Working with a pay-as-you-go SIM in the USA

In the last month I've had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belgium and New Zealand, and one of the small aspects I envied was the way everyone had a cheap phone plan with a simple pay-as-you-go card. People I talked to didn't complain about their $80/month base plan rates like I am forced to get on test phones here in the US. Instead they could toss ten Euros or 30 NZ dollars on a card whenever they run low on data, voice, or messaging. I wrote up how great my unlocked iPhone was in those situations and how I wished for such a thing in the US.

A reader named Tom left a comment this morning on the post pointing out an amazing resource: a wiki written by travelers about options and pricing for many countries around the world and curiously, I found the US listed there. I scanned the options and decided the AT&T deal sounded pretty close to the Euro-style SIM pricing I found in Belgium, so today I stopped in a store and try it out.

IMG_0760

You will need an unlocked phone for this to work. I have a new Nokia Lumia 800 Windows 7.5 Mango phone purchased off eBay and it appeared to be from Italy when I first charged it up. You can also use old jailbroken/unlocked iPhones or newer fully unlocked (unsubsidized, priced starting at $899 or so) iPhones.

Go into an AT&T store and ask for a GoPhone data SIM (microSIM for my phone, they had both sizes). Put $15 credit on it and you will get a receipt with your phone number on it (save this) and 100Mb of data usage good for 30 days. They also offer 500Mb of data for $25 and you can top up online using the myprepaidrefill.com website. You just need your number and they can text you a PIN to get you all logged in.

From there, you can buy talk time at $0.10/minute which isn't bad at all. I put a bunch of credit on it just to test things out and they also offer messaging at 200/$5, 1000/$10, or unlimited/$20 good for 30 days.

About the only tricky thing was getting the APN settings right to enable data. I searched online at several forums and eventually got this to work with the Lumia:

APN: wap.cingular
username: (blank)
password: (blank)
proxy server/URL: wireless.cingular.com
proxy port: 80

So far voice calling works ok (after an annoying 15sec message saying what URL to refill your account at) and I can get data to work but only edge, not 3G at the moment. I think it's due to my location which has a weak signal anyway but it could be my settings which I'll continue to tweak.

Still, I was kind of surprised to see a very European style SIM pricing scheme can work in the US and is available today if you have the right phone for it. You could put $100 of phone talk time credit on it (1,000 minutes good for a year), buy 100Mb or 500Mb of 3G data and add $5 worth of texting (both good for 30 days) and have a fairly cheap smartphone plan that would only run you about $30-40/month depending on use instead of the standard $60-80/month plans most US telecoms require for smartphones. 

 

12 Comments

  • Good tip from reader Ben:
    “Check out straight talk wireless. They
    are an AT&T mvno and have a $45 unlimited talk/text/data plan. Even
    works in *locked* iPhones. Pretty sweet. My wife and I are paying our
    ETFs to switch from AT&T contract because we will end up paying $90/mo
    total instead of $145. Kinda insane.”

  • Interesting. I got an AT&T GoPhone SIM when I returned to the US after traveling for a year just so I could start making and receiving calls. I figured I’d just switch back to a typical subscription plan when I finally got settled (a process that has taken longer than I would have liked). I never thought about using it for data.
    In my case I got the very cheapest plan, which costs $2/day whenever I use the phone (call or txt) for unlimited usage for that day. It feels painful when I just have to reply to a text, and there goes $2, but most days I never use my phone, and so I think it averages out in my favor. But maybe I should have gone with the 10¢/Minute Plan…
    I’ll be interested to hear if you stick with it.

  • Well, to be clear, this isn’t my only phone or even my daily use phone. It’s a windows phone I use for testing out websites and apps, so it only gets occasional use, but I’ve always wanted to test things like maps and things outside of my home wifi, which is how I’m using this data plan on the SIM.

  • What’s amazing to me about Straight Talk is that it’s essentially a rebranded version of TracFone, which I used years ago before moving to AT&T (née Cingular).

  • When my wife and I looked at GoPhone and other services a few years ago the biggest deterrent was the requirement to top-up every month even if you still had unused minutes or data left. And the minutes/data wasn’t transferable. Have those things changed? Are you specifically speaking to tools for travelers?

  • Yeah, the text and data do time out after 30 days, but the talk time can last for a year if you buy them $100 at a time. It’s not completely euro-style, since that stuff tends to not time out after a certain time.
    It is pretty ideal for traveling in the US on a phone from outside the US though.

  • Visiting US with unlocked iPhone 4s. Knew about AT&T plan so popped in to local shop mr first day here and plunked down my $25. 3G never activated and landed me in a pickle trying to get home, so rang AT&T customer service to seek activation. They said they do not offer this service, I’ve been misinformed, AT&T will refund my $25. A friend pointed me to your timely article, but guess what? With an AT&T sim in an unlocked iPhone 4s, mobile data network settings disappear, so I was unable to set them manually.
    I’m an American who lives in the UK, And the only place I ever have this problem is the USA. The helpful customer servant offered to sell me an AT&T contract. I’m here for 10 days, dude. You don’t get to charge me $500 for 10 days worth of data. He seemed genuinely surprised when I laughed at him. Or maybe he just got off on the obstruction of it all.

  • But wait, there’s more! http://Www.unlockit.co.nz saved the day! The article to which you link explains how to do it. :)

  • Yep, I was just about to say that getting the APN settings just right is a bit of a pain and requires some tweaking, and there are tons of tools available for iPhones.

  • Great article. I was curious to how much you acquired the N800 =) and another individual said that you can use a “locked” iPhone on the Straight Talk plan? How do you sign up?

  • I have an unlocked/jailbroken iPhone 3G on T-Mobile. For $50 a month with a no-contract SIM, I get unlimited text, voice, and data – http://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/monthly-4g-plans – they also have a plan with 100 minutes of talk for $30 a month. Being an iPhone on T-Mobile’s network, it obviously only works with EDGE data, but most places in Portland have free wi-fi, so that problem tends to be often alleviated.
    This setup isn’t for everybody, but I kind of like not having the whole web at my fingertips all the time.

  • I’m not a smartphone owner or user, so please excuse me as a ten-year owner/user of a dumbphone. But please be aware of the very economical plans offered by Virgin Mobile in the USA. I’ve been a Virgin Mobile customer for 4 years now. They meet my voice communication needs for a very affordable price. I pay 10 cents/minute for voice, and $7/month recurring fee to keep myself as an active customer of Virgin Mobile. Perhaps this would help someone like myself who also loves Matt’s blog.

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