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 USA 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.
After arriving in the United States you will receive a text message with your temporary US mobile phone number and after around five days that number may be changed and you will again be notified by text message when you are assigned your permanent US mobile phone number that will remain active for the remainder of your visit to the United States.
In most cases your US sim card will become active between 10 minutes and one hour after inserting the sim card in your phone after arriving in the USA, however in some cases this may take up to eight hours.
If you need to know your US mobile number prior to travelling to the USA we advise you to order a sim card on the AT&T network (please note: sim cards on the AT&T network work out more expensive than T-Mobile).
Features of this sim card include:
- Includes unlimited incoming calls, unlimited calls to US landline and US mobile phones and unlimited data (with your first 6GB or 10GB at up to 4G LTE speed).
- Includes up to 57 days service. Most other sim cards only include your first 30 days service, with our T-Mobile SIM card you get an extra bonus month free.
- You can easily extend your service for a third month by topping up enough credit to cover the cost of another month of service (USD $60 or USD $65 depending on your chosen rate plan)
- With this sim card you have your US mobile number by email two days before you arrive in the USA. Please be accurate with the travel dates you give us when purchasing your sim card, as the sim may expire if not used immediately in the USA.
- Easy to activate yourself (you can activate yourself online prior to travelling).
Pre-activated on your choice of two great value tariffs
We activate your T-Mobile USA sim card on your choice of two great value tariffs:
Generally the Simple Choice plan is a premium service that has more extra features and is a great option if you are also travelling to Canada or Mexico, but the Simply Prepaid plan gives you more data for the same price and is better value if you’re only visiting the USA.
Your SIM card will be pre-activated with a US mobile number two days prior to arriving in the USA. This number will be emailed to you so you can give your US number out to friends and family prior to leaving home.
If you would like a specific area code or need your number further in advance of your travel date, we recommend that you look at the AT&T USA SIM card that we also sell.
This SIM card is pre-activated and ready to go. All you need is an unlocked mobile phone that is compatible with T-Mobile’s US mobile network.
A great option if you are also visiting Canada or Mexico
If you choose the Simple Choice 6GB plan you are able to use your inclusive call and data allowance when travelling in Canada and Mexico. However your first use must occur in the United States and the majority of your usage must also occur in the USA. It is a great option if you are visiting the USA and making side trips to Canada or Mexico.
The T-Mobile SIM card on the Simple Choice 6GB plan is a great option if you are visiting Canada or Mexico as well as the United States. It is considerably cheaper and easier than buying multiple SIM cards.
Making international calls
This sim card does not come set up on any discount international calling plan and T-Mobile’s standard rate for an international call is a hefty USD $1.99/minute.
Fortunately there are a lot of options that will give you cheaper international calls from your mobile. These options include:
- Adding T-Mobile’s international call feature. For USD $15/month, the T-Mobile international call feature gives you unlimited calls to landline phones in 70 countries (including the UK) and unlimited calls to mobile phones in several countries (including the UK). You will need to top up USD $17–20 (you need to add more than USD $15 as this international call feature doesn’t work properly with a zero dollar credit balance and you will need credit to cover calls to mobile phones outside the USA). To add this feature first top up at least USD $17 to $20, then call us on our US support number (free call) so we can add this call feature for you.
- Using Rebtel. Rebtel is an international calling service similar to Skype or Viber, but with the advantage that it doesn’t rely on a data connection. You set up a Rebtel account online, then install the Rebtel app on your phone and make any international calls using the Rebtel app. This is a great option for international calls from your mobile, but it does have two disadvantages: you need access to a computer or tablet with the internet to log into your account and add your US mobile to your Rebtel account after arriving in the USA and you cannot use your US mobile with Rebtel if someone who had previously had that number also had a Rebtel account.
- Using Skype. Skype is another option for cheap international calls. You need credit in your Skype account to call phones (as opposed to just calling other Skype users). It is slightly more expensive than Rebtel (although calls are cheaper if you have a subscription) and it requires an internet connection to make calls; but it can be set up completely from home prior to travelling to the USA so it is an easier solution. Like Rebtel, you use the Skype app on your phone to make any international calls.
- Using Viber. Viber also lets you make cheap international calls as long as you have credit in your Viber account. It is very similar to Skype and you use the Viber app on your phone to make international calls.
- Using FaceTime. If you are making calls from an iPhone to another Apple device you can also use FaceTime to make your call for free.
