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USA Prepaid Data Update

Two years ago, for WWDC 2011, I researched how to get 3G data on my iPhone. Last year AT&T tweaked their policies slightly to make it more complicated to use prepaid data with smart phones. Since I got myself a phone with nano SIM (iPhone 5) since then I needed to do something again.

Also 2013 marked the first day when I brought my employee to WWDC and wanted him to have prepaid data as well. In this post I’m summarizing the current state of affairs as of Summer 2013.

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We came to the the US with two phones: iPhone 4s (Micro SIM) and iPhone 5 (Nano SIM). I decided to continue the AT&T test from previous years on the 4s because I already had an active (cut) Micro SIM in store, for the iPhone 5 I went with Red Pocket.

I also have in the past experimented with T-Mobile but did not run with it this time around because in the past T-Mobile would not have difference network frequencies for 3G which would prevent iPhones from getting 3G Data. Interestingly a developer showed me that he was now getting 3G on his iPhone on a T-Mobile prepaid plan.


With GoPhone accounts you can choose different kinds of refill amounts which then determine the amount they are active. If your balance expires – following a certain grace period of about 2 months – then the account gets cancelled. This policy creates a hassle for people like myself who are only in the US about once a year.

If you want to keep your account alive it essentially costs you $100 per annum. I fear that if you don’t do that you lose it and you have to go through the motions of getting a new account and SIM every year, a nuisance I’d care to avoid.

AT&T Prepaid Refill Options

In 2012 I put $100 into the account so that I would keep the account alive until WWDC 2013. From this balance I activated the 1 GB data package for the iPhone 4S. The policy change I mentioned earlier also requires that you have a “$25 Monthly Plan” in place. So this got me 1 GB of 3G data ($25) plus the Voice plan ($25).

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There is a trick however. AT&T does not want you to use this combination of plans for iPhones because they are not making enough money from that.

At some point the website might ask you if you are on a Smartphone. If you answer in the affirmative that will lock you out of normal plans and force you to pick one of the more expensive Smartphone packages. Previous experience has shown that you’re using less than 400 MB of data per week of being in San Francisco for WWDC.  So why spend $10 more on an additional Gigabyte?

AT&T Smart Phone Plans

The second part of the policy change of 2012 added monthly expiration to everything. Before that you would simply have a balance on your GoPhone account and subtract from that whenever you activated a package, used voice minutes or sent SMS. Since that everything has the word “Monthly” attached which confused the hell out of me.

In Europe “Monthly” means that it is a subscription, the exact opposite of “Prepaid”. But in the USA “Monthly” just means that the package expires one month after its activation. Of course there is an option to automatically add new money to your account via credit card on a monthly basis. But this makes it the same as any normal subscription.

Long story short: AT&T was not making enough money with classical prepaid pay-as-you-go, instead they are now forcing expirations on customers. And these automatic expirations are a big hassle for travelers who would simply want to keep an AT&T prepaid SIM ready for those times when they do visit the US.

In Summary, if I want to keep using this GoPhone account, I have to a) refill the account with $100 per year and b) activate $50-$60 worth of packages to use 3G data when you’re using it.

Red Pocket

Red Pocket, a re-seller of AT&T services, provides a stark contrast to the AT&T hassles. I ordered a Red Pocket Nano SIM from a re-seller on amazon.de. This eliminated the hassle of having to cut a normal size SIM card down to nano size. (I do not know whether AT&T actually offers Nano SIMs by now, the might be as evidenced by them purchasable on amazon.de.)

The Nano SIM cost 18 Euros which is well worth the time savings.

To use the phone with this SIM you also need features packages. The best value seems to be the Red Pocket MAX 1GB – MONTHLY AUTO-REFILL for $55. For $5 more you can even get 2 GB. Interestingly this seems to be identical in features to the above mentioned $60 GB AT&T plan. And also – unfortunately – you have this 30 day expiration period.

From the Red Pocket Terms and Conditions:

For Red Pocket Mobile™ UNLIMITED and Red Pocket 3G plans: Airtime expiration is 30 days from date appropriate refill card is loaded onto your phone. To ensure uninterrupted service, you are required to recharge your account at least once every 30 days. Your account will be canceled if the balance remains at $0 for 3 consecutive days or more.

Which leads me to believe that you will have just about the same account cancellation problem for the following year.

On AT&T the account checking page shows you refills and SIM usage together. Red Pocket does not have this integration. There the “account” is only related to purchases that you make via their web store. They do provide a web interface to query their AT&T overlords, by entering your mobile number and the last 4 digits of your ICCID which is on the large plastic card you get with the SIM.

Red Pocket SIM Query

Well, fair enough. Here the amount of data used seems to be about the same as the iPhone’s counter stated. On the AT&T iPhone we used round about the same amount of data, but AT&T’s billing seems to greatly exaggerate the amount of data used.

Reading on this that my remaining balance would be “UNLIMITED” gives me a sliver of hope that the account would stay alive for the next year.

Another difference I noticed is that on AT&T you generally refill monetary amounts and then select feature packages (voice/data) to activate. The payment for these is subtracted from your balance. On Red Pocket you generally buy feature package PINs. So the amount is always exactly the price of the package. You activate the package via entering into your phone, which only works if you are standing on US soil.

This might look like a mild advantage for Red Pocket because you would only spend as much on the Refill as you are actually going to use, but it is a disadvantage related to keeping the account alive since you don’t get the ability to put $100 into the account with the benefit of 365 days expiration.


At first glance Red Pocket seems to be equivalent to AT&T GoPhone in almost every way. The main difference is that AT&T has stores where store employees have ample opportunities to confuse you, whereas Red Pocket only sells its cards via their online store and various resellers.

When trying Red Pocket on my iPhone 5, I didn’t get LTE service, only the “fake branded” 4G which is really HSDPA+. I don’t believe that it would be any different on AT&T since both providers are essentially using the same network. And AT&T has always been worried about iPhone users using up too much data.

The top-of-the-line smartphone plan costs $60 for both services. Both seem to suffer of the infliction of expiration. Both are hungry for refills to prevent that. AT&T is way more unfriendly due to having to deal with humans, Red Pocket cannot do as much wrong since you only ever deal with a web site. Because of this Red Pocket feels a bit more modern.

Those have been our experiences, probably you have your own opinion. It boils down to this: Getting 3G data on your iPhone in the United States stays complicated for visitors and it is a matter of taste with which provider you want to work with.

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