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1024px-Flag of the United States

The US does a lot of things differently: voltage, plugs and the mobile phone system (usually referred to as the cell[ular] phone system.) This leads to a lot of confusion when you come from a different part of the world. Make sure to take note of these important differences.

Territory[]

the This article applies to the 50 states and the District of Columbia of United States of America (USA). It's valid for all of the continental mainland and the islands of Hawaii as well. There, the same operators are on the air forming one common network without roaming fees. This is partly true for Alaska, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands too, but additional operators offer mobile services there shown in own Puerto Rico (incl. US Virgin Islands) and Alaska articles. Other US overseas territories where different providers operate are featured in separate articles like these of Guam or Samoa.

Basics[]

Operators / Network carriers[]

The USA has 3 national mobile networks:

  • Verizon
  • AT&T Mobility
  • T-Mobile US

The historic fourth provider Sprint was merged with T-Mobile in 2020. A new 5G-only network and fourth provider is currently being built out by the satellite pay-TV company Dish. They sell prepaid service under the Boost Mobile brand, which you can find in the T-Mobile section of the article (they use both T-Mobile and AT&T for 4G/LTE).

The "Big 3" mobile networks are supplemented by small regional networks operating in limited, and usually more rural areas. Through domestic roaming agreements they may be available to prepaid customers. The "Big 3" also own the bigger MVNOs in the country. Some major examples would be Verizon owning TracFone and its sub-brands, AT&T owning Cricket, and T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile (MetroPCS).

Note that even without native coverage, federal regulations require all devices to be able to make emergency (911) calls on any available network that it can connect to.

Network compatibility[]

Your device will require the proper network band (frequency) support for it to function on the network. This can become a major issue for foreigners who will bring devices which likely only have partial band support, which can hurt network compatibility and reduce coverage. This is further exacerbated by the US using different frequencies for 4G/5G networks than many other countries. For more information see Network compatibility of devices.

As an alternative to using your existing device, cheap disposable phones (colloquially referred to as burner phones) are locally sold at major retailers such as Walmart, Best Buy and Target. On the cheaper side these will cost between around $30 to $100, but are usually network locked to whatever carrier they are branded with, and only support that carrier's bands. Generally, in most cases phones locked to a specific network usually work on MVNOs using that network, but not the other way around. For example an AT&T locked phone will work on Cricket, but a Cricket phone won't work on AT&T or any other MVNO unless unlocked. Another consideration is that phones made for Verizon and Verizon-based MVNOs will unlock after 60 days from initial activation as long as you don't cancel the number, so you can use it on another US provider later, or even use it at home (something to consider as they often offer discounted iPhones).

If you'll be staying in the country for a long period of time, or if you were looking to upgrade your phone anyway, it might be worth it to purchase a mid-or-high end US model phone that is factory unlocked. Of course, you will need to verify that the phone has full band support in your home country.

Device restrictions[]

If you are going to make voice calls at all on the mobile network, all 3 major carriers require Voice over LTE (VoLTE) support, as 2G and 3G networks are no more! Even though this page focuses on data, the 3 carriers have restrictions that affect most or all customers regardless of voice use.

Between the 3 networks:

  • AT&T only allows approved devices on their network. You may find their official whitelist to be out of date, but this is a better solution than purchasing service, inserting the SIM into your device and instantly having access to the network disabled, until you call customer service. They easily have the harshest restrictions, but the upside is that international iPhone models do not seem to have issues.
  • T-Mobile officially requires VoLTE, though you may be able to evade this requirement until their 2G network is decommissioned. This would imply that you can use any device on their network, though it is also confirmed.
  • Verizon may not allow you to activate an international device on their network. If this happens, the solution is to activate service on a compatible device, like a US iPhone, and then you can simply move the SIM card into your device. This workaround also works on T-Mobile, but not AT&T.

The above restrictions / requirements also apply to MVNOs that use these networks. However, international roaming from other countries as well as international eSIM providers such as Airalo and Flux Wireless seem to be exempt from these restrictions. In addition, contrary to what one may expect, if arriving from or transiting Canada, getting a Canadian SIM can be a price-competitive option for roaming on AT&T with a device not on their whitelist; see Freedom Mobile in the Canada article.