There are other options including other apps and calling card services where you dial an access number and then dial the international number that you need to call, but the above four options are generally the easiest. If you already have an account with Rebtel, Skype or Viber I would recommend using the app you’re already most familiar with; otherwise take a look at Rebtel, Skype and Viber and go with the one you feel most comfortable with. Facetime, Skype and Viber rely on a data connection, whereas Rebtel also uses regular phone lines so it may provide a better quality call if you are in an area with poor data coverage.
Sending international text messages
If you chose the Simple Choice 6GB plan your service will include unlimited international text messages. International text messages are not included on the Simply Prepaid 10GB plan. If you’re on the Simple Prepaid 10GB plan you will need to top up extra credit to cover the cost of international text messages (at 50¢/message) or use a messaging app such as Telegram or Whats App.
Messaging apps such as Telegram and Whats App are recommended in most instances. They let you send free messages (including picture messages) and are a more reliable option than regular international text messages. However the drawback with these apps is that they only let you send messages to other people who have the same app installed on their phones.
If you are sending a message from one iPhone to another, it will usually use iMessage which is free of charge as long as you have a data connection.
We prefer Telegram to Whats App as it is a nicer app and is much more secure, but Whats App is much more popular and it is more likely that your friends and family may already have Whats App installed on their phones.
Topping up your credit
Although your T-Mobile USA mobile service comes with the features listed above, you may need to top up your credit if you are staying in the USA for longer than 57 days or if you need to add T-Mobile’s international call feature or make any calls or use other services that are not included in your chosen rate plan.
You will need to top up credit in the following situations:
- If you are staying in the USA for longer than two months. To continue your mobile service for an additional month after your first two months you will need to top up USD $60 if you are on the Simply Prepaid 10GB plan or USD $65 if you are on the Simple Choice 6GB plan.
- If you want to upgrade to a higher plan. T-Mobile has several other prepaid rate plans and it is easy to upgrade your service to a higher plan if you have blown through your included high speed data allowance and don’t want to work with the slower throttled data speed. Upgrading to a higher plan generally involves topping up between USD $15–45 and calling our US support number to change plans.
- If you are on the Simply Prepaid 10GB plan and want to send international text messages (this plan only includes text messages to US mobile phones). We normally recommend that you use a messaging app such as Telegram or Whats App instead.
- If you want to add T-Mobile’s international calling package. You will need to top up around USD $15, then call our US support number to add this feature.
- If you want to make any other calls that are not included as a free call on one of T-Mobile’s monthly prepaid plans. This includes international calls as well as premium calls (for example, in case you want to vote for American Idol).
It is easy to top up your credit. You can top up online at ding.com, or you can buy T-Mobile refill cards from 90,000 locations throughout the United States including convenience stores, discount department stores, electronics shops, pharmacies, supermarkets and T-Mobile shops.
You can top up with refill cards available from the following retailers in the USA:
Your credit is applied automatically when you top up online at ding.com. If you buy a refill card from a retail store in the USA, follow the instructions on your receipt to redeem your voucher.
Details about topping up your account are included with your SIM card.
Will this sim card work in my mobile phone?
You need an unlocked phone that is compatible with T-Mobile’s USA mobile network.
Your phone must be compatible with the 1900MHz 3G network used in the USA and you will get faster data and better coverage if it is also compatible with LTE bands 4 and 12.
Many newer phones sold in the UK and Europe will work on LTE band 4, which will give you faster data in most large cities; but only the Apple iPhone 6s, 6s Plus and the iPhone SE will work on LTE band 12, which gives you expanded coverage in rural areas.
We don’t recommend using a phone that only works on 2G data speeds in the USA as older phones that only work on the 2G network will give you patchy coverage as T-Mobile is in the process of switching off their 2G network.
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 card).
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 may need to restore your phone in iTunes (although this may not be necessary if you are on iOS7 or newer and usually backup your phone to iCloud).
The T-Mobile 3G and 4G 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 upgrading their entire network to high speed data and have switched off their 2G network in many places so 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 LTE band 4 and much better coverage if your phone also supports LTE band 12.
T-Mobile have aggressively expanded their coverage over the past two years. Over the past two years T-Mobile as expanded their coverage by over one million square miles and their coverage now serves an additional 100 million people. However you need a phone that is compatible with LTE band 12 (which includes the iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus and the iPhone SE) to take advantage of this expanded coverage.
If you have a phone that supports all T-Mobile’s bands including both LTE band 4 and LTE band 12 you will have full access to T-Mobile’s network which covers 304 million people in the USA with an average data download speed of 21.7 Mbps.
