for in the US, Canada, and Mexico (after full usage, unlimited data at 128 kbps)
  • $65: Unlimited calls and SMS within the US, to Canada and Mexico with unlimited data for in the US, Canada, and Mexico (although your connection will be deprioritized during network congestion, video streaming at max 1.5 Mbps and no hotspot use)
  • $85: Unlimited calls and SMS within the US, to Canada and Mexico with 8 unlimited for in the US, Canada, and Mexico (22 GB before your connection will be deprioritized during network congestion and max 10 GB for hotspot use in the US before throttled to 128 kbps)

You can also buy the following AT&T data-only plans:

  • 10 GB for $50
  • 15 GB for $70

However, when buying these plans at an AT&T store, do not say that you want to use it for a phone but for a tablet instead. These data-only plans, also known as Data Connect, are advertised for tablets, and the sales rep may refuse to sell you these plans if you tell them you want to use them for your phone, even though they work on phones too.

Cricket Wireless (on AT&T)

Cricket Wireless Logo

Cricket is an MVNO using the AT&T network. You can buy a Cricket SIM card online, various shops, or authorized dealers for $10. Activating the SIM card will cost you $25 when done in a store, but it can be done for free when doing it online.

Cricket offers several monthly packages, which last for 30 days:

  • $30 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and 2 GB of data
  • $40 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and 5 GB of data
  • $55 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and unlimited data (at 3 Mbps) to be used in the US, Canada, and Mexico
  • $60 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and unlimited data (which will be throttled when the network is congested) to be used in the US, Canada, and Mexico

Not interested in calling or texting? The following data-only plans are available:

  • $25 for 3 GB
  • $35 for 10 GB
  • $70 for 30 GB

Straight Talk (on AT&T or T-Mobile)

Straight Talk Logo

Straight Talk is another MVNO using both the AT&T and T-Mobile network. You do, however, have to choose the network you want to use when activating the SIM card, meaning that you cannot switch networks when you feel like it (in fact, the network cannot be changed after your selection).  Straight Talk SIM cards can only be bought at Walmart. You activate your SIM card online on their website.

The following monthly packages are available, which all last for 30 days:

  • $35 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and 3 GB of high-speed data
  • $45 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and 25 GB of high-speed data
  • $55 for unlimited calls and texts in the US and unlimited data
  • $60 for unlimited calls in the US, unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls to Canada, China, India, and Mexico, unlimited texts in the US and 25 GB of high-speed data

After you have used up your high-speed data, speeds will be reduced to 2G speeds, which is often 128 kbps. For the $55 unlimited plan, I would recommend not using more than 60 GB, as Straight Talk may investigate your account and cancel it if it violates their terms of service. Avoid the hassle and use less than 60 GB.

Metro by T-Mobile

Metro by T-Mobile Logo

As the name implies, Metro uses the T-Mobile network. The company used to be called MetroPCS before T-Mobile bought it in 2013. You can buy a Metro SIM card for $10 in Metro stores, authorized dealers, or online.

Make sure to top up online to avoid top-up fees, which can go up to $3 per top-up if done in stores.

The following monthly packs are available, which lasts for 30 days – all plans come with unlimited calls and texts for in the US:

  • $35: 2 GB
  • $40: 5 GB
  • $50: Unlimited high-speed data with no hotspot use
  • $60: Unlimited high-speed data with 10 GB hotspot use

If you use more than your allotted data allowance, your speed will be slowed down to 128 kbit/s. This does not apply to the unlimited plans. However, if you have used more than 35 GB, your connection will be deprioritized when the network is congested.

A Note About Unlimited Data Allowances

As you have noticed, some plans come with unlimited data with reduced speeds after reaching a certain threshold. Usually, you are not allowed to use your phone as a hotspot (or tether), or you get a set allowance. Sometimes, you can if your plan allows it or buy an add-on to do so. Moreover, although you can stream videos or movies, it is usually restricted to standard definition (SD) or, as some providers call it, DVD quality.

If you really want to watch your videos at HD, 2K, or 4K quality, I would try using a VPN, like NordVPN, so that the carrier cannot see that you are streaming a video. Instead, the provider will only see that you are connected to an IP address, the one of the VPN, without revealing the content. I have not tried using this workaround with any American provider, as I did not get unlimited data with H2O Wireless a few years ago. I have, however, used it on planes or trains to see if this solution works, which it often does.

I would not advocate using this workaround on planes and trains because you will be using a lot of the bandwidth that should be shared with all the passengers, but I do try it every now and then to see if the VPN does its job, which it often does.

