Getting your first cell phone in the USA

MOVING TO NEW JERSEY: Having access to a working mobile these days is like having oxygen for most of us. Getting your first cell phone in the USA after arrival is going to be one of your highest priorities. Many new arrivals will still have their own mobile (or cell phone, as it is usually called here) from their home country. Others will have no cell phone at all. Either way, it will be important to get connected.


The US Cell Phone Market

The American cell phone market is very large and includes a number of carriers. Market competitors include four national carriers that own their own network: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. There are also several other second and third tier service providers (mobile virtual network providers). These companies license services from another carrier, and price their own services independently. Some of the bigger providers include Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, Brightspot Mobile, Metro PCS, Ting and Consumer Cellular.

There are differing viewpoints on which is the best company although it is generally agreed that Verizon and AT&T have the best coverage. Phone companies vary dramatically in their pricing, device and plan options offered. A recent online review of cell phones concluded that Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint offered the best overall mobile phone packages.

 Things to Consider about a service provider when getting Your first cell phone in the USA

  • What sort of coverage does this phone service provider have? Will you get good transmission where you live or work?
  •  Is it possible to add extra services to a pre-paid plan like International calls?
  • Is unused data able to be rolled over?
  •  What happens to data speed etc., if you go over your data limit?
  •  Can you keep the Pre-Paid number, once you switch over to a standard (post-paid) plan?
  •  Can you keep your existing international sim card and add the new sim card to the same phone?
  •  Does this provider only deal with specific brands of devices (will you be unable to swap later to any different brand phone you like)?

    Verizon mobile phone coverage in the USA


    T-Mobile phone coverage

Getting Your First Cell Phone in the USA without a Social Security number or Credit History

Most people who arrive in the USA as immigrants or temporary visitors, do not have a Social Security number (SSN) or an established credit history until they have been here a while. Obtaining a SSN can take up to a month or longer after you first arrive, so getting a phone is probably more urgent. If you can`t wait till you get an SSN, to obtain a phone, then you will only have a few options:

  • Get a pre-paid phone package, with accompanying pre-paid sim card and mobile phone packaged all together. Examples include:
    • AT&T Pay As You Go Phone and sim card – these can be purchased off the shelf at an AT&T store or in Walgreens. The packaged pre-paid phone options do not provide many choices however they are extremely cheap. After the sim card is activated, credit needs to be added to the phone, which can be done usually online or over the phone.Prepaid
    • Bundled phone and sim card mailed to you after purchasing online from one of the huge number of suppliers such as Net 10.
  • Use your own unlocked phone and get a pre-paid plan (from a provider such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile or many others). This type of ‘plan’ is usually a set combination of data, text and calls with defined limits. Since you have to pay ahead, timing of the purchase (and billing) will be determined by the user.
  • Buy a phone separately and get a pre-paid plan from a phone service provider as above.

None of these type of pre-paid plans require a credit history or a contract to purchase.

Type of Pre-Paid Plans

There are as many pre-paid plan options available as there are suppliers, and these can change regularly. Some AT&T pre-paid plans available currently (Source AT&T website online; June 2015) include:

$60 Monthly with Rollover Data Unlimited nationwide Talk, Text & Data Usage; includes 4GB of Data Usage at device high speed; thereafter at speeds up to 128Kbps for the rest of the 30-day term.International: Unlimited Talk and Text from the U.S. to Mexico
$55 Monthly U.S., Mexico and Canada Unlimited nationwide Talk, Text & Data Usage; includes 1GB of Data Usage at device high speed; thereafter at speeds up to 128Kbps for the rest of the 30-day term.International: Unlimited Talk and Text to Mexico: 1¢ per minute for calls to Canada, calls within Mexico and Canada, and from Mexico and Canada to select countries, plus unlimited messaging while roaming in Mexico and Canada 
$45 Monthly with Rollover Data Unlimited nationwide Talk, Text & Data Usage; includes 1.5GB of Data Usage at device high speed; thereafter at speeds up to 128Kbps for the rest of the 30-day term.
$30 Monthly Unlimited Talk and TextData: Smartphone customers can use Wi-Fi, where available, for Data Usage, or purchase a data package. Pay-per-use data is available for basic/messaging phones only.


International students are often not entitled to a Social Security Number or have an established credit history when they first arrive in the US. A special program called campusSIMs is available to help students get access to phone service relatively easily without the need for a SSN, contracts or a credit history. Students need to have their own unlocked device for this program. Some of the plans offered for students are shown below.


Can I Get a Phone Plan Without A Social Security Number?

If you do not have a SSN or a credit rating, often you will not qualify for a standard plan (post-paid). For most providers though, you will be able to get one if you have at least a SSN but no credit rating. Usually you will be asked to pay a security deposit of $500-$1000. This is normally refundable after 12 months, upon showing a record of consistent payments. This is the phone company’s way of getting customers to establish a positive credit history before they risk too much.

Once you have a Social Security Number, you can then purchase a phone plan. These are usually with a 2 year contract, where you are billed for usage afterwards. You will find a huge number of alternative plan options with a much larger variety than for pre-paid. Phone plans also often involve lower costs per call.

Then your biggest problem will be to choosing one of the vast array of phone and plan combinations available. Now that’s a real challenge.


One thought on “Getting your first cell phone in the USA

  1. Hey

    We moved over from Australia in April last year & when I was browsing your site this article caught my eye.

    Like many people would, we brought our phones with us from our previous country – in our case 2 iPhone 5s handsets from the Telstra network in Australia. At first I was wooed by the coverage map of Verizon so I headed straight to their store to buy some new SIM cards.

    After the usual conversation about SSN / lack of credit score I decided it would be easier to get a pay as you go plan & handed the phones over to the sales girl for activation. No dice. Nothing. Nadda. Turns out that Verizon uses the CDMA carrier network, whereas most of the rest of the world uses GSM.

    Luckily I was able to back out of the Verizon deal without any cash being held & found success with an AT&T prepaid SIM instead.

    The AT&T Go-Phone is a good enough deal. I have our phones set on auto-renew each month (around $30 / month a phone for their unlimited plan & have also added a $5 / month bolt on for 200 minutes of talk time to land lines back home in Australia. Not bad compared to what I was used to paying back at home.

    I have come unstuck at times when I’ve been on international travel since the Go-Phone options for international roaming are almost non-existent turning the handsets into a useless lump pf glass & plastic when abroad & off wifi.. I get around this by buying another SIM when I get to where I’m going though.

    Hope that helps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.