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Prepaid U.S. Mobile Phone Howto for U.S. Visitors

by weave on August 23, 2009

This is a guide to how to get a prepaid phone that works in the United States if you plan to visit here.  Information about how to do this is hard to find because the phone companies don’t want you to just use a phone for a week or so and toss it basically.   I had similar difficulties getting a prepaid phone in UK for my trips there, but I’ll warn you, this is much more of a hassle.

First thing you need is an unlocked GSM phone. For people outside the U.S. this is probably something that doesn’t need explaining. Most phones sold in the U.S. are locked though. As an alternative, you can just buy a cheap prepaid phone in the U.S. for about $20-$50 to get you started (which includes a SIM).   If not, you’ll need a U.S. prepaid SIM to put into your phone.

The goal, of course, is to get up and running as fast as possible after landing in the U.S. so you probably don’t want to go running around looking to buy a phone and if you go into a shop and want to buy a SIM you’ll most likely be looked at very strangely.  eBay sellers have prepaid U.S. sims for sale. For this example, I’ll use AT&T’s prepaid service called “gophone” — so do an ebay search for gophone or prepaid sim. Try to find one with model/sku # 71234 — this is the latest AT&T 3G SIM as of August 2009.  I paid $3.99 for mine from snscommusa. Sounds like they will ship internationally if you contact them before payment and find out how much to add for shipping.

Once you get the SIM, you could activate it online at www.att.com/activations/ before you get to the U.S. but I suggest waiting until you arrive for quite a few reasons. However, I consider getting the SIM the biggest hassle so doing that before your trip will cut down on your agro once you arrive.

The reasons why you want to wait to activate your SIM until you get to the U.S. are:

  • Once activated, you’ll be emailed a PIN to manage your account online. First time you logon, you’ll be sent a new PIN via SMS — which you won’t get if you are not in the U.S.
  • MMS/data settings for your phone probably will get sent to your phone and setup automatically the first time it “logs in” to the network. It worked great on my Nokia N95.  If not, you’ll need to set those manually (settings for most common phones are on att.com’s website. Go to support, then phone/device support.)
  • Topping up (refilling) the phone is a hassle if not in the U.S.  You might be able to buy a topup card over ebay.  The credit card topup/refill route, however, appears to require a U.S. credit card and address as well.

Once you get to the U.S. you’ll need to get online to activate, or call 1-866-895-1099.  Then you’ll need a refill/topup card.

As part of the activation process at www.att.com/activations/ you’ll need to enter the SIM number from the SIM plus your phone’s IMEI number (found inside the phone or you may be able to get it from typing in a code to your phone. Like on Nokia’s it’s *#06# )

You’ll be asked for a zip code of where the phone will be in service.  This will determine what area code your phone number will be in, which basically is the small location in the U.S. where land line phones can call it for free.  U.S. cell phones can call usually can call all over the U.S. for no extra charge, so it’s no big deal where the number is.  Just google around for addresses if you want a number in a certain area, or use 10001 (Midtown Manhattan, NYC).

Next up is a U.S. mailing list and email.  Of course you probably don’t have a U.S. mailing address. Actually, you will for a few days. The hotel you are staying at! :-) But do enter in a good email address. You will be emailed a PIN to logon to att.com/mygophone where you can manage your account.   Note: When I googled for this info I saw several mentions of needing a PIN to activate your phone.  When I got my prepaid SIM it had no PIN with it and I wasn’t asked for one when activating. I am assuming the PIN is only if you buy a combo GoPhone phone and SIM package.

Next is to top up the phone.  The top up situation in the U.S. pretty much sucks.  Nothing like what I’ve encountered in the U.K.  ”Refill” cards are sold all over, like in drug stores (chemists) and other shops. But the weird thing is, they give you a card and a voucher with a PIN number in. THE VOUCHER IS WHAT IS IMPORTANT. That card, for all I can tell, is useless, although I haven’t tried taking the card back into the shop and asking to have it refilled to see if it’s any easier.

The refill PIN may be entered online or by dialing 611 from your phone WHILE IN THE U.S. and entering in the refill PIN on the voucher you receive.

More on the Top Up hassle

My O2 prepaid card from U.K. is a dream. I just have to make a call from it at least once every six months to keep it active.  I just make sure it has about 20 quid on it before I return back to the U.S. and to make a call before the six months is up.  That starts the clock ticking and I’m good for another six months.

