Assuming you already have an unlocked phone with 3G 850 MHz and 3G 1900 MHz.
If you visit US and Canada infrequently, you can forget all the complicated Mobile Hotspot tricks below, simply choose a plan available from Prepaidzero.com, they ship the SIM card to you (worldwide) and happily take your credit card payment.
I visit US frequently and I did some research and found some complicated methods to acquire low cost, mobile data (using mobile hotspot, aka data-only SIM). In the chase, I stumbled on a truly world-wide mobile hotspot made by Huawei: E5377s-32 can be used in Asia/Europe (naturally), US’s T-Mobile/AT&T networks, Canada’s Rogers LTE network.
Lingo: in Canada and USA, getting a SIM card activated is called provisioning, sometimes you can provision online, but most likely you need to talk to a person using a 800 number, or visit a physical store and waste valuable travel time to do the provisioning with long store line ups.
Lingo: A plan is some monthly payment scheme, even if you plan to stay in this country for a few days, you still need to use the lingo of getting a “plan”. Although the plan may be very short lived (e.g. 10 days), it is still a PLAN. Typically tourists want a “prepaid plan without term contract”.
USA – urban and suburban areas:
Prepaidzero SIM (most world friendly, at a price premium)
They ship SIM internationally and accept credit cards and PayPal. For all that conveniences and straight forward business process, you pay a bit more than the T-Mobile or Roam Mobility methods.
Set APN settings according to Prepaidzero instructions included in the SIM package.
From here on, things get complicated, the reward is to achieve the cost of mobile data to a level comparable to what local US citizens pay.
T-Mobile, using a Mobile Hotspot
Most tourists probably spend most of the visit in large cities, or may be staying with friends in the suburbs. In that case, T-Mobile would be a good choice. Use the following interactive coverage map to see if you are covered by T-Mobile while you visit USA. Note that 4G is only 3G on steroid, using the same technology as 3G. 4G-LTE is LTE but they use different frequency bands.
Buy a T-Mobile SIM card for US $15, it is unlikely you will find it at airports.
The SIM is called T-Mobile Internet SIM. It is best to buy them from a T-Mobile physical store. T-Mobile SIM from non-T-Mobile store are problematic because the new security procedure requires the authorized seller to scan the code on the kit using authorized equipment to allow the SIM to be activated in the following procedure.
Buy a cheap, entry-level T-Mobile Sonic Mobile Hotspot, also known as MF61 from eBay.
Activation: In a US hotel room with WiFi. Insert the T-Mobile SIM in a mobile hotspot, connect a smart phone/laptop/tablet to the hotspot’s WiFi, open a web browser and go to
http://t-mobile.com/ConnectMe to start the activation dialogue.
If you get stuck during provisioning, call T-Mobile support +1.800.937.8997 to sort things out.
Buy a data pass:
Data passes choices are: 1-day 500 MB for $5, 7-day 1GB for $10, 30-day 3GB for $30.
Logon to http://mim.t-mobile.com or call T-Mobile +1.800.937.8997 to buy a data pass. T-Mobile website currently accepts US, Canadian, Mexican and UK credit cards.
After all these troubles, as an option, you can remove the SIM from the MF61 and insert the SIM into your unlocked phone (3G 1900 MHz), check APN setting on your phone is epc.tmobile.com or fast.t-mobile.com The advantage you gain is perhaps a longer battery life, MF61 has 4 hours battery life.
You can also use the activated SIM in recent model Huawei Mobile Hotspot with s-32 suffix, e.g. E5377s-32, E5776s-32, E5786s-32a, etc. The APN is set automatically and correctly by T-Mobile SIM in Huawei Hotspot.
T-Mobile SIM will not expire if you recharge (e.g. buy a 1-day data pass) at least once a year.
Roam Mobility SIM (friendly to Canadians, unfriendly to the world)
Roam Mobility is a Canadian firm, independent of T-Mobile. They sell and provision short-term mobile data and voice using T-Mobile’s network. You can buy a Roam Mobility SIM ($10) from hundreds of outlets in Canada (check their website https://www.roammobility.com/ ) including major Canadian airports, activation is done easily online.
That sounds too good to be true. But there is always a catch. On Roam Mobility’s website, they indicate they accept VISA, MasterCard and American Express. I phoned the support line, I was told they only accept Canadian credit cards. Also, according to Roam Mobility website, they can ship SIM cards to Canada and USA addresses only. If you are from Asia or Europe planning a trip to USA and you like Roam Mobility’s simple provisioning style, you need the help of a trusted friend in Canada.
The APN setting of Roam Mobility is wholesale
A company ReadySIM sharing the same physical address as Roam Mobility seems to be world friendly – they ship SIM around the world and accept payment from around the world, it sounds too good to be true. It may be the case, but I had a very bad personal experience buying a ReadySIM SIM card, they charged my credit card, but the SIM never arrived, and I live in the same city (Vancouver Canada) as ReadySIM. May be you have better luck with ReadySIM than me.
