Student’s Guide to Choosing a Mobile Phone Provider in the U.S.

Moving to a different country to attend college or university means starting a new life full of exciting discoveries but also unavoidable challenges. One of the first obstacles international students usually face is obtaining mobile phone service. Many students quickly learn that the U.S. mobile phone system is, unfortunately, very different from what they experienced in their home country. This guide will provide you with an overview of the U.S. system and give you some pointers to help you choose the best mobile phone service for your needs. 


If you want to use your existing mobile phone in the U.S., it’s important to know about the U.S. mobile phone technology. There are two networks in the U.S. — Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and code division multiple access (CDMA).

Primary mobile phone technology used internationally Few countries outside of the U.S. have CDMA networks
You can likely use your current phone on this network as most international phones are compatible with the GSM network You will likely have to purchase a phone as most international phones are not compatible with this network
Allows flexibility because you can switch carriers by purchasing a new Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card Restricted to carriers on the CDMA network
Carriers include campusSIMs, AT&T, and T-Mobile Carriers include Verizon and Sprint

SIM Cards

Logo-genie-vector-24inch-or-less-all-purposeMany international students choose to keep their existing mobile phones and instead get a SIM card when they come to the U.S. Should you decide to do that, first make sure your phone is unlocked, so the SIM cards can be switched out. If your phone is locked, you should be able to take it to your provider and have them unlock it.

Additionally, international students who don’t have a history of credit in the U.S. may be asked to pay a hefty deposit instead in order to enter into a contract with the provider. Since you don’t enter into a contract with a SIM card, you avoid these charges. Also be aware that some providers require you to use the newest technology, so if you have an older phone, a SIM card may be your only option.


When choosing your mobile phone plan, you need to carefully consider whether to sign a contract or go with a contract-free plan.

Many U.S. carriers try to sell you on postpaid, contract-based plans. On these plans, you are usually committed to your carrier for two years and cannot change carriers without incurring significant financial penalties. You will be billed at the end of the month based on how much data you use that month, with monthly minimum requirements. With these plans, you may face extra charges based on your usage, but as long as you are mindful of your usage and don’t break or cancel your contract, the monthly rate can be low. These contract-based plans often subsidize the purchase of mobile phones, so if you need to purchase a new phone, these plans may be the best option for you.

Some wireless carriers offer no-contract, monthly plans that allow flexibility and are budget friendly. Through these carriers, you usually buy a SIM card and decide how much you want to spend monthly.


You should also consider what additional features the carriers offer. For example, if you plan to go home during some of your breaks, will your carrier allow you to freeze your account and avoid your monthly fee for a period at a time? Can you cancel at anytime? Does the carrier offer international calling, video messaging, or texting to your home country? Additionally, if you need to contact customer service, does the company have multilingual representatives who speak in your native language?

How to Purchase Mobile Phone Service

In order to purchase your mobile phone service, most carriers require that you go to their stores and meet with a representative. If you have the time and means to travel to the physical store, then this may not be an issue. On the other hand, if you would rather avoid the trip and prefer to save some time, you may want to consider using campusSIMs. They conveniently allow you to sign-up for mobile phone service, order free SIM cards, and activate your campusSIMs SIM card—all through the app.

In summary, it’s important to do your research before getting your mobile phone service. Know your needs ahead of time, and you’ll be able to find the right plan for you.

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