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Pre-Paid Data Plan on an Unlocked iPhone NOW possible in America

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Update #2: As of October 2010 AT&T has a new Pre-Paid plan that works on all iPhones running iOS4.1 or higher

Update: Now you can have data on your Unlocked iPhone in America for $35 via AT&T all you need is a friend!

It took a good 10 hours in stores and on the phone with different support technicians to get it all sorted out. But I do finally have a data plan on my unlocked iPhone (completely legal from Thailand). It’s not the way I wanted it, and I’m completely frustrated but I’ll hit NECC with a fully functional phone and that was the goal. πŸ™‚

So here’s the break down of what I learned. If any of this information is wrong I would appreciate someone correcting it for me. As I was told different things from different people at different wireless stores across the state of Washington.

Verizon Wireless:

http://www.mobilewhack.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/verizon_logo.jpgThere is no way to use a SIM Unlocked iPhone on Verizon. Verizon uses a different signal (CDMA) then what the iPhone is made for (GSM). Think of it as an AM and FM radio. Verizon is an AM radio signal and the iPhone can only pick up a FM signal. Because of this, and until / or if Apple ever creates a CDMA iPhone, you can not use it on the Verizon network.


http://dailymobile.se/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/t-mobile400x320_1-30-09.gifI was a T-mobile pre-paid customer since 2006. I never had any issues with their service and appreciated that I could buy enough pre-paid minutes to push the expiration date out a full year (can do the same with AT&T pre-paid). Meaning I could come back in the summer and use the same phone number. I had the same phone number for four years….until now.

T-mobile doesn’t have any data plans on their pre-paid accounts. If a data plan is not important to you on your iPhone while you’re in the States, then I would recommend T-mobiles service. You could still use the WiFi and make calls. But for me, I want my iPhone to do what it does best….keep you connected everywhere.


http://www1.btcbahamas.com/features/prepaid_roaming/images/att-logo.jpgIn steps AT&T. I’ll spare all the drama of actually being on three different plans, countless hours talking with people who didn’t understand their own system, their own options, and the iPhone…which they are suppose to support.

Although AT&T does allow a data plan on a pre-paid account. The data plan that they allow will not work with the iPhone. Why? Don’t ask me! This was the frustration as I was told by three different AT&T customer service representatives that the data plan on a pre-paid account would work with the iPhone. It wasn’t until three days into the saga of not having a phone that worked that I finally found a AT&T person who knew what they were talking about and took the time to get me all set up.

So what I ended up with:

So that brings me to where I ended up. It’s by far not what I wanted but it will have to do for this summer. AT&T put me on a Individual Cell Phone Plan without a contract which is good. It is a post paid plan which I didn’t want as the bill will come after I’m back in Thailand. It also will not allow me to keep my phone number from year to year. So when I cancel my account on August 1st when I leave the country my phone numbe will leave with it.

Hard to swallow:

It’s been a frustrating first couple of weeks back in the States for the summer. I know there are a lot of other people that live overseas that have unlocked iPhones and want to be able to use them in the States while they are here. There just isn’t a cell company that is willing to open up their network to allow short timers in the country to use their network. What’s hard for me to swallow is that last year I went to Prague, Vienna, Zurich, Bangkok, and Shanghai and was able to buy a SIM card for anywhere between $5-15 and use both voice and data while in the country. It’s not like I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist. It just doesn’t exist in America. What happens if I come back for say 1 week? What do I do? In Bangkok you can walk into any 7-11 and buy a SIM card and be up and running in 10 minutes.

Frustrated and tired at least I’ll have cell service and 3G for this summer. It comes at a cost to both my pocket book and vacation time spent in stores and on hold. Then again that’s the reason for the blog post. Hopefully I can save someone else the trouble.

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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    • Yeah, if you look at the info there the OS was 1.1.4. They have not supported data via pre-paid since OS 2.0. Or since the 3G came out. Very frustrating!

  3. Unlimited data is possible. It’s just that it has never been available before. iphone is in the near future, but as of right now an unlocked windows based phone will work with Global Verge.

