prepaid SIM for the entire US?
February 9, 2016 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm visiting the US from Sweden for a month. I want to be able to use mobile data + call people sometimes. I'll be in New York and California. I already own a phone (samsung s3 mini). Is there a prepaid SIM I can buy for the month that will work in both places? Do I have to buy two? If so, which?
posted by beerbajay to Technology (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This should be all of them; there's functionally no difference between having a cell phone in any two states as far as I know. AT&T, amongst others, should have what you need.
posted by RainyJay at 12:54 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you mostly in cities? a T-Mobile US prepaid SIM is probably the cheapest. They sell them at dedicated stores or at 7-11 stores I believe.
posted by GuyZero at 12:55 PM on February 9, 2016

I've used a prepaid SIM from a company called ReadySIM as a 'burner' when attending information security conferences in the USA. Currently, it looks like a 30 day SIM from ReadySIM with 2GB 4G/LTE data + unlimited calling + SMS is $55 USD. It has coverage across the USA, and they will ship a SIM to you internationally.
posted by BrandonW at 1:00 PM on February 9, 2016

A prepaid SIM from any major provider (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, etc) will work anywhere in the country.
posted by erst at 1:10 PM on February 9, 2016

Response by poster: With these prepaid sims, do I have to register myself in any way first or do I just show up at a 7-11, buy one, stick it in my phone and go?
posted by beerbajay at 1:22 PM on February 9, 2016

There are four main carriers in the US - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Their coverage is roughly best to worst in that order. All of them offer prepaid SIMs. There are also many companies that use those networks but have cheaper rates (but often lower quality of service guarantees on the networks and worse customer service). I believe the lowest cost T-Mobile prepaid plans also have worse QoS and availability than their more expensive ones, but I could be wrong on that.

If you will be traveling in rural areas, Verizon has the best overall coverage in my experience. If you are going to be in rural areas that you're unfamiliar with, I might recommend just going with them directly for peace of mind - an extra $15-20 for a single month's service might be worth it. Breaking down in the middle of the night on a stretch of highway where there's no signal is no fun. (US laws require emergency calls to roam on other providers, so you can summon an ambulance for help but not a tow truck.) Otherwise, in cities Verizon and AT&T are both going to be pretty much equally ubiquitous for service with Sprint and T-Mobile being quite good but not as much.

There will be kiosks and stores in the airport that sell SIMs, I'm not sure how much premium the cost is over getting them off site, but it may still be cheaper to do it there than international delivery. They may require some form of ID at this point, but it's mostly stick it in and activate it.
posted by Candleman at 1:23 PM on February 9, 2016

I was just looking at these while waiting for an ATM in a 7-11 the other day. You can show up and buy a sim from any of the major (and a few off brand) carriers. They also sell phones that these will work with. The least expensive was $10. I didn't notice what the most expensive one was because the ATM wait wasn't that long.
posted by Sheppagus at 1:46 PM on February 9, 2016

Yes, any SIM that works in your phone will work on either coast, its in between where your coverage may get spotty, but really if you are traveling by car, there is plenty of coverage along major freeways for all carriers.


For me the issue has been whether your phone is completely "unlocked". If it isn't it's hard (at least for me) to determine without trial and error, which carriers my phone in its current state will play nice with.
posted by stormygrey at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2016

Response by poster: I purchased my phone separately from a subscription, so it's unlocked.
posted by beerbajay at 1:54 PM on February 9, 2016

I should clarify, mine said it was unlocked and I purchased it without a contract, but its actually only fully unlocked in Central and South America. I didn't know that was a thing until I found out my SIM works fine for making calls and my husband's SIM works fine for using data, but neither of them do both. (T-Mobile and AT&T respectively)
posted by stormygrey at 1:58 PM on February 9, 2016

Aren't Sprint and Verizon CDMA (at least for 3G/voice)? If the Samsung S3 is GSM only, then his only choices for a prepaid SIM from a major carrier are AT&T and T-Mobile. And between those two, you probably want AT&T for the superior coverage.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 2:22 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

To add another wrinkle here: where is this phone from originally? Is it Swedish / European, or did you buy it in the US or specifically for your US trip?

Reason I ask is that, if it is a European phone, AT&T or T-Mobile will almost definitely work (because they support GSM and new variants), whereas Sprint and Verizon almost certainly will NOT (because they're CDMA). I've poked around and this phone appears to be GSM by default, but also has a "verizon version" customized for that network. If you bought it / use it outside the US, that should not be an issue and you should be good with ATT or T-Mobile.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 2:23 PM on February 9, 2016

If you buy an at&t or T-Mobile SIM at a 7-11 or similar, you will need to call customer service or use their website to activate the SIM. If you do it at Best Buy, an at&t or T-Mobile store, or at some random cell phone store, the activation can be done then and there.

