If you are a visitor to the USA, you can expect TMO to be stupid and abusive.

Background · You’re visiting America. You probably do this more than once per year. You need Internet. You’re willing to pay for it.

In certain countries (my experience is with the UK, Spain, and Germany) you can buy a reasonably-priced SIM in or near the airport. For example, there are vending machines at Heathrow where £20 will get you one that’s good for a week or two. These SIMs, of course, don’t care in the slightest what kind of device you put them in.

The good part · For a visitor, TMO offers prepaid plans that are not-bad-at-all; a few bucks a day for enough data.

The stupid part · If you’ve signed up for a visiting plan, you get a TMO account you can visit on the Web. So you’d like to top it up and be on the air when you get off the plane. Except for, you can’t register a non-US credit card so you have to go find a TMO store, which are not found in airports.

How stupid is this? Well, you used to be able to register non-US credit cards. And if you did this more than a couple of years ago, that credit card is still on file and still works. So TMO actually can accept foreign credit cards; only their systems don’t let you enter one.

The abusive part · There are two cheap prepay deals; one for phones, one for tablets. Because, you see, the bits that phones use are different from the ones that tablets use.

Second, the prepay deals don’t allow tethering or portable hot-spots. (And by the way, I’m told that recent versions of Android now add the protocol bit that discloses whether tethering is in effect. Bad, bad Android!) By the way, if you’re online and you try to use tethering, you get redirected to a bonehead page on the T-Mobile web site that says “click here to enable tethering”, only it doesn’t work.

Both these practices are deeply abusive. They have no sane technical justification; evidence of a table somewhere surrounded by pointy-haired-boss types, where someone made a model that predicted more revenue if they did a few abusive and stupid things.

A lot of people visit the USA. Generally, we are willing to pay for Internet bandwidth; and probably a little more than your domestic customers. All TMO has to do is get out of the way.


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From: hawkse (Aug 03 2014, at 11:52)

Well, that's pretty much the situation with T-mobile in Germany as well. They expect you either to pay extra for tethering or even by a special little GSM router with the SIM through which you will then connect. Really, really bad.


From: allen (Aug 03 2014, at 13:21)

The credit-card problem works both ways. When I go to the UK, I can't top off my SIM with a US-issued credit card. Some vendors (e.g. Orange) sell *empty* cards in Heathrow, and you're forced to go to a physical store to get the thing to work. The whole situation is ridiculous.


From: Kevin Smith (Aug 03 2014, at 13:45)

A Canadian company is doing its best to crack this but: Roam Mobility (and in the states, the brand ReadySIM)


From: Chris Swan (Aug 03 2014, at 13:55)

After similar troubles with credit cards and top ups I switched years ago to using online top up brokers where you can pay with PayPal like Callingmart (and previously Pinzoo whilst they still did T-Mobile).

The perfect thing these days for the frequent visitor to the US (from the UK, but perhaps also to the UK) is a UK Three SIM with their 'Feel at Home' where credit can be used in the US at UK rates. Now I don't have to throw $30 at AT&T each visit to keep my Nexus 7 fuelled. It's actually been tough to unlearn the habits of using local SIMs and SkypeToGo and just call home without worrying about the cost.


From: Paul (Aug 04 2014, at 07:29)

My experience is the same for t-mobile in the US and Telenor in Sweden - they can't work out how to let me use my credit card issued in Canada on their website. I resort to topping up my US t-mobile account by picking up one of those plastic cards that I can put $15 credit on and redeem into my account by scratching to get the hidden code to apply on the website. Easy to find at places like Walmart and Target which never seem to be in short supply anywhere. For Telenor I go to a convenience store and fork over 100 crowns for a slip of paper with a code to enter on my account to activate the credit. Of course until I can manage to do the top up Bell is reaping in the $5000 to $12000 per Gig of data that they ransom from you while roaming.


From: Yaron (Aug 04 2014, at 09:23)

Some months ago I had a trip to the US for a few weeks. In my last stop the hotel changed policies and didn't offer WiFi, so I figured I'll just get a SIM card for data.

1. While T-Mobile do have some problems with their offers, they seemed to be the only ones that actually had a reasonable "just give me a SIM card with xGB of data". Other places I got to check first only offered subscription plans, except for AT&T (If I recall correctly) that had a related option of getting a wireless router, not a SIM, for a much higher cost than I needed (when I explained to the nice lady there that they're offering a less-convenient overpriced overkill for my needs, she actually told me to check a nearby T-Mobile for a no-subscription SIM with data ).

So I don't expect T-Mobile will improve while they're practically the only player in the field.

