I've been to NAB a number of times now. Each time I've come back with a massive phone bill for data roaming.
On my last visit, I tried to get by with convention center WiFi. That was a terrible experience even with the paid option. After numerous problems signing up and accessing the network, I ended up falling back to international roaming.
I've vowed that this year is going to be different. In the hope of saving other people some money, I thought I'd share what I've learned about the different alternatives.
Options Before You Leave
Prepaid service isn't nearly as prevalent in the U.S. as the rest of the world. This means that you can't always just pop in to the nearest convenience store, buy a SIM card and be on your merry way.
As a result, I've found that a good option can be to pick something up before you leave. There are a number of SIM card solutions designed for global travelers. I'll point you in the direction of the one that I'm using, but with a little googling, you should be able to find something that's designed for people from your country or region.
For people coming from Canada, the best solution that I've found is called Roam Mobility. They sell a $20 SIM card and a variety of all inclusive talk, text, and data plans. You can buy a plan that covers the number of days you'll be in the country. I hope that the 7-day unlimited talk and text plan with 2GB of data for $27.95 will be enough for me.
One great thing about their solution is that it specifically allows tethering your computer to your phone. U.S. carriers typically don't allow this in their terms of service and they can cut you off their network without warning. Since we will be using tethering to demo ScreenLight, we don't want to risk being cut off suddenly.
Another big bonus of using a plan like this is that it's specifically geared towards international travelers. Unlimited calls to Canada are included in the plan. With prepaid services in the U.S., these international calls typically cost $.50 per minute and can add up fast when you are staying connected with your family and your customers.
The last advantage of SIM cards geared towards international travelers is that any prepaid credit you purchase may remain valid for a longer period of time. With Roam Mobility, my credit and number remains active for a full-year without use. The T-mobile card I bought the last time I was in the U.S. expired after 90 days of inactivity.
Prepaid Options Once You've Landed
The last time I was in Vegas I didn't see a bunch of mobile phone shops along the strip. There are probably a couple places if you look hard enough, but the best variety and some of the best deals come from Walmart rather than carrier specific stores. Plus, why skip out on a trip to this cultural institution :)
Here are some of the best options I've seen. I've focused on unlimited plans with big data buckets due to my own usage patterns. If you are a light user, you may want to do a little more research or just stick with your carriers roaming rates.
This MVNO offers a prepaid plan with unlimited calling in the U.S., unlimited texting in the U.S., and 2.5GB of data for $45. You can chose either a T-Mobile or an AT&T SIM card when you purchase the service. T-Mobile and AT&T use different bands for HSPA and LTE service. You'll want to check your cell phone's bands to decide which option to pick. You can add unlimited international calling for an additional $15. The only downside to this service, and the reason that I'm not using it, is that the terms of service do not allow tethering. SIM cards for the service can only be purchased online or at Walmart.
While it may not be as big as AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile is much more friendly and offers much better prepaid prices. It has a particularly good offer that is exclusive to Walmart. For $30 you get up to 5GB of data, unlimited text, and 100 minutes of talk. Additional calling is $0.10 per minute. The great thing with T-Mobile is that it allows tethering on its prepaid plans, so you are free and clear if you need that feature. Once again, just check to make sure that the bands it uses for 4G data are compatible with your phone. Trust me, you don't want to go back to the old days of EDGE and GPRS data.
You can get the AT&T network for less via Straight Talk, but if you want a little more hand holding you can always check out AT&T's GoPhone prepaid service. A plan with unlimited talk and text with 2GB of data is $60. Just beware that you aren't allowed to tether your phone on this plan.
Sprint and Verizon
I would steer clear of these two companies since your phone is probably not compatible with the CDMA networks they use for phone calls. Same thing goes with the MVNOs like Virgin and Boost that run on their networks.
Other Things to Consider
- Make sure your phone is unlocked.
- Make sure your phone will work on the bands that are used for high-speed data in the U.S.
- Buy a plan with a big bucket of data. This is often more convenient than dealing with spotty hotel WiFi.
- Check the fine print with tethering if you need it. T-Mobile is the only prepaid provider that explicitly allows it. You can usually make tethering work with other services, but you may need waste time fiddling with your phone settings.
Kiss Roaming Fees Goodbye
International roaming rates seem criminal. Using one of these services sends a good message to carriers. As I write this, my phone company called me and offered me daily rate of $7.99 for a one-day bucket of 50 MB of data. No thanks!!
Same thing goes for hotels. It seems crazy to me that the more you spend on a hotel, the more likely they are to nickel and dime you with amenities like in-room WiFi and extra charges for parking. Even when you get WiFI, service tends to be slow and spotty at best. Why not bypass the whole racket and save yourself some aggravation?
If I've missed any great options, please share them with others below.