Buying cell phones and  cell phone plans in USA for first time visitor to USA is a challenging task. There are several Cell Phone service providers with several plans and devices.

This cell phone buying guide will provide a brief overview about various cell phone plans, price and phone for first time visitor to USA on F1, F2, B1, B2, L1 or any other USA visa.

cell phone buying guide
Before buying cell phone, you have to know about

  • Cell Phone Plans
  • Cell Phone  Handsets (device)
  • Cell Phone – Eligibility
  • Contract Terms

Cell Phone Service Providers

  • Major – ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint
  • Minor – US Cellular, Cricket, Virgin Mobile, etc

When I was shopping for cell phone for the first time, it was quite overwhelming. There are so many plans, cell phone options and contract terms to navigate through.

Cell Phone Buying Guide

You need to understand 2 things before buying a cell phone.

  • Cell Phone Plans
  • Mobile Handsets (Devices)

Cell Phone Plans

Let’s look at different types of cell phone plans. There are 2 types of Cell Phone Plans

  • Prepaid Plans
  • Post Paid Plans
    • Share Everything plan (Verizon)

Prepaid Cell Phone Plans

With Prepaid cell phone plans, there are

  • No contract,
  • No credit check
  • No  SSN
  • Pay by the month, day, or minute.

Let’s look at a Prepaid plan (GoPhone from ATT). You can buy prepaid plan by 3 simple steps

  1. Select a Plan
  2. Select a cell phone device
  3. Make Payment.
  4. Shop Online on In-Store.
att prepaid plans

ATT Prepaid Plans

Following image has a sample list of phone listed on AT&T site. (check the site for full list of phones)

ATT Prepaid Phones

In the above picture, you can buy AT&T Z331 GoPhone for $18.99 + $25 monthly Prepaid plan.

Similar to AT&T, Verizon and other cell phone service providers have Prepaid plans.

If you plan to stay in USA for short-term, then Prepaid plans would be the best option.

Post Paid Plan – Share Everything

If you plan to stay in USA for longer period of time (F1 Visa, H1B Visa, L1 Visa, etc) you can buy Post Paid Cell Phone plans.

There are 2 types of Post Paid plans

  • Verizon – Share everything
  • ATT – Traditional Post Paid plan

Verizon and AT&T  are the 2 leading cell phone providers in USA (based on number of subscribers).

Verizon recently introduced Share Everything Plan ( new type of Post Paid cell phone plan). This plan is not available at ATT (at this time of writing).

Verizon – Share everything Plan

  • Step 1 – Pick Cell Phone Device ($199 for iPhone 4s 16Gb)
  • Step 2 – Pick the Shared plan


verizon share everything plan


Verizon’s Share Everything Post paid plan (above image) for iPhone 4s (16 GB) will cost you $100 per month + Taxes when you select 2GB Data plan. You get unlimited talk time and unlimited text.

If you and your friend want to share the data, your monthly bill will look like

  • $40 (phone 1) + $40 (phone 2) + $40 (data) = $120
  • Your share after the split will be $60.

Initial investment to buy an iPhone 4S 16GB will be $199 + taxes per phone.

AT&T – Post Paid plan

AT&T offers Individual and Family plan options for Post Paid Plans.

Following image shows Family plan (most likely F1 Visa students will be getting a family plan to save money).

att family plans


How much does it cost to get 2 lines with iPhone 4S with ATt&T?

  • Monthly – $60 + $20 (300 MB Data, Phone 1) + $20 (300 MB Data, Phone 2) = $100
  • Share after split = $50

Comparing with Verizon, you will pay $10 less per month. But, with Verizon, you get unlimited Talk time and Text.

You would have to decide if you want to pay $10 more for unlimited talk time and text or save $10 and get AT&T.

Also, I saw AT&T is offering refurbished iPhone 4S for $149.


Above calculation  should give you a brief overview about the cell phone plans, devices and cost per month.

In addition to that, you have to learn about eligibility, credit  check, coverage and usage requirements.

Cell Phone Service Eligibility

Cell phone service providers will require SSN and decent Credit History buy a cell phone and service.