    Alternate website: http://www.pickglobalverge.com

    Call Richard Prete at 1-201-483-7016

      • hi there..

        just wondering if you can tell me more about prepaid data plan for china carriers as IΒ΄m planning to go there for holidays in the near future (Hong Kong, shanghai and Beijing)


  4. i run into the same issues traveling and wonder why the US phone service is so crappy.
    you can buy a tmobile prepaid card in germany, and they text you the settings so that you can check email etc with NO problem in a matter of minutes.
    tmobile in the US is retarded and want you to sign up for something for two years. i WONT BE HERE in two years. they apparently just dont make enough money to bother. what they dont realize is that they then miss all the money they would make by offering this service to tourists or people just here for a few months. obviously the technology is readily available within their own company…

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  9. This sucks, not only for short timers, but also for us who don’t use that many minutes. I finally got the pre-paid T-Mobile plan for my iPhone, and for $100 I can call for a year, but even if I wanted to add a data plan ($9.99 unlimited web), they simply won’t let me. Grr πŸ™

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  11. i’ve been reading around and maybe you can help me: i’m moving to Thailand in September. i have a legitimate American iPhone with AT&T. if i canceled my service here and took the phone to Thailand, could i get a sim card in Thailand to work with it?

    • Bethany,

      No you will not be able to use your US iPhone in Thailand. US iPhones are “Tied” (Meaning they only work with one carrier) to AT&T in the states and will not work with any other carrier around the world.

      There are two ways around this…one’s the cheap way the other the more expensive way.

      You can run a program on your phone that will “untie” it from AT&T. I would not suggest doing this yourself, but you can get it down in Thailand. This is illigal and you will void your Apple warranty and it will not work with AT&T anymore if you go back to the states.

      The expensive way is to do what I did and buy a SIM Unlocked iPhone (Meaning it’s not tied to any carrier) this way you can go to different countries around the world, drop in a SIM Card and have phone service. A SIM Unlocked iPhone cost about $800 in Thailand. But you own the phone and are not tied to a plan. I spend about $40 a month for unlimited data, unlimited text, and unlimited calls. If you don’t need the data you have a hard time spending $20/month. So even though the iPhone cost more it’s actually cheaper then a two year contract in the states. πŸ™‚

      Hope this helps!

      • Jeff,

        It is good information. So, if I get an Iphone 3GS and somehow get it unlocked, then I could use the pre-paid card from AT&T?

        Your confirmation is really appreciated.

      • Factually incorrect. This will not void your warranty. iPhones are flashdrives that run firmware or operating systems. If you have problems or have unlocked and jailbroken your phone. If you ever need to claim your warranty simply RESTORE your phone and it will go back to factory settings. APPLE has no way to know it was jailbroken making YOUR WARRANTY perfectly FINE πŸ™‚

      • Will I be able to use the phone with data back in the states on AT and T if I purchase an unlocked IPhone in Thailand ?

    • Your phone will have to be unlocked to allow you to take it to another country to use their SIM card.
      If you’re willing to use your US company, you can keep it just as is. But you’ll be paying massive roaming fees. πŸ™

  12. If you are on tmobile prepaid, when you are going to be using the iphone’s data services, switch to the Sidekick plan. For $1/day, you get unlimited data and text. Voice minutes are 15 cents a minute so use it sparingly but once you’re no longer using the iphone’s data or are not in the US, switch back to the regular 10 cents a minute prepaid plan.

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  15. Hi Jeff,

    I read this post with great interest. Before I left Hanoi, I had considered buying an iPhone in Bangkok or Hong Kong (two places I was visiting on my way out of Asia) to use when I got back to N. America. My reasoning was that although I knew it would be more expensive, I didn’t want to be locked-in to any kind of plan once I got back on this side of the planet. I am so opposed to the way cellular companies run their services in Canada and the USA it makes my blood boil. After doing a heap of research, I decided against buying an Asian iPhone simply because it was SO difficult to find any information as to whether or not I would be able to get any “proper” service for it on networks in the States. No one in my Twitter network seemed to know, and message board after message board were filled with hundreds of people asking the same questions I was, with few solid answers.

