How does mobile service work in the U.S.?

When you move to the US to study, one of the first things you will need to do is set up your cellphone service. To help you with the process, here are some questions to consider:


1. Do you want to be committed to a multi-year contract or would you rather pay month-to-month?


The biggest providers in the US are Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These companies own and operate their own networks and have the most customers. However, buying a cell phone plan with one of these companies will also likely cost more (around $70-$100 per month for 6-8 GB of data). In the case of Verizon and AT&T, the plans offered are contracts, which means you agree to pay a certain amount per month for their services for 2 years, or however long your contract lasts. If you want to cancel the contract before the 2 years is up, you will need to pay a fine of around $200.

If you are only in the US temporarily, a contract may not be what you are looking for. These major networks also offer cheaper prepaid plans, such as Verizon Prepaid, AT&T Prepaid, or T-Mobile Simply. There are also budget providers that operate on the networks of the bigger providers but have cheaper, non-contract plans. These are providers like Cricket, Visible, Google Fi, Mint Mobile, Metro, or Boost Mobile, which offer plans with at least 5GB of data for around $40-$60 per month.


2. Do you have friends that you can team up with to get a family plan?


Many providers offer family plans, but you can usually sign up with friends who aren’t technically part of your family. This means you all join into the agreement together, and you can save money by doing so. Some plans offer unlimited data, and if you have 3 or 4 people in your plan, you could each end up paying as low as $30-$40 per month. 


3. Do you already have your own device? Is it compatible with your desired provider?


Many cell service providers make money by selling you cell phones, either full price up front or by splitting the cost across a year or two of monthly payments. If you already have your own phone to use, you can avoid paying these extra costs. This is called “Bring your own device” or “BYOD.” However, make sure to do your research and verify that your device is compatible with your desired provider.


4. How much data do you need?


Try to estimate how much data you will need. Many plans will not charge you extra for going over your monthly data limit, but will simply slow down your data once you cross a certain threshold for the month. If you plan to spend most of your time in spots where Wi-Fi is available, you may not need as much data. On the other hand, some people may opt not to pay for Wi-Fi at their apartment and instead want to use their phone as a hotspot. If this is your plan, make sure to select a phone plan that has the mobile hotspot feature. Many international students use internet services to connect with family back home, such as WhatsApp, iMessage, FaceTime, Skype, etc. If this is something you plan to do, make sure you have enough data in your plan for the times when you won’t be connected to Wi-Fi but want to chat with friends and family abroad. 


Mobile service in the US can seem complicated, but by asking yourself these questions and doing your research, you are sure to find a plan that meets your needs.



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