If you are coming to USA for the first time (F1 student visa)  you may not qualify for cell phone service without security deposit.

iPhone 45 16 GB costs $700 (or so). When you buy the phone with 2 year contract, you have to only pay $199.

If you have SSN, without credit history, you might have to pay $500 in security deposit + $199 for the phone.

After you have established good payment history, your security deposit will be refunded (usually after 12 months).

You can buy a cell phone through seniors or relatives who already have a plan.  Typically this is what happens with most F1 students who want to buy a new cell phone service.


Make sure you get good coverage in the area where you live and within your apartment. Your college seniors or ask your friends to learn about cell coverage.

In some instances, ATT might not work inside a building.

Also, you would have 14 days to return the phone, if you don;’t have good coverage in your apartment, lab or other places where you spent most of your time.


Do you have any questions about buying your first cell phone, cell phone plans in USA?

If you have additional tips and suggestions, do post them in the comments section below.

Next – Explain it To Me – Free Cell Phones and Contracts


  1. PAULOSE S ANJILICKAPILLIL on July 20, 2019 at 3:35 AM

    Can I use redmi note 7 Pro in USA?

  2. Ayanda on June 4, 2017 at 3:08 AM

    I want to buy an unlocked iphone 7 from Apple in the US during my visit, I’m from South Africa. What documents do I need?

    • Raghu on June 4, 2017 at 8:04 AM

      Just the cash.

  3. Rohit on July 21, 2016 at 11:22 AM

    I am about to leave for USA, Will I be able to use my moto G4+ and xperia z phones over there?


    • Raghuram Sukumar on July 21, 2016 at 9:42 PM

      Yes, you can use them here.

  4. JoHnny on December 13, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    Hi i have a SSN so how many lines can i add with my SSN, And how many mobiles i buy in contract with my SSN?

    • Raghuram Sukumar on December 14, 2015 at 6:06 PM

      Check with your provider (lie At&T) and it depends on the plan.

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  10. Raghuvir on July 1, 2013 at 1:38 PM

    is it possible to buy a phone under contract say example iphone 5 for 199$ at at&t. then i want to send it to my home country for my brother ( he doesnt want any call or sim function only gaming and music) . is it possible? can i void my contract after purchasing the device and not pay other monthly charges ?

  11. Kalpesh on April 13, 2013 at 12:39 AM

    Hey! I would be working in LA for month and Atlanta the second, So I would be changing states. Does it will apply roaming in different states of USA like is here in INDIA or they have nation-wide circle. And what is long distance calls?

  12. Nest on February 5, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    Hello. I was wondering what is the best service /plan for me if I wish to use my current GSM fone. I’m attached to my S3 and would just like to buy a sim card to plug into my fone like we do in india when we switch between providers? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks in advance

  13. munna on January 28, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    you are eligible for discount if you are an employee or a student at a University from AT&T. You can check your eligibility here.

  14. Aman on January 23, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    How can i buy a phone without an ssn or a deposit (on Contract)

  15. suyash paliwal on January 3, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    I am traveling to dallas in month of march 2013 i just wanted to know which carrier to choose and what phone i can take and what are the documents required to take a phone. And if i purchases an att phone online from it’s website then also do i have to give my all documents.

  16. Zim on September 14, 2012 at 1:34 AM

    I am going to be a first time buyer (i am aged 18 and got my first bank, no credit history or whatsoever) and hoping to get a att 199$ iphone with 2 yr contract. What would be the total cost that i would have to bring to the store? thanks!

  17. Varun on July 13, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    * 3 or 4 major networks

  18. Varun on July 13, 2012 at 4:38 PM

    Verizons network is best over whole US (Indiana might be an exception because my friend from there told me), AT&T is okey but it sucks indoors for sure. T Mobile is almost the same as AT&T, Cricket or Metro PCS are so so. Sprint and Boost are good in California but I doubt them in east coast. Their are hundres of companies but there are just 3 or 4not major networks. Rest of the smaller companies actually use one of these on rent. Android phones are available on Boost or Metro. Check who are a major phone flashing service providers. Note that flashing or unlocking your phone is LEGAL.

