How Foreigners Can Activate an AT&T SIM on iPad

Friday, March 30, 2012

Apple touts the iPad as the ultimate data roaming device.  No iPad has ever been locked to an individual mobile phone carrier, so you can simply pop any SIM card in, from any carrier in any country, and start surfing.  Sounds easy, but the reality is quite different unfortunately, and the level of difficulty varies from country to country.

It’s problematic for a non-US resident in particular to activate an AT&T SIM card on an iPad, and my blog post from last year outlined a method that a foreign visitor can employ to circumvent AT&T’s processes to establish an account.

Since that post, and after receiving comments and messages from others regarding the process, I felt it was time for an update, as there is a simpler method than the convoluted one I originally outlined.

The crux of the problem is that AT&T requires its iPad Data Plan subscribers to use a US address and a US issued credit card.  This is a problem for those of us who have no permanent footprint in the US, but travel to the US often.  Here’s a quick synopsis of how to bypass both of these controls:

Credit Card: Buy a prepaid Visa, Mastercard or American Express (also referred to as a Gift Card) card at any store in the US that sells them.  The “reloadable” versions of these cards are generally preferred, but check the fine print as many reloadable cards require a US Social Security Number, which those of us who are not Americans will of course not possess.

Address: Prepaid credit cards generally don’t have a billing address associated with them, so they typically pass credit card processor’s billing address verification controls.  (AT&T does run a billing address verification in real-time when you set up an account, which is why you can’t use your foreign credit card with a bogus US address)  Therefore, you can use any address you want when filling in AT&T’s form, although it’s best to use the address of a friend or family member in the US.

If you would prefer to use your regular, foreign credit card, perhaps for proper organization of business expenses, my original blog post outlines a method to accomplish this.  American Express is the best card to use in this case.

The challenge of using a non-reloadable prepaid credit card is, if you’re planning on maintaining your AT&T account on a month-by-month basis, you’ll also need to buy new (American) credit cards and update your AT&T account details regularly.  It’s a hassle, especially if you have to buy up enough gift cards to last until you return to the US again, but much less of a hassle than paying an enormous data roaming bill to your home carrier!