How to get a data only cell phone plan: use a tablet data plan in your smartphone

Have you ever thought about getting a data only cell phone plan?  If used with free calling and texting apps, it's a great way to save a lot of money on your smartphone bill, and you won't have a contract either.  To my knowledge, none of the major nationwide carriers offer a data only cell phone plan.  However, it is possible to use a SIM card from a tablet in your smartphone.

Before we get started, a quick note.  Although there are no official data-only smartphone plans, T-Mobile offers a great prepaid plan that comes close.  For $30 you only get 100 voice minutes, but unlimited texts and 5GB of LTE data.  This is a great plan if you have good T-Mobile coverage in your area.  The plan is only available from Walmart online and in stores.  With this plan you'll get more data for $30 than you will with the tablet plans from Verizon or AT&T, but poorer coverage.  I've used this plan in the past, see my full impressions of it here.

Get a data only cell phone plan from AT&T

Android APN settings for AT&T data only cell plan

It's important to note that AT&T does not officially allow using a tablet plan in a cell phone.  They may detect it and terminate your service.  I've tried using an AT&T tablet plan in a smartphone and haven't had any problems.  I've also seen other people that have been doing it much longer than I have without any problems, but your mileage may vary.

First, you'll need a smartphone capable of working on AT&T's GSM network and an AT&T SIM card.  Obtaining a SIM card is easy:  simply go to an AT&T store and ask and they'll give you one for free.

You'll then have to register the SIM online at this AT&T website.  The ICCID number is printed on the SIM card.  You'll need the IMEI number of a cellular tablet.  If you don't have a tablet you'll have to get an IMEI number from a friend, a tablet in the AT&T or Apple Store, or somewhere else.  Once you enter valid numbers into the system you'll choose a data plan, create an account, and enter your credit card info.

It may take a few hours for the registration to go through.  Once it has, insert the SIM into your smartphone. Now you may have to change the device's APN settings before it will recognize the correct network.  The APN should read 'broadband'.  To change the APN on Android open Settings, go to Wireless & Networks, More, Mobile Networks, Access Point Names, and edit or create a new APN.  On iPhones, open Settings, go to Cellular Data, APN Settings.  You can also try this website.

At this point you should be able to connect to AT&T's cellular network and use wireless data like you normally would.  Another nice thing about AT&T is that you can make changes to your plan online from any device.

Get a data only cell phone plan from Verizon

Verizon does officially allow using any LTE SIM card in any capable device, but they may not offer customer support if something goes wrong or you're having trouble.

Setup with Verizon requires you have access to a Verizon LTE tablet, Verizon LTE smartphone, and a Verizon SIM card.  If you don't have a Verizon tablet already, it may be a bit difficult to acquire a Verizon SIM card.  If your local store won't give you one, they can be purchased on eBay for a few dollars.

Once you have the SIM, pop it into the tablet and set up a new account in the Settings menu under Cellular Data.  Wait until you're able to connect to the internet over cellular data and write down the tablet's APN settings.  Then remove the SIM card and place it into your cell phone.  You should be able to connect to the internet, but if not make sure the phone's APN settings match the APN settings on the tablet.

With Verizon the only way you'll be able to make changes to your plan is by putting the SIM back in the tablet and doing it there.  This can be a bit difficult if you don't own a Verizon tablet or have easy access to one.

SIM sizes, adapters, and unlocked phones

SIM cards come in three sizes (nano, micro, and standard).  iPhones 5 and newer use nano SIMs.  Many Android phones use the slightly larger micro size.  Look up your phone’s specs if you don’t know.

If your phone and tablet have different sized SIMs you'll need an adapter to swap the SIM back and forth.  I've used this model, which costs only a few dollars with free shipping on Amazon.  Hint: go to the other sellers and select one that ships from the US.  It's worked great for me for a few months now.  You can also purchase SIM cutters on Amazon for under $10.

Verizon LTE phones can be purchased directly from them or the Apple store at full price.  There are lots of unlocked phones that will operate on AT&T, see our favorites in this post.  Hint: if you're buying a new iPhone get the Verizon model because they are unlocked and will also work on GSM carriers.

Is this worth it?

For me, this is a great deal.  I prefer to have an unlocked phone without a contract, and I was already using free voice calling apps and texting for free with Google Voice.  My bill ranges from $10-$30 per month depending on how much data I'm using.  I don't plan to go back to a normal smartphone plan unless my situation requires a more reliable voice plan or new plans come out that are a much better value.  You can also drastically lower your cell bill with a prepaid carrier if this sounds too complicated.