We Help You Decide: You’re Visiting the U.S.

It happens plenty: you're traveling overseas (in this case to the United States), but your phone either won't work on the US network, or it'll cost you a bundle in international charges. Thankfully, there is a solution: get a prepaid phone for your visit. They're cheap, they're functional, and you can usually find good short-term calling options.
The problem, though, is that if you don't do your homework, you might end up grossly overpaying for those minutes. Just because a phone is on sale cheap at a convenience store doesn't mean that it will give you the best bang for you buck. And isn't that what you're really after? You want to spend the least amount of money on the exact number of minutes you need.
That's where we come in. We've looked through our extensive list of prepaid providers and picked out those that offer you either low minute commitments, low prices per minute, or both.
Works on all levels
AT&T(read the review) Their pay as you go looks expensive at 25 cents per minute, but you can limit that damage by paying their $1 per day fee. That knocks calls down to 10 cents per minute, plus gives you unlimited free calls to AT&T subscribers (which should cover at least a few of the people you're visiting).
For a seven-day stay, that's $7 in daily fees, plus airtime. If you use 100 minutes (reasonable), that's $17 total. Not bad. Add in that you can get a phone for $20 (which is about as low as you'll find one), and you're golden.
Locus Mobile GSM(read the review) It's a true pay-as-you-go, so you don't have to worry about a monthly plan or anything. At first glance, we would disqualify this service: it's 15 cents a minute. But for some reason, this only covers the first five minutes used each day. After that, it drops below our magic number to nine cents per minute.
So what is Locus doing with that extra 30 cents per day? We're not exactly sure, but after looking at other plans, it probably acts as a “per day” charge, a la kajeet.
Plus, you can use your existing GSM phone with their service. So no extra charge there.
Net10 (read the review) There are two things you need to know about Net10: it's 10 cents a minute all the time, and there is no activation fee. Do we really need to elaborate any more? If Net10 is available in the area you are visiting, we issue a very strong “buy” recommendation. That is, unless you like paying more than 10 cents per minute.
Phones start at $20, so you're sitting even prettier.
There's a catch
Cricket (read the review) We really can't say enough good about Cricket. There's just something about unlimited minutes that gets us really riled up. You'd think we were soccer hooligans in Manchester, but nay, we're cell phone reviewers in the States. But that does not take away from our love of Cricket.
If you drop the $40, you get unlimited for a month. Of course, if you're only staying in the States for a week or so, this might not work out for you. But if you're here for any significant period of time, we'd go with Cricket (if you're not covered, MetroPCS is an option, too).
The catch: Phones start at $100. Ouch.
Jump Mobile (read the review) Something we forgot to mention: Cricket is a subsidiary of Leap Wireless. They also own Jump Mobile, so it comes as no surprise that they're on the recommended list.
Here for a week? If you're staying in just one area, Jump provides calling rate of the magic 10 cents per minute. Plus, there's free text messaging! This is all within the local calling area, though. If you plan to get around a bit, you'll see significant jumps in cost — 69 cents per minute to talk, 10 cents per text message.
The catch: Phones start at $69. Cheaper than Cricket, but still a lot for a temporary prepaid phone.
Boost Mobile (read the review) Boost pay-as-you-go isn't so bad. After all, they're on the Sprint network, so you get pretty good coverage. Plus, you get that sweet extended nights deal: they start at 7 p.m. instead of the standard 9 p.m. Those calls will cost you 10 cents per minute, as will calls to other Boost and Sprint subscribers.
The phones start at $30, so you're looking at a pretty reasonable proposition there.
The catch: It's 20 cents per minute for peak-time calls. So if you plan to talk during the day, Boost may not be what you're looking for.
Kajeet (read the review) They say it's a service for “tweens” (meaning about 8 to 13 years old), but if you're only using it for a week or so, who cares? Their call rates are 10 cents a minute anytime, so you're getting a good deal on that. Plus, they offer up some neat phones.
The catch: There's a 35 cents per day service charge, and the phones start at $50.
Page Plus Cellular (read the review) We can't quite decide whether this one has a catch or not. But after a few determining factors, we've decided that yes, this does have a catch.
You can buy $10 airtime cards, which we like. And that comes to 12 cents per minute, which is rather decent for such a cheap card. You can drop $25, though, and reduce that rate to just over 7 cents per minute. So we like that.
The catch: There's only one phone, it's refurbished, and it costs $40.
STi Mobile (read the review) We definitely liked STi's options, but like the others in this list, there's a catch. We've gotta be straight forward about it, because it ties in with the rate plan.
If you choose to pay a 10 cents per day access fee, calls are 10 cents a minute on nights and weekends and 12 cents per minute peak time. If you pay 79 cents per day, calls are just 7.9 cents per minute.
The other catch: phones are dependent on you purchasing good amounts of airtime.
Lucky Aces (read the review) Rock on: you can jump on the Verizon network with Lucky Aces and get 200 anytime minutes and 3,000 night and weekend minutes for $29.99 per month. Of course, you'll have to be here for a month for that to work. But hey, it's worth a look.
The catch: Phones start at $40.
Verizon Wireless (read the review) All calls made with Verizon's INpulse pay-per-minute plan are 10 cents per minute, which is our magic number. On top of that, you get unlimited nights (which range from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.), and unlimited calls to other Verizon subscribers (which could come in really handy if most of the people you're visiting have the service).
The catch: There's a 99 cents per day access charge. This is among the higher access charges. And the phones start at $99.
To avoid in this situation
These are the guys that you're going to want to stay away from. We'll explain case by case.
Alltel: Their per-minute rate is 15 cents (high), and you need to start with a $20 balance. That's 133 minutes, which is a bad combination.
Liberty Wireless: No true pay-as-you-go plans are the killer on this one. If you're going to be here for a month, it might work, but there are still better plans than what Liberty has to offer.
MetroPCS: We love 'em, but even for a month's stay, they kinda climb over the edge of usefulness. We love the $40 unlimited plan, but remember, you have to pay extra for just about everything — including voice mail. There are better plans for month-long stays.
Mojo Mobile: It's great that they have $10 airtime cards. Too bad it works out to 33 cents per minute. Even the $20 card works out to 25 cents per minute. Pass.
Omni Prepaid: Calls are universally 14 cents per minute. We certainly hope you can find a better deal after having read this.
Simple Freedom: We'd think that with a name like “Simple Freedom,” they'd be good for this. Nope. The lowest denomination of airtime cards is $20, and it's 15 cents per minute — 50 cents if you're roaming.
T-Mobile: The per minute rates are high, and you need to buy too many minutes to make it worth it.
Tracfone: You'd think it'd be good, considering how much play it gets at convenience stores. But the only way you can get 10 cents a minute is by buying a really expensive card.
US Cellular: You can find better deals than their monthly plans.
Virgin Mobile: 18 cents per minute? Pass.
Xtreme Mobile: They charge 15 cents per minute and a 60-cents per day activation fee ($1 if you want push-to-talk). Yes, free nights and weekends, but this is still a pretty high rate for short-term use.