    Your post confirms my suspicions! And it’s maddening! It reminds me a bit of this post by David Warlick, where he discusses the evolution of technology, and it makes me wonder: why hasn’t the US and Canada evolved to be as mobile-tech friendly as the rest of the world? And why don’t American consumers demand it?

    My parents, who recently returned to the USA after having lived in Azerbaijan for several years, voice similar frustrations about the lack of freedom and ability on their cell phones in the US compared to what they could do with their phones in Azerbaijan! Hard to believe which one is the developED country when you’re just looking at mobile tech sometimes…

  16. I hear you brutha!
    It all comes down to regulation and monopolies. I live half of the year in Australia and the other half in Canada. It is frustrating how in Canada, Rogers owns everything and you are not allowed to do anything. You cannot even get Ringtones or wallpapers in your phone if you don’t buy them from them. Australis is just as the other forward thinking countries. You can get a SIM card everywhere, even the grocery store, put it in your phone and off you go, and then just buy more prepaid time in the same manner. I was shocked when I arrived in Canada, how they screw you big time. BUt when you have a Monoply, controlling TV, communications (both land line and mobile), internet and God knows what else,you betcha the costumer will always be screwed. and don’t even get me started with the Canadian banks, (just five) that charge customers throught their noses and provide crappy service.
    all because nanny states and big companies work together to ‘protect’ the consumer.

    End of Rant

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  18. Jeff, I would just like to clarify that an unlocked iPhone will work with prepaid T-Mobile minutes. So this means that I would be able to use an unlocked iPhone as a glorified iPod Touch (GPS, Mic, Camera, Wifi Internet access, etc.) and still make calls (at T-Mobile’s prepaid rates)?

    Thus I should be able to make cheap wifi calls through Skype, and text for free through Google Voice – and simply use my minutes in emergencies and the rare instances where I need to make a call and don’t have wifi access… is this correct?

    So, to do this, I guess I would enable “airplane mode” to stop all attempts to connect to a cell network; and then turn the wifi back on, right?

    I may be completely off with this whole line of thought; but if I am on to something, let me know! The iPod Touch interests me a great deal, but if I could use the latest iPhone as a glorified iPod Touch (with prepaid cell capabilities), then that is just awesome! Less devices in my pockets (with more functionality)!

    • Simon,

      Your line of thinking is right. If you just want a glorified iPod Touch you can just just what you’re talking about with a Pre-paid T-Mobile SIM. If you know you’ll be spending most of your time in free WiFi areas not a bad approach.

  19. Could you please confirm: Will an official unlocked IPhone 3gs that is bought from Australia work with At&t data plan?

    • Yes, an official unlocked iPhone 3GS will work on AT&Ts data plan. You will have to sign up for a post paid plan with the $19.99 (or so it was this last summer) unlimited data plan. Double check when you go into the store, but this is what I used this summer with an 3G Unlocked phone.

      Good Luck!

  20. I bought an unlocked iphone in italy, worked al great in Europe, you buy in the countries yoy visit for about 15 euros a sim carf with voice and data (50mgb a day). Coming back to good old advanced USA……no we do it different here, still need contract with att and t mobile crap reception with prepaid card and no data per month possible, only contract. Generally aal this sucks, you shoul be able to buy contract free services, Anybody out there with the solution?

    • AT&T should allow you to sign up for a post-paid plan without a contract. That’s what I did this summer. It’s expensive to sign up for, but you are not under a contract and can end it at any time.

      • And the big question is? How much did u pay Per. Month for the service, data plan included. Just to have an idea and to see if its worth the expense.

          • Hi Jeff,

            Firstly thanks for all of this info, it is a godsend. I am living in Myanmar and looking to get an unlocked Australian iPhone from Apple much the way Sam described above.

            You said that the data post-paid was $77/mo – did that include voice and if so, how many minutes?

            Finally, explain what happens if you get an AT&T iPhone and go on their 2 year plan – what happens to the iPhone AFTER the 2 year contract – do they unlock it for you then?

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  24. Bill Willis Reply

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been on the fence regarding a purchase of an iPhone in the UAE until reading this.

