How to Get a Cell Phone

Major Cell Phone Carriers in the US

Phone Icon

Cell Phone Plan Options

  1. Two-Year Contracts

These are the most common contracts in the US. Contract plans require a two-year commitment and a US Social Security Number (SSN) for identity and credit check purposes. If you do not have a SSN, sometimes a large deposit ($400-$500 or more) is required, in addition to paying for the cell phone and plan. Sometimes, the carriers will refund your money after twelve months of paying on time. Please note, if you end the contract (for example, you decide to leave the contract after only one year of use), there are heavy penalty fees.

2. Pay-As-You-Go or Prepaid Plans

These plans have slightly higher rates and fees, but do not require that you sign a contract, have a SSN, or pay a large deposit. These plans are convenient for international students. Often, you can purchase a phone for as little as $20-$100, and then purchase prepaid minutes. Most prepaid minutes have an expiration date, but if you purchase additional minutes before the expiration date, most companies will "roll over" leftover minutes. Be sure to check the plans to see if there are any additional fees, including a daily fee or an activation fee.  Large stores often carry a section on these types of plans and phones. These include Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Radioshack.


Additional Facts and Tips:

  • If you are bringing an unlocked phone from your home country and would like to purchase a SIM card for your phone, the best options are to go to AT&T or T-Mobile.
  • Some students are able to join together for a “Family Plan”, in which all members of the plan share minutes and the cost of the plan. Usually up to five people are able to join on one plan. Please note that it is very difficult to add/drop lines once the contract is signed without paying additional fees.
  • Some cell phone companies may ask for a proof of your address if you are signing up for a contract. This includes a letter or a utility bill that has been mailed to where you are currently living in the US.
  • Most cell phone companies charge for all calls, including outgoing and incoming. Some plans have free calling within their own network.
  • Some plans give you a set number of minutes per month. If you go over your minutes, you are charged a higher rate. Check your plan to see if weekend and nighttime minutes are free.
  • Ask about any special international calling plans.
  • Check with each cell phone carrier about coverage areas and reception. With some carriers, you have better coverage over a larger area than others.
  • Some cell phone companies sell only cell phones that work in their network. For example, the iPhone® can only be used on AT&T and Verizon networks.
  • If you are planning to get a contract, once the contract is signed, you will be required to pay for the entire length of the contract.  If you leave your contract before your contract period ends, you will be expected to pay a high fee. If you pay a deposit and then end your contract, you may not be able to get your deposit back.


Nawaf Alhaqbani



Student tip:“In IG, I was able to meet the world at one place by making international friends.” - Nawaf Alhaqbani, former ATP student