Planning on traveling to the United States and need phone service? Thanks to the complicated tangle of wireless networks in the US, it’s hard finding the best carrier. Fortunately, we can help get you the best plan for your money. Also, you can find out the best equipment to take with you on the road.
The four largest networks in the US are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint. All four networks lease out broadcast spectrum to Mobile Virtual Network Operators (or MVNOs) at much cheaper rates. Getting started is easy.
You simply choose between buying either a phone or SIM card. If you buy a phone, simply activate it and get started. If you buy a SIM card, you must already have a GSM phone on hand. If you don’t own a phone, you can decide to buy or rent one. You can then move on to the next step of picking a plan.
Already Own a Phone
If you are travelling with a phone already on hand, GSM MVNOs provide the cheapest option. GSM MVNOs lease broadcast spectrum from AT&T or T-Mobile in chunks, then reselling at reduced prices. Most countries outside the US use GSM technology — only AT&T and T-Mobile use that tech in the US. Both networks broadcast using the international GSM frequencies of 850 and 1900. So most phones work quite well with them. If your phone is labeled as quadband or pentaband, it will possess at least some compatibility with US cellular networks.
Four of the best GSM carriers in the US are Airvoice, Good2Go, Ptel, and T-Mobile Prepaid.
- AirVoice: AirVoice provides one of the best options for GSM phones on the AT&T network. Additionally, AirVoice offers $10 of free international minutes on its unlimited plans. It offers three unlimited plans, with data caps: $60/month for 3GB of data; $40/month for 1GB, and $30/month for 100MB. Additionally, the pay-as-you-go (pay-go) plans are very reasonably priced.
- Good2Go: Good2Go also offers free minutes (300) with all its unlimited plans. It has a $50/month with 1GB of data; $40/month with 250MB; $30/month with 30 cents/MB. Its plans in general compare less favorably to AirVoice.
- Ptel: Ptel’s best plans are pay-as-you-go, which charge for use. To receive service, you put $10 in an account for 60 days of service. Ptel charges 5 cents/minute of talk, 10 cents/MB of data and 2 cents per text.
- T-Mobile Prepaid: T-Mobile’s prepaid division offers several plans — the most popular offers 100 minutes of talk time, unlimited data (capped after 5GB) and SMS for $30 per month. In terms of total value, this is one of the best plans.
Buying a Phone
If you are buying a phone, the best option is to use the Verizon and Sprint networks. The CDMA technology undergirding these networks, in my experience, offers better reception than GSM. On the downside, the phone won’t function outside of US in most markets. International phones, on the other hand, sell from many airports and duty-free stores worldwide, many of which are dual-SIM. There are also online retailers specializing in selling the phones.
If you plan on buying a phone, the best MVNOs use Verizon (leading network). PagePlus perhaps offers the best prices for quality of their network. They also permit the iPhone, in case you intended on bringing yours across the border.
- PagePlus (Verizon): PagePlus offers the best rates out of all the carriers using Verizon. Their phones cost between $100-150, with five kinds of plans ranging in price from $12 to $70. You can also purchase an unlocked Verizon phone online and migrate it onto PagePlus, including some models of iPhone. On the downside, your phone most likely won’t be usable in your home country.
- Ting (Sprint): Ting has a special arrangement within North America that permits roaming within Canada and Mexico at very competitive rates. They also permit the use of unlocked Sprint devices. While their rate system remains one of the most complex around, it’s still a very good deal for moderate users. On the downside, your phone might not be usable in your home country.
- Virgin Mobile (Sprint): Virgin Mobile has the widest selection of phones and reasonable international calling rates to a large selection of countries outside the US, in case you need to phone home. Its phones range in price between $16 and $550. It has three basic unlimited plans starting at $35/month for 300 minutes of talk and unlimited 4G speeds for data; $45/month for 1200 minutes of talk and unlimited 4G data; $55 unlimited everything. If you sign up for automatic payment, all plans are $5 less per month. On the downside, your phone might not be usable in your home country.
Other Carriers and Sites
- Telestial: Specializes in selling international phones and international SIM cards. These are all GSM and at least quad band, so they’re usable in almost every market.
- Amigo: Amigo rents out phones and SIM cards. Their rates are quite reasonable and for many travelers it can save a lot of money.
- Truphone SIM: Truphone SIM offers international SIM cards (GSM, of course). While their rates are pricey, they allow continuous service if you are crossing borders. For example, if one planned a tour of North America, Truphone SIM offers a SIM card that specializes in maintaining service throughout Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Point of note: While USB charging from a PC remains the most universal method of getting juice into your phone, try getting a universal adapter. Amazon offers one for very little money.
Traveling to the United States and using its ridiculously complex cellular network system can be a hassle. Fortunately, a large number of prepaid operators can save you a huge amount of money on your trip. Either buy a SIM card if you have a phone, or buy a new phone.
For those of you seeking to save more than just on your cellular bill, there are a great deal of options available.
Have you travelled to the US and hate the cellular system? It’s awful, I know, but please share in the comments your experiences, tips, and suggestions.