Prepaid Smartphone Data in the US for Travellers

T-Mobile SIM (edited)

This past weekend we took a trip down to Seattle to see the Harry Potter Exhibition at the Pacific Science Centre. Even though we were only travelling for the weekend, I decided to research and test out mobile data options in the US for getting Internet access on my Smartphone.

My first stop was with Rogers here in Canada. In the last couple of years they’ve been offering “discounted” roaming rate packages for voice, text, and data. According to their website I could add the following travel packs to my plan for US data:

  • $30 for 10mb
  • $50 for 25mb
  • $60 for 70mb

I decided to check out the prepaid SIM card options. My first google searches lead me to the old reliable flyertalk forums. Reading through a few threads here pointed me towards either T-Mobile or AT&T as the SIM card providers that I’d look into.

T-Mobile had the following plans available on their website.

Prepaid:

  • $70/mo – Unlimited Talk and Text with 2 GB data
  • $50/mo – Unlimited Talk and Text with 100 MB data
  • $30/mo – Unlimited Talk and Text with 30 MB data
  • $15/mo – Unlimited Talk and Text with no data

Pay-as-you-go:

  • $100 – 100-minutes of talk
  • $50 – 400 minutes of talk
  • $30 – 160 Minutes of talk
  • $10 – 30 minutes of talk

Mobile Broadband Passes:

  • $10/week – 100 MB data
  • $30/week – 300 MB data
  • $50/week – 500 MB data

Based on this information I was hoping that I could get a $10 pay-as-you-go card and add a $10 data bundle. Unfortunately, when I walked into the T-Mobile store in downtown Seattle they told me that the mobile broadband passes were for USB Internet sticks and not smartphone plans. I ended up signing up for the $30 prepaid to get 30 MB of data.

The process of actually signing up and activating the card was pretty painless. My phone was up and running within minutes and all of the network settings for data were automatically configured on my HTC Desire Z. One thing that I wasn’t expecting, though, is that prepaid data with T-Mobile is limited to EDGE speeds. At first I was a little disappointed with this, but then I realized that it may not be such a bad limit given that I had such a small bucket of data. (Update: I’ve figured out why I was stuck with EDGE)

The Edge speeds didn’t help, though, as I ran out of data within about 8 hours of light surfing. I suspect that I might have had Google maps running as a background task, which probably didn’t help, but either way $30 for 30 MB didn’t seem like such a good deal anymore.

Interestingly, when I finally ran out of Data, T-Mobile sent me a text letting me know that I could buy a Web DayPass. Not having any more data at the time, I had no idea how much a Web DayPass would cost and what it would give me so I just went without data for the second day of my trip.

Looking at the website now, it states that for $1.49 you can get a 24 hour mobile web access pass for Pay-as-you-go, and if required for prepaid plans. I wonder if I could have signed up for a $10 pay as you go and just burned up $1.49 per day for data usage? And is “mobile web access” limited to certain mobile sites? I suspect that there are some limitations since there is no data limit listed, but I’ll have to try that next time I’m in the US.

Before I left I did stop in at an AT&T and asked them about their plans. They told me that they had had options for 1MB for $4.99/mo or 100MB for $19.99/mo but that they weren’t available on smart phones, just regular phones with simple browsers. Boo.

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