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How To Buy A SIM Card At The Airport, In The USA


Updated January 21st, 2022. This guide is still up-to-date!

Disclosure
Originally posted on November 6th, 2021. Everything in this article has been verified by Don Silvio firsthand, no buffers. There is zero payment or influence being given or asked for. No one is paying for or reviewed this article before posting. The information below does not apply to airport locations outside the “Mainland” USA. Nothing is copied or regurgitated information, everything is up-to-date.

Introduction

Are you thinking about visiting the United States? Traveling is a hassle enough without having to worry about purchasing a local SIM card. After landing, the thing everyone wants is to just get their phone connected as soon as possible. Whether that be for booking an Uber, calling family, or just checking for important information. I’ve been in this situation not long ago. That is when I found the best way to buy a SIM card in a U.S. airport.

I am going to guide you, step-by-step, on how to buy and activate a prepaid SIM card at a U.S. airport. This article will be about what is most accessible to the maximum amount of international visitors to the United States.

Something to keep in mind is that once you’re outside the airport you will have a much higher variety of SIM card options at lower prices. Read this article if you want to learn about the vast variety of prepaid SIM cards in the U.S. I think there is a lot of people who just want a SIM card from the airport though.

I am proceeding with the assumption that the device you will be using is unlocked and is compatible with the T-Mobile USA Network. If you need help determining these two things then this article can be of use to you.

InMotion Stores USA

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Affordable prepaid SIM cards are available at InMotion, iStore, and Sound Balance stores across many airports in the United States. The SIM cards offered are from Lycamobile and Ultra Mobile.

InMotion is an electronics retailer with stores inside many airports across the United States. When it comes to purchasing a SIM card at a U.S. airport, InMotion is the only airport option that has a defined, uniform, and sufficiently reliable experience. Read this article if you want to know why all other airport options are inadequate compared to InMotion.

InMotion operates under the brands of

  • InMotion Entertainment
  • Sound Balance
  • iStore
  • Headphone Hub (No SIM cards here!)

These stores are all under the InMotion umbrella. Lycamobile and Ultra Mobile prepaid SIM cards are sold at InMotion, iStore, and Sound Balance stores. Headphone Hub does not sell SIM cards.

For the rest of the article when I say InMotion… I will be referring to InMotion, iStore, and Sound Balance. Excluding Headphone Hub, as for our purposes, it is irrelevant.

Let’s start with the step-by-step guide now.

1. Find an InMotion, iStore, or Sound Balance Location

The first step, is to establish whether an InMotion store is even going to be available at the airport you will be arriving at. I’ll guide you through determining this.

InMotion has 120+ total locations spanning dozens of U.S. States. If you are flying into the United States, then 90% chance you are going through one of these locations.

Choose Your Location

Click the location finder and select the airport you will be arriving at. If your airport is not listed, then check if you are transiting through one of those locations. You might have enough time to secure your SIM card before your connecting flight takes off. I’d say a layover of 2 hours and above is sufficient time in most instances, but it really depends on the airport.

Some airports have 1 location, others have multiple, and some locations are just “temporarily closed” so just make sure. Narrow down which terminal you will be landing in. InMotion does not indicate which locations are at the “International Arrivals Terminal” and once you are past security it can be difficult if not impossible to get past security again.

No InMotion Store at your Airport?
If, at this point, you are sure you won’t be able to get a SIM card from InMotion then you could consider other airport options. At this point though, my advice would then be to choose a non-airport location to purchase your SIM card as it would most likely be cheaper and cause you fewer headaches.

Research on your own which terminal you will be arriving at and check if there is going to be an InMotion store near your arriving terminal. I find https://www.ifly.com/ to be a helpful resource when researching individual airports, their maps, and which terminals are which.

Check Hours of Operation

Once you have established your location, now it is time to check hours of operation. Note that the times listed are in that locations local time. So an InMotion store in New York will list their hours in EST/EDT (U.S. Eastern Standard/Daylight Time) and a location in Los Angeles would do so in PST/PDT (U.S. Pacific Standard/Daylight Time). Make sure to do the proper due diligence in this regard. For the most part if you arrive during normal business hours then there is a good chance the store will be open.

Another thing to keep in mind is that InMotion and Sound Balance Stores do not have set hours across locations. Some could be open early in the morning and others around 10am. But even then, when I went to check hours on the website I would find obvious typos. Like this at the Philadelphia International Airport, the store hours are listed as 7:00pm-9:00pm. That would mean the store is only open 2 hours out of 24. When I called that location, the actual hours were 6:00am-10:00pm. Again, I highly recommend calling the store location.

If you have any questions about the SIM cards or concerns about availability, do not hesitate to call any one of the locations at the airport you will be arriving at, beforehand. For example, Inmotion stores can share products across locations (within the same airport). If the store you want to buy the SIM card at is out-of-stock, then with a little notice they can move that SIM card to your desired location. The point is, if you will be relying on this then it doesn’t hurt to check beforehand.