  19. Varun on July 13, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    You dont have to stick with AT&T or Verizon for post paid or pre paid. Search for their joint ventured companies whom they rent their networks. Search for $39.99 a month unlimited talk text and 1GB data (uses Verizon network), Cricket, Metro PCS or Boost. Additionally, there is a company known as T mobile. They have sim card 4G unlimited talk and text plus unlimited data with bring your own handset. Buying a phone in the US is not at all challenging. Its easier than India infact. Go to Wallmart or search online. Do your search online and you will find it so easy. US markets are quiet competitive and they are trying to get customers without having them go through signing contracts and SSN checks. You can even get iphone on Verizon flashed to Pageplus (CDMA) or unlocked with T Mobile SIM. AT&T iphones can be flashed or they can be used with SIM from other companies with cheaper plans after unlocking them. I live in the USA. Not everything is online. Somethings exist beyond that too. You need to be there to know them.

  20. DC on July 12, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    If you intend to use the phone when you come back to India, make sure you select a GSM phone, cos only that technology can be used in both places.. GSM is offered only by AT&T and T-Mobile.. You can request them to send you an unlock code for temporary use in India if it is within contract. After the contract expires, the phone is automatically unlocked..

    • vish on July 13, 2012 at 8:41 AM

      Please note that unlock code feature is NOT for iPhone.

      • vish on July 13, 2012 at 8:42 AM

        OOPS, forgot to add that iPhones can/will not be unlocked.

        • HSB on July 13, 2012 at 10:08 AM

          ATT will unlock the phone after 2 years contract period. Till then you have jail break to unlock it.

          • vish on July 13, 2012 at 10:17 AM

            OK, I take back my comment, I had checked a few months back and AT&T has started unlocking starting 4/8/2012.

            I apologize for wrong info.

          • HSB on July 13, 2012 at 11:10 AM

            No problem. It was announced recently (maybe less than 2 months).

            After contract expired, you can call AT&T to get the unlock code. It takes about 2 weeks for them to process it.

          • vish on July 13, 2012 at 11:48 AM

            Just got off the phone with AT&T, took around 25 minutes in total. I saved a couple of minutes by avoiding listening to their menu by choosing 1 – 7 – 6 menu options (1 is to confirm the phone number you are calling for).

            It could have been 5 minutes faster but they had to verify something with Apple as my phone was replaced under warranty.

            Anyway, they told me they are all set and unlock is done. I need to backup and restore my phone to be all done (which is inline with the Apple KB article).

          • vish on July 13, 2012 at 11:49 AM

            Oh yes, Thanks HSB for the info. I would have kept thinking that my phone can not be unlocked legally.

          • HSB on July 13, 2012 at 12:05 PM

            Now, you can sell that and get iPhone 5 🙂

          • vish on July 13, 2012 at 1:50 PM

            Yups, waiting for it. I thought of Android, but the market is probably not mature and organized yet, upgrading the OS is virtually impossible on Android.

            Though I hear that some chinese E-commerce sites are already selling iPhone 5.

  21. akai on July 12, 2012 at 1:17 AM

    I would suggest that if u have and good phone with u which u are presently using in India… Then u can take it to USA and just take a Sim for that phone…. Cos i did the same thing here and its worth and good. why simply to take a brand new phone if u have a existing one.

  22. Rushika on July 11, 2012 at 11:47 PM

    Can I take any of these plans (preferably iphone or Blackberry) without having SSN, and at the same time I don’t want a data plan… as I hate surfing internet on small phones, when I can happily surf on a nice big browser on my laptop>

    • sai on July 12, 2012 at 4:24 PM

      Any phone u can choose …but if u active ur phone (like iphone) u have to pay for data plan … u will use it or not is ur choice

  23. suresh kumar B on July 11, 2012 at 8:20 PM

    Instead of buying this,
    T-mobile is better prepaid 1500 Min/Msg 35$/30days . It would be economic one.
    cricket is also better but 1$/day unlimited Min and unlimited incoming Msg, Exceptional of long distance call, Roaming call. You can use it Any GSM Phones.

  24. ankit on July 11, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    Cell Phones bills are ones about which everyone who comes from India feels pain .
    In India, you used to spend Rs 500/Months which are steeply hiked after coming to US to Rs .2500 on average.
    I found I solution to it.
    YESSSSS… “GROOVE IP” Not a complete substitute , but My Bills are less than $30 for 3 MONTHS !!