Plans[]

Likely the most important change here is that in the US, a data bundle or package is normally referred to instead as a plan. The concept of standalone data packages are virtually non-existent, as data plans or packages are instead purchased as add-ons to a monthly base plan that already includes a data allowance, as well as SMS messages and voice minutes. More data can often be added as an add-on. Because of this, carriers also encourage auto-renewal of your plan (autopay), but for most carriers this can easily be disabled.

Network priority[]

To make situation even more complicated, mobile network operators in US implements network prioritization levels. You data speed depends which operator and/or plan you choose (and in unlimited plans how much data you already used). High priority data operators advertises as a Premium data (but in some cases don't mean that you get high priority data). Take care that when you use all your high priority data (or when plan has deprioritized data from beginning), you may experience lower speed (or even data can be unusable) when network is overcrouded. Priority level is important only when network is busy - when network is clear, you'll mostly get maximal available speed. Prioritization levels depends on operator:

  • AT&T implements 3 levels of priority:
    • Premium Priority (maximal speed available, only accessible for bill-pay customers with most expensive AT&T Unlimited Premium plan)
    • Extra Priority (average 67% speed of Premium Priority, some MVNOs and almost all AT&T Prepaid plans have this priority level)
    • Starter Priority (= deprioritized, average 33% speed of Premium Priority)
  • T-Mobile implements 3 levels of priority:
    • High Priority (maximum speed available)
    • MVNO Priority (= deprioritized, priority level for most MVNOs on T-Mobile Network, average 30% speed of High Priority)
    • Heavy Data User Priority (= futher deprioritized, the lowest priority (if you hit 50 GB in T-Mobile Simply Prepaid Unlimited or 35 GB in Metro), average 15% speed of High Priority)
  • Verizon implements only 2 levels of priority: only determinates if you have premium data or not.

Frequencies[]

2G/GSM, 3G/UMTS[]

AT&T has shut down their 2G and 3G network. T-Mobile's 2G network is not worth mentioning further as it only functions effectively for M2M services, and will shut down on April 2, 2024. Their 3G network was shut down on July 1, 2022.

4G/LTE[]

Things get more complicated with 4G. Please view the table below and the sections for each network operator.

Be aware that the 700 MHz frequency used in the US is on bands 12, 13, 14, 17 and 29. These bands are all incompatible with the 700 MHz that is going to be employed or already in use in most of the world on band 28 (B28) because of different upload and download spectrum.

Every operator uses their low-band frequencies as their main, national coverage. If you are missing those frequencies such as Band 12, Band 13, and Band 71, you are likely going to have poor coverage in buildings and rural areas.

5G[]

The 3 national providers AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all launched their 5G networks in 2019. All of them have launched 5G for prepaid subscribers on their main prepaid network, and their main MVNOs.

Low-band, Sub-6GHz 5G is marketed as 5G Nationwide by Verizon, and 5G Extended Range by T-Mobile. Mid-band and high-band 5G is marketed as 5G+ by AT&T, 5G Ultra Wideband by Verizon, and 5G Ultra Capacity by T-Mobile. Unfortunately, for prepaid Verizon requires a more expensive plan to access 5GUW, while AT&T varies by MVNO. On the other hand, even T-Mobile's cheapest plans can access 5G.

Note that it is much different for MVNOs - some cannot access 5G, others will usually only support low-band 5G, and a few can access mid/high-band with a specific plan. Just like 4G, 5G frequencies are different to the ones used in other countries. But again, lower-end "burner" phones with 5G are now available starting from around $200.

Frequency guide[]

Not all frequencies are available in all locations. Also keep in mind that carriers greatly exaggerate their advertised coverage areas. The aforementioned low band frequencies are bolded.

