Which iPad U.S. cell carrier and plan should you get?

Since its humble beginnings, the iPad has offered a Wi-Fi + Cellular option in its lineup: A $130 price increase ($150 for the 2018 iPad Pro) gets you an included Apple SIM card, an embedded Apple SIM and empty nano SIM tray or, if you're considering a 2018 iPad Pro, an embedded SIM (eSIM) and, again, an empty nano SIM slot, letting you access your carrier's cellular networks, as well as any Wi-Fi networks in range.

What is a SIM card, and how does it work?

As with your iPhone, you'll have to pay a monthly charge for data on your cellular plan; unlike your smartphone, however, these plans are often a la carte — you can buy data as you need, and disable monthly subscriptions at any time without penalty. Additionally, if your smartphone plan allows data sharing, you may be able to directly add your iPad to your monthly plan.

If you're considering getting an iPad with cellular access, here's everything you need to know.

Ask yourself: Do you really need an iPad with Wi-Fi and Cellular?

While $130 may not be a huge price to pay for the option of LTE, not all users need it for their iPad — especially if you have an iPhone with tethering capabilities, or plan to use your tablet largely in areas where there's Wi-Fi.

LTE service can be incredibly useful, however, if you plan to use your iPad on the go and don't want to drain your iPhone's battery to tether. The Cellular model also sports a GPS antenna, if you plan to use your iPad for navigation. I've had LTE-capable iPads since their beginnings, and I love being able to freely work on a close-to-laptop-size device with a cellular antenna. If you have good coverage where you're traveling, it means never having to worry about finding a Wi-Fi hotspot or tethering your iPhone to work.

Additonally, if you have a different data plan on your iPad than your iPhone, it can be useful for getting data in areas where your iPhone's cellular provider has dead spots (and vice versa).

About Apple SIM and eSIM

Apple ships its 9.7-inch 2018 iPad Wi-Fi + Cellular model with an Apple SIM, a cellular nano-SIM card that lets you choose multiple carriers, instead of being locked to a single provider. (In the U.S., that includes AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, AlwaysOnline, and the international data service GigSky). Though the Apple SIM is manufactured by Apple, you still purchase plans from a specific carrier using your credit card — there's no iTunes billing option.

In a perfect world, you would be able to switch carriers at will with your Apple SIM, but not every company has opted in. Auto-switching in the U.S. works if you pick a T-Mobile, Sprint, AlwaysOnline, or GigSky plan: You can make accounts on all four networks if you so choose, and switch between their plans depending on which suits you based on your location.

Pick AT&T, however, and your Apple SIM card will immediately lock down and become an AT&T-only SIM card. The AT&T option will also immediately disappear once you pick one of its competitors. (Lame, AT&T. Super-lame.)

What if you prefer another carrier that supports tablet plans, like Verizon? Just swap out the SIM card: All iPads have an unlocked nano-SIM slot, allowing you to use any nano SIM card from the carrier of your choice.

How to remove the SIM card in an iPhone or iPad

This includes international carriers — which means you can freely use your iPad overseas with a local SIM rather than paying crazy fees for U.S. provider roaming or buying an a la carte plan from a universal provider like GigSky. You need only visit your international carrier of choice and pick up a nano-SIM card (usually for free or a nominal fee).

iPad Pro models introduced in 2016 and 2017, including the still-available 10.5-inch iPad Pro, offer both an embedded Apple SIM card and an empty nano-SIM card slot; while we don't have official confirmation from Apple, I suspect this is to subvert carriers trying to lock down the Apple SIM after you pick a plan.

Likewise, the new 2018 iPad Pro models both come with eSIM and an empty nano SIM tray. Like the Apple SIM in previous iPad Pro models, eSIM is a non-replaceable, embedded SIM lets you easily switch between plans on supported cellular carriers in the U.S. and abroad. Again, this works much like an embedded Apple SIM, just in a more industry-friendly fashion, rather than an Apple-rolled solution.

After buying an iPad Pro in the U.S., you can choose from AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, AlwaysOnline, or GigSky on your Apple SIM — but as Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch first discovered, you can also put an AT&T or Verizon SIM card into the nano-SIM card slot. This allows you to pick from your Apple SIM providers and any provider in your nano-SIM card slot when browsing the iPad's cellular screen.

