If you’re travelling to the United States, having the right SIM card can save you a lot of money. We review the best value SIM cards for using your smartphone in the US.

USA Flag

Each year, almost 4 million Brits visit the USA. Whether you’re travelling to New York to do a bit of shopping, touring California to enjoy the beautiful scenery or visiting Florida to enjoy the theme parks with your family, you’ll probably want to use your phone when you’re there.

Having a smartphone in America can make it a lot easier to stay in touch with friends and family who are back in the UK. It can also be useful for navigating around (e.g. finding nearby restaurants and attractions with Google Maps).

The good news is it’s really easy to take a UK smartphone and to use it in the US. You can either roam on your UK SIM card or you can buy a US SIM card upon your arrival in the States. In this article, we’ll review and compare the best SIM cards for using your smartphone in the US. We’ll also look at the cost of using different SIM cards and the network compatibility with your UK handset.

Using a UK Smartphone on US Mobile Networks

AT&T and T-Mobile USA: Compatible with UK Handsets
Most smartphones sold in the UK will work on AT&T and T-Mobile in the USA.

Almost all UK smartphones sold in the past 10 years will work in the US without any problems. Typically, you can get 3G coverage from AT&T and both 2G & 3G coverage from T-Mobile USA. On a limited selection of newer handsets, it may also be possible to get some 4G coverage from the two mobile networks.

If you’re using a fairly old handset or if your smartphone was purchased from outside the UK, you should double-check to make sure your handset will work. Your phone will need to support one of the following frequencies for it to work in the US:

  • For AT&T, your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: As of January 2017, AT&T no longer provides 2G coverage.
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 850 or WCDMA/HSPA 1900
    • For 4G: LTE bands 2, 4, 5 or 17
  • For T-Mobile, your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 1900
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 1900 or WCDMA/HSPA 1700/2100 (AWS)
    • For 4G: LTE bands 2, 4 or 12

You should check your manufacturer’s spec sheet to see a list of frequencies supported by your handset.

It isn’t normally possible to use a UK smartphone on Sprint or Verizon Wireless. This is because Sprint and Verizon use a different technology for their mobile networks (CDMA/EVDO) which is incompatible with most UK smartphones.

The Two Ways Of Using Your Smartphone in the US

Going Abroad

There are two ways to use your smartphone in the US: you can either roam on a UK-based SIM card setting it up before you go or you can buy a new US-based SIM card upon your arrival in the States.

  • Roaming on a UK-based SIM card. Through international roaming, you can continue to use a UK-based SIM card when travelling in the US. You’ll continue having a UK-based phone number and you’ll be charged for any usage by your UK network. You’ll also normally be able to access coverage from both AT&T and T-Mobile USA. This is our recommended option for the majority of users. With a Pay As You Go SIM card from Three UK, you can use your smartphone in the US from just £10 for up to one month. It comes with inclusive data and inclusive calls back to the UK (including to other UK-based mobile numbers also abroad with you).
  • Buying a new US-based SIM card on arrival. If you’d like a local phone number in the US, you can buy a US SIM card upon your arrival in the States. This can either be from AT&T or T-Mobile USA. You should expect to pay at least $45 plus tax (that’s about £37 plus tax of around 10%). This will give you unlimited US calling and an allowance of data to use on your phone (additional charges will apply for calling back to the UK). Typically, it will only be worth getting a local US SIM card if you regularly travel there for extended amounts of time.

Roaming On Your UK SIM Card

The simplest and easiest way to use your smartphone in the US is via international roaming on your existing UK SIM card. The prices for using your phone in the US can vary depending on your home UK mobile network:

Network Making a Phone Call Receiving a Phone Call Sending a Text Accessing the Internet
BT Mobile £1.40/minute £1.25/minute 40p/text £5/MB
EE £1.00/minute £1.00/minute 40p/text £4/day for 500MB
giffgaff £1.00/minute £1.00/minute 30p/text £5 per MB
O2 £1.10/minute 90p/minute 40p/text £6 per MB
Orange £1.20/minute £1.20/minute 40p/text £3/day for 20MB
Plusnet Mobile £1.30/minute 70p/minute 40p/text £8/MB
Sky Mobile 80p/minute 80p/minute 35p/text £3/MB
Tesco Mobile 89p/minute 69p/minute 40p/text £8/MB
T-Mobile UK £1.20/minute £1.20/minute 40p/text £20/week for 100MB
Three Included Included Included Included
Virgin Mobile £1.50/minute £1.00/minute 30p/text £5/MB
Vodafone £1.35/minute £1.00/minute 35p/text £3 per MB

Comparison of roaming charges when using your UK-based SIM card in the US. The costs shown are for calling the UK and for sending a text message to the UK. It’s always free to receive a text message anywhere in the world.