    You don’t have to change the phone number you give out each summer. Just use Google Voice and attach your new AT&T mobile account to it each summer.


    • That’s my plan now. When I wrote this article Google Voice wasn’t out yet. But I’ve already got my GVoice number and can’t wait to use it when I get back to the states this summer.

  25. Hi Jeff,

    Firstly thanks for all of this info, it is a godsend. I am living in Myanmar, moving to the US very soon. I am looking to get an unlocked Australian iPhone from Apple much the way Sam described above.

    You said that the data post-paid was $77/mo – did that include voice and if so, how many minutes?

    Finally, explain what happens if you get an AT&T iPhone and go on their 2 year plan – what happens to the iPhone AFTER the 2 year contract – do they unlock it for you then?

    • Yes the $77/month was 200 call minutes, unlimited data, and 200 text messages.

      After the two year contract AT&T DOES NOT unlock the phone for you. IF you buy the phone in the states via AT&T you will only ever be able to use it on AT&T unless you hack it.

      I’m looking into the TMobile Sidekick plan, some rumors out there that you can get the Sidekick plan and have that data work on your unlocked iPhone. The problem is I don’t think they sell that plan pre-paid like I’d like.

  26. Trying to get our German Smartphone working with data in the US while we’re here on vacation has been a challenge.

    Last year we bought a prepaid SIM card from T-Mobile on eBay that allowed use data on our Palm Centro, but we had to talk to numerous customer representatives to get it properly activated (the seller offered an activation interface at his website, but something went wrong).

    I wanted to buy the same card again this year but the seller is no longer active on eBay, and its difficult to figure out what would work.

    I just spoke with 3 different AT&T representatives and another 3 at T-Mobile, all of whom were totally clueless and could barely put a sentence together. No one could explan to me why you can buy prepaid SIM cards with data virtually everywhere in Germany (including the shitty discount supermarket ALDI) but virtually no where in the US, the country that saved democracy and put a man on the moon.

    Does this all boil down to greed? Are telecom providers colluding to prevent prepaid data plans from cutting into profit margins? Or is there some sort of technical problem in the US which makes this difficult to offer?

    I suspect we may have been using the Sidekick $1/day plan last year, but it appears that this is no longer available from T-Mobile:

    Can you confirm this? Would the Sidekick plan work for our Palm Centro, or is there another provider out there, in this great land of “perfect markets”?

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  28. very much appreciated, I have a Canadian five year plan that I have to keep paying while I don’t even live there. I am in New York, and have come up to the same wall. I might just bite it and by a cheap cell phone. Your ost is totally appreciated because i was about to do this bag of research to find all of this out.

    here’s to the end of cellphone companies acting like loan sharks.


  29. I spent the last 6 hours online researching this so thanks for summing it all up nicely. I’m moving back to the US next month and am dreading being shafted for wireless + data service again. In Hong Kong (where all phones incl iPhones are sold unlocked by law) I currently pay u$d14 on a month to month contract with 60mb of data and 600 minutes in network + 600 minutes out of network talk time (PCCW). I rarely use over 60mb of data as there are numerous wifi hotspots around. Sounds like I’ll now be paying at least 5 to 6 times that amount in the good ol’ US of A.

    It seems obvious why the wireless providers are offering either minimal or no data options for pre-paid as to do so would hurt their bottom line and everyone would buy unlocked phones. I guess we should count our blessings we can use data with pre-paid most other countries in the world

    I also like how this guy approaches the problem


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  31. Jeff

    Just wondering if AT&T may have changed their policy again as your link to Individual Cell Phone Plan shows a two year contract. The monthly charge is Ok but I only need a plan for 12 to 18 months max.

    • Yes…they might have changed their plans. This was written in the summer of 2009 and I won’t be back to the States until the first of June. But am already looking at plans. I think the best/cheapest way for me is to add a line to my friends account, pay the $10 for the “Friends and Family” extra line and then the $30 for data and give my buddy some cash for his minutes….still looking way cheaper than any other option…now to see if they’ll let me do it. I’ll update this post in June when I figure it out.