Note: Some international carriers might require a billing address for that country; we've used hotel, AirBNB, and local food addresses in the past to get around this.

Before you buy: Check your LTE data coverage and speeds

There are lots of great deals on tablet data available for your iPad — but it's not going to do you any good if you can't use that data in your local area. Before you choose a plan for your iPad, we recommend checking out your carrier's coverage maps. You'll also want to see what carriers have the most reliable coverage and speeds in your area — comprehensive coverage means nothing if that coverage is slow as molasses.

Where to buy your Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad

In the U.S., the best place to order your iPad is through Apple — either the Apple Online Store, Apple Store app, or in a physical Apple Store.

While you certainly can order your iPad through an AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile store, be prepared to have the included Apple SIM in your nano-SIM slot automatically locked to the carrier you chose to buy an iPad from. (Save for the iPad Pro models, whose embedded Apple SIM is exempt from being locked down.)

One circumstance where carrier ordering might be ideal is Verizon: Since Apple no longer offers a choice of networks when you buy an iPad (it's Apple SIM or bust), if you plan on using Verizon's network you may want to order directly from the carrier.

That said, if you do end up buying from your carrier and your SIM card gets locked to that network, you can also always request an additional Apple SIM from your local Apple Store.

Choose a cellular data plan

Once you've picked up your iPad and any appropriate SIM cards, it's time to choose your plan. The big U.S. carriers offer several data options for iPad users; here's the gist.

T-Mobile

When it comes T-Mobile, you have three options for paying for data on your iPad Pro.

The first is the Simple Choice Mobile Internet. In addition to your monthly allotment of prepaid LTE data, T-Mobile also gives you unlimited 2G data. The LTE data plans break down like so.

Data Price
2GB $10 (monthly)
6GB $25 (monthly)
10GB $40 (monthly)
14GB $55 (monthly)
18GB $70 (monthly)
22GB $85 (monthly)

T-Mobile also sells data passes, which offer non-recurring charges for specific amounts of data. For $5, you can get 500MB of LTE data for a 24-hour period. There's also a $30 plan that gives you 3GB of data for one month.

Finally, there's T-Mobile ONE, the carrier's unlimited plan. The standalone plane is $70 per month for unlimited data and 480p video streaming. If you're already a T-Mobile customer on the ONE plan, you can add you iPad Pro to your plan, whether its ONE or ONE Plus, for an additional $20 per month.

AT&T

I'll give AT&T this: they certainly have a lot of options for iPad data plans. First, AT&T has DataConnect, DataConnect Pass, and Mobile Share Data. DataConnect offers up to 5GB of data monthly. DataConnect Pass, meanwhile, are a set of prepaid plans that start with 1GB of data for 30 days. Finally, Mobile Share Data are monthly data plans ranging from 4GB to 50GB that also include a $10 montly access charge.

Let's first take a look at how the DataConnect plans break down:

Data Price
250MB $15 (monthly)
3GB $30 (monthly)
5GB $50 (monthly)

Overage charges come in two flavors: $14.99 for every additional 250MB on the 250MB plan or $10 per additional GB on the 3GB plan.

There are also two types of DataConnect Pass plans: one without Auto Renew, and one with Auto Renew, which automatically pays for the next 30 days worth of data, much like a postpaid plan would. Here's what the Pass plans look like:

DataConnect Pass

Data Price
2GB $25 (90 days)
Unlimited $35 (30 days)

DataConnect Pass with Auto Renew

Data Price
1GB $14.99 (30 days)
7GB $50 (30 days)
Unlimited $29.99 (30 days)

Finally, there's Mobile Share Data, a postpaid plan that offers the most options, as well as an access fee of $10 per iPad on this plan. The data included in Mobile Share Data is, as you might have surmised, shared between all of the devices attached to this plan.

Data Price
4GB $30 (monthly)
6GB $40 (monthly)
10GB $60 (monthly)
15GB $90 (monthly)
20GB $110 (monthly)
30GB $185 (monthly)
40GB $260 (monthly)
50GB $335 (monthly)

If you want to add international data to any of these plans, it'll cost you another $60 for 1GB for 30 days, or $120 ro 3GB for the same period.