Anyway, try it out and let me know if it works – I am curious.

Other Connectivity Options When Traveling in The United States

Some travelers do not want to get an American SIM card for various reasons. Some prefer to roam with their providers while others would prefer an international SIM card. Then we have those who like portable WIFI devices, and others who will connect to WIFI networks instead.

Roaming in the United States with Your Provider

Roaming is a term used in wireless telecommunication that indicates a mobile device is outside the range of its home network and has connected to a different, available cell network. If you use your phone in the United States without changing SIM cards, you would be roaming in the US.

Roaming can be expensive. This person received an £8,348.41 data roaming billOpens in a new tab.. I also found out why roaming is so expensive. However, it does not always have to be costly.

Many providers offer roaming plans where you can roam for free in select destinations like the United States. Others may offer bundles that give you some minutes, SMS, and data. You also have providers that allow you to use your plan's allowance for a daily fee. Every carrier is different, so it is recommended to explore your roaming options before you go out and experience bill shock (which is not fun). Luckily, I have reviewed the roaming options of many providers so that you do not have to.

No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!

You can also Roam As You Go, meaning that you will pay per minute, text, and MB. In most cases, this is not recommended, as these rates are insanely high (that is how people get bills in the thousands). There are some providers, however, that do have attractive Pay As You Go roaming rates. Do not get too excited, though, as the number of carriers that have decent standard roaming rates is rare.

International SIM Cards

International SIM cards are cards that have been made for travelers so that they do not have to deal with roaming costs.

There are many international SIM cards out there, such as OneSimCard, SimOptions, Surfroam, Simcorner, and BNESIM. These SIM cards with the same as roaming with your provider, but the charges are often way less than actually roaming because they have been set up for international travel.

International SIM cards give you the same convenience as roaming with your provider. As in, not having to get numerous SIM cards, you will not use again, and being reachable on one number instead of multiple

International SIM cards are, however, more expensive than using a local SIM card, such as an American one. On the other hand, they are often cheaper than roaming with your provider. International SIM cards are appealing to those who travel frequently or those who are visiting multiple destinations in one trip. If you are only visiting the United States, stick to a local SIM as discussed in this article.

If you want to learn more about international SIM cards, check out my comparison post where I analyze 10 international SIM card providers.

Portable hotspots

Portable hotspots, or pocket WIFI, are devices small enough that they should fit into your pocket. These devices turn into your on-the-go WIFI hotspot while they connect to the cellular networks in the country.

There are many portable hotspots out there. Two reputable pocket WIFI companies I know are Skyroam (use coupon code PHONETRAVELWIZ) and Vision Global Wireless. WIFI access with Skyroam starts at $8 a day. Using a Vision Global device starts at $2 a day. Both services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.

A pocket WIFI device is ideal for those who are traveling with families or multiple individuals. This way, everyone can connect to the device and enjoy the WIFI network on the go. Some companies will charge you per GB while others will give you unlimited data. Be aware of the data restrictions of your device so that you will not receive a high bill after your travels.

Free WIFI connections

Finally, we have the most cost-effective way to stay connected: Free WIFI hotspots.

Although using WIFI hotspots may save you money, it may not be convenient as using a SIM card. First, you would have to find WIFI hotspots. Luckily, WIFI networks can be found all over the place in the US, which is great. It may be more challenging to find one in rural places, though. Second, the connections may be slow or they require you to give up your personal details so that they can spam you with commercial mails – be aware.

Additionally, public WIFI hotspots are unsecure. I would recommend using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you connect to an unfamiliar network. The VPN will encrypt your data and will keep your data private. I use NordVPN, and you can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get yours today or find out more about NordVPN.

The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in The United States

Getting a SIM card from T-Mobile would do you well when considering an American SIM card. Be sure to explore the roaming options your provider offers you, as they may offer free or cheap roaming bundles.

You could also consider getting an international SIM card or using a portable hotspot. International SIM cards are attractive for those visiting multiple destinations at once or within a year. Portable hotspots will be useful when traveling with multiple people so that not each individual has to get a SIM card but can use the hotspot.

Visiting other countries in North America? Check out my North American SIM card buying guide, covering Canada and Mexico too. Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.

What is next?

Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!

Book Your Flight for the United States

It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to the United States. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to the United States drop.

Book Your Accommodation for the United States

I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in the United States. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in an American hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for the United States

You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in the United States, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.

Get a Travel Debit Card

Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to US Dollars for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.

Enjoy your trip!

Ernest Adu

Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region is Asia. In particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan.

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