If you’re roaming on a UK-based SIM card, you can benefit from the coverage on both AT&T and T-Mobile USA (your smartphone will automatically choose the network offering the strongest coverage).

The Best Network For Roaming in the US

ThreeThree is by far the cheapest mobile network for roaming in the US. When travelling to the United States of America, customers on Three can use their normal UK allowances at no extra charge. The offer is open to customers on both Pay Monthly (Advanced plans only) and on Pay As You Go. For more information, please read our full review of the Feel At Home offer.

If you’re not currently a customer of Three, you can benefit from the offer by signing up for a Three Pay As You Go SIM card. For instance, a £15 top-up will give you 3000 minutes, 3000 texts and 5GB of internet (up to 30 days usage in the US). A £20 top-up will give you up to 9GB of internet (also available to be used in the US).

Network Minutes Texts Internet Monthly
Cost
Three 3,000
to UK
3,000
to UK
5GB £15.00
Three 3,000
to UK
3,000
to UK
12GB
9GB in USA
£20.00

With an “All in One” Pay As You Go bundle, the inclusive minutes, texts and internet can be used abroad in the United States at no additional charge.

Your inclusive minutes and texts can only be used for calling a UK-based phone number. This includes any friends or family members who are also abroad at the same time with a UK-based phone number. Phone calls to a US-based phone number will cost you £1.40/minute extra.

As an alternative to the Feel At Home offer, customers on a 4GEE Max tariff from EE will also get roaming in the US at no additional cost. Vodafone Pay Monthly customers can pay an extra £5/day to use their phone in the US through Vodafone’s WorldTraveller offer.

Buying A US SIM Card On Arrival

If you regularly travel to the US for an extended amount of time, you might be better off with a local SIM card from one of two US networks. If you’re using your unlocked UK smartphone, you have the option of a SIM card from either AT&T or T-Mobile USA. Unfortunately, the Sprint and Verizon networks will not work on a typical UK-purchased smartphone.

You can buy a US SIM card upon your arrival in the States. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to buy one online as the US mobile networks will not only ship their SIM cards to the UK. You’ll be able to buy a SIM card in retailers like 7-Eleven, CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. Alternatively, you can get a SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile retail stores.

AT&T

AT&T LogoAT&T is the biggest mobile network in the US. They’ve been established for a longer amount of time than T-Mobile USA, which gives them better nationwide coverage. At present, AT&T claims to offer 99% population coverage on 3G and 4G (their 2G service closed down on the 31st December 2016).

On AT&T, the prepaid plans are known as GoPhone packages. You can get a GoPhone package from $45/month plus tax on your smartphone (or $30/month plus tax if you don’t need data).

For a typical smartphone user visiting the US, we’d recommend the $45 GoPhone plan (approximately £37/month plus tax). This will give you 4GB of high-speed 4G data along with unlimited calls & unlimited texts within the US. Phone calls back to the UK will cost you 49¢/minute (40p/minute) plus tax, or you can buy the $5/month GoPhone International Long Distance Package which gives you 250 minutes for calling a UK landline (approximately £4.10/month plus tax).

The following table shows Pay As You Go tariffs available from AT&T:

Network Minutes Texts Internet Monthly
Cost (USD)
Approx
Cost (GBP)
AT&T Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
None
$5 for 250MB
$30.00
plus taxes
£24.60
plus taxes
AT&T Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
4GB $45.00
plus taxes
£36.89
plus taxes
AT&T Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
8GB $60.00
plus taxes
£49.19
plus taxes

You can get a free GoPhone SIM card from your nearest AT&T store. Alternatively, it will cost you $9.99 plus tax at most other retailers (approximately £8 plus tax).

The exact price you pay will depend on local tax rates (see a list of wireless tax rates for each US state). Before getting an AT&T SIM card, it’s worth checking the coverage at places where you’ll regularly visit (see AT&T’s online coverage map).

Finally, it’s worth being aware that your GoPhone SIM card will be deactivated automatically if you don’t top it up again within 60 days of your previous bundle expiring. For this reason, it will only be possible to re-use the SIM card on a subsequent trip if you plan to visit the US again within a 60-day period.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile USAIn the US, T-Mobile is the third-largest mobile network in terms of number of subscribers. T-Mobile USA is a totally separate and independent network from T-Mobile UK.