The following coverage map shows T-Mobile’s coverage if you have an Apple iPhone 6S, 6S Plus or and iPhone SE (or another phone that supports LTE band 12):
If you don’t have one of the latest Apple iPhones then it is likely that your phone does not support LTE band 12. Without LTE band 12 you will still have nationwide coverage, although coverage in rural areas will be patchy (or non-existent) and coverage will be limited in Alaska and large parts of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The following coverage map will be more accurate if you don’t have one of the latest iPhones:
Please note that coverage will be limited in Alaska, even if you have one of the latest iPhones. If you are travelling to Alaska we recommend that you consider buying an AT&T sim card.
Activating your service
We have set up an activation site specifically for activating T-Mobile sim cards purchased from us. It is important that you activate through this site only (you will not get your included call and data value if you activate directly with T-Mobile).
When you activate your T-Mobile sim card with us you need to supply the following information:
- Your name
- Your chosen rate plan (either the Simple Choice plan with 6GB data or the Simply Prepaid plan with 10GB data)
- Your sim card number (the number printed on the back of your sim card that starts with 89 and ends with an F)
- Your IMEI number (this is a serial number unique to your phone that you can find either by going into your phone’s settings or by entering *#06# into your phone’s keypad)
- Your travel dates (both the day you arrive in the USA and the day you leave to come home)
After submitting your activation we will set your sim card up for you so it is ready to use as soon as you arrive in the United States. This can take several hours so it is best not to leave this until your travel date.
We will email your US mobile phone number to you around two days prior to your arrival date in the USA.
How long will my service remain active for?
When you buy your T-Mobile USA sim card from us you will get up to 57 days service, although the exact length of service will depend on your travel dates.
If you are staying longer than two months you can extend your service indefinitely by topping up between USD $60 and USD $65 every 30 days.
We will give you your US mobile number around two days before you travel, so your sim card will be active around two days before your travel date. We will keep your until sometime in the week after you return home. This way if your flight is delayed your sim card will still be able to work until you are ready to come home.
For instance if you are travelling 3–24 June (22 days) we will activate your sim card two days before you arrive in the USA (on 1 June) and keep it active for at least four weeks (until 28 June).
We will check that your sim card is being used after this date in order to keep your service active should you decide to stay in the USA longer, however you will need to top up extra credit if you plan on staying in the USA for longer than 57 days.
What sort of phone number will I get?
You will get a US mobile phone number with an area code from Chicago and the surrounding region.
In the United States mobile phone numbers have area codes, just like landline numbers. It is the same price to call a US mobile phone as it is to call a US landline phone, which means that it is generally very cheap for people to call you on your US number (although call rates will vary depending on the phone company and calling plan that the person calling you is on).
It generally doesn’t matter which area code you have, although some people like to have a number from a particular city. Your area code has no impact on the cost of making calls (you get free calls to all US numbers regardless of area code) and in most instances it makes no difference to the cost for other people to call you (although some US landline phones charge more for non-local calls, the majority of people in the USA have some sort of unlimited call package where they can call any US number regardless of area code).
If you want to choose a specific US area code you will need to purchase our AT&T USA sim card.
In the United States (as with most other countries) when telephone numbers expire they are put back into circulation so your US mobile phone number may have previously belonged to someone else. 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.
What is my total cost to get started?
This sim card costs £49 including up to your first 57 days service. This includes a bundle of calls and data so there is no more to pay unless you use services that are not included in your call and data bundle or if you are staying in the USA for longer than 57 days.
Most people just pay the £49 for the sim card and never need to top up any additional credit.
What restrictions does this sim card have?
This sim card does have some restrictions although most people won’t find this an issue.
- You will not be able to choose your area code (your sim card will come with a Chicago area code).
- You cannot port a number to your sim from another carrier, nor can you port your number to another carrier.
- You will not be able to keep your sim card active beyond the initial 57 days unless you pay the monthly charge to keep it active (you won’t be able to keep this sim card for future trips to the US).
- You cannot get your US mobile phone number earlier than two days prior to arriving in the USA.
- The first use of this sim card must be in the USA. You cannot insert the sim card in your phone until you arrive in the USA.
If you are moving to the USA to live or study then you may find it more flexible to buy a local sim card after arriving in the USA as this will allow you to choose your area code and port your number to another carrier at a later date. However these restrictions won’t be an issue for the average short-term tourist.