  32. Here is a brief online conversation with an AT&T rep. For me, I will try the steps and comments recommended in the article posted here by Shaunigan.
    Thank you for your patience! An AT&T sales representative will be with you shortly.

    You are now chatting with Elizabeth H., an AT&T sales representative.

    Elizabeth H.: Welcome to AT&T online Sales support. How may I assist you with placing your order today?
    alfred: hi elizabeth
    Elizabeth H.: Hello, Alfred.
    Elizabeth H.: I’m delighted to assist you with your order today.
    Elizabeth H.: Are you an existing wireless customer of AT&T?
    alfred: i am coming to U.S. with my iPhone unlocked that i bought and use here in China. I am not an existing customer
    Elizabeth H.: Do you want to get service started on that phone when you arrive?
    alfred: i want to get a plan for the time i will be there with internet capabilities. i will be there for 60 days
    alfred: yes
    Elizabeth H.: To start service on a phone you already have you would want to visit a local store or call our sales department at 866.246.4852, unfortunately it would not be an option available online.
    alfred: i know . i just need info on what is available
    alfred: prepaid with data?
    alfred: post paid with data?
    alfred: other?
    Elizabeth H.: That is not available for the iPhone, as far as I know. But it might be that in the store, they have other options that I don’t know about here.
    Elizabeth H.: For postpaid, it is $30 for unlimited right now, but there will be new plans in effect on Monday 7 June 2010.
    Elizabeth H.: So you’ll want to be sure to check carefully when you do arrive, about what is current then.

  33. Sounds like a nightmare just to get a prepaid data plan in the states.

    Can anyone update on what AT&T offer for prepaid data plans. I have looked on their site and they seem to have new data plans available as of 7 June, but not much more information on prepaid. Will they allow me to just walk into a store and get a sim card and then attach a data plan on that. I am not bothered about voice calls that much more so just a data plan so I can use while I am in the U.S.

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  35. Spanish Shan Reply

    can i use the ATT sim from my friends still active iphone in my unlocked iphone from europe while here this fall? (his iphone just broke and he’s switching to another company but I could pay his bill if i can just move the SIM)

    • From what I understand you saying that should work. Just not sure you can get to the SIM card on a US iPhone. I think they might be built in.

  36. If I have a SIM card with tmobile and it runs by mins like pre paid when i run out can i insert it into my unlocked iphone and still have the same plan as the mins with prepaid?

  37. Hi Jeff,

    I’m going to move to the US in a couple of weeks to do a 2-year postgrad program.

    I have a factory unlocked iphone 3G (bought in the UK) and I’m a similar situation to the one you described in your post. In Europe, I’ve always used pre-paid simcards with unilimited data plans, but it seems that in the US this is not going to be possible.

    I’m trying to study the different offers and plans in the US carriers, but it seems that there’s no prepaid unlimited data plan available at any. I’ve read about the sidekick plan, but it seems it’s capped for the iphone now (http://www.tuaw.com/2009/08/11/t-mobile-stops-offering-prepaid-sidekick-data-service-to-iphone/).

    T-mobile has an unilimited data plan for $40/month that says “no-contract” but I’m not entirely sure how this works, since it’s not listed under the prepaid section (http://www.t-mobile.com/shop/plans/Cell-Phone-Plans.aspx?catgroup=Internet-Email-cell-phone-plan&WT.z_unav=mst_shop_plans_internet). Is that what you call post-paid?

    For AT&T I couldn’t find anything suitable. I’d buy an Iphone 4, but it seems that you have to get both a limited data plan ($15) and a voice plan ($40), which is definitely too much.

    • If you are moving to states for two or more years I would suggest going with a post-paid plan via AT&T. That is going to be your cheapest option with the iphone in the states.

  38. Thanks for the tip πŸ™‚ I’m not really sure what a postpaid plan is or how it works (in Europe we only have prepaid or contract). I couldn’t find any mention to postpaid in the AT&T website, so maybe it’s not something that you can go for withtout having some kind of history/background with AT&T?

    I guess when I get to NY I’ll pop in in a AT&T retail store and ask.

