Airalo Helped Me Fix My AT&T Phone, Using T-Mobile

Late last year, I decided to finally buy a 5G-capable smartphone, but I never got 5G reception on AT&T in Seattle or New York. For $1.50, I used Airalo to use a competing mobile network to fix the problem.

Links to Airalo from this post may earn me a referral commission if you sign up for their service.

My old phone was an iPhone 11 that only got what AT&T calls “5G E” service, a fake 5G rebranding of its 4G network. I decided last year to upgrade to an iPhone 13 mini, which supports 5G networks, but after upgrading my phone, I was still stuck on the same “5G E” network. I tried calling AT&T’s customer service, and a rep advised me to reset my network settings. That terminated my customer service call, deleted all my saved Wi-Fi passwords, and didn’t fix the problem. I also went to AT&T’s web site to generate a new eSIM for my phone; that didn’t fix the problem, either. My family members on the same plan reported getting 5G service, or even faster “5G+” service, so it wasn’t the phone plan that was the problem.

After a few months of this mild annoyance, I wondered whether my phone, still under warranty, was somehow defective. That’s when I decided to put the Airalo app I’d had on my phone for a while, but never used, to work.

Airalo is an app that sells prepaid eSIM cards; it’s mostly marketed to travelers. In the past, when I’ve gone to another country, I’ve usually visited a local store to buy a physical SIM card and a short prepaid plan. This is annoying for many reasons: I can’t use my phone on arrival, airport vendors overcharge tourists, and there may be language barriers or long lines. On my trip to Copenhagen last year, the airport’s many convenience stores didn’t sell SIM cards at all; I ended up buying one at the first 7-Eleven I found in the city proper, then, without much sleep or Danish language fluency, I used the carrier’s web site to add money and service to it. Airalo simplifies this by selling me an eSIM before I leave home, not starting the clock until I activate it after touching down at my destination. Airalo also offers eSIMs that work in multiple countries, something that I thought my Danish prepaid carrier offered within the EU, but which didn’t really work in the two other EU countries I visited on my trip. (No, I didn’t spend my vacation time talking to a Danish prepaid phone carrier’s customer service department.)

I decided to solve my 5G problems in the U.S. using Airalo. To start, I snagged a $3 discount from a referral code (feel free to use mine if you need one) and I bought a one-week, 1-gigabyte eSIM for the U.S. My iPhone 13 mini already converted my old iPhone 11’s SIM card to an eSIM when I set it up, but it let me use both AT&T’s and Airalo’s eSIMs at the same time. Then, I set the new eSIM as the primary card for mobile data, and I went for a walk around my neighborhood. Airalo said that my new eSIM would work on the T-Mobile and Verizon networks, although I only ever saw “T-Mobile” appear on my phone. I ended up with real 5G — not “5G E” — next to my signal strength meter. I ran a few speed tests, probably consuming much of my 1 GB data limit, and I confirmed that the speed with my new eSIM was closer to 5G range than what AT&T was giving me. This was the proof I needed: it wasn’t my plan, my phone, or my location that was causing problems with AT&T’s 5G network.

As my week of high-speed data ended, I called AT&T’s customer service, describing all the troubleshooting I had done. The representative put me on hold, then told me that despite having migrated my SIM card to an eSIM, AT&T still thought I had an iPhone 11. He corrected the record, and shortly afterwards, I was able to get a weak but usable 5G signal in my home. My problem was solved, and all I had to pay was $1.50 for a week’s worth of data with a second carrier.

I’m surprised that this sort of eSIM test drive isn’t more popular. There are a few other apps I found for wireless carriers that let people buy service and get an eSIM, but they require months of commitment and a credit card on file. Airalo’s service is limited to data only in every country I’ve seen, but realistically, I don’t use my phone for local calls and texts when I’m abroad. (AT&T offers Wi-Fi Calling, and the iPhone is smart enough to use a second SIM or eSIM to route my AT&T calls and texts over another carrier’s data network.) Overall, I’m impressed with Airalo’s service in the U.S., and I’m planning to use them the next time I go overseas.