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Best Plan for SIM Unlocked iPhone in the USA

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Update: As of October 2010 AT&T has a new Pre-Paid Plan that works with iPhones OS4.1

OK….so I’ve done my research over two years now and I think I’ve finally found the simplest and cheapest way to get your Unlocked iPhone to work in the USA when you are visiting.

All you need is an AT&T friend!

1. Find a friend who has AT&T service

2. Go with them to an AT&T store and have them ask for an additional line on their account. It cost a one time fee of $10.

3. Next have them activate the new number/SIM card with an iPhone account. They’ll ask you what data plan you want. $15 for 200MB or $25 for 2GB a month. Choose your plan and hand the money over to your friend as it will come on their next bill.

4. That’s it! Of course check with your friend to see what plan they are on and how many minutes they have. My buddy has unlimited text messaging and unlimited nights and weekend minutes with a large amount of roll-over minutes so we’re good to go (I’ll buy him tickets to an M’s game and we’ll be good 🙂 )

$35 total cost and you have cell and 3G data on your iPhone for a month. Beats what I went through last summer!

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


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  2. and if you don’t have an AT&T friend ???

    Departing in 1 week to the USA and can not believe how difficult it is to us a phone that’s meant to put the world in our fingertips (well maybe everywhere but the USA)

    • If you don’t have a friend then you can get just a Sim card but no data. T-Mobile is probably your best best for a pre-paid short term SIM card. I think they’re $50 at a T-Mobile store and at least you’ll have phone.

  3. Hi – this sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for, but I have two questions. Or maybe three! FIrst of all, what happens when the month is up? How do you keep your friend from being charged the data fee for the rest of the year? Secondly, could this be used for six weeks? In other words, would one be charged for two months by way of the extra week? Thirdly, is this a service that could start and stop? I travel to the US from Europe about 3 times a year, usually for about 2 weeks at a time. Thanks!!!!! And Happy 4th!

    • 1. You can call or go into an AT&T store and turn off the data plan to that phone number
      2. Yes…but you’d pay for two months as they go by months not weeks.
      3. Yes…you would just have to start and stop the data plan, the phone number once activated under your friends account stays active until your friend shuts it off.

  4. Hi Jeff,

    I will be doing some extensive travels for 3 months starting July 30th.
    I have an unlocked iPhone 3 GS, and I will be traveling California, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
    You mentioned in an earlier post that you did something similar. Do you have advice which sim cards I should buy to use both voice and data in those countries? And will it need special settings?
    Would be great if you had any advice for me!

    Concerning the US:
    There seems to be a way to use iPad sims on iPhones. The question is, though: do you get iPad sims without buying an iPad?
    Here are the instructions, in case you have a sim:

    All the best,

    • I have no idea if you can get a iPad SIM without getting an iPad. I would think not. But you’ll want to go into AT&T store to check for yourself.

      In most countries when you buy your pre-paid SIM card ask them if you can use data with it. Most of them you can but it’s pretty expensive….but you have it. Australia and New Zealand might be the hardest as they are more “western” in that they want you to sign contracts, their pre-paid plans might not allow all the features of the other countires. Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Thailand I know you can get data on almost all pre-paid SIMs. I’m not sure with Cambodia and that has more to do with their cell network than the SIM card.

      Good luck and safe travels.

  5. “Australia and New Zealand might be the hardest as they are more “western” in that they want you to sign contracts”

    Incorrect. You can buy a Vodafone sim card pack for NZ$35 that comes with $10 service and you sign nothing. Number preassigned. Insert Sim and it works.

    Note: You can also buy an unlocked iPhone in NZ, that’s how they sell them.

  6. Hey Jeff,

    Thank you much for your post. After a pointless phone call to an ATT tech support who had no idea how I might purchase a pre-paid data plan to use my unlocked iPhone while in the States, a bit of googling brought me to your site.

    My family has ATT, so I should be able to do this quickly, my question to you is, do they simply give a new SIM card? Do they even ask about the phone that will be using it? And, which phone should activate the account, theirs or mine?

    Just wanted a little bit more detail about what you did during this point.

    Thank you much.

    • They asked me and when I told them it was for an iPhone they asked if I wanted the data plan. They will activate it with your cell phone. Just go with your family to an AT&T store and ask them to add an “Friends and Family” line to the account. $10 and you all share a pool of minutes. The $25 data plan will be for that number and iPhone only.

  7. Hello! I will be in Florida from Sept 21 to October 6, and I just would like to buy a pre-paid sim card for my unlocked iPhone ONLY FOR DATA – I will not need to make or receive any phone calls. But I really would like to have full access to the internet and my e-mails. Do you know if this is possible?
    Thank you very much for your help!!

