How to Call Home When You Study in the USA

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By Oshitha Narangoda
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Calling home is important, but can be an afterthought during your move to the USA to attend university. Here is everything you need to know about US mobile service plans.

A female international student sits outdoors on a US college campus with a laptop on her lap while talking on a cell phone

As an international student, you may be wondering how you can call home and stay in touch with your friends and family after you arrive on campus. Cell phone providers in the United States offer a range of options, but how do you know which mobile plan is best for you? Read on to learn about international cell phone plans, buying a US SIM card or a US-based phone, and what you should consider when choosing your mobile service plan.

What Is an International Cell Phone Plan?

International service plans let you make calls and send messages outside of your home country. If your current network provider offers an international service plan with coverage in the US, you can activate this plan and make calls in the US using your existing SIM card. However, if your current provider does not offer any international service plans, you can purchase an international SIM card that comes with an international service plan. You can also use these SIM cards in your home country.

Keep in mind that international service plans can be more expensive than your service back home, especially if used for more than a year. If you do not want to use an international service plan, you will need to find out if your phone is compatible with US network providers.

Is Your Phone Compatible With US Network Providers?

Contact your current network provider and ask if your phone is locked or unlocked. This is important because locked cell phones can only make calls and send messages using SIM cards connected to a specific provider’s mobile network, whereas an unlocked cell phone can use any network provider’s SIM card to make calls and send messages.

If your phone is locked, you will need to purchase an unlocked phone or a new phone in the US. Many US network providers offer mobile plans which allow you to buy a phone with a SIM card connected to the provider’s network. 

If your current cell phone is unlocked, your phone is compatible with US network providers. After you arrive in the US, all you need to do is buy a SIM card from a network provider, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon, and choose a mobile service plan. There are many different plans to choose from depending on your budget. 

Which Mobile Service Plan Is Right for You?

Each mobile service plan will have its own pricing and conditions. Additionally, each plan will often have limitations for the number of minutes you can spend on calls, how many text messages you can send, and gigabytes of mobile data available over a specific period of time.

There are three main types of mobile plans:

  1. Pay-As-You-Go—With this plan, you pay a fixed rate per minute of talk time for calls, per text message, and per kilobyte for mobile data used.

  2. Pre-paid—For these types of plans, you need to pay a fixed charge at the beginning of a month. Some network providers offer unlimited call time, text messages, and mobile data for a limited period of time.

  3. Postpaid—Also known as “contract”, these plans have few or no restrictions and require you to pay a certain charge determined by the number of calls, texts, and mobile data used during the month. Contract plans generally last two years and require either a Social Security number or a credit check. Because international students do not have a Social Security number, many wait until they have first opened a US bank account to then link to the postpaid mobile phone plan. (Don’t yet have a US bank account? Many Shorelight universities will help you set one up during orientation.)

Some universities also offer SIM card purchasing services. They may help you select a service plan that suits you or help you decide between options.

What Cell Phone Services Are Available to You on Campus?

Some universities have partnered with US mobile service providers to create special plans for international students. These can range from assistance with buying new phones to low-cost mobile service plans with international coverage. 

Here are a few examples of mobile phone plans at Shorelight partner universities:

  • University of California, Berkeley—Through partnerships with Cricket Wireless and campusSIMS, UC Berkeley provides mobile service plans designed for international students. campusSIMS also mails international SIM cards to students before they arrive on campus.

  • University of South Carolina (UofSC)—International Student Services at UofSC helps students find affordable options for cell phones and mobile service plans and has partnerships with service providers such as AT&T, Cricket Wireless, and T-Mobile.

  • University of Massachusetts - Amherst—As a partner of Verizon and T-Mobile, UMass Amherst offers students special plans for both new cell phones and mobile networks with special discounts and offers.

  • Auburn University—International students attending Auburn University receive guidance during orientation on how to purchase and activate SIM cards.

By seeking assistance from your university’s student support services, it can be easier for you to find a plan that suits your needs. To narrow your options, there are a few factors you need to consider when selecting a service plan.

What Should You Consider When Selecting a Mobile Service Plan?

When selecting your mobile service plan, prioritize plans that will benefit you for a long time. While you can always change your service plan, cancellation fees and purchasing new plans can add up. To make a good decision, it can be helpful to think about what you value the most about a service plan.

Look at factors like:

Your Budget

When choosing a mobile plan, think about how much you want to spend. If you have decided on a monthly budget for your mobile plans, prepaid plans can help you stick to it — they allow you to pay what you want for your expected cell phone usage monthly. 

Pay-as-you-go plans can be less costly if you do not use your cell phone frequently, but if you need to make long calls or are a heavy data user, you may need to consider another option. Some plans may also offer additional benefits, like unlimited YouTube and Netflix, but these plans are usually more expensive compared to regular plans. 

Your Usage

Think about how you use your mobile phone when comparing plans. For example, if you typically only make calls and send text messages, you can choose a plan that offers better rates for calls and does not focus on providing a large amount of mobile data.

However, if you regularly use your phone for data-intensive activities like streaming videos or making video calls, you will need a plan that offers better rates for mobile data. (Having more mobile data can be helpful for your studies, as it allows you to browse study material online when you are away from your dormitory or library.)

Another factor to consider is the network’s area of coverage. US mobile service plans often only cover cell phone usage in a certain state. If you plan to travel or visit different states, it may be worth considering plans with coverage in multiple states, however, these will be more expensive. 

Contracts and Restrictions

Before signing up for any plan, make sure to read through the usage contracts of service plans to fully understand the terms and conditions. If you want to learn more about the plan you are considering, you can reach out to the service provider directly: they will always have a customer service representative, an email, or a support number you can contact to answer any questions. This can help you avoid any unexpected charges.   

If you need to buy a new phone in the US from a network provider, remember to consider the restrictions involved. The plans offered by network providers for purchasing new phones with a SIM card are often discounted, but these phones are locked to the provider’s mobile network. This means you will not be able to make calls on the phone if you want to change your network provider.

As an international student, you should carefully evaluate each of your options and choose the best plan for your needs. If you need any support, Shorelight advisors are always ready to help!

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