On T-Mobile, there are two types of prepaid package: Simply Prepaid and Simple Choice Prepaid. Simply Prepaid is the more basic package: it starts from $40/month plus tax for 3GB of data, unlimited calls & unlimited texts within the US. Simple Choice Prepaid is a more expensive package with unlimited music streaming and the Binge On service.

For a typical visitor to the US, we’d probably recommend the $40 Simply Prepaid tariff (about £33 plus tax). It’s worth noting there’s also an additional upfront cost of $20 plus tax to get your T-Mobile SIM card (this will set you back by about £16 further plus tax). You’ll also need to pay an extortionate $1.99/minute plus tax for calling home to the UK (about £1.64/minute plus tax), or you can side-step this with the $15 T-Mobile international calling add-on (this is about £12.30 plus tax for unlimited calling to UK landlines and mobiles).

The following table shows Simply Prepaid tariffs from T-Mobile USA:

Network Minutes Texts Internet Monthly
Cost (USD)
Approx
Cost (GBP)
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
3GB $40.00
plus taxes
£32.75
plus taxes
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
5GB $50.00
plus taxes
£40.94
plus taxes
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
10GB $60.00
plus taxes
£49.13
plus taxes

The following table shows Simple Choice Prepaid tariffs from T-Mobile USA:

Network Minutes Texts Internet Monthly
Cost (USD)
Approx
Cost (GBP)
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
2GB $50.00
plus taxes
£40.94
plus taxes
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
6GB $65.00
plus taxes
£53.23
plus taxes
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
10GB $80.00
plus taxes
£65.51
plus taxes
T-Mobile Thumbnail Unlimited
to US
Unlimited
to US
Unlimited $95.00
plus taxes
£77.79
plus taxes

You can get a T-Mobile USA SIM card for $20 plus tax at any of their retail stores.

The exact price you’ll pay for the SIM card and bundle will depend on the local tax rates in the state where you’re staying (see a list of wireless tax rates for each US state). Before getting a T-Mobile USA SIM card, it’s worth checking the coverage for the places where you’re staying.

Finally, it’s worth being aware that your T-Mobile USA SIM card will expire if you don’t top it up for a period of 90 days. For this reason, you’ll only be able to re-use your SIM card on subsequent trips if you expect to visit the US at least once every 3 months.

Our Recommended Deal

For the majority of visitors to the US, we’d recommend roaming on a UK-based SIM card. Three is by the far the best UK mobile network from which to get a Pay As You Go SIM card: the SIM card is free and a top-up from £10 will get you up to 30 days usage over in the USA.

The following table gives a quick summary of the two options we’ve discussed in this article:

Roaming on your UK SIM card Buying a new US SIM card on arrival
Best option for the majority of users. Best option for frequent travellers to the US.
You’ll have a UK-based number (beginning with +44). You’ll have a US-based number (beginning with +1).
We recommend the Pay As You Go SIM card from Three. There is no charge for this SIM card. SIM cards are available from AT&T and T-Mobile USA. The SIM card is free or up to $20 (£16) plus tax.
Starts from £10 (including tax) for 30 days usage. Starts from $45 (£37) plus tax for 30 days usage.
Coverage from both AT&T and T-Mobile USA. Coverage from one network only.
Inclusive calls to UK-based phone numbers. Calls to a US phone number are £1.40/minute. Inclusive calls to US-based phone numbers. Calls to the UK start from 49¢/minute (40p/minute) plus tax.
You can continue to use your SIM card in the UK after the end of your trip. Your US SIM card will expire after 90 days unless you top it up again during this time.

On Three, you can choose from two different Pay As You Go bundles with which you’re able to use their Feel At Home offer:

Network Minutes Texts Internet Monthly
Cost
Three 3,000
to UK
3,000
to UK
5GB £15.00
Three 3,000
to UK
3,000
to UK
12GB
9GB in USA
£20.00

You’ll get the SIM card sent to your UK address so there’s one less thing to do when you arrive in the States. The SIM card will also work on both the AT&T and T-Mobile US networks. You’ll also get a UK-based phone number and you’ll be able to use the inclusive minutes and texts to contact other UK-based numbers (this includes your friends and family who are also abroad with a UK-based number).

