We searched for the best value pay-as-you-go mobile phone sim cards for travellers visiting the United States and found that the T-Mobile sim card is the best overall option for visitors making a short trip to the USA. This sim card combines a generous data allowance with low cost local calls and ease of topping up at thousands of shops throughout the United States.
It is cheap for your friends and family to call you since calls to mobile phones in the United States cost the same as calls to landlines. In many cases it will be cheaper for your friends and family in the UK to call you on your USA mobile that it currently costs them to call your UK mobile.
Activated on T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go tariff
We have found that this is the most popular rate plan for most travellers making a short trip to the United States. Benefits of this rate plan include:
- Your own USA phone number
- Your first week’s 1GB high speed data allowance is included with your sim card package
- Tethering (using your phone as a mobile hotspot) is supported with this service
- Your first month’s service charge is included with your sim card package (this entitles you to 30 minutes of calls for no additional cost)
- USD $7 additional included credit
- 10¢/minute calls to landlines and mobiles phones in the United States
- 10¢/message text messages to US mobile phones
- 10¢/minute incoming calls (including calls originating outside the USA)
International calls are expensive with this plan, but there are a number of ways to save on calls back home. If you need to make international calls you are advised to combine this plan with an app such as Facetime, Localphone, Rebtel, Skype or Viber (which gives you international calls at much cheaper rates than T-Mobile’s standard international call charge).
This sim card package includes one week (1GB) data access. Each additional week (or each additional GB) will cost $10, which will be taken from your prepaid credit balance.
There is also the option of changing to the one day ($5 for 500MB) data package or removing the option of data access altogether (which may be handy if you will travelling outside the USA for a week or longer). If you want to remove your data package or switch to a different data package you can contact T-Mobile by dialling 611 from your mobile phone.
This rate plan is not suitable if you need to access email on a BlackBerry device, however you can still buy this sim card and call T-Mobile to change to one of their monthly prepaid plans with a BlackBerry data feature.
Activating your service
After you have received your sim card you can activate it to receive your US mobile phone number. Activating your sim only takes five minutes and within 24 hours of activating your sim (although it is usually much quicker) you will receive an email containing your US mobile phone number.
During the activation process you get to choose when you want your data package to start and you also have the option of requesting the area code of your mobile phone number.
These prepaid plans are very flexible and changing plans is very easy using the T-Mobile customer service number, on 611 from your mobile or 1 877 778 2106 from any other phone. You can do this via an automated service, or even speak to a real customer representative! You can switch between the Pay As You Go plan and T-Mobile’s monthly prepaid plans (as long as you have enough credit to cover the monthly cost of your chosen plan), which can work out even cheaper if you’re staying in the USA for three weeks or longer.
How much does it cost to send a text message?
It costs 10¢/message to send or receive a domestic text message and 25¢/message to send or receive an international MMS picture message.
Messages sent or received using apps such as iMessage, What’s App or Telegram are free and will come out of your data use. We generally recommend using an app such as iMessage, Telegram or What’s App as these are not only cheaper but also more reliable than traditional international text messages.
How do I make cheaper international calls with my T-Mobile USA sim card?
T-Mobile’s standard charge to call landlines and mobile phones in the UK is USD $1.99 per minute, but there are several apps that you install on your phone that allow you to make much cheaper international calls. These apps and services include Facetime, Localphone, Rebtel, Skype and Viber. With one of these apps installed on your phone you can call home for free (if you’re calling someone else who has the same app installed on their phone) or for just a few pence per minute. Any of these apps will give you massive savings on your international calls, but we particularly like the Rebtel service as it works on all phones (even basic phones that don’t let you install apps) and with Rebtel you don’t even need to have a data service for this to work. Click here to read more about the Rebtel service.
Because Rebtel, Skype and Viber are international services independent of T-Mobile USA, you can continue to use any unused Rebtel, Skype or Viber credit for cheap international calls from your regular mobile service after you get home.
What is my total cost to get started?
When you buy a T-Mobile USA SIM card from us, you pay £35 for the SIM card which includes your first week of data access (up to 1GB), your first 30 minutes of domestic calls and USD $7 additional credit.
Because we already include the first 1GB data and USD $7 credit you should be able to use your phone for your first week in the USA before needing to top up (unless you’re making direct dial international calls, of course). However you will need to by a refill card from a convenience store, pharmacy or T-Mobile shop after arriving in the USA if you want to continue using your service.
What size sim card should I buy?
If you have an Apple iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, HTC One M8 or the Motorola Moto X you need to buy a nano sim.
If you have an Apple iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S; an HTC One X; LG Google Nexus 4 and newer; Nokia N9 or any Nokia Lumia Windows Phone or the Samsung Galaxy SIII, Galaxy S4 or Galaxy S5 you will need to buy a micro sim.
For all other mobile phones (including the Apple iPhone 3G and iPhone 3Gs and older versions of the Samsung Galaxy) you will need a regular (mini) sim card.
The T-Mobile 3G mobile network offers good coverage in most areas of the United States including Hawaii and even Puerto Rico. T-Mobile are in the process of expanding their coverage and there are plans to upgrade their entire 2G network to 3G and LTE 4G by the end of 2015. As T-Mobile are in the process of upgrading their entire network to high speed data, you will need a phone that is compatible with the 1900MHz 3G band (it is no longer sufficient that your phone works on the 1900MHz GSM band), although you will get faster data access if your phone also supports the 1700MHz 4G band (LTE band 4).