    Its a free App on Android. So If you have Android Phone and Wi-Fi most of the time, it truly gonna save lots of bucks..!

  25. anil on July 11, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    In Verizon scenario, you mentioned this:
    $40 (phone 1) + $40 (phone 2) + $40 (data) = $120

    Whereas 2GB Data costs $60. Don’t you think it should be like this:
    $40 (phone 1) + $40 (phone 2) + $60 (data) = $140

    $70 per month for each person.

    • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 2:57 PM

      Yes, if you select 2GB plan. To compare with with 300MB plan with ATT, I picked $40.

  26. Ratan on July 11, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Hi all,

    I wanted to know whether I’ll have to pay security deposit to buy only AT&T service, not the device. Because I’ve one N8 which I think will work in operated frequency range which is why I’m opting out buying a new cellphone now. Can I get any cell phone service in case of SSN not being generated within the 1st week? And how can I change from prepaid service to post paid one, after getting SSN?

    • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 3:04 PM

      This is my understanding is that you need SSN with ATT to get a service. Once i have collected all the questions here, I will talk to ATT, Verizon sales to give you guys additional info.

      • vish on July 11, 2012 at 3:28 PM

        No service provider will give you a postpaid service with NO SSN.

        Even for the service, you will probably not get approved with NO credit history, you will have to put down a deposit and the representative can not give you a definitive answer unless they have ran a credit check against you.

        You may be better off getting a prepaid for about 4-5 months and then go to postpaid.

        You also need to know that whether you take data plan or not, once the operator finds out that you are using a smart phone, they may just dump a appropriate data plan on your bill. It’s fairly easy for them to know what phone you are using. They do it all the time with iPhones, can do with other phones too.

        • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 4:01 PM

          Thanks for the update. My friend got iPhone from Craigslist 2 months back. He has regular ATT phone. He went to the store to get micro SIM. They gave him just the voice/text plan without data. I was quite surprised to see AT&T allowing iPhone without data plan. Eventually he added data plan 🙂

      • Ratan on July 11, 2012 at 11:05 PM

        Thanks HSB. Your comment being understood, I would like to ask you what are new students (F1, J1 visa holders etc) supposed to do to have cell-connectivity to their home for the first 1/2 weeks in USA. Do you suggest carrying existing SIM cards in India to USA (roaming charges applicable to a high extent!)? Yesterday I was browsing websites broadcasting about World SIM Service. What is your opinion regarding that one?

        • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 11:40 PM

          No worries, someone in your campus will have calling card or vonage with world calling plan.

  27. pratheek on July 11, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    u have mentioned only about iphone 4s 16gb. I was planning to buy an android smartphone like samsung galaxy S3 via the ATT family plan
    how much more is the cost when compared to iphone 4s 16gb?

    • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 2:59 PM

      Samsung Galaxy S3 – ATT – $199;
      Samsung Galaxy S2 – ATT – $99

  28. Kaushik on July 11, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    ATT will remove the 500 $ security deposit for F1 visa holders

    • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 1:50 PM

      Is it just in a specific store?

      • Kaushik on July 13, 2012 at 9:31 AM

        No When I got my mobile they did not charge me and I also heard from my friends from other universities that they also had similar offers.

  29. Rohit Gupta on July 11, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    Thanks a lot,really really helpful.I am headed to IUB this August and this post cleared all the doubts I had.
    Also would you suggest buying a decent-ish and not so expensive cell phone from India before going and build a credit history and eventually buy a high end phone in US as they are cheaper there or would you recommend taking a high end phone from India itself or buying a entry level phone from the US.

    • HSB on July 11, 2012 at 1:52 PM

      Don’t buy phone in India. You get free phone if you don’t want to buy smart phones. iPhone 3GS is free in AT&T with 2 years contract.

      • Rohit Gupta on July 13, 2012 at 2:03 AM

        Thank again for the just to clear up I don’t need to pay any security deposit nor have a credit history to have a iPhone 3gs

        • HSB on July 13, 2012 at 8:38 AM

          For new students in USA, it doesn’t matter if you are buying 3gs or 4s, you will need SSN and most likely security deposit.

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