Not so with any prepaid plans in the U.S.   There are multiple hassles and ways to lose your money. First is credit expiration. Depending on how much you top up with will determine when that credit will expire. You can “roll over” unused credit (with AT&T) if you top up again before the expiry date. The expiry date can be anywhere from 30 days (for a $15 top up) to 365 days (for a $100 top up).  If your credit expires, you lose it — and then 60 days after that you lose your phone number and the account is deactivated.

Next you have voice plans. Usually it’s pay per minute, or pay per day. I recommend per day. For $3.00 a day you can get unlimited calls all day. You are not charge on days you don’t use the phone. For a tourist, that’s probably your best bet.  For casual use, the $1.00/day plus 10 cents a minute is a better deal.

For bolt ons, which are called feature packages, it’s another expiry hassle.  You can by text packages or data packages. They only last 30 days but if you renew the package before then, any unused messages or data will roll over to the next month.    To add a package, dial 611 while in the U.S. and follow the voice prompts.

So the only way to keep one of these puppies alive after you leave the U.S. is to put $100 refill in the phone and then it’ll only last a year. So if you’re not returning to the U.S. again for at least a year, it’s best just to let it go and repeat the process for your next trip. :-(

Example of U.S. Mobile Refill Cards

This picture shows a rack of mobile refill cards. This particular one was inside a grocery store. Usual procedure is to take it up front to a cashier who will activate the card for you, and possibly hand you a voucher with a PIN on it that you will need to refill the prepaid account.

Mobile Phone Refill Cards

Calling Back Home

Forget it! Very pricey.  OK, that’s not an option.  When I travel, I have a phone that does WiFi and has a VOIP service attached. I use gizmo5.com and their client on my Nokia N95.  Even the iPhone will dial internationally for cheap if you load an app like Fring on it and associate it with a VOIP account.  So my suggestion is, have some sort of phone with WiFi/VOIP service on it and just call home while leaching someone’s WiFi signal somewhere.  If you’ve been looking for an excuse to buy a nice unlocked Nokia that include WiFi, now’s the time if you intend to call home any. You’ll save enough most likely to pay for the phone and when you get back home you’ll still have a nice phone to use!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Brooke August 23, 2009 at 17:21

I sure wish I’d known any of this a month ago! I had a foreign visitor come with NO cell service and not get off the bus I was meeting. Scary. :( No one at the bus station would even venture a guess as to where the bus might be, or any passengers thereof.

I’m going to post this to my facebook, thanks. :)

Chris Chan August 29, 2009 at 19:03

The other alternative is to buy a Net10 prepaid phone. They are widely available here. You can get one that comes with 300 minutes for $30 and since they charge 10¢ a minute, the phone is basically free. Plus, international calls to most countries are only 15¢ a minutes, which is a fantastic deal.

L Phil November 11, 2009 at 13:34

Nice & useful post, WEAVE, good for folks who want a “real phone” with camera/data when they’re here. However not everyone trusts ebay items; my experience there has been touch and go.

The $20-$50 option mentioned briefly above is more-or-less buying a cheap new phone at the same store you’d be buying the refill cards. This is good in case you wish to physically see it, gauge it’s size and color/etc, or price shop features (camera, music) before buying. It also gives you access to companies who specialize in prepaid phones (no SIM only service) such as VirginMobile and others, which often offer lower refill amounts–though they are often marketed towards teens. If the option exists, buy one at a mega-retail store in the suburbs, because it will be much cheaper than at a pharmacy (chemist) or airport kiosk (which are not at every international teminal). A final note, one must charge the battery (4-6 hours or overnight) before using it, though activation is often possible online or by calling from a hotel phone. Having someone do this for you before you arrive is obviously best.

Refill/top up issues mentioned above still exist; also keep in mind that “toll free” numbers, such as accessing an international calling card, will cost you prepaid minutes.

Tony March 4, 2010 at 22:26

Airtime PIN is on the receipt!!

Found out the hard way with a Net10 airtime card. Kept trying to punch in the barcode on the back. I think the bar code was only for the cash register to know the product number. The valuable information is on the cash register receipt. KEEP THE RECEIPT!!

Weird thing is when there are no more “airtime” cards in the store, the cashier can’t generate a receipt with the PIN.

Mike Kohl July 31, 2010 at 16:43

I recommend Tracfone. You can buy one with double minutes from there website for ten bucks! You can pay 20 bucks to keep it active for 3 months. Great signal and coverage. No-brainer! Get it.