    Thanks Jeff! πŸ™‚

  39. I had a chat with an AT&T Sales Rep today. He told me that my only option would be signing up for a 2 year agreement with a 2GB data plan that’s $25, but since I have to be on a contract I’d also need to get a voice plan with that, which is $39.99 (for their cheapest voice plan). So in total it’ll be $65/month. He told me that it’s not possible to get a data plan without the voice plan.

    I think that’s super expensive compared to 20€ for unlimited data which is what I pay right now in Spain.

    I think I’m goign pre-paid and buy a 3G dongle that I can use to connect the iphone and also the computer.

  40. Hello folks.

    Its been interesting to read some comments, insights, and i bow to the effort you guys have av put.

    I am a co-manager of an AT&T store in NewYork. Let me answer some basic question relevant to the post and the progess in service if any. Of course I would not disclose our business model.
    – welcome to America! In this domain you will be charged for receiving and making calls. You will also be charged for receiving and sending text messages if not covered by an unlimited plan. You may throw a fit Upon hearing this but my friend you are helpless and must surrender to the wave. Unless you have the time and patiencE to dive into the abyss of telecom mystries.
    – No, AT&T does not allow data access on iphone(I’m not sure if it works with os4.1, its a sim card wastage to even try it again)
    -however, blackberry 8520, 9700, &8310 can run data on prepaid plan with AT&T sans push email services.
    -AT&T also has one year plans not many know about them and many are reluctantant to offer. You pay more for a device ofcourse.
    -yes, american wireless service system gets a lot of flake and sometimes rightly so.
    – on some occasions iphones that used prepaid service were able to access data but such cases have been random hence not guaranteed.
    -as of tday the best plan on ATT prepaid are :$60/month: unlimited talk n txt
    $75/month:unlimted talk, text n 200 MB data. Data can be from ‘DUMB’ phones as we call then. Some blackberries can also work on this plan.
    -termination/cancellation fees on post paid contract accounts opened after July(not sure about the date) have been increased to $325 odd.

  41. The tmobile prepaid sim card into an iphone 2g (unlocked) and everything worked including the data.

  42. Thank you all so much for this discussion and information.

    I was in the US from Australia Sep-Dec 2010 with unlocked iphone 3G and only could find AT&T postpaid no contract, had to pay $500 deposit, $84 a month for unlimited talk & text and 2GB data. Then I added tethering since I didn’t have cable etc for my computer, another $20 but no extra data. I HATED dealing with AT&T, never found one person who had any clue at all.

    At the end I went through hoops to arrange to have the deposit paid back into my US bank account, but they sent a check to my former address anyway… lucky a friend found it and put it in the bank.

    Now I have to go back for a month, and just dreading the phone saga. The phone buddy idea sounds wonderful, my daughter has an AT&T plan so hope that’ll work. If not, T-mobile plan for $75 looks the next best, but 200MB not so great… I can’t believe how expensive and limited it is, when I read that about 80% of adults in US have mobile phones (and so many have no landline now).

    And there are so many phone companies, are they all in some giant cartel that keeps prices up?

    No wonder Starbucks has so many people drinking lousy coffee, just so they can use free wifi…

  43. I will be going to Mae Sot , Thailand, from June 15 to Aaugust 15 . I want to use my iPhone 4 there.. Last time I ran up a very large bill. Can I unlock my iPhone and get a SIM in Thailand that will work for internet and phone?

    • Yes…but once you unlock it it won’t work in America anymore with your AT&T plan…I could be wrong about that…but am pretty sure once you unlock it then you’ll have to change your plan on AT&T or go with T-mobile. Also you will void the warranty….so be careful.

      • Can I restore the iphone to being locked when I return? then continue with AT&T here? Another option is to buy an iPhone in Thailand, and use it there… then sell it…
        I want to be able to use 3g/data while i’m there for two months…mostly for the the map ap, and finding where i am . and it costs a lot from AT&T roaming even with their data plans….

        • I’m not sure if once you get back to the States if you can reinstall the software and have it work with your AT&T plan again….and once you unlock it you break the warranty.

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