A Nation Without SIM Cards?

For travelers to the US, one of the most common questions is, “Where can I buy a SIM card for my cell phone?” If you walk into a store and ask for one, you are likely to discover a rather shocking fact: most Americans have never heard the word SIM card. Even electronics store sales people and cell phone dealers are quite likely not to understand this term.

SIM card

From Sweden to South Africa, from India to Iceland, world travelers are used to picking up a prepaid SIM card, popping it into their cell and, presto, instant phone service. How is it possible that Americans don’t know what a SIM card is?

That’s a very good question, and one without a satisfying answer. To seriously oversimplify a complex issue, it appears that the American use of the CDMA cell standard and the production of phones without exchangeable SIM cards as well as some seriously anti-competitive behaviors on the part of American carriers have left travelers with few good options.

So, what is a world wanderer to do?

SIM cards do exist in the USA, they just aren’t easy to find. In addition, tricky conditions printed in microscopic text make choosing a card very painful. After an exhaustive (and exhausting) search, we chose the 02 Universal SIMCard Prepaid Wireless Service. I would like to say it was the perfect SIM option for visitors to the US, but it isn’t – it’s simply the least awful option.

For its “Basic Plan,” which requires a $10 credit purchase, 02 charges an incredible 14 cents a minute to make and receive calls within the U.S. Apart from the high per minute rate, the SIM card is hard to find in stores, the set up is awkward, and the customer service is awful. And with all that negative, it is currently the best SIM for people who just want to be able to make a few calls in the United States.

If you do more calling, 02 offers a more palatable “Plus Plan,” which requires a minimum $29.99 credit purchase, but offers a reasonable 5-6 cents per minute depending on the amount of credit purchased. Unfortunately, this credit must be used within 30 days, essentially making this a $30 (or more) per month plan. Additionally, 02 promotes an “Unlimited Plan,” which is less attractive unless you are going to be making a lot of calls. One warning: the customer service at 02 is notoriously bad. One representative yawned loudly into my ear as I was working with her to purchase new credit. That’s pretty sad 02.

As an alternative, Virgin offers the second least hideous option, but credit evaporates if you don’t use it quickly enough. Other bad options include AT&T and T-Mobile, but you seriously need to read the fine print.

If you will be traveling in rural areas, investigate the coverage before you invest too much in a SIM card. Finding the right card for your situation will require some homework. In fact, finding a store that sells SIM cards at all can be quite challenging. BestBuy, Sears and Walmart are good places to begin your search.

Is the American SIM card mess more effort than it’s worth? For short stays in the US, simply paying the expensive international roaming charges through your home cell carrier might be the best option. (And don’t forget pay phones.) For longer stays in the US, buying an American cell phone with a monthly plan might be a cheaper option than trying to use a SIM card.

To Americans reading this blog posting, we are paying WAY too much for our phones, and the competition stinks! Start complaining.

WARNING: Visitors to the US much remember that American phones generally operate on the 850 and 1900 MHz frequency bands. Make sure your phone is compatible, otherwise the search for a SIM card is pointless.

5 responses to “A Nation Without SIM Cards?”

  1. avatar carrieannmarco says:

    Marco had this problem 5 years ago as well. It is funny, because after all the traveling I have done recently in third world, DEVELOPING countries, I find myself saying/questioning, “Wow! America is developing too; or is it?”
    And, I was going to comment on your blog about entering the US and all the paperwork. Marco got sent to a seperate room for interviews because he never reported that he was leaving America when we moved to Switzerland. He is not American, so he did not know that by law he was supposed to report his going home to immigration.

  2. avatar myeurop says:

    Hi guys. sending this message from Trent, my hometown, with a toasty 34 degrees today. (Last week in Madrid it was 44!!) I am not sure i should say “welcome back to the US”. From your posts it doesn’t really sound like you are feeling very welcome there. One word on alternatives to SIM cards: you can always buy a phone card and use it from any phone; or you can sign up for google voice (now free in the US only), or just try life without a cell phone ( that ain’t bad either!). As for the “paperwork” now required to enter the US, keep in mind that foreigners are now under the domain of the DHS ( they used to fall under the DOJ). This means that the primary issue when it comes to foreign visitors is security. Foreigners went from being a “legal issues” (DOJ) to being a “security issue” (DHS) That’s right: foreigners are first and above all a security threat. the DHS’s job is in fact to deal with such threats. You may think that the treatment people get at the border is insane. It actually makes sense from the vantage point of the DHS: a threat is a threat, it doesn’t matter if it breaths and walks. so, if i can’t say “welcome to the US,” i can at least welcome you to the third freaking millennium. O.

  3. avatar Pankaj says:

    Hey Tony n Thomas…it was great reading ur blogs…about the sim cards, I did not have a problem at all. I took the rolling monthly contract with T-mobile and paying about $25 for 500 mins of calling time and 1000 messages.

  4. avatar captain blu says:

    thanks for this great moment , I just want to ask ,how the iPhone work without a sim card and its being manufactured in the state ?

    • avatar Tony says:

      Actually, since this post was written, SIM cards are becoming slightly more common as GSM phones become more common. Older iPhones did not have SIM slots although I understand most do now. However, due to locked phones, anti-competitive behaviors, CDMA technology, and lack of understanding about what a SIM is, it is still difficult to find good SIM options. Our current recommendation is H20.

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