Using your own mobile phone for data access overseas is never a good idea. We generally advise buying a SIM in your destination, but if you're a regular traveller, having your own hotspot can make sense. In the first of an occasional series concentrating on a particular country, we're rounding up some of the prepaid and casual options that are available for purchase for the USA.
Photo by Valentina R. (Shutterstock)
While these devices aren't expensive, buying a hotspot wouldn't make sense if you're only going to the US for a brief trip. If you're a regular visitor or taking an extended trip, the investment could be worthwhile. While pricing is important, coverage is also an important factor. Check the limits carefully too; every
Freedompop offers 512MB of mobile broadband per month for absolutely nothing. You'll have to put down a refundable deposit of about $100 for a device (you can send it back, but that's unlikely for travellers). 512MB won't last long, so you may want a no-contract plan, which costs $US18 for 2GB over a month.
Freedompop offers a delightfully tiny little hotspot as its flagship device, but you can also get small USB modems for your laptop or even a data sleeve for your iPod touch. Data is provided over Sprint's ageing WiMax network, which offers speeds around 5-7Mbps with coverage quality that highly depends on your area. (You can check coverage here.) Because the device only uses WiMax and can't fall back on 3G data, it may be completely useless to those in poor reception areas. If you get good coverage, however, it's a wonderfully free/cheap way to get online.
Karma offers a very similar product to Freedompop. The hotspot hardware is essentially identical, but white in colour, and data is also provided via Sprint's WiMax network as well. The cost difference? Karma charges $US79 for its hotspot and $US14 for a 1GB of data. This may seem like a considerably worse deal, but it's not because of one interesting aspect: your data never expires. You don't pay $US14 per month, but $US14 for every gigabyte of data you use whenever you happen to use it. If you're not planning to use the service frequently, this is a great deal.
Karma suffers from the same network issues as Freedompop, as Sprint's WiMax coverage is inconsistent across the United States. Before you buy, make sure you're covered so you don't end up with a $US79 pocketable brick.
The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.