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.
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:
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.