Networks AT&T T-Mobile US Verizon
2G (GPRS, EDGE) - - -
3G (UMTS, HSPA+) - - -
4G (LTE, LTE+) 1900, 1700 / 2100, 700, 2300, 5200 MHz

B2, B4, B12/17, B14, B29, B30, B46, B66

1900, 1700 / 2100, 700, 2500, 5200, 3500, 600 MHz

B2/25, B4/66, B12, B25, B26, B41, B46, B48, B71

1900, 1700/2100, 850, 700, 5200, 3500 MHz

B2, B4/66, B5, B13, B46, B48

5G NR Sub6 1900, 850 MHz

n2, n5

600 MHz

n71

1900, 850 MHz

n2, n5

5G NR Mid-band

"5G+/UC/UW"

3.7 GHz

n77

2.5, 1.9 GHz

n41, n25

3.7 GHz

n77

5G NR mmWave

"5G+/UC/UW"

(select areas)

24 GHz, 39 GHz

n258, n260

24 GHz, 39 GHz, 28 GHz

n258, n260, n261

39 GHz, 28 GHz

n260, n261

Map Coverage

Coverage

Coverage (detailed)

Coverage

Operators[]

This article has been split between the three major networks due to length. To find more information for prices, etc. visit its respective page.

Verizon[]

Main article: Verizon USA

Verizon-0

Verizon (formerly Verizon Wireless) is the largest cellular service provider in the US. They have about 143 million subscribers as of 2022, with almost 24 million being from prepaid services, thanks to their 2021 acquisition of TracFone, the largest MVNO in the country.

They are widely considered to have the best network coverage in the country, going head-to-head with AT&T. The problem with Verizon is that in major cities, there will likely be congestion on the network which especially causes prepaid customers to be de-prioritized on the network. Data speeds will be slowed and can even be unusable in some cases. Even though this is possible on any of the three networks, due to Verizon's size it will be more noticeable in some areas.

Verizon operates LTE mainly on 700 MHz Band 13, along with 1700 / 2100 MHz (B4/66) and 1900 MHz (B2). For additional capacity they use Bands 5, 46, and 48. Low-band 5G is available as "5G Nationwide", which is more widely available on plans and MVNOs. It is on bands n2, n5, and n66. 5G "Ultra Wideband" is also available on prepaid, but only on their most expensive plans. It is on bands n77, n260, and n261.

The MVNOs that use Verizon include:

  • MobileX
  • Red Pocket (CDMA)
  • Total by Verizon (owned by Verizon)
  • TracFone (includes Net10, Straight Talk, Simple Mobile) (owned by Verizon)
  • US Mobile Super LTE / Warp 5G
  • Visible (owned by Verizon)

AT&T[]

Main article: AT&T USA

ATT-logo

AT&T has the second largest network in the US, rivaling head-to-head with Verizon. It has very good nationwide coverage like Verizon. They will likely have the most consistent experience, even on prepaid - you will likely get excellent coverage and good speeds. But it is more difficult to bring your own device and you may need to purchase or otherwise find a compatible one.

AT&T operates 4G LTE mainly on 700 MHz, which is Band 12 and 17, and Band 2 (1900 MHz). They also operate on 850MHz/B5 (being refarmed to 5G), 700MHz/B14, and additionally Bands 29 and 46 (700 & 5200 MHz) are used for additional downlink in some markets. Band 30 and Band 66 are used for capacity / speed. Their LTE-A may be labeled on some phones as "5G E" but of course, this isn't 5G at all. Most other phones would simply display it as LTE+ or 4G+.

5G "Nationwide" is on bands n2 and n5, and even though it is not supported on most prepaid plans, faster 5G+ is available on n77, n258, and n260.

The MVNOs that use AT&T include:

  • AirVoice
  • Boost Mobile (owned by Dish)
  • Cricket (owned by AT&T)
  • FreedomPop
  • H2O Wireless
  • Red Pocket (GSMA)
  • TracFone (includes Net10, Straight Talk, Simple Mobile, Total Wireless) (owned by Verizon)

T-Mobile US[]

Main article: T-Mobile USA

Tmobile-logo

T-Mobile has always been a smaller network, but has began to catch up to Verizon and AT&T thanks to their acquisition and merger with Sprint, the historic fourth provider. While their coverage is still far behind the other two in rural areas, they have the best speeds in many areas and undoubtedly have a more consistent 5G network of the three.

Unfortunately, despite their relative lack of device restrictions, the T-Mobile network uses many network bands which are not supported on most international phone models. Depending on your location, this could leave you without coverage. In major urban areas, you may be able to get by without band 71 for example, but in more rural towns you won't have service without it.