2. The difference between phone and tablets plans are that tablets don't need voice. So if you're selling packages for specific GB and minutes, people with a tablet will appreciate having a plan with no minutes to pay for. I definitely know I would have been annoyed if I couldn't have gotten a data-only SIM and had to also pre-pay for talk minutes I didn't want or need. So that's not a problem, it's a benefit. The SIMs don't care what device you put them in, but you'd care if you had a data-only SIM in your phone that can't handle regular calls, or had to pay extra for phone minutes in a SIM going in your tablet.

3. Of course I fully agree that not letting people register non-US cards on the website is stupid, and that limiting tethering/hot-spot is pointlessly abusive (especially for limited-data plans, what do they care how many machines use the same amount of pre-paid data?). I got my SIM at a store so I didn't had an issue with the credit card, but they didn't say anything about issues with tethering/hot-spots (though I didn't need to use it, so can't say if it would have failed or not) which is a problem if it wasn't available.


From: Johnny (Aug 04 2014, at 09:49)

If, instead of the local big three, you can support one of the underdog providers (Wind) which is actually quite OK in the city (and you can "roam" at a minimal cost on Rogers when out), then you can get unlimited roaming on T-Mobile, for voice, text, and data for about $0.5/day. Works with no hassles as advertised.


From: Andrew Colbeck (Aug 04 2014, at 23:16)

It would be a huge improvement in customer service if T-Mobile would allow foreign credit cards for web payment. The stores allow it of course.

They should also have email based reminders, opt-in, to ward off the 90 day idle deactivation.

So that I can hit the ground running, I pre-pay a few days for the $3/day plan. By mmaintaining a float, I have days in which to get into a physical store so I can top up.

This technique depends on the SIM not being deactivated for being idle.

On my last trip to a T-Mobile store, the rep suggested using a prepaid card by buying them in US funds in advance; their website only cares about the monetary value, they can be used to fund any plan. You see these cards as impulse buys at all of the big box stores and convenience chains.


From: Blaine Cook (Aug 05 2014, at 05:05)

So, the slightly sneaky trick, which involves using the easy-to-obtain UK SIMs to visit the US.

Basically, Three are awesome, and are trying their hardest to get rid of roaming charges, on the presumption that people will switch to a friendly carrier in order to get better service. Incredible! Anyhow, the US is included in the free unlimited roaming plan. Works out to about £15-20 for a month of unlimited data, tethering included, and unlimited calling. The only catch is that you'll have a UK number (this is where dual-SIM phones like the FairPhone come in real handy).


The extra-incredible thing is that this applies to pay-as-you-go SIMs, too! Now, I'm not entirely sure how possible this is for people who don't have UK bank cards, but it *should* be possible with a bit of doing. You can top up with cash at many shops in the UK. Basically, what you need to do is have a SIM with enough credit to make your payment for the month / keep the SIM active on their pay-as-you-go plan[1], and do so a month before you want to roam in the US. Their terms of service allow for up to three months of free roaming a year, which feels reasonable.

Not super helpful to someone in Canada who's travelling to the US tomorrow, but if you're planning on making a stopover in the UK, be sure to pick up one of these SIMs (a bare sim is £1.00)!

[1] http://support.three.co.uk/SRVS/CGI-BIN/WEBISAPI.DLL?Command=New,Kb=Mobile,Ts=Mobile,T=Article,varset_cat=payasyougo,varset_subcat=4124,Case=obj(4101)


From: Roland Tanglao (Aug 05 2014, at 12:26)

+1 on Roam Mobility. It's great for Canadians travelling to the USA. I've used them 3 times and have zero complaints! Simple and straightforward!


From: Dustin Q (Aug 07 2014, at 16:54)

Another +1 for the Roam Mobility SIM card for Canadians with unlocked phones travelling to the USA!


From: Blake Meike (Aug 13 2014, at 06:38)

The pad-bits-are-different thing kills me.

We've used my wife's iPad in Europe, on the last couple of trips. On our most recent trip to Spain, we couldn't get it to connect. Called the carrier (AT&T, in this case). They said that, despite the fact that we'd specifically set the account up for international use, the pad was "session based" and would not work abroad. WTF? "session based"?

What's next? "We're sorry. Your pad is groenfrob based. It doesn't work on Tuesdays."



From: Evan Jones (Aug 22 2014, at 06:41)

There is a secret ADB shell command you can run so your phone does not disclose that tethering is happening. I haven't experimented with it in detail, so I'm not 100% sure that it works, no do I know if it persists across reboots. However, try running the following at an adb shell:

content insert --uri content://settings/global --bind name:s:tether_dun_required --bind value:i:0


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