2. Choose Which SIM Card You Want

Choose which package you want before arriving to save time and headache. Both Lycamobile and Ultra Mobile have 2 options for you to choose.

Lycamobile USA SIM Cards

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LycaMobile USA is a Wireless Carrier in the U.S. that resells service using the T-Mobile Network. The SIM cards are provided at InMotion stores via partnership with SIM Local. Be on the lookout for 3 different kinds of displays. No matter the display type, all options should be available.

The SIM Cards sold are a $30 and $50 Package.

Prices are in USD

Feature$30$50
USA-USA MinutesUnlimitedUnlimited
USA-USA Text MessagesUnlimitedUnlimited
International Minutes to 75+ Countries1 from the USAUnlimitedUnlimited
International Text Messages to 75+ Countries from the USAUnlimitedUnlimited
Data (Internet)7GB15GB
Bonus International Calling Credit2UnknownUnknown
Additional Features$30$50
Wi-Fi CallingYesYes
Mobile Hotspot (Tethering)YesYes
A Note About LycaMobile
LycaMobile operates in over 20+ Countries as its own MVNO, unique to that Country. Make sure when researching LycaMobile you research the proper division. For example not looking at the UK site lycamobile.co.uk for USA information found on lycamobile.us, and especially not LycaMobile Uganda @ lycamobile.ug.

Both SIM cards come preloaded with 30 days of service from the date you activate the card (not the date you purchase it). So if you wanted, you could wait a few days or weeks to activate the SIM card and not lose any days of service.

Ultra Mobile SIM Cards

/how-to-buy-a-sim-card-at-the-airport-in-the-usa/img/ultra-sims.jpeg

Ultra Mobile is a Wireless Carrier in the U.S. that also resells service using the T-Mobile Network. They do not seem to have any dedicated display. They could be on shelf hanging somewhere or behind the counter. Either way, simply asking the Salesperson if they have any Ultra Mobile SIM cards in stock should suffice. The 2 packages available are a $27.99 and a $39.99 package.

Warning!
I’ve noticed that Ultra Mobile SIM cards are almost an after-thought now that the Lycamobile SIM cards became available in early 2021. Out-of-Stock or low-stock whichever the location is a common theme. Don’t be surprised if they are out-of-stock when you arrive.
Feature$27.99$39.99
USA-USA MinutesUnlimitedUnlimited
USA-USA Text MessagesUnlimitedUnlimited
International Minutes to 80 Countries3 from the USAUnlimitedUnlimited
International Text Messages to 80 Countries from the USAUnlimitedUnlimited
Data (Internet)2GB5GB
Bonus International Calling Credit2UnknownUnknown
Additional Features$27.99$39.99
Wi-Fi CallingYesYes
Mobile Hotspot (Tethering)YesYes

Both SIM cards come preloaded with 30 days of service from the date you activate the card (not the date you purchase it). So if you wanted, you could wait a few days or weeks to activate the SIM card and not lose any days of service.

Making Your Choice

Aside from price,

Similarities between the two Carriers is

  • Both use the T-Mobile USA Network.
  • Both have unlimited talk and text.
  • Both have robust international calling options.
  • Both can be used inside Tablets (iPads) and Hotspot (MOFI) Devices.

Differences between the two Carriers is

  • Lycamobile is a familiar brand outside the U.S.
  • Ultra Mobile is easier to renew
  • I think Lycamobile has limited Domestic Roaming, Ultra does not.
  • Ultra Mobile might be a better choice if you value international calling more than data, click here for more info.

I think the choice is clear, Lycamobile provides more data at a similar price point, that to me is enough to sway the choice in its favor.

If you want a more dedicated breakdown between not just Lycamobile and Ultra Mobile, but Prepaid Wireless Options for International Visitors to the United States as a whole, click here.

3. Before Your Flight

  • Think about how you are going to pay for the SIM card (it might be a good idea have American Dollars either way).
Payments methods accepted
  • American Dollars (USD) - Obviously
  • Visa/Mastercard - Non-US cards should work… but you never know.
  • Apple Pay - Your Non-US card tied to Apple Pay should work… but you never know.
  • Google Pay - Your Non-US card tied to Google Pay shou… you get the idea.
  • AfterPay - I think this is only for U.S. residents.
  • Discover/Amex - I also think these options are only for U.S. residents.
  • Try to have a SIM card removal tool (or a thin paperclip).

Screenshot or copy the information on this site for reference. You won’t have an internet connection before purchasing the SIM card so bookmarking alone won’t bring this site up. Whatever you have to do to ensure you have this information available to you in an offline setting.

Now Double-Check Everything!

Unforeseen issues… is not what you want when traveling.