T-Mobile's 4G LTE is on band 2 (1900 MHz) and band 4 / band 66 (1700 / 2100 MHz). On Bands 12 and 71, (700 / 600 MHz) "Extended Range 4G LTE" is also operated - this may be the only 4G frequencies available on their network in some areas (mainly rural or indoors.)

T-Mobile uses band n71 for their "Extended Range" 5G network. "5G Ultra Capacity" operates on band n41 (2600 MHz) and n25 (1900 MHz). Both low and mid-band 5G operate on non-standalone and standalone mode. Very limited mmWave coverage operates on bands n258, n260, and n261 in a few major cities. Unlike AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile does not restrict 5G by plan, all you need is a compatible device.

The MVNOs that use T-Mobile include:

  • Boost Mobile (owned by Dish)
  • FreedomPop GSMT
  • Google Fi
  • GoSmart Mobile
  • Lycamobile
  • Metro by T-Mobile (MetroPCS) (owned by T-Mobile)
  • Mint Mobile (sale pending to T-Mobile)
  • Red Pocket (GSMT)
  • Tello
  • TextNow
  • Ting (owned by Dish)
  • TracFone (includes Net10, Straight Talk, Simple Mobile, Total Wireless) (owned by Verizon)
  • Ultra Mobile (sale pending to T-Mobile)
  • US Mobile GSM

US specifics[]

The following characteristics may be taken for granted for US residents and frequent visitors, but pose a challenge for newcomers:

Prices and taxes[]

As usual in the US, all prices advertised are without taxes. In most states, you need to add sales taxes of up to 10% to the stated prices. This applies to starter packs and top-up vouchers, locally called refill cards, sold over the counter. Even online top-ups on the websites of the providers are taxed additionally. A reliable workaround for many providers is the 3rd party top-up site of Callingmart. For whatever reason, they don't charge any tax and only a minimal fee of up to 2% on some operators, which can sometimes be waived by using promotional codes.

When it comes to phone calls, the US is unique in two respects. First, the receiving party gets charged for taking a domestic phone call (either at pay-as-you-go rates or deducted from the receiving party's bundled minutes) and therefore if a receiving party does not have any credit remaining, the call will not be connected (or if the receiving party runs out of credit whilst the call is in progress, it will be terminated immediately). Second, the call is charged from the moment you dial, not the moment the other party picks up, thereby rendering the first minute effectively as a connection charge so ensure you have good cellular coverage and be careful when dialing. Luckily given the rising prominence of mobile data, many of the cheaper plans now include unlimited minutes.

In general, UK internet comparison site cable.co.uk has ranked the US as 218th in terms of mobile data affordability with data costing on average $6 per GB (August 2023). This means only 18 countries/territories have more expensive data than the US. Only Switzerland has more expensive data than the US amongst OECD countries.[Cable 1] You may want to check out this sub-article for alternatives on how to get high-speed mobile data more affordably in the US.

BYOD and BYOP[]

The simple fact that you already have an unlocked mobile device capable of US frequencies and only need a new SIM card (and a 'plan', see above) from the provider is often called either BYOD or BYOP in the US. It stands for "bring your own device/phone" and, as explained earlier, can be complicated when trying to bring an international phone.

Plugs and voltage[]

All power adapters for mobile devices can cope with both 110 and 220 Volts nowadays, but you may check beforehand whether "110 V" is written on it. So only the US flat-pin power plug can be a challenge for visitors from overseas. All round-pin plugs and even Australian flat-pin plugs need an adapter to fit. A 2-pin adapter is sufficient. These are available for around $1-$2 in cheap Chinese-owned stores, but some travel accessory shops might want to charge you $20+ for a set of these small plastic parts. If you don't go to a city with a Chinatown, you might want to bring it from your country or buy it on for example eBay beforehand.

Another thing you have to consider is that even the most basic replacement USB cable in the USA can wildly vary in price, especially in tourist areas. While cheap cables may be available in convenience stores, gas stations, etc., they may also sell overpriced cables instead that can cost over $10! So make sure you bring (and don't lose) your own charging cable from home.

Further Research[]

There are many online resources that can help you find, compare, and ultimately find the best prepaid service provider for your needs.


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