Please note that there are some areas of the United States where T-Mobile uses the networks of partner networks, which range from AT&T to smaller regional operators. These networks may run on the 850 MHz GSM band. In these cases you would need a quad band phone compatible with both the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz GSM frequencies. This mostly impacts visitors to rural areas including large parts of Alaska as well as Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Mobile networks in the USA will not give you complete nationwide coverage. To overcome this, mobile networks partner with each other to provide coverage in areas where they do not operate their own networks; however some services such as data access will not be available when roaming on a partner network. You are most likely to encounter a partner network when travelling in one of the five states where T-Mobile has the most limited coverage (these are Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming) as well as some rural areas. If you are in an area where coverage is provided by T-Mobile (most built-up areas in the United States) then there will be no problem and you should be able to access all services including data, but if you are travelling in an area where coverage is provided by a partner network (which may be a large network such as AT&T or a smaller operator such as Alaska Communications or GCI Wireless) then you will be able to make and receive calls and text messages as usual but will not be able to access data.
You can check T-Mobile’s coverage map to see which areas T-Mobile provides its own coverage in (indicated in pink on the coverage map) and which areas service is provided by a partner network (indicated in purple/grey on the coverage map).
This is not an issue for the average traveller to the United States, but it may be a problem for you if the majority of your time in the USA will be spent is either Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota or Wyoming. If you will be spending considerable time in these states you may want to consider purchasing a different sim card after arriving in the USA.
How do I top up my credit?
There are several ways to buy refill vouchers and top up your T-Mobile SIM.
- You can buy online from www.ding.com. With this option you can only add $20 on your first transaction and then you have to wait at least 48 hours before buying additional credit (that’s because they need to check that your credit card is OK before they will accept further transactions on your card). However $20 is enough for an initial top up on any of T-Mobile’s Pay By The Day plans and after 48 hours you are free to add more credit to your service. www.ding.com lets you add the credit directly to your T-Mobile number and they let you pay online with your UK credit card.
- You can also buy refill cards from 90,000 locations across the United States including T-Mobile retail shops, independent mobile phone dealers, convenience stores (like 7-Eleven), discount department stores (like Target and Walmart), electronics shops (like Best Buy and RadioShack), pharmacies (like CVS and Walgreens) and supermarkets.
- If you have a credit card issued in the USA, you can also top up over the phone or online at www.t-mobile.com.
You can top up with refill cards available from the following retailers in the USA:
Will the sim card work in my mobile phone?
The T-Mobile USA sim card will work in any unlocked mobile phone that operates on the 1900Mhz 3G band. This includes most smartphones sold in Europe and the UK, but it is best to double check this as some phones sold in the UK are not compatible with the US network. You will get expanded coverage in rural areas if your phone also supports the 850MHz and 1900MHz GSM bands and you will get faster data if you have an Apple iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus that works with T-Mobile’s 1700MHz 4G network (LTE band 4).
We strongly recommend that you check your phone’s specifications before you travel to ensure that your mobile phone is compatible with the 1900MHz 3G band. All unlocked Apple iPhones (except the original iPhone) will work in the USA, however there are some models of the Samsung Galaxy that will not work on T-Mobile’s US network. It is essential that you double check that your phone is compatible and unlocked before travelling.
What’s the deal with unlocking my phone?
When you buy a mobile phone it is usually locked into the network you bought it from; this means that it will only accept a sim card from that network. If you call your mobile phone company, they should be able to unlock your phone for you so it will accept any sim card (including the T-Mobile USA SIM).
Unlocking an Apple iPhone is a two-step process, the first step involves contacting your network to request your phone to be unlocked, once this has been completed you must restore your phone in iTunes (step-by-step instructions can be found here). Refer to the unlocking section of our support site for more information about unlocking your phone.
Can I roam with this sim?
You can also use this sim to roam outside the USA; however roaming charges apply so it is not recommended to use this sim outside the United States except for short trips into Canada where roaming charges aren’t too bad (59c per minute on top of the regular call charges), but it is very expensive (around $2 per minute on top of the regular call charges) to use it in most other countries.
Text messages in Canada are 10¢ to send or receive, but in other countries this will cost 50¢ to send and 10¢ to receive. MMS picture messages cost 25¢ to send or receive.
The T-Mobile SIM is ideal for travellers going to the USA and making side trips to Canada, but if you’re spending more than a three to four days in Canada we recommend that you also buy a Canadian sim card.
Will I get a brand new number?
In the United States (as with most other countries) when telephone numbers expire they are put back into circulation. This is basically an issue with all phone numbers, anywhere, but it is more noticable in the USA where there is a shortage of phone numbers per area code (because they still use seven-digit phone numbers). To avoid running out of numbers, they are recycled shortly after being disconnected. All phone companies do this, and it is certainly not an issue that is unique to T-Mobile. Unfortunately, this means that some people have received calls and text messages intended for people who previously had their phone number.
Rest assured that the numbers are direct allocations from T-Mobile, and we have now requested that they come from different area codes to reduce the chance that you get a recycled number.
How long is my sim card valid for?
Sim cards on T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go plans remain valid as long as their is sufficient credit in your account to cover the $3 monthly service charge.
When should I order my T-Mobile USA sim card?
You can order your T-Mobile USA sim card any time from a few days to a couple of months before you travel. Although you can order your sim card several months prior to travelling to the USA, you are recommended to wait until around a month prior to travelling to the USA before activating your service.
This sim card usually takes a couple of days to be posted within the UK, but it is a good idea to allow up to a week in case there are any delays in the postal system.Feedback & Support