International students and scholars seeking US cell phone service have multiple options. You will need to research which options are best for you, according to your needs. The International Center does not provide any specific recommendations; the information below is intended to help you in your search for a US cell phone number.
Cell Phone Providers
Major cell phone service providers in the US include Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These companies provide a variety of contract, pre-paid, and no-contract plans. A US Social Security Number (SSN) is not needed to open an account, but you may be required to provide a deposit. Before opening an account with a provider, we encourage you to do research by asking the following questions:
Are there plans available specifically for international students or scholars?
What are the differences between contract, pre-paid and other plans?
Does the company require a contract for a fixed period? If a contract is required, how long is the contract period and are there penalties for early termination?
How many / how much calling, text messages (SMS) and cellular data are included in the cost of the plan? (Note that US plans usually charge for both incoming and outgoing messages/calls)
Can I use my own phone (see below)?
How much would it be to buy a new phone with the plans? Do I have to pay for a new phone upfront or is there a monthly payment option?
Using Your International Phone in the US with a US-Compatible SIM Card
You may be able to use your home country cell phone in the US; however, check with your carrier to confirm if this is possible. In many cases, this will not be an ideal long-term option since you will likely need to pay very expensive roaming charges. However, if your cell phone is unlocked, you may be able to use your phone in the US with a SIM card compatible for use in the US.
You should be aware of the type of network technology your phone uses (e.g., GSM, CDMA, LTE) and purchase a SIM card compatible with your phone type. While GSM is the most common type of network worldwide, in the US only AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM.
SIM cards can be purchased from the major US cell phone providers (including Verizon, AT&T, Spring, and T-Mobile) as well as many smaller companies such as US Mobile, Mint Mobile, and others.
While living in the US, you will find that many University and private services (for banking, shopping, and other activities) require or involve the use of smartphone-based apps. In certain cases, apps can only be downloaded from a US-based Apple Store (for iOS apps) or Google Play Store (for Android apps). Apps downloaded from an international Apple Store or Play Store may not function in the US. Consult with your carrier (or for iPhone users, the Apple Store) for assistance with getting access to the US-based app stores. Apple iPhone users can also consult this Apple iOS App Download Tips guide for creating a US Apple Store account.
Internet-Based Phone and SMS Services (VOIP)
In certain cases, you may want to secure an internet-based US phone number or VOIP service that will allow you to make phone calls using your computer, as long as you have an internet connection. Some services allow you to sign up before you arrive in the US, although in many cases you will need to sign up for a paid or free account or meet other requirements. Examples include Skype Number, Google Voice, and many other providers. In addition, there are various internet-based services where you can purchase a temporary number to receive text messages (SMS) only, allowing you to avoid using your main number.