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 and access to your carrier of choice'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.
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 my first model, 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 to work.
If you have a different data plan on your iPad than your iPhone, that can also 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 the Apple SIM: It's a cellular nano-SIM card that lets you choose between AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and the international data service GigSky.
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 works if you pick a T-Mobile, Sprint, or GigSky plan: You can have accounts on all three networks, 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? Luckily, all iPads have an unlocked nano-SIM slot, allowing you to swap in any 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. You need only visit your carrier and pick up a nano-SIM card (usually for free or a nominal fee).
What's this about the iPad Pro having an "embedded" SIM?
The 9.7-inch iPad Pro offers both an embedded Apple SIM card and a nano-SIM card slot. And though we don't have official confirmation from Apple, I suspect this is to subvert carriers trying to lock down the Apple SIM and make switching easier.
With the 9.7-inch Pro, you can choose T-Mobile, Sprint, 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 Apple SIM locked — or disabled entirely, in Verizon's case — to the carrier you chose to buy an iPad from.
This may not be a problem if you plan to only use your iPad on one carrier or you're going to carry around multiple nano-SIM cards, but if you're interested in roaming or taking advantage of the Apple SIM, you'll want to buy from Apple.
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 is also currently offering 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)|
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)|
|$25||1GB (auto-renews every month)|
|$30||3GB (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.
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 doesn't appear to 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.
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 your Apple SIM being locked to that carrier.
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 in a new nano-SIM) 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.
Still debating your choice of carrier, or whether you need cellular data on the iPad at all? Let us know in the comments.