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How to get pay-as-you-go data in the US (without a US credit card)

Prepaid Visa Gift Cards

Check out this newer post for another way of getting roaming service in the US — especially if you’re looking to use your smartphone instead of your iPad.

Every Canadian with an iPad knows this problem: regardless of which Canadian wireless provider you’re using locally, the cost of US data roaming is absurd. The best offer I’ve been able to find was something like $0.40 per megabyte for the first 100MB. After that, it goes up to $1.00 per megabyte. Lovely. I blow through that in about 6-8 hours, especially if I’m also using the device as a GPS to find my way around.

It took a bit of asking around, but the solution is as follows:

Go to any AT&T-operated store and ask for a new micro-SIM for an iPad. They hand these out for free in AT&T-operated stores (experience suggests that independent vendors feel they can charge you for the SIM, so I try to avoid those stores). After putting it into your device, you could activate a pas-as-you-go iPad data plan right on the device itself (works just like it does in Canada). The problem is, you don’t have a credit card with a US billing address, so you’re stuck.

Next, go to a grocery store or gas station, and buy a $50 Visa or Mastercard gift debit card. Make sure you don’t accidentally buy a re-loadable ‘student’ credit card (available for $4.95, often on the same wall of gift cards) because those require you to show ID when you buy them. The gift debit card will cost you the face value plus an ‘activation fee’ (mine was an additional $5.95)—I guess the retailer needs to make some money, too.

Once you get back to your hotel, you need to (briefly) get internet access; try your hotel’s ‘business centre.’ In order to use your new gift debit card for online purchases, you need to register it—which basically means you can enter any valid US address yourself as the card’s billing address. You can just use your hotel’s street address and ZIP code.

Once you’re done registering, you’re ready to use the card to activate the AT&T pay-as-you-go data plan with it. Works like a charm. Plans currently cost $30/month for 3GB of data (plenty for a 10-day trip as I just found out).

Remember to cancel your plan as you leave the US. You don’t want them to keep charging you month after month when you’re no longer there. I believe you can just re-activate it using the same method when you travel again.

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7 Responses to How to get pay-as-you-go data in the US (without a US credit card)

  1. Chris (UK) February 26, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    Thanks Carsten, just to confirm that your trick worked a treat on my recent stateside trip.

    I happened to want to buy an iPad mini but suppose you could just walk into your favourite mobile carrier’s shop and get a SIM for an existing iPad or laptop dongle. Various carriers, including Verizon, now offer ‘prepaid’ data plans BUT as you point out, one needs a US issued credit card. So I walked into a Duane Reade (in NYC) and got myself a $50 Amex “gift card” (+ $4.95 activation fee). I then simply signed up to the Verizon prepaid plan straight on the iPad, using my hotel’s street address – didn’t even have to register the credit card. The Verizon plans come with mobile hotspot functionality so I could tether the wife’s iPhone and my laptop w/o a hitch. This cost $30 for 2GB/mo ($20 for 1GB also avail), a steal compared to what most hotels will charge you: $15/day or thereabouts…

    A word of caution, if buying a new iPad, watch the carrier compatibility to ensure it will work at home as things have changed with the LTE models…

    Thanks again for a most helpful post!

  2. Chris (UK) February 27, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Just one more thing: it looks like things might be a little difficult if the plan is to deactivate/reactivate the service for subsequent visits. see here: http://macmavenconsulting.com/blog/sim-card-deactivation-on-verizon-ipads/ This guy even filed – and won – a small claims case against Apple for misleading advertisement.

  3. Ann Nightingale July 12, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    I have found an amazingly simple solution to the US credit card problem. Enter your full real address (including city, province and postal code) in the address lines provided on the online form. Then give a “legit” US city and zip code in the form fields (Beverly Hills 90210 is easy to remember). Submit and you’re good to go. The credit card company has the information that it needs to authorize your card and the web form has the info that it needs to validate for submission. I’ve done this about half a dozen times for different purchases and it’s worked every time!

  4. Carsten Knoch July 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    I’m not really sure I understand what you’re suggesting.

  5. Sonja July 29, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    Hi, Will this work if i have an old unblocked iphone 3. I want to mainly use the data…
    thanks

  6. Carsten Knoch July 29, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Won’t work as described because the iPhone doesn’t have the same on-device activation mechanism as the iPad. If you’re from Canada, try this instead: http://roammobility.com. Just tried this on iPhone and it works great.

  7. WorldTraveller52 August 2, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    Also check out Ready SIM. Prepaid SIM cards that activate on their own. No sign up required. You just insert the SIM and send a text to start your plan. And you can get a local US number by texting in any ZIP code (like 90210). I bought two of these for a one week holiday in the USA and it was great. Check it out at http://www.readysim.com

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