You can also avoid a separate data plan entirely by adding your iPad to AT&T's Mobile Share plan for an additional $20/month; this lets you piggyback off your iPhone's AT&T data plan.

Verizon

Note: Verizon isn't available on Apple SIM; you'll have to order an iPad from the Apple Store and visit Verizon for a nano-SIM, or order directly from the Verizon store.

Verizon's data plans are really straightforward, there are just a lot of them. Like AT&T's mobile share plan, you share the data on these plans with whatever devices are attached to them

Data Price
2GB $20/mo.
4GB $30/mo.
6GB $40/mo.
8GB $50/mo.
10GB $60/mo.
12GB $70/mo.
14GB $80/mo.
16GB $90/mo.
18GB $100/mo.
20GB $110/mo.
30GB $185/mo.
40GB $260/mo.
50GB $335/mo.
60GB $410/mo.
80GB $560/mo.
100GB $710/mo.

Verizon, too, will let you add your tablet to your iPhone's existing cellular plan for an additional $10/month.

Sprint

Sprint offers a day pass, week pass, and several monthly passes for iPad owners. The subscription-based plans renew the day before the next calendar cycle begins; you can cancel at any time, and Sprint won't deactivate your SIM if you don't have a plan active.

Data Price
300MB $5 (24 hours)
500MB $10 (7 days)
1GB $15 (auto-renews every month)
3GB $35 (auto-renews every month)
6GB $50 (auto-renews every month)
12GB $80 (auto-renews every month)

As with the other plans, you should be able to add your iPad to your currently-active smartphone plan if you want to share its data.

AlwaysOnline and GigSky

AlwaysOnline and GigSky are Apple's two available data plans for international travelers: They're networks known as "alternative carriers" — they piggyback on existing cellular networks across the world to help give you internet access wherever you go.

AlwaysOnline offers global coverage in 74 countries. Their pricing varies depending on which country you visit; here are the prices for roaming in the U.S.:

Data Price
100MB $0.99 (per hour)
500MB $2.99 (1 day)
1GB $7.99 (valid up to 15 days)
3GB $22.99 (valid up to 15 days)
5GB $34.99 (valid up to 15 days)

GigSky offers coverage in 189 countries, with slightly different pricing depending on where in the world you are. In North America, its pricing is as follows:

Data Price
300MB $10 (valid up to 1 day)
500MB $15 (valid up to 15 days)
1GB $20 (valid up to 15 days)
2GB $30 (valid up to 15 days)
5GB $50 (valid up to 30 days)

Which carrier and plan should you get?

There are a lot of factors that weigh in on your carrier choice and plan size, and everyone's going to have a different opinion on what best fits their lifestyle. But, if you want some advice, here's what I got.

You'll be happy with T-Mobile if there's decent coverage in your area: The network is speedy in its active locations, supports LTE Advanced, and gives you free lifetime data and ridiculously cheap a la carte and monthly options. T-Mobile can also be used without locking your iPad's Apple SIM.

You'll be happy with AT&T if you have an iPhone whose data plan you want to share, you don't need a ton of data, or you don't have great T-Mobile coverage. You also shouldn't mind AT&T locking Apple SIM to that carrier, or buying an iPad Pro to get around the locking restriction.

You'll be happy with Verizon if you have an iPhone whose data plan you want to share, you don't need a ton of data, or you don't have great T-Mobile or AT&T coverage. You also shouldn't mind replacing your Apple SIM (or adding a new nano SIM, in the case of iPad Pro users) with a Verizon option.

You'll be happy with Sprint if there's decent coverage in your area: The network is the cheapest option for a la carte data after T-Mobile, and the monthly plans are solid, too. Sprint can also be used without locking your iPad's Apple SIM.

You'll be happy with AlwaysOnline or GigSky if you're planning on traveling internationally: These plans allow you to avoid picking up a local SIM in the country you're traveling to and still have internet access. Both can be used without locking your iPad's Apple SIM.

Questions?

Still debating your choice of carrier, or whether you need cellular data on the iPad at all? Let us know in the comments.

Serentiy Caldwell contributed to an earlier version of this article.

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