USA – everywhere including rural areas
Like T-Mobile AT&T has good coverage in large cities. If your itinerary to USA includes rural areas that are not frequently visited by international tourists, AT&T would be the better choice (more expensive, of course). I visit the Oregon coasts once a year for its spectacular scenery, T-Mobile does not provide service in these rural areas.
Check the AT&T coverage map. Note that 4G is only 3G on steroid, using the same technology as 3G. 4G-LTE is LTE but they use different frequency bands.
Buy an AT&T SIM card. It is unlikely you will find one at airports.
You can buy new AT&T SIM from AT&T physical store in US, or eBay from reputable dealers. SKU 73057 and SKU 40952 AT&T SIM cards worked well for me, other recent LTE GoPhone SIM should work.
Go online to Walmart.com and Buy a $25 AT&T GoPhone Refill (choose Email Delivery) and pay for the purchase using PayPal. A 10-digit PIN will be delivered to you via email approximately 10 minutes later.
Optional: I recommend buying an AT&T mobile hotspot (new or used, from reputable sellers at eBay or Amazon)
or a recent model Huawei Mobile Hotspot with a suffix s-32, or, you can survive with just an unlocked phone with 3G 1900 MHz band, you may have to check/change your phone’s APN every time you power up the phone.
1) You need a valid US address during the activation process, e.g., address of a friend living in US, or address of a hotel you will be staying in US.
2) You need to find a 15-digit IMEI, see paragraphs below.
3) If you get stuck, call AT&T +1.800.901.9878 on Skype (via WiFi) or from your US hotel phone.
Activate your AT&T SIM a few days before you arrive at USA, or while you are in USA.
Equipped with information from above paragraph, go to https://www.wireless.att.com/activations/ to start activation, choose “Tablet or Mobile Hotspot”, enter your 20-digit AT&T SIM card number, service ZIP code (it is just a 5-digit number of any valid US address, e.g. MGM Grand in Las Vegas has a ZIP of 89109), a 15-digit IMEI number of your AT&T mobile hotspot (IMEI is the tricky part, see next paragraph), some personal information including your email address, “home” phone number must be a 10-digit North American number (if you don’t have a North American number, use your hotel’s phone number), select a Rate Plan of $25 monthly 2GB Mobile Hotspot Plan.
The tricky IMEI number issue: Best preference is to use a real AT&T Mobile Hotspot’s IMEI if you or your friend have one. Next preference is the IMEI of a mobile hotspot that is not manufactured for AT&T such as Huawei or Sierra Wireless Mobile Hotspot. Next preference is to use the IMEI of a tablet that has a SIM card slot in it. Next preference is to use the IMEI of your smart phone, but this may be detected as a phone and you may be provisioned onto a Phone PLAN which is quite expensive. The next preference is to borrow the IMEI from eBay seller (visible in some pictures of mobile hotspots). Some people suggested an IMEI of 15 zeros, I tried that 15 zeros in the past but that was detected as a phone by AT&T, not what I want.
If you don’t like to mess with IMEI tricks, buy a real AT&T Mobile Hotspot from eBay reputable seller. Recent model Huawei Mobile Hotspot (variant) with a s-32 suffix will work with AT&T, e.g. E5377s-32, E5776s-32, E5786s-32a, etc. For Huawei Hotspots, change (add a profile) the APN to broadband using Huawei’s HiLink App.
Patiently wait a few minutes until your SIM is activated, you will be assigned a 10-digit AT&T wireless number and a 4-digit password, remember these numbers and don’t lose them.
Click CONTINUE to the next page to add money to your account (to refill using the 10-digit refill PIN you purchased from Walmart e-delivery) and you are ready to go. Do not choose the option that says “add money later”, it is possible to do, but it proved to be messy and problematic. I lived through that mess once and I never want to re-live that mess.
After activation, you are good to go if you have an AT&T Mobile Hotspot. If you use a Huawai Mobile Hotspot, change the APN to broadband using Huawei’s HiLink App. You can move the SIM card to an unlocked smart phone with 3G 1900 MHz, the phone will create an APN called phone which is not what you want; you must manually change your phone’s APN from phone to broadband.
The AT&T SIM will expire in 3 months unless you keep feeding it money ( http://paygonline.com ). My approach is to let the SIM die and buy a new SIM next time I need to use AT&T mobile data. I bought a pack of five (5) SIMs from eBay. Other times when I visit the US urban area (e.g. Seattle, Los Angeles), I use the much cheaper T-Mobile SIM or Roam Mobility SIM to get mobile data.
Similicious of Toronto specializes in prepaid voice+data SIM for travelers to Canada. The price is $45 for 500 MB data with voice or $35 for 500 MB with voice (one province only). Similicious does not support mobile hotspot, you need to use the SIM in an unlocked phone with 3G 1900 MHz. The APN setting is rogers-core-appl1.apn
Another option is prepaidzero SIM card. The APN setting is rogers-core-appl1.apn
Guest Blogger: Nicholas Fong