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Summary:

Choosing an iPad Air with LTE? Apple’s site says your iPad will only work with the carrier you choose. That’s sorta correct: Out of the box, yes, it works with your carrier choice. After that, you can swap service by switching SIM cards.

iPad air pics

Look at Apple’s website for the iPad Air LTE models and you might think that the devices are locked to specific carriers in the U.S. Why? Because the iPad Air purchase page says exactly that: “Your iPad will only work with the carrier you choose.”

air lte options

Except, that phrase isn’t quite true.

As my colleague Kevin Fitchard wrote last week, there’s only one iPad Air model with LTE for all carriers. Apple was able to accomplish an incredible engineering feat by adding support for 14 LTE bands in one single device. And the devices aren’t subsidized or bought on contract, so they’re not locked to carriers because they’re not subsidized by carriers.

So what’s the deal? Will your iPad only work on the carrier you choose or not? Out of the box, the statement is correct. There aren’t different iPad Air LTE models for different carriers, but if you choose an LTE carrier at time of purchase, your iPad Air comes with a SIM from that carrier. But after that, you can play the field.

I verified this with Apple directly last week and again at my local Apple Store on Friday morning. And then I tested it out in a limited fashion.

This morning, I bought a 32 GB iPad Air with LTE for T-Mobile. A T-Mobile nano SIM was already inside the iPad. When I got home, I activated the iPad Air on T-Mobile’s network to start my free 200 MB per month service. I’ll add more if needed. The process went without a hitch.

iPad Air T-Mobile

I then removed the AT&T nano SIM from my unlocked iPhone 5s as well as the T-Mobile nano SIM from the new iPad Air. I placed the AT&T SIM in the Air and after a few seconds of searching the iPad found AT&T’s LTE network and I began to surf the web. It’s not a perfect test because in a real world situation I’d be using a data only SIM card from AT&T in the iPad Air. Still, between the test and the fact that there’s really only one iPad Air model with LTE, it shows that this new iPad brings more freedom than prior models.

iPad Air ATT

The whole idea behind the multiband support here is for Apple to have one single iPad Air that covers most LTE networks. That’s a cost savings for Apple but it’s also a benefit to consumers who buy the LTE models of Apple’s tablet.

If I’m traveling to an area with limited T-Mobile coverage, for example, I can get a SIM from a different carrier — one with better coverage where I’m heading — and use it in my iPad Air during the trip. If we ever witness a data price war, this could come in handy as well: Just get a SIM from the then-lowest priced carrier for data.

Moto X nano SIM

When discussing this with Kevin Fitchard, he raised a good point: It may be more difficult to do with an iPad that comes with a SIM from Verizon or Sprint. Moving from either of them to GSM carriers — AT&T or T-Mobile — could prove troublesome.

If I could test that I would, but for now, I’ll have to assume that Apple’s information is correct: You can swap out SIMs and use any supported carrier here in the U.S. or abroad as needed for a weekly or monthly amount of data, depending on the operators available plans.

This approach also portends a very interesting potential future for smartphones. Once we move to Voice over LTE, or VoLTE, for all voice services, everything is data. And that means if the devices have radios to support most or all LTE bands, consumers could gain tremendous flexibility in choosing which network to use for their phones. Instead of using the same carrier for a year or two, you could theoretically swap out SIMs on monthly basis due to coverage needs or cost savings.

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  1. Technically this was possible with the Verizon iPad 4 as well. I put an AT&T sim in it from time to time.

    The key restriction after picking a carrier is that you can only use the on device carrier setup with the carrier you picked.

    This is important for two reasons:

    1. Setup can take place anywhere with primary carrier. If you are out on road and need a quick connect, just go to Settings and setup. Other carrier SIMs have to be setup in store.

    2. In store carrier SIMs sometimes have extra costs. For example, the 5GB plan on Verizon cost me exactly $50 on the device, but when I went into the store there was an activation fee and misc taxes/fees. The result is the 1st month for the same plan was nearly double the cost. They reasoning was that it was a post-paid account vs a prepaid account, but it did not make it hurt any less.

    1. I am a former Verizon Wireless employee. All Verizon Wireless 4G LTE devices must be factory unlocked per FCC regulation of the band that Verizon is using. Verizon’s primary LTE band is band 13 which is the 700MHz C Block (upper 700MHz frequencies). The FCC has stated a while ago that any carrier that uses band 13 radio waves are not allowed to limit the consumer use of the device to an extent. This is great for consumers, as it bars the carriers from placing strict limitations on how you can and cannot use your device. I know for a fact that this law applies to all US carriers, however I am not sure if this law applies to the manufactures as well in a sense. For example, Verizon must factory unlock all LTE devices due to them using band 13. However, I am not sure if certain devices from AT&T, Sprint, and T-mobile must follow the law as well just because those few select devices are capable of using Band 13 as well like the iPhone 5s for example. AT&T, Sprint, and T-mobile does not use Band 13 for any network, but some of their devices are capable of using the band though.

