Using a feature phone in the USA: a brief guide to carrier activation and MVNOs


This page is not meant to serve as an advertisement for any particular service or product, and has merely been written for informational purposes only.


Unlike many other places in the world, the USA uses a completely different set of LTE bands for cellular communications, additionally, American carriers impose device restrictions, which may adversely impact uses of feature phones, as they often are heavily locked down to the carriers from which they came originally, or have to be imported. This guide simply outlines my experiences dealing with the three major carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) and general assumptions about regional carriers (such as U.S. Cellular and Viaero Wireless).


AT&T is potentially the worst provider for feature phone users, given that AT&T enforces a whitelist of devices which may be used on their network (PDF: read the whitelist on, mirroring the original on, which impairs the use of feature phones as only a handful of models (mainly AT&T/Cricket branded [in-house] models, US-market Nokias, and rugged/work-oriented devices from manufacturers such as Kyocera). From experience, AT&T's enforcement of the whitelist is generally extremely strict, to the extent that your account may be suspended for using non-whitelisted devices.

Cricket Wireless non-whitelisted device warning message displayed on a Latin America-market Nokia 110 4G (TA-1395): note the presence of the "VoLTE" icon in the top lefthand corner, indicating that the device does work with AT&T's implementation of Voice-over-LTE services; it would otherwise be compatible if not for the superfluous whitelist. Right click and select "view image in new tab" or your web browser's equivalent to view the above image without scaling applied.

Even if a device works on AT&T's network and is whitelisted, it may not have additional features (such as WiFi calling) functioning on the network. Additionally, carrier variants of devices (i.e. the variant sold by T-Mobile) may not be whitelisted. Below is a non-exhaustive list of MNOs/MVNOs which do and do not enforce the whitelist; this list may become outdated at any time.

AT&T uses LTE bands 2, 4, 5, 12, 14, 17, 30, 46, and 66. In my experience, bands 12, 17 and 2 are the most useful to have in urban areas. Band 14 is used for the First Responder Network Authority (commonly referred to as FirstNet). I would not advise using a device without complete band compatibility outside of urban areas.

ENFORCES WHITELIST: AT&T post-paid, AT&T pre-paid, Cricket Wireless (the prior three are all owned by AT&T). The vast majority of MVNOs can also be assumed to be enforcing the whitelist.

DOES NOT ENFORCE WHITELIST: H2O Wireless, FreedomPop, RedPocket GSMA


In general, T-Mobile can be argued to be the best provider for feature phone users, as it does not enforce a whitelist, and generally allows any device with the LTE bands used in a particular area to function on the network and utilize VoLTE, WiFi calling, or other carrier functions. To further simplify this, this means T-Mobile will allow the use of imported devices which have the band(s) required to function in a particular area, as well as devices from other carriers, in addition to US-market unlocked devices and devices sold specifically for T-Mobile's network.

T-Mobile also operates an EDGE/2G network and small slivers of HSPA/3G. The EDGE network is moribund at best (and hasn't been expanded in well over a decade, nor does it appear to be a going concern maintenance-wise), and the remaining slivers of HSPA are officially meant to be offline. T-Mobile's legacy networks should not be depended upon for reliable communication.

From experience, devices lacking any band other than B2 will work in urban areas, but B12 is generally needed for indoors signal. B71 is needed for good coverage in rural areas. As a resource for figuring out which bands are in use in particular areas, take a look at the band rollout map.

For reference, MVNOs which operate on T-Mobile include Mint Mobile, Ultra Mobile, MetroPCS (the prior three all are owned by T-Mobile), Tello, and US Mobile.

Verizon Wireless

I would personally rank Verizon as second-best for feature phone users, as Verizon generally allows any device with LTE band 13 to utilize their network. Verizon does restrict new activations, however, this can be bypassed by activating a new SIM card in a cell phone that is known to work with Verizon (such as an Apple iPhone or similar known-working device) and moving the SIM card to the B13-having feature phone (or other non-accepted B13-having) device after confirming that the activation went through successfully.

Devices without B13 may work in urban areas, but may not have voice or SMS functionality (limited to data only), thus, it is a necessity to use a device with B13. Additionally, some MVNOs on Verizon's network (the only one I know of currently is TracFone and associated brands [Simple Mobile, Total Wireless/by Verizon, Straight Talk, et. al.) may bind the SIM card to the device it was activated in, and in this case will likely suspend accounts for moving the SIM, even into another 100% functional device, thus making it impossible to use devices that require the above activation method.

Verizon uses the following LTE bands: 2, 4, 5, 13, 46, 48 and 66

MVNOs that operate on Verizon's network include TracFone et. al., Visible Wireless (the prior two are owned by Verizon), US Mobile, and Xfinity Mobile.

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