One of the first and most important things on your to-do list as an international student is setting up a new phone plan.
Our picks for international use are T-Mobile’s postpaid plans and ConnectED Mobile’s prepaid plans, which offer free SMS & data abroad in 210+ countries and destinations. These carriers also offer free calling, SMS and high speed data in Canada & Mexico.
In the USA, mobile plans are more complex and expensive than in other countries. We have broken down everything you need to choose the best plan for you – one that saves money while meeting your needs as an international student.
5 Factors to Consider When Choosing a U.S. Phone Plan
#1: Postpaid vs. Prepaid Plans
Here in the U.S., mobile plans are split into two categories: prepaid and postpaid plans. Some carriers offer both types (Verizon most notably), while other carriers may specialize specifically in prepaid plans, such as ConnectED Mobile and StraightTalk Wireless.
Prepaid plans are a great fit for international students. Prepaid plans avoid the need for a U.S. credit score and are exactly as they sound: you pay before using the service. By paying in advance, you don’t need an in-country credit history to qualify. This is why prepaid plans are the way to go for most international students! International students can sign up for prepaid plans without needing any of the visa paperwork and financial history that would be required for postpaid plans. Prepaid plans also have the benefit of offering lower prices for longer billing cycles — for example, you may save up to 10-15% by purchasing an annual or quarterly plan. See below for what features to look for when choosing your provider.
To use a prepaid plan, you supply your own mobile phone device. Your existing device from home will likely be compatible, but you’ll want to confirm this on the U.S. provider’s website. Occasionally a particular phone model purchased abroad will need different frequencies to work on the higher-speed networks in the U.S. If you purchased your device from your home carrier, ask them to unlock it for you before you leave. Or, you can purchase a new phone from an electronics store, Apple, or Amazon and pop in your SIM card to get going. Phone devices are not tied to prepaid plans and may be swapped as needed.
Postpaid plans allow you to pay your bill each month after you’ve received the service. Many customers choose a postpaid plan in order to take advantage of a new phone device payment plan, which allows a customer to pay off a device over 12-24 months.
However, these plans require a U.S. credit score, which can take time to build up. This credit requirement is what allows the carrier to offer the service (or device) to customers ahead of time and ensure payment collection after. Unfortunately, credit history abroad is generally non-transferrable. This makes these plans generally off-limits to incoming international students as students can only apply for an SSN with their first U.S. job and build up U.S. credit history, which can take time. One way to potentially hack this is to be added to an American friend’s family plan and paying them for your share of service each month. International students can also build their credit by making monthly payments on a U.S. credit card or U.S. loan, from a provider like MPOWER.
#2: Plan structure
Single line vs. multi-line
In many countries, plans are priced per line. (A line is equivalent to a phone number.) Here in the U.S., many students are surprised to see the fine print — that advertised prices of $30-40 at major carriers are actually for 4+ lines. To activate only a single line at major carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T), the price is nearly double, costing around $50-70 per month.
To avoid this surprise at checkout, make sure to compare plans for single line pricing or better yet, go with a carrier designed for individuals. For example, ConnectED Mobile which is designed for international students works with a major network to offer highly discounted single line plans for students and internationals at ~50% savings.
Another option is to buddy up with a group of classmates and coordinate payments amongst yourself each month. (In these plans, a single plan “administrator” is on the hook for the full payment and must externally coordinate collections each month.) However, beware of the risk from forgotten payments, dividing up charges, or lack of flexibility when plan-mates have different needs.
Compared to the data signal in other countries, carrier signal can vary greatly depending on your location. If your school is in a major city, like New York City or Philadelphia, you can expect decent coverage from most providers. If your school is in a more rural area, however, you’ll want to confirm your carrier’s coverage in that area. All carriers in the U.S. offer a coverage map on their website that you can use to look up your zip code. For the best signal, check to ensure that your plan includes domestic roaming. On some campuses and even in some cities, this is the difference between a poor or a decent signal.
#4: Plan Data & Flexibility
Let’s talk about the features. Most U.S. plans offer unlimited calling and SMS text within the U.S. The biggest differences will be around the data, roaming, international access, and flexibility.
Data Within the U.S.
When evaluating your plan, you should first consider your U.S. data needs. As free wifi is less common in the U.S. than in some other countries, many international students find themselves consuming more data here than they do at home. Plus, many apps today like WhatsApp, Facetime, WeChat, etc. will allow international students to make free audio and video calls to stay connected to friends and family.
Generally, carriers will advertise a plan’s high-speed data allotment (5G or 4G LTE), as well as a lower speed allotment (2G or 3G). You’ll want to choose the plan that offers enough high-speed data usage for your regular needs, though the lower speed data is extremely helpful should you go over your limit. Some carrier prepaid plans do not offer any lower speed fallback, so be careful there!
Data Within Canada & Mexico
If you’re from Canada or Mexico, you’re in luck! Some carrier plans have free high speed data, SMS, and calling in/to/from Canada & Mexico included at no extra cost. This is a real game-changer for students who will be home over school breaks or for a weekend visit, and will be staying in touch with friends and family back home. A plan with free data and calling within North America will save a student $50-200+/year over the course of a year compared to a plan where calling and data costs extra.
International data roaming & SMS
For most prepaid plans, international roaming is either not included, or may be added at a per MB or daily rate. For context, this can mean $100-$200 for a single GB of data abroad, which you’ll quickly hit if you’re using your plan to get around with Uber, Google maps, etc. Many students also find this important for receiving calls and SMS while abroad on breaks to access their banking services and stay in touch with job recruiters/applications which require receiving calls and two-factor authentication.
Our picks for international use are T-Mobile’s postpaid plans and ConnectED Mobile’s prepaid plans which offer free SMS & data abroad in 210+ countries and destinations. These carriers also offer free calling, SMS and high speed data in Canada & Mexico.
Mobile hotspot tethering
Many students enjoy using their mobile hotspot to connect their laptops or other devices to the internet while on-the-go or as a backup internet source. This can vary widely by plan, so keep this in mind.
Often overlooked, the option to downgrade or pause your plan can save $30-60/month, which really adds up. For example, when the pandemic broke out in 2020, students on eligible plans downgraded or paused their plans as they moved abroad. This represented a huge savings of $300+ for many students over their extended summer abroad.
Most traditional phone services in the U.S. require customers to sign up for a plan in a physical retail store. This is inconvenient for international students who often need to provide their U.S. phone number to SEVIS for immigration paperwork ahead of or right after arrival. Today, many digital providers will ship a SIM card to your U.S. address at checkout. If you want to receive your SIM card abroad before you arrive, fear not! ConnectED Mobile, designed for international students, ships its SIM cards abroad for free before even collecting any payment information!
Plan management from abroad
International students often find themselves unable to change their phone plans from outside of the U.S. due to a lack of online account management capabilities and/or difficulty requesting specific services from abroad. For example, AT&T customers cannot log into their accounts to make changes from abroad. When considering a carrier, be sure to check that you’ll be able to access your account and make any changes should you need from outside of the U.S.
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