When it comes to picking a cellular plan for your iPad, you need to weigh your options.
Since its humble beginnings, the iPad has offered a Wi-Fi Cellular option in its lineup: A $130 price increase gets you an Apple SIM card in the tablet's nano SIM slot (or, if you're considering an iPad Pro, an embedded Apple SIM card and an empty nano SIM slot) and access to your carrier's cellular networks, as well as any Wi-Fi networks in range.
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).
What you need to know about the Apple SIM
Apple ships all its U.S. iPad Wi-Fi Cellular models with an Apple SIM: It's 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.
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).
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.
What's this about the iPad Pro having an "embedded" Apple SIM?
All models of 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.
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.
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.
- AT&T's coverage map
- T-Mobile's coverage map
- Sprint's coverage map
- Verizon's coverage map
- Tom's Guide: Best U.S. Mobile Network 2016
Where to buy your Wi-Fi Cellular iPad
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 has the biggest array of plans available for iPad owners, providing a variety of price points and subscription options. The biggest selling point for T-Mobile is its free lifetime tier: As long as you're using T-Mobile on that iPad, you'll get 200MB free every month. For new iPad owners, T-Mobile offers a 150-day promotional 5GB data plan for $10.
Beyond those two, your choices vary between time-limited options and automatically-renewing monthly plans. All subscription-based plans renew the day before the next calendar cycle begins; you can cancel at any time, but if you leave your SIM without a plan for more than a year, it will automatically deactivate.
|Free||200MB (monthly, auto-renews)|
|$5||500MB (24 hours)|
|$10||1GB (7 days) / 5GB (promotional, 150 days)|
|$20||2GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$30||3GB (30 days)|
|$35||6GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$40||5GB (30 days)|
|$50||7GB (30 days)|
|$50||10GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$65||14GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$80||18GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$95||22GB (auto-renews every month)|
If you want to add your iPad to your existing phone plan, expect to pay $20/month.
Here's what AT&T has to offer iPad owners when it comes to data plans. Just one of these plans is a true a-la-carte option: the $5 plan, which provides you 250MB data for 24 hours. (Like Cinderella, if you don't use your data in 24 hours, it disappears.)
The remaining three plans are month-to-month subscription plans; you can cancel them at any time without penalty, but if you don't have an active subscription for more than 60 consecutive days, AT&T will permanently deactivate your SIM card.
|$5||250MB (24 hours)|
|$15||250MB (auto-renews every month)|
|$30||3GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$50||5GB (auto-renews every month)|
You can also avoid a separate data plan entirely by adding your iPad to AT&T's Mobile Share plan for just $10/month; this lets you piggyback off your iPhone's AT&T data plan.
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.
Like AT&T, Verizon's plans are time-limited, but in a bizarre way: If you choose Verizon, you'll be picking from plans that expire every week, month, or two months.
All plans are subscription-based, and renew the day before the next calendar cycle begins; you can cancel at any time, but if you leave your SIM without a plan for more than six months, it will automatically deactivate.
|$15||500MB (1 week, auto-renews every month)|
|$20||1GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$35||2GB (auto-renews every two months)|
|$60||5GB (auto-renews every two months)|
|$100||10GB (auto-renews every two months)|
Verizon, too, will let you add your tablet to your iPhone's cellular plan via the Verizon Plan for $10/month.
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.
|$5||300MB (24 hours)|
|$10||500MB (7 days)|
|$15||1GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$35||3GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$50||6GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$80||12GB (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.:
|$0.99||50MB (per hour)|
|$4.99||300MB (1 day)|
|$19.99||1GB (valid 1-15 days)|
|$39.99||3GB (valid 1-15 days)|
|$59.99||5GB (valid 1-15 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:
|$15||300MB (3 days)|
|$25||1GB (7 day)|
|$35||2GB (14 days)|
|$50||5GB (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.
Still debating your choice of carrier, or whether you need cellular data on the iPad at all? Let us know in the comments.
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