Some of the more expensive prepaid options you can buy at convenience stores do come pre-activated, but they charge per minute/megabyte rather than the unlimited talk/capped data you get from at&t or T-Mobile directly. (They both eliminated traditional PAYG service for new customers within the past year or two)
posted by wierdo at 2:45 PM on February 9, 2016

Aren't Sprint and Verizon CDMA (at least for 3G/voice)? If the Samsung S3 is GSM only, then his only choices for a prepaid SIM from a major carrier are AT&T and T-Mobile.

This is absolutely correct. Sprint and Verizon do have LTE networks too, which should be usable from a GSM phone, but the rural coverage will largely be CDMA. So don't get one of those.

Also it's probably worth mentioning that in general mobile coverage will be spottier than you're used to in Europe.
posted by aubilenon at 2:49 PM on February 9, 2016

I just returned from a trip during which I used ReadySIM in four different states. No problems at all (and one of the states was Hawaii). You activate the SIM card via SMS. The instructions they provide aren't perfect, but the process is pretty intuitive and I had my temporary number and mobile data working in less than five minutes.

One word of warning: if you have them send you a SIM card at home before your trip, open it and make sure it contains the right type for your phone (mini, micro, etc.). I tried to use ReadySIM a couple of years ago and found out too late that they sent me a normal SIM when I needed a mini. The one I got this year was a single card where I could pop out the right size SIM.
posted by neushoorn at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2016

Unless you're going to extremely remote parts of New York and California, one SIM is fine.

For a taste of home, your best bet is Ting (choose the GSM SIM option, which uses the T-Mobile network behind the scenes). They are like a modern European/Asian provider: insanely cheap by US standards (but a little pricey by European standards), SIM-only, no contract or social security number or credit check required, pay only for what you use, and good web-facing customer service. I use about 1GB of data and some calls and texts and pay around $30 each month, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

(As others have pointed out Sprint and Verizon are not options for you because of your handset. But if for some reason you long for a US-style experience, which is expensive, has a fixed monthly charge, and customer service only if you spend 20 minutes on hold, then your GSM SIM options are AT&T or T-Mobile.)
posted by caek at 3:15 PM on February 9, 2016

Will you be calling only within the US/North America or also back to Europe? I have a prepaid ATT SIM (and I agree with the statements above, I never think about where in the US I am - it always works everywhere), but I cannot make calls to numbers outside North America (nor take it outside the US, but that's irrelevant to you probably). I imagine there might be prepaid SIM 'plans' that do allow international calling if you need it, but it's something to be aware of.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:56 PM on February 9, 2016

Response by poster: Are there any of these prepaid options where I *never* have to give any personal info to the carrier, even during activation? I just want to be able to buy a card for say $10 and throw it in the phone and use it until the $10 are up.

The phone is GSM. I don't care about calling internationally.
posted by beerbajay at 7:04 PM on February 9, 2016

That sounds like you want pay as you go, not prepaid. Black Wireless will work, but you'd probably have to get the SIM in the mail, so in advance, so at least have to give them your address. I don't think you can get their SIM cards in stores.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:41 PM on February 9, 2016

Prepaid and pay-as-you-go are the same thing, no? You (pre) pay money onto the SIM in advance instead of receiving a bill after the fact as with a contract SIM.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:39 AM on February 10, 2016

You can get service without providing information, but I believe you have to buy the phone too.

I have seen these (burners) in drug stores and 7-11.
posted by Sheppagus at 7:43 AM on February 10, 2016

Response by poster: I'm not interested in having to buy a phone, unless it's like $20 and I can use the SIM in my existing handset. Which I suspect I can't.
posted by beerbajay at 8:07 AM on February 10, 2016

Prepaid and pay-as-you-go are the same thing, no? You (pre) pay money onto the SIM in advance instead of receiving a bill after the fact as with a contract SIM.

I'm not sure of the real definitions, but a lot of cell carriers use prepaid to mean no contract - you pay some amount every month and get some number of minutes, but you don't sign a contract and can cancel every time. Pay as you go is what you wrote - you have a SIM, put money onto it, and then every call or text or data usage dings some of the money out.

You might have better luck finding what you want searching PAYG rather than prepaid.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 9:51 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, well, I got a T-Mobile prepaid for the month for $40. This has worked okay except that the people at the T-mobile store misconfigured the mobile data to use the LTE network despite my phone apparently not supporting this.

They first charged me for the SIM, and only then tested the data, which they couldn't get working. I asked for a refund. "Nope, we can't do that." Apparently it was my fault, though I hadn't touched the phone. I went away annoyed, but after mecking with the phone on my own a while, I got the 3G data working. The coverage has been poor/slow.
posted by beerbajay at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2016

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