Customers of any UK mobile network can sign up for a SIM card from Three (all you’ll need to do is to make sure your handset is unlocked). You can choose your All-in-One bundle when ordering the SIM card (we recommend either the £15 or £20 bundle).

  • US Roaming Price: £15/month for 3000 minutes, 3000 texts and 5GB of data
  • Overages: 1p/MB once you’ve used 5GB (or choose the £20 bundle for a 9GB allowance)
  • £15 top-up buys: Up to 30 days of smartphone usage in the US

Order Three Pay As You Go SIM Card →

We would only recommend buying a local SIM card upon your arrival in the States if you’re a frequent traveller requiring a US-based phone number. Of the two possible networks, AT&T has slightly lower prices so is our recommended network for anyone choosing a US-based SIM card.

Other Top Tips For Travelling To The US

Samsung Portable Battery Pack
You’ll need to make sure your electronic devices have sufficient amounts of power before boarding the flight. Portable chargers can therefore be a great investment.

When travelling to the US, it’s also worth bearing in mind the following things:

  1. You’ll need an ESTA to fly to the US (it costs $14 or approximately £11.52 per person). If you’re travelling to the US by air or by sea (even if you’re only transiting to a third country), you’ll need to complete an online ESTA form (from the US Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). It costs $14 per person and lasts for two years (this is approximately £11.52 per person). There’s more information about this on GOV.UK and Money Saving Expert. You should always apply for your ESTA on the official website run by the US Department of Homeland Security.
  2. Make sure your electronic devices have power before boarding. As of July 2014, there are extra security measures for travellers to the US. All electronic devices being carried in your hand luggage should have sufficient amounts of power for you to be able to turn them on. This includes your smartphone, tablet, laptop and e-book reader. You could be asked to switch on the device and to demonstrate its function when passing through airport security. As there are only limited charging points available at the airport, it’s probably a good idea to invest in a portable charger (prices start from around £12).
  3. Make sure you have the relevant adapters for charging your electronics. You’ll need a UK-to-US plug adapter for charging your electronic devices (besides your mobile phone, consider whether you might need additional adapters for your laptop, hairdryer, shaver, etc).
  4. Use TSA approved locks for securing your baggage. If you’re using a lock to secure your baggage, it must be TSA approved (see Amazon.co.uk for a list of TSA approved baggage locks). If you use a non-TSA approved lock, security teams at the airport may take a bolt cutter to your lock.

Your Comments 170 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 170 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • Three simply does not work. I have tried it in New York and also in San Francisco. If it does not work in these two places, I’d be surprised if it works elsewhere. Its a con!

    • I travel to the US frequently, and last year out of curiosity I tried a Three pre-paid sim… it let me down in Florida – from Miami to Orlando… but next year I am living in Virginia for one maybe two years…. now I’ve head Three has a two month cap (read comments) I’m thinking I better get a US sim but it’s so expensive…. is T-Mobile really the cheapest for anything over 8gb data, and what does the Three 2 month cap entail? Thanks so much, this is really is a fab tech tip Ken! Regards Scott

  • Hi Ken

    A caveat re Three. I’m currently half way through a 4 week driving trip around New England, with. three Feel at home monthly package. I’m struggling to even get phone reception in most of the locations we’ve visited (currently in Portman, Maine, with very sketchy service, previously, driving down from Bar Harbor, had none till Portman.

    And data is a joke. When it’s available, it’s so slow it’s like using an old first generation handset even for Google!

  • Great website! Super helpful – thanks!
    I’m going to work in NYC for 4 months. Currently have Three Rolling monthly contract with unlimited everything. Works fine when abroad using feel at home (if somewhat slow on the data front). As I’ll be outstaying the 2 month Feel at Home limit, is there a way round that?
    What if one was to post their phone back to the UK and get someone to turn it on so it registers on the UK network again, and then post back to NYC. Would the 2 months start again?

    I’ll definitely be getting a local sim ( prob at&t) for making local calls and using data when there, but would be great to keep my UK phone alive whilst there too!
    Thanks for the tips!

    • Hi Jonny,
      Many thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, when using Feel At Home in the USA, Three’s fair usage limit is 2 “complete months” in a rolling 12-month period. More information here on the exact wording of the policy. Unfortunately, I think this means you’ll probably go over the two month limit, unless of course you could somehow get your usage under the 2 “complete months” limit. My advice would probably be to call Three customer services to explain your situation, and to ask them how you can make sure you’re compliant with their policy.
      Ken

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