      So to sum it up, a 3rd Gen and 4th Gen Verizon iPad will be unlocked and work on AT&T and T-mobile perfectly fine with small limitations, but the same type of device in opposite roles would be locked to their carrier.

  2. I also was able to do this with my Verizon iPad 4 no problem. T-Mobile SIM worked just fine (of course only on 2G, or 3G in a refarmed market).

    I just got my Verizon iPad Air today, I want to test it out with my T-Mobile broadband SIM. My only hesitation is I had previously chopped my TMO SIM down to Nano, then got TMO to replace it with a Micro (to use in my Nexus 7 2013). I’m loathe to chop it down to a nano AGAIN just to test this!

    I know I can just use the TMO nano SIM in the Nexus with an adaptor, but I’m wary of those, ever since I basically broke the SIM card slot in a cellular Galaxy Note 8.0 by using a nano-SIM with micro adaptor. The SIM got physically stuck in, and I destroyed some contacts in the slot when I tried prying it out. Thankfully I was able to find a replacement SIM card slot module and replace it myself. Not fun or easy…..

  3. Let’s see what happens. I’m restoring an AT&T LTE model right now. I also have a Verizon LTE SIM.

    1. Alee, Why do you have to restore? Is that required in addition to physically switching SIM cards?

      1. Restoring from backup… because the iPad had nothing on it when you first open the box.

    2. Update: AT&T iPad will take a VZW SIM and will pick up VZW CDMA and LTE. Good to go… 1 iPad, LTE on any carrier.

  4. I just bought a T Mobile iPad Air and have cell service through AT&T. How did you get it to work for you? Did you just pop in your AT&T SIM and the iPad recognized the SIM automatically?

    1. Yes, that’s all you need to do. The iPad is SIM unlocked and supports all carrier frequencies for LTE to the best I can tell.

      1. I have a grandfathered unlimited data plan from AT&T on my iPhone 5s and a t-mob ipad air. I tried doing the same thing as you, I inserted my iPhone sim into the iPad air. However, I was only able to get 4g data after changing my APN settings via unlockit.co.nz. LTE did show up after using it for some time, but it didn’t always. If I just try to simply swap, the sim will register but it will complain about setting up an account and the signal didn’t hold. Did you have to change you APN settings? What kind of data plan do you have on your iPhone?

        1. Same, my iPad mini with retina on T-Mobile does not work with my AT&T sim card UNLESS I install the custom APN settings from unlock it.co.nz … How did yours work by just putting the AT&T sim card in? The APN settings disappear when I put in my AT&T sim card.

          1. Are you trying to swap the SIMs between an ipad and an iphone like Mlt? Is that what causes the complication and need for unlockif?

  5. Yes one device / model supports it all. Check out http://www.apple.com/ipad/LTE/

  6. I have a 20GB plan with verizon. Whenever I wanna use I swap out the Tmobile SIM card from my iPad

    1. Is your 20GB plan for a mifi hotspot? And if it is, can you easily swap your sim card from your hotspot to your ipad without any glitches?

  7. We now know that LTE will work , but what about where there is not LTE service…for example if one has purchased a the Tmobile LTE iPad , and one swaps the ATT sim into it…will it work on Att 3G incase there is not ATT LTE in the area ?

  8. Well, that’s kind of a dumb test since they are all GSM. Going CDMA to GSM is the real test and you “decided” not to test the real thing??

    Useless review

    1. A “Verizon iPad” works just fine with a T-Mobile SIM. Are you satisfied?

  9. Michael W. Perry Saturday, November 2, 2013

    Thanks for the heads up. I wonder if the same is true of the new iPad mini. If so, I’m almost tempted to sell my iPad 3 and get an iPad mini with cellular just for the GPS and access to T-Mobile’s free data.

    Are there any rumors that T-Mobile’s limited-sip free data plan might be extended to smartphones, including iPhones? A cross-country move meant that I shifted from T-Mobile prepay to AT&Ts to get better local coverage. But if T-Mobile came with even a little free data, I might be willing to live with those fewer bars.

    So much in the cellular market is bad, organized for cellular companies rather than consumers, that it’s great that new multi-band chips, LTE standards and a SIM for everyone’s system is moving us rapidly toward one-device works everywhere. That means more competition and that’s good.

  10. has anyone tried a sprint ipad sim in a non sprint ipad?

    1. I tried a Sprint iPhone 5 SIM in a T-Mobile iPad. I received a SIM not Valid error.

    2. I tried. That won’t work.

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