Using my non-US smartphone in America

Over the last two years, I’ve been incredibly lucky in being able to attend a number of tech conferences over in the Bay Area, San Francisco. In all of those trips, I found there was one thing that turned out being ABSOLUTELY essential every single time. That thing was having access to a smartphone with proper data access.

Whether it was to co-ordinate with my mates who traveled to America with me, online networking with people I met around the conferences, or even to simply look up anything that suddenly came along (such as ‘how do American tips work?’, and ‘how do I get out of the Tenderloin?’ ^_^’), there were many times where being able to access the internet at the drop of a hat was EXTREMELY useful (née life-saving. XD).

That being said, if you’ve never been to America before, and have no idea on even where to start, hopefully this blog post will help you. This post is the culmination of experimentation by myself and quite a few of my mates over multipe combined trips to America, so hopefully it’ll save you some trouble doing the same thing (as well as some money).

First thing’s first, before you head off to America, one thing you absolutely NEED to do is ensure that your smartphone of choice is carrier-unlocked. I’ll go into more detail on what carrier-locking is exactly in a later post, but in a nutshell, if you didn’t buy your smartphone outright (eg, you received it when signing up for a 1-2 year contract), then it’ll be locked to that telephone company, and no other phone carrier’s SIM card will work with it. Depending on where you live, getting your smartphone unlocked can be done relatively easily and cheaply (In Australia, we’re lucky enough to get that for free from any company!), but it’s something you absolutely need to ensure is taken care of if you plan to take your phone overseas. You CAN get your phone unlocked overseas, but it can be a somewhat slow process, and if it involves having to call you phone carrier’s support line, lining up with proper business hours can be a bit of a pain.

Secondly, and this may depend entirely on your country of origin, and your smartphone model, you may need to check to see if your smartphone is capable of connecting to American mobile networks. Most of the American networks run on GSM, but some also run on CDMA. While I can’t really vouch for Android handests, I can tell you right now, if you’re rocking an iPhone 4S or above, you’re completely safe (iPhone 4 and below only work on GSM).

Once you’re in America, let me cut right to the chase. While we researched all of the carriers before leaving, we all discovered that AT&T was the carrier of choice. Absolutely none of the others even rank. One of my buddies DID try out T-Mobile though, but sadly, he found it was absolutely terrible, getting only Edge speeds in the middle of the city, and constantly dropping out during calls. But the rest of us who went with AT&T got perfect 3G connections on our phones (And I would assume would have no trouble getting LTE next time!). :)

If you’re in the Bay Area for one of the conferences at Moscone, we discovered that the closest AT&T outlet was only a couple blocks up from the convention centre, which was easily within walking distance of all of our hotels.

Once you get to an AT&T store, all you need to do is explain your situation to them; that you’re only in town for a little while, and are looking for a basic pre-paid package, and they’ll be glad to help you. Invariably, they’ll set you up with an AT&T Go (pre-paid) account, and will then provide you with a SIM card matching your smartphone (So no messy chopping up of SIM cards required!).

An AT&T Go account WILL need a credit card in order to work, but thankfully they do NOT require a US billing address. And, while the account setup does require a billing address in order to proceed, it’s acceptable to use the address of the hotel in which you are staying.

Once you’re on an AT&T Go account, as long as your phone is properly unlocked, you should be able to simply pop the SIM card in and expect it to work. If you do end up needing to recharge (I managed to exhaust 1GB on my iPad inside a week thanks to LTE!), if you’re on iOS, it’s possible to rechard directly within the Settings app. If not, you can also recharge by going to the AT&T Go website.

One thing I do need to mention though. On some pre-paid setups, such as pre-paid LTE on iPad, it’s sometimes required to set-up automatic monthly billing on the device in order to proceed with using data on it. This can be somewhat annoying since you can easily leave the country, and AT&T will continue to bill your credit card. In regards to this, I discovered that no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have your AT&T SIM in the device, you can access the billing panel and cancel the subscription. If it STILL doesn’t work, it is possible to call AT&T’s help line (Which I ended up doing at one point), and they will help cancel it for you.

In any case, that’s the gist of getting your non-US smartphone set up with data during a trip to America. I hope this helps shed some light, and if you do end up trying this out, let me know how it goes!

Enjoy!

  • Published March 7, 2014
  • Categories Tech