Remember This!
Make sure you are looking at InMotion, iStore, or Sound Balance locations. Headphone Hub does not sell SIM cards.

4. Arriving at an InMotion, iStore, or Sound Balance Store

Try to have your phone charged upon landing.

Note that these are small stores, so they may only be staffed by 1 person at any given time. I’ll guide you in activating the SIM on your own in case you are short on time and need to buy-and-go, or the store employee is too busy to help you.

Tell the store employee which SIM card you want or take it off the display and take it to the register.

Once you have your SIM purchased you may want the InMotion employee’s help in activating it. I would recommend it even if you feel confident activating on your own, just in case there is an error or something. I have found InMotion employees to be “sufficiently” knowledgeable in activating the SIM cards.

Do not rely on them for anything other than very basic questions about the SIM cards. It is not their job to know if your phone is compatible with T-Mobile’s network or why it won’t work. This is important because their official policy is that there are no refunds for prepaid SIM cards. Though if they failed to activate I’ve personally seen them refund or try again with another. But again, their official policy is that there are no refunds for prepaid SIM cards. I have to hammer that home.

5. Activating the SIM Cards

Activating is simple regardless of which Carrier or package you choose. This process should usually take no more than 5-10 minutes in my experience.

Activating LycaMobile

You have 3 options on how you want to activate. Though for this guide I will only go over the easiest and fastest method. Click here if you want to go over the other 2 methods.

Call 622 - Usually activates in under 5-10 minutes, start to finish, only 1 device is required when activating. 24hr automated service.

  1. Insert the SIM card into your phone
  2. Open the phone dialer and place a call to 622
  3. When prompted, enter the desired ZIP code you wish the phone number to be associated with. (SIM Local Provides a default New York City ZIP code of 10154)
    ZIP Code?
    Every city in the U.S. has its own ZIP code(s). You can choose a ZIP code from any city in the U.S. Use https://www.unitedstateszipcodes.org/ to find ZIP codes associated with that city.
  4. The SIM card should now start activating, this can range from 1 minute to 30 minutes. Though, usually it will not take more than 5 minutes.
  5. That’s it
Success!
Congratulations, you now have an activated prepaid Lycamobile SIM card with 30 days of duration.

Activating Ultra Mobile

You have 4 options on how you want to activate. Though for this guide I will only go over the easiest and fastest method. Click here if you want to go over the other 3 methods.

Text 6700 - Easiest and usually activates in under 5-10 minutes, start to finish, only 1 device is required when activating. 24hr automated service.

  1. Insert the SIM card into your phone.
  2. Open the messaging app and text the word GOGO (All capital letters and that is the letter O, not the number zero) to 6700 (six-seven-zero-zero).
  3. You can also text GOGO + ZIP Code if you have a desired ZIP code you wish the phone number to be associated with. Here is a New York City ZIP Code of 10154. So the text message should look like this GOGO 10154 to 6700
    ZIP Code?
    Every city in the U.S. has its own ZIP code(s). You can choose a ZIP code from any city in the U.S. Use https://www.unitedstateszipcodes.org/ to find ZIP codes associated with that city.
  4. The SIM card should now start activating, don’t be alarmed if you don’t receive a reply immediately. Give it a minute. This can range from 1 minute to 30 minutes. Though, usually it will not take more than 5 minutes.
  5. That’s it!
Success!
Congratulations, you now have an activated prepaid Ultra Mobile SIM card with 30 days of duration!

6. Need More Than 30 Days of Service?

If you want to continue to use your Lycamobile or Ultra Mobile SIM card for more than 30 days, then you can renew your service a few different ways. I come at this from the perspective a Non-US person without a US credit card or bank account.

The easiest way would be to use an online “refill” service that can be used by anyone in the world, so long as you have a supported payment method. It is also possible to refill your service using cash (USD), though it might be more hassle than it’s worth. It’s possible, just not as easy as you might think.

I go over all kinds of refill options here.

Flying High on Success!

Congrats!

Now that wasn’t so hard, we just went over every step required to buy a SIM card at a U.S. airport. Inmotion Stores, even with all their faults provides a great service so that you can get your phone connected right off the plane. Which SIM card did you go with?



This thing of ours…

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Don Silvio


Featured photo by Danilo Bueno from Pixabay


  1. Lycamobile Unlimited Calling Countries are listed here. Click here to look at rates for all Countries. ↩︎

  2. I tried to find out what bonus international credit you get with each SIM card, but frankly I wouldn’t even trust what customer service would tell me. I’d rather have a person who actually bought it tell me. When I bought it, I forgot to check as I didn’t need it. Please leave a comment if you can confirm for any of the SIM cards. ↩︎

  3. Ultra Mobile Unlimited Calling Countries are listed here. Use the same link to look at rates for all Countries. ↩︎