  8. Thanks for blogging the tip! This is exactly what I was looking for limited data access for just a few weeks.

    However, could you please clarify the 3rd point (Next have them activate the new number/SIM card with an iPhone account). What do yo mean by “with an iPhone account”? Does my friend need my iPhone during the transaction (and wouldn’t AT&T frown upon the fact that mine is unlocked)?
    Or does it mean to associate the additional line to their iPhone account?

    Thanks in advance, for any more clarification!

    • When they activate the new SIM Card make sure they know it’s going in an iPhone. The iPhone data plan is different. It’s best if you go with your friend or have your friend take in your iPhone when they get the SIM card. No AT&T doesn’t care that your phone is unlocked. They are just adding a line to a friend and family plan and want your money…or so it is in my case.

    • $10 to activate a new line and yes….you need a friend with that lives in the US that is on an AT&T Family Plan.

      • Sorry Jeff, you’re wrong. There is a $36 activation fee (once off) for each extra number on the family plan, as well as the $10 per month charge for the extra line and $25 per month for the data plan.

        I did this on my daughter’s account, great idea, but we were a bit stunned that in fact for one month it cost a total of $71. Of course if you go on past one month you don’t pay the activation fee again, so it’s a much better deal for longer periods.

  9. Hi Jeff,
    I will move in New York for the entire year 2011. AT&T only offer 2 years contract. I’m searching for the best and cheapest way to use an Iphone in USA for 1 year by:
    1. buying an unlocked Iphone in my country and using it in USA with your solution, finding an AT&T friend OR
    2. Buying a Iphone under contract in USA (if existing for 1 year)
    3. Buying an unlocked Iphone in USA and using it with your solution, or an other one….

    What do you think is the best?

    PS. I will work in NY under a J1 visa with a social security number, and I don’t know if I am able to sign a contract with AT&T, for example.

    Thank you!

    • If you plan to have the iPhone after you leave the States then I would go with an unlocked iPhone from outside the US. AT&T offers many different plans and not all of them do you have to sign a two year contract. You can do month to month for $60 pre-paid or you can get on a post paid plan for a year. Because you already own the phone you actually have more options.

      So I’d buy an unlocked iPhone from outside the US and then when you get there go to the AT&T store closest to you and see what plan fits your needs. Also you can check T-Mobile…I’m not sure what their post paid plans are like.

      • A few notes about this idea… I did this with my i-phone – unlocked, from australia – when I was visiting for 3 months late 2010. AT&T put me on a post-paid plan, no contract, for $85 a month, but charged me $500 deposit (which I got back 2 months after I ended the plan). That plan included data. The $60/month prepaid had no data.

  10. Hi Jeff Thanks for the post it has help a great deal.

    I was able to get signed up on a friends plan just like you said.

    $26 activation fee and a $10/mo to keep the phone # active. then $25 for 2gb of data for a month. no obligations ( other than $10/mo for the #.

    great thing is I didn’t need to be with them I just sent my friend the IMEI # and it was done. So all I need to do is pop in the Sim and off I go.

  11. I feel like an idiot! It seems so simple and yet my summer last year was the same as yours. My parents both live in the US while I love in Hong Kong and they have AT&T!!
    Many thanks, it will make our trip back for these next few weeks over the holidays much better 🙂

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  13. You read my mind with your investigation…good job…congratulations from Queretaro Mexico

  14. I’m heading to the US soon, and just saw that as of this week, Straight Talk is offering a $45/month bring-your-own-sim option at http://www.straighttalksim.com.

    $45 covers unlimited talk + text + data.

    And since Straight Talk is an MVNO of ATT and T-mobile, user can choose ATT and get a micro-sim as well.

    iPhones are supported and wireless prepaid service works like it does in any OTHER country. Use it when you want. Stop when you want.

    This will make those trip to the US easier.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Thanks for the update! That is great news if it works.

  15. Straight talk works. You will have to change your APN for messaging and data. Just google it.
    Great buddy you have, He will take a another line on his account for two years or pay the early termination fee. I live in the States and I used H2o wireless on my phone for years now with my iphone. The phone dosen’t need to be unlocked from AT&T to use. They both use AT&T’ s network. Pay as you no contacts on both.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Thanks Jake,

      This year I went with Straight Talk as well. This blog post is a couple of years old. Loving Straight Talk works well for sure on my Android phone as well.

  16. Jessica Edwards Reply

    Hi Jeff

    I am coming to the US to work for 3 months (Vail) and then travel for about 2 months (LA, Central America). I am from South Africa and have an iPhone 5s, people have told me that it wont work in the US and others say it will.
    Can I come with my phone and put a US sim card in?
    My iStore here said that South African phones are not network locked, is this correct?
    What networks should I use when I am there? Will want to message friends in the US and my family in South Africa.

    Thanks so much!!!

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