The Best U.S. Prepaid SIMs

Want to use an exotic foreign phone? Traveling to the United States? These prepaid GSM SIM cards might be the answer for you.

Are you visiting the United States, looking for a cheap deal on iPhone service, or want to use an unlocked global phone? Several no-contract, prepaid wireless providers here in the U.S. are now offering SIM-only service, where you bring your own phone, snap in a card, and go.

Here in the U.S. we have two networks that work with unlocked GSM phones and unlocked iPhones: AT&T and T-Mobile. (For more on U.S. cellular networks, see CDMA vs. GSM: What’s the Difference?) But those two networks have spawned plenty of prepaid options since both companies have started letting virtual operators, or MVNOs, rent their airwaves. The result is a bunch of confusing wireless plans aimed at different people.

To figure out the best deals, we looked at 11 GSM plans that let you bring your own phone. All of these plans are available online, and many are also accessible at cell-phone retailers in major cities. If you’re visiting the U.S., you can order a card online and have it delivered to your hotel—all respectable hotels receive packages for their guests.

Here are the highlights from what we found:

The Best Plan for Talkers: Ultra Mobile
Running on T-Mobile’s U.S. network, Ultra Mobile looks like the go-to carrier if you want to stay in touch with foreign friends and family. Ultra’s plans have unlimited global texting, international calling rates from 2 cents per minute. With the Call Me Free feature, your pals in 44 countries can call a local number where they live, punch in your Ultra Mobile number, and get connected (via some VoIP mojo) to your Ultra Mobile line. It’s considered a domestic call on both ends. That’s pretty sweet.

The Best Plan for iPhones: Black Wireless and H2O Wireless
If you’re using an iPhone, you want to be on AT&T’s network to get 3G speeds. Black Wireless and H2O Wireless both use the AT&T network, giving you 2GB plus unlimited calling and texting for $60.

An Alternate iPhone Option: Straight Talk
Straight Talk resells AT&T, not T-Mobile, and that makes a huge difference for owners of iPhones and many international handsets. AT&T’s 3G HSPA network across the nation is on 850 and 1900MHz, which iPhones and international phones support. T-Mobile still has many areas on 1700MHz, which would trap iPhones at slow EDGE speeds.

Straight Talk gets you that AT&T goodness at lower rates than AT&T itself, with an “unlimited” talk, text, and data plan at $45 per month. But that’s not really unlimited, and I’m hesitant to recommend Straight Talk because of its insanely restrictive terms of service and too many reports of a 2GB cap that Straight Talk won’t publicly admit to. While 2GB is a good deal at that price, I’m uncomfortable with Straight Talk refusing to come clean about its restrictions.

The Best Plan for Cheap Smartphone Usage: T-Mobile’s 5GB plan ($30) and AirVoice’s 500MB plan ($40)
T-Mobile’s special Walmart-and-online-only plan includes an epic amount of data for $30; the trade-off is a mere 100 voice minutes per month. You also have to navigate T-Mobile’s unusual network banding, which requires a 1700MHz-compatible phone to get the best speeds nationwide. T-Mobile is working on spreading iPhone-compatible 1900Mhz HSPA+, but that network is a work in progress. AirVoice uses AT&T‘s more globally compatible network and gives you unlimited calling and texting, but you get a lot less data for your dollar.

The Best Prepaid Plan for Locals: GoSmart Mobile
Are you a heavy smartphone user, but not an international type? GoSmart Mobile offers unlimited calls, U.S. texts, and 5GB of HSPA+ data on T-Mobile’s network for $45/month. That’s the best deal we could find on a 5GB plan. GoSmart is actually owned and run by T-Mobile, so I expect customer service will be good.

What’s the down side? Well, it’s T-Mobile’s network, so you need to have a phone that’s 1700MHz compatible or live in one of the cities T-Mobile has converted to 1900MHz to enjoy the zippy, LTE-like data speeds. This plan also doesn’t come with international calling or texting. There’s a $10 add-on, but it only covers foreign landlines, and calls to mobile phones are quite expensive.

The Best Plan for Short Visits: Ready SIM’s $25 7-day card
Ready SIM specializes in anonymous, self-activating SIM cards and offers 3-, 7-, 14-, and 30-day options. Its $25 card includes unlimited talk, text, and 500MB of data—perfect for a visitor who’s constantly reloading Google Maps on a smartphone. A 14-day version, with 1GB data, costs $35.

The Best Plan for Canadians: Roam Mobility
Roam Mobility caters to Canadians with by-the-day plans that are perfect for a quick jaunt over the border. The carrier also sells and supports its cards through major Canadian retailers, so you can buy your card at home, and use it south of the border.

All of the carriers we surveyed offer more plans than we’re discussing here. For instance, most of them have very inexpensive talk-and-text-only plans, but given the ubiquity of the smartphone, we’re assuming you want at least some data.

These carriers are also the tip of the iceberg when it comes to no-contract wireless in the U.S. If you’re willing to use a special, carrier-specific phone, you can also work with Virgin, Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, Republic Wireless, Consumer Cellular or a range of other, smaller virtual carriers. Check out our reviews of phones on each of those carriers by clicking on the carrier name, or take a look at The 10 Best Cheap Prepaid Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of.

Sticking to the SIM card theme, though, here’s how three typical levels of these carriers plans play out. We didn’t include Roam Mobility in the chart even though we like what they’re doing, because they’re playing a different game, with flexible by-the-day plans for Canadians who periodically travel to the U.S.

The Best U.S. Prepaid SIMs

Source: pcmag