Ask LH: What Roaming Option Should I Use In The US?

Ask LH: What Roaming Option Should I Use In The US?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m taking a trip to the US soon with my partner, and we want to be able to use our phones to contact one another while we’re there, and maybe give our folks the odd shout to let them know we’re alive. So we’d need a decent data pack at the very least, and ideally the ability to call or SMS. What’s the cheapest — and easiest — way of doing this? Thanks, Roaming To Reno

Tourist picture from Shutterstock

Dear RTR,

Despite some reductions in costs in recent years, roaming charges for Australian carriers are still very high. Unless there’s an urgent business need to maintain your existing number, we never recommend using your Australian SIM overseas. It’s too easy to run up an enormous bill. Remove your SIM on the plane and pop it somewhere safe, and plan on buying a prepaid SIM when you arrive.

This has two advantages: you’ll be paying local rates for your calls, and you can’t experience any “bill shock” — the worst that can happen is your credit will run out. Since you’re only travelling to the US, your phone will also have the same charges throughout the country. (This is easier than roaming to Europe, where crossing a border is easily done but can change the amount you are charged.)

Bear in mind also that there is plenty of free Wi-Fi on offer in major US cities, via cafes, hotel lobbies, shopping centres and other areas. For casually staying in touch with family, this can often suffice, and you can use your US credit for calling your partner, booking restaurants or other America-centric activities.

I’m loath to recommend individual carriers, since coverage for the main US networks varies a lot depending on where you travel, and what you choose might vary depending on your trip length (some carriers offer 30-day prepaid deals which make sense for longer journeys but are overkill on brief trips) . The most visible carriers in the US are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Do some advance research and choose a plan that suits, then head into a store (like Australia, you can’t move for mobile phone stores) to acquire it. That way you can be sure the SIM actually works.

The one inconvenience of this approach is that you’ll have to let family and friends know what your “temporary” number is if they do want to text you. However, this is a small price to pay compared to high roaming charges. Enjoy the trip! If readers want to recommend specific plans, we’d love to hear it in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • On my trip to the US at Christmas, I tried using a prepaid SIM from

    It was on the T-Mobile network, so make sure you check coverage, it wasn’t always perfect where I was. But cost wise I was impressed. $60 and I got unlimited calls (even to Australian landlines) and 2.5GB of data.

    I didn’t get the 4G it suggested, most probably cause I was in a patchy area.

  • In late 2013 I bought a prepaid Sim card from (a highly rated) eBay seller and had it posted to me at home.
    It was for the Tmobile network and provided unlimited local/mobile calls and internet. After the small (under $10) purchase price, it costs a flat $2 per day for 2G internet speed OR $3/day for limited 200mb of something faster like 3G or 4G.

    It delivered everything I needed. Total cost was about $40 for my 10 day trip, unlimited calls and sufficient internet.

    Note on my previous trip to the US (NYC only) i disabled internet/roaming and used ONLY free wifi from McDonalds, Starbucks and bookshops, and I found that sufficient in such a populated city. I still got texts from home because my Telstra SIM card was in the phone.

  • Any advice on what to do for Europe? (UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austrlia and Italy at this point)

    There are plenty of those travel/global SIM options out there, and some of them even have reasonable call rates. But pretty much EVERYTHING sucks for data – it’s just way too expensive.

    I know using free WiFi from cafes, hotels etc is a good option when you’re browsing the web, reading email or checking social media, but half the problem when travelling is working out where the hell you are, so having mobile data to access Google Maps is a pretty high priority!

    General advice I’ve seen for Europe is to get a Vodafone PAYG SIM in the UK, but they still seem to want to charge 2 pounds per day for 25MB – a decent deal by other providers standards, but still costly when compared to what we get at home. I could easily chew up more than 25MB in a day if using the phone with Maps for navigation…

    (Info re: Vodafone from )

    Anyone know of any better deals out there?

  • The prepaid idea above is definitely the correct one. I’m currently living in the US and T-mobile’s coverage is horrible, even in cities. Not the best idea, especially if travelling in strange places. Your best bet is to stick to AT&T for a simple prepaid plan. Also, do not worry about “is my phone unlocked”; You can pick up a little Nokia with a colour screen for $20 bucks.

  • Landed with my family in LA in Nov 2012. Went into Target and bought 2 Virgin Mobile handsets (they were Samsung flip-phones with built-in SIMs). Cost $5 each. Bought two $10 prepaid cards (for Virgin mobile) with 30 day validity. Went back to hotel room and set it up over hotel wi-fi using the hotel address as our residence.
    Was in the US for 3 weeks, essentially my partner and I had free walkie-talkies for calling/texting etc when we were apart. Also gave out the phone number to other contacts in the US – very handy.
    Total cost? US$30.
    Still have the handsets and plan to re-activate on future visits, although may have to switch to a new number…..

  • If you’re on a Vodafone Red plan you can “Roam like home” for $5 a day. This means you can use the data, voice and text included in your plan in Australia while traveling overseas. Currently available in USA, UK, NZ and 46 other countries in Europe and Asia. Might be a bit more expensive than a local SIM but more convenient. If you don’t use any data voice or texts on a given day eggs you use free wifi that day you don’t have to pay the $5. Full disclosure I work at Vodafone.

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