Euro traveling in the US - cell phone options?
May 25, 2011 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I'll be spending the month of June in the US. What are the options for short term mobile phone service? I gather that sim cards in the US are different from Europe & that I can't simply buy a local SIM card for my Euro phone. Please tell me if I'm wrong! Can I buy a cheap local phone and "pay as you go" credit?
posted by LivinginYes to Technology (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can get prepaid phones, but they are less common than in europe.

AT&T "go phone" is one option --

A friend of mine found that it was cheaper to buy a prepaid sim bundled with a phone than it was to buy just the SIM from at&t.
posted by devbrain at 7:17 AM on May 25, 2011

On your point, SIM cards are not different but the big carriers are split between GSM (at&t, tmobile) and CDMA (verizon, sprint). If your phone is unlocked, a SIM from at&t or tmobile will work.
posted by devbrain at 7:18 AM on May 25, 2011

You should be able to pick up a pre-paid phone at most stores in the states like Target, Walmart, KMart and the like. The Go Phone from ATT is a good option. MetroPCS also has phone plans without a contract, so you could sign up for the month.
posted by rich at 7:30 AM on May 25, 2011

Although prepaid cell phones are less common than in Europe, they are still very easy to find. There are many companies; I use Virgin Mobile, which is available at 7-11 convenience stores and many other locations. Phones start at about $10, and fees are 20 cents/minute, 15 cents/text.

However, if you are planning to spend a lot of time in rural areas, such as the national parks out west, check the coverage area for your plan. Virgin Mobile - at least the phone I have - does not cover the whole country.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:35 AM on May 25, 2011

As others have said, if your phone is unlocked you can buy a SIM (I use AT&T for this, and I got the unloaded SIM off of eBay for about $3.00), BUT make sure your phone is tri- or quad-band, otherwise it still won't work! If you have a relatively new phone you should be fine.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 7:51 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

nthing everyone else: it won't be as straightforward as a SIM-only PAYG in Europe, assuming that your phone's unlocked, and you'll want to check which GSM frequencies your current phone can use, because some areas have decent coverage on GSM-1900, but others favour GSM-850, which is less common on Euro-spec phones.

So if you're not looking for smartphone data service, and just want reliable voice and SMS, a cheapo prepaid phone may deliver better coverage than a SIM in your current phone.
posted by holgate at 8:25 AM on May 25, 2011

We usually just get a "disposable" phone. You can pick them up at most discount stores--Walmart, Target, Walgreens, etc. A basic phone can be as little as $10. The stores usually carry multiple brands so you can compare features, prices and coverage. Cards are pretty easy to find and you can also often buy credit online. If you plan on returning to the U.S. in the near future you may be able to keep up your coverage by keeping a balance on it.

The only problem we've run into is not having a landline to complete the activation at the condo we were staying at. My husband made a late-night trip out to find a pay phone, which are pretty hard to find these days!
posted by wallaby at 8:39 AM on May 25, 2011

Seconding, or I guess tripling, checking out AT&T SIM only--I use the same unlocked phone in Ireland, UK, Bahamas and US--four different SIMs and all pay as you go. There may be an activation fee for the ATT sim only but you might have that for any phone. The nice thing about swapping sims is accessibility to contacts if you have saved them on the phone rather than the chip/card. Enjoy your stay.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:55 AM on May 25, 2011

Yes, you can get a prepaid cell phone pretty cheaply here -- but which company you choose might depend on where you are going, of course. I can tell you from personal experience (and semi-personal experience, since many of my contract-adverse family members use prepaid phones exclusively) that Tracfone has the best coverage in the West, particularly if you're driving in rather unpopulated areas between cities. They (I think) lease a lot of their bandwidth from Verizon, which is the dominant carrier in much of the West. I don't know how good their coverage is in other parts of the country, though.
posted by heurtebise at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2011

Mobile phone service in the US is rather different, and more expensive. I have a Tracfone and it works well. You buy the phone, and you buy minutes (also used for texting). When you buy minutes, you also get days of service. You can probably pick up a phone at the airport. If not, convenience stores generally have them.
posted by theora55 at 10:53 AM on May 25, 2011

n-thing the SIM card from AT&T and others approach - I just did this recently and worked very well.

You can go to any AT&T store and get a SIM card (usually costs $15 but they are happy to give it to you for free - ASK if they don't). Then u have to get one of their three prepaid service options. You get a US number, pop the SIM card in your phone and good to go. Refilling is easy (by phone, online or in their store). Plan options:

1. $2/day unlimited calls/text within US - no $ gets deducted on days you dont make or recieve calls (checking voicemail counts as making a call)
2. $60 per month; same as above
3. pay per minute - 0.15 cents or something like that; dont remember.

#1 is straightforward and works best.

There might be other cheaper options, but I found this to be the least hassle free and most reliable.
posted by cusecase at 11:27 AM on May 25, 2011

What you want is a SIM card from T-Mobile. I pay about $10/month (on average; I spend $30 at a time whenever my minutes get low) for prepaid service on my iPhone, which I also used in Europe. You might pay more if you use your phone more.

Really, it will work. Go to a T-Mobile store (not a mall island, but a T-Mobile-only establishment), and they can set you up. Be sure you insist on the prepaid service.

I can't believe more people don't know about this :)
posted by amtho at 11:38 AM on May 25, 2011

My phone is Euro (through MoviStar). I unlocked it then on arriving in the U.S., went to Best Buy and got a SIM card from H2O. I then went online and activated it (this might require a U.S.-based credit/debit card, I forget). It works for voice and data, although for some reason all of my SMS's fail.
posted by melt away at 12:50 PM on May 25, 2011

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