How-To: Using Your Australian iPhone in the USA (2013)

I’ve published many articles here on MacTalk about the topic of getting mobile access in the USA, but constantly need to update them. Terms and conditions change, new players enter the market and even the telcos themselves change their minds frequently, about what they will and won’t allow in their own stores. It’s a total pain in the arse. Just recently however, getting a US SIM card that’ll work on your iPhone, with decent speeds, is not as hard as it used to be.

T-Mobile, the Vodafone of US telcos (zing) used to operate a 3G network that was incompatible with the frequencies the iPhone radio supports. But in mid-2012, T-Mobile realised this is stupid and started rolling out 1900 MHz HSPA+ (which they call 4G, but is just 3G+ really, not LTE – AT&T call HSPA+ 4G too, even though they have LTE! Grr) in many metro areas in the USA. 1900MHz 3G support is on all the iPhones except the very first one that was never sold in Australia.

Previously, if you popped a T-Mobile SIM into an iPhone, all you got was 2G (EDGE), which to me, was unacceptable, so T-Mobile was ignored and the convoluted process of obtaining an AT&T SIM was what I did. But the ease of obtaining a SIM from T-Mobile versus AT&T is so much easier, that it’s worth the trade-off. Plus in dense areas like San Francisco or New York (places you’d probably actually visit as an Australian in the USA who needs temporary access), EDGE access on T-Mobile isn’t much slower than AT&T’s 3G, which is notoriously patchy.

T-Mobile don’t have a coverage map for the 1900MHz network, but there is a user generated map that give a decent idea of which areas may have 1900mhz support.

Cut the shit Anthony, what’s the deal? How do you get a SIM card and how much does it all cost?

The very very first step is to make sure your phone is unlocked before you leave. Make sure to contact your telco (Telstra, Vodafone, Optus, etc. – whoever you got the phone from) a few weeks in advance and to actually test it accepts a different carrier SIM before you leave (e.g: put a Telstra SIM in an iPhone previously locked to Optus). If the phone isn’t unlocked, no American SIM is gonna work. You also want to take a SIM removal tool (aka, that metal thingy in the iPhone box) with you, so you can swap SIMs in the T-Mobile store. The shop will probably have one, but it’s nice to be prepared.

Once you’ve landed in the USA and found your bearings, go into a T-Mobile store. They’re like a rash across the USA, so finding one isn’t hard. The T-Mobile website has a (poor) store finder. Pop in the ZIP code of where you’re staying and in the results, look for the nearest actual T-Mobile store (denoted by a pink T), not a Staples or Office Depot.

T-Mobile sell Nano, Micro and Mini SIMs, so all iPhones are covered. They sell SIM cards without a phone attached, just like here in Australia! This is an oddity in the USA, as SIM cards are not generally distributed on their own. So walk on in to a store and tell them you’re here in the USA from Australia (Americans love Australia – say G’Day to them and they’ll feel special all day) and need a SIM card and pre-paid plan for your iPhone. Make sure you get the appropriate SIM for your phone:

  • iPhone 3 & 3GS – Mini SIM (aka, normal SIM)
  • iPhone 4 & 4S – Micro SIM
  • iPhone 5 – Nano SIM

You then need to activate the SIM. The store can probably do it for you, but if they don’t, take your SIM and visit Activate Your Prepaid Phone | Prepaid Activation Guide | T-Mobile – where you can do it online (what I would prefer anyways). There, you can pick your “plan” – there’s so many options and what you get probably will depend on your usage and length of time there. A selection of them can be seen on the T-Mobile website, where they’re split up into Monthly, Pay as You Go and Pay by the Day.

Personally, I like the “Unlimited Web & Text with 100 Minutes Talk” option, which is $30 per month and gets you unlimited SMS, 5GB of data (after 5GB you’re shaped) and 100 minutes of calls, which is plenty (but remember, your minutes include when people call you too).

You’ll need wi-fi access (the T-Mobile store should have it, if not, Starbucks or even your hotel) to set up your phone for T-Mobile, following these instructions.

And that’s it. Unlike AT&T, this isn’t a “secret” process that the sales people tend not to like to do, or varies from store to store, depending on the mood of the manager. T-Mobile encourage unlocked iPhone use, so even getting support from T-Mobile shouldn’t be a problem.

So to recap/TLDR/executive summary:

  • unlock iPhone before you leave Australia
  • Visit a T-Mobile store and ask for a SIM card and a pre-paid no contract plan
  • Activate SIM and pick the plan most suitable for your needs
  • Put SIM in iPhone
  • Add the T-Mobile APN (using the instructions on the T-Mobile website)
  • Enjoy the USA and visit Five Guys and/or In-n-Out.