Best SIM card for data and texting travelling in the USA?
May 24, 2014 5:26 AM   Subscribe

I will be in the USA for exactly three weeks in July. I've been looking for a SIM card option (for my unlocked Nexus 4), and it seems like most people recommend the T-Mobile $2 or $3 per day unlimited texts/calls/data option. I also saw a deal from Spot-Mobile that looks better: it's $39.99 for a month of unlimited texts/calls/data, with the first 1GB of data at 4G speeds and free $10 credit for international calls. I'm a little wary, though, because I basically can't find any reference in forums to travellers using Spot-Mobile, or any reviews of them. Their coverage map looks fine, though. Also, I can't tell what their data speed will be for me, since my phone doesn't have 4G. Will it default to 3G or 2G for that first 1GB? Has anyone had any experience with Spot-Mobile? Would you recommend this plan?

Other questions:
It's not clear to me how much of a pain 2G speeds will be (versus 3G). I'll mostly be using it for maps and generally figuring out where I am and where I need to go, looking up restaurants, etc. Will this be annoying on 2G?

As far as I can tell my cheapest option for setting up the SIM card in advance (which I would really prefer to do so we don't have to waste time on arrival trying to find a shop) is something like this Ebay activation kit at $14 incl shipping for the T-mobile set-up, or $3 including shipping for this Ebay Spot Mobile SIM. If you recommend the T-mobile option, does anyone know a better Australian source for their starter kit?

In case it's relevant, I'll be in Las Vegas, central LA, Anaheim (Disneyland), and Hawaii (Honolulu).
posted by lollusc to Travel & Transportation around United States (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The latest version of Google Maps has improved map caching, so that should help with overall data use; just download maps of all the areas you'll be at.

On T-Mobile USA, you should be able to get 4G speeds on your phone, since it will have bands (1700/2100) that are compatible with the network. They have a $30 plan available as well that might be worth considering.
posted by evoque at 5:55 AM on May 24, 2014

When I go back to the US I always get a Ready Sim ( For $45 USD you'll get unlimited talk, text, and 1.5GB of data over 21 days which should be more than you need, all on 4G. You also get free international texting, voicemail, and some other stuff. You put the sim in your unlocked phone and send a text to activate it, and it will work for 21 days from that point. I have family in the US so I always have one sent to them because they have free US shipping (and they'll ship to hotels if you want) but they will also ship internationally. And it looks like they cover all of your areas including Hawaii. I've used their sims on multiple trips back to the US and have never had a problem.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:22 AM on May 24, 2014

I'm pretty sure there's a chance I'll go over 1.5GB of data, since I use close to that in a month in Australia when I am travelling and away from my home wifi. I'd rather get unlimited and not have to be constantly checking how much I've used.

Also, as I understood it, the Nexus 4 does not have 4G capability. Am I wrong about that?
posted by lollusc at 6:31 AM on May 24, 2014

Oh, and according to evoque's link, the $30 plan is only available for phones purchased from T-Mobile, right? So that won't be possible.
posted by lollusc at 6:34 AM on May 24, 2014

My wife, dad, sister, and I all use that $30 T-Mobile plan. None of us bought our phones from T-Mobile. I'm not sure why that site claims it's necessary.

But you do have to get the SIM card mailed to you and then have some kind of internet access for a few minutes to activate it--I don't know if there's a convenient way for you to arrange that ahead of time.
posted by bfields at 6:59 AM on May 24, 2014

Ready Sim has a plan with 2GB of data for ten dollars more; if you're caching maps and not watching tons of videos you might be fine with that amount. I hear you about not wanting to check on usage, but I've investigated this a lot because I also wanted unlimited and there are very few plans that offer it. I found this article helpful; there's a chart on page two that lets you compare plans across many carriers.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:39 AM on May 24, 2014

First off, SpotMobile is a T-Mobile MVNO so you're getting similar coverage and hitting the same towers for either operator. That makes it a price/plan/provisions comparison and takes coverage out of the equation unless you go with an AT&T-based provider (T-mobile and AT&T are The Two GSM operators in the USA).

It will probably be annoying, but usable on 2G. I'm on T-Mobile but I live in an area with no 3G or 4G access. I just turned off my wifi to test for you, and it took a little while to load up a map, do some navigation, and search for a resturant. Being off wifi added about 15-25 seconds to my "OK Google Now" voice search command.

All the nearby towns of similar size to mine have at least 3G or 4G. It's a big country and some areas are considered downmarket and the towers seem about 10 to 15 years behind what you find in major metros. Also note on the coverage maps that you have to zoom down about 8 zoom levels before you see a detailed coverage map and not just a sort of blanket guesstimate.
posted by BeerFilter at 7:47 AM on May 24, 2014

Republic Wireless offers $20/month for an unlimited everything plan, no contract. You have to use a republic wireless phone, but the kind that goes with the $20 plan is selling used on ebay for $30.
posted by aniola at 7:54 AM on May 24, 2014

I'm tending towards T-Mobile, in the hope I can get that $30 plan. The T-mobile site itself says about the $30 plan: "This plan is only available for devices purchased from Wal-Mart or devices activated on". Bfields, were your phones from Wal-Mart or "activated on", whatever that means?

So I guess my only question that still remains is whether anyone knows what my phone will do in terms of speed if I pick a plan where the first 1GB is at 4G, but I don't have 4G capability? I'm hoping that just means I'll get 3G.
posted by lollusc at 8:40 PM on May 24, 2014

I mostly get 3G speed on my 4G incompatible iphone on a $30 per month T-mobile plan. FYI, internet service is quite spotty, e.g., it usually does not work during office hours in my office building (NYC).
posted by yonglin at 9:25 PM on May 24, 2014

Another option if you need more than 1gb of data is Straight Talk, which operates on the AT&T network. $45.00 for unlimited talk/text and 3gb of 3G/4G data, throttled to 2G after that.
posted by zombiedance at 11:43 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, virtually every hotel you'll stay in will have free wifi as will shopping centres, coffee shops and what have you - so you may not need anywhere near as much data as you think. Personally I just buy the roaming packages my provider offers when travelling because I can't be asked to mess around with SIM cards and what not. Never had a prohibitive phone bill when travelling in the US.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:04 AM on May 25, 2014

"This plan is only available for devices purchased from Wal-Mart or devices activated on"

I've used the T-mobile $30 plan with three different phones, and it's been my experience that a SIM card counts as a "device". Two of the three cards were purchased online from T-mobile, and the third was purchased at a Wal-mart store. Strangely, the person at the physical T-mobile store said that a card purchased there could not be activated with the $30 plan. None of the phones were purchased from T-mobile or Wal-mart.

One thing to be aware of, though, is that you can't add the $10 international calling option to the $30 plan -- you have to add money to your account and pay the full $0.10/minute or whatever. Google Voice has cheaper international rates, so I use that instead.
posted by bradf at 12:08 PM on May 25, 2014

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