Where to Buy a New iPad if You Want an Apple SIM

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves 
Episode #95


I got a new iPad Air 2 last week and while I’m impressed, you’ll have to wait until next week for my review. Why? Well, while doing my due diligence I found a situation that’s more important for you to hear about today than my opinion of the iPad Air 2: Where you buy your iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 matters, and it matters a lot.

Before I explain, you’ll need some backstory: According to Apple, “Wi-Fi + Cellular (iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3) models come with an Apple SIM card preinstalled. The Apple SIM lets you choose from a selection of short-term cellular data plans — from carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — that can be turned on for a day, week, or month.”

That’s big news and here’s why: There are two predominant types of cellular networks — HSPA and CDMA — and Apple has manufactured separate iPad models for each since time immemorial. So, in the past, you had to choose a cellular data provider when you bought an iPad. And if that provider used an HSPA network (AT&T or T-Mobile, for example), it wouldn’t work on CDMA networks (Sprint or Verizon, for example), and vice versa.

So the big deal is that the new iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 have both CDMA and HSPA radios in the same device. So, at least in theory, your new iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 will let you buy your data a la carte from carriers on both types of network.

Sounds good, but now here’s the bad news according to Apple: “If you purchase your iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 from a carrier retail location, your Apple SIM will only be compatible with that carrier’s program. If you purchase your iPad Air or iPad mini 3 from an Apple Retail, Apple On-line store, or a reseller within countries where Apple SIM is supported, you’ll have all participating carriers to choose from.”

As it happened, my review unit was a Wi-Fi + Cellular model, but when I looked in iPad > Settings > Cellular Data, I didn’t find the choice of cellular providers I expected. After some digging, I determined it was because Apple thoughtfully sent me an iPad with a Verizon SIM for testing.

I looked online and found this in the Apple Store app:

I’ll do that…

So, last Sunday afternoon, I set out to find an Apple SIM in Austin, Texas and that’s when the spit hit the fan. My quest began at my local Apple Store (the store I raved about way back in Episode 93).

Anyway, the concierge (or whatever the Apple-person-at-the-door is called) started to tell me that the new iPads came in two models —CDMA and HSPA, blah, blah, blah — but I interrupted him and said that while that was true before the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, the new iPads only come in one flavor with both CDMA and HSPA and an Apple SIM. He looked uncertain so I whipped out my iPhone 6 Plus and showed him the page shown in the figure above. He called over another, apparently more senior genius, who consulted with another genius and then confirmed that everything I said was true. Then he added the coupe de grace: “I’m afraid we don’t have them yet.” I asked if he could, maybe, pull one out of some other iPad Air 2 or mini 3 but he politely declined.

So I set off for the Verizon store, where the first guy I asked said yes, they had Apple SIMs but I’d have to get on the list and wait for someone to help me. I did that and twenty minutes later another salesperson assured me there were no Apple SIMs here, only Verizon SIMs. