Cell Phone Buyinbg Guide – Your First Cell Phone in USA

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