Les Beans August 14, 2010 at 17:33

Agrred! I have a tracfone as a second phone and can’t belive how cheap it is to use. The best value eveuh!

Drew Angleson January 31, 2011 at 22:39

Straight Talk is def my top choice. its got that T401G phone with the full QWERTY keyboard. And unlimited plan is $45, the cheapest anywhere.

Asim Bijarani August 12, 2011 at 10:04

very nice blog, I like the prepaid cards in US.

Dan June 17, 2012 at 09:32

There are always deals on prepaid phones but that always means that you may loose your number when you change carriers or pay a heavy fee. A simpler way is to get a cheap and good service like magic jack and have that number forwarded to your new cell phone and you get to keep the number for a year for less than 20 dollars. Best part if you are out of the usa simly plug it into to your computer and talk all you want to canada and usa at no extra charge plus anyone can call you to your usa phone number, and they dont kave to know you are outside of the usa.

mmh August 31, 2012 at 11:11

hi there – i am travelling to US ths friday 7th sept… i will be there for 3 Days only.. certainly will need to call back home.. if u an tell me wht wud b the easiest way of doin tht.. PLEASE…
Coz my mommy will freakout if i dnt call her evry 3-4 hours…

thnk u :)

weave August 31, 2012 at 11:38

I recommend Localphone.com for that sort of thing.

Brenda Tucker September 2, 2012 at 11:27

We live in Texas and are planning to meet our friends, from the UK, in Boston. We will rent a car together on September 9th and take a road trip of New England. On the 16th (in Portland, Maine), we will separate from our friends and make our ways separately back to Boston (different cars, different days). Our UK friends would like for me to find a phone for them to use for 2 wks while in the US. The only way they plan to use the phone is for emergencies after they part from our company and are on their own. They need an inexpensive temporary phone. I need to take this phone to them when we meet them in Boston. Please tell me which company furnishes an inexpensive; or free phone that has minimal air time and easy to sign up and easy to use. And how do my English friends return the phone since we will no longer be with them. Thank you, Brenda Tucker

Rucha Shukla December 29, 2012 at 05:27

Thank you so much…this was educational

Richard Gere February 25, 2013 at 15:43

I am looking for an online site to purchase prepaid phone cards that can call to japan and jordan from US,UK,Canada at a reasonable rate. I am also wondering if there is any difference between the different phone cards and calling cards in terms of quality or are they just all the same. Any information on this would be helpful!

Andy Smith July 8, 2013 at 10:55

I have arrived in Naples Florida last week, went to mall and find T mobile shop, every year upon my arrival I used to go to T mobile shop get sim card for 30 dollar plus 10 dollar for connection, I was using my mobile calling friends in USA and home(GB) during my stay in USA for 3 weeks, if I was running out of my air time, I used to top up with another 10. Dollars.
This year T mobile told me it is 50 dollops for a month, plus 10 dollars for connection and 10.60 for International call or text, I paid what I got out of it was 8 short calls to UK, one call to LA, and 6 text to UK. It turned up to be much more expensive than to keep my home number. Guys think twice before buying T mobile sim in usa. They gave me incorrect information just to sell crap service.

Yuprules September 12, 2013 at 12:13

Not sure what Andy did wrong up there. I just came back from Washington DC and went to a T-Mobile store (not a AUTHORIZED RETAILER, a REAL T-mobile store). Cost me $10 for the SIM card and $10 minimum top up (plus tax). Took the $2 a day plan with 2g data and talk up a storm for 4 days and some quick google searches for addreses, way cheaper than roaming from Canada!

Maria November 27, 2013 at 20:53

I would recommend to buy one time international sim card for travellers and take it with you every time in your trips. You will have one permanent number for all coutries. I am using Travelsim prepaid sim card, you can buy it on the website, delivery is worldwide and incoming call are free in most of countries.

Peter from dataGO December 4, 2013 at 00:27

Great blog post! I have had a lot of hassle with this in the past, so decided to set up a business solving it for others :-) I’m based in Melbourne, Aust, (but ship free worldwide) and I set http://www.dataGO.co …AT&T is easily the most popular SIM I sell, and I have the full activation and adding credit instructions too. I also take the pain out of the getting credit now, with the top-up refills I sell.
One quick comment to the last poster Maria… the problem with international SIMs is they mostly don’t have cheap data rates (nor fast and plentiful data coverage)..going with someone like AT&T is your best shot..check it out and let me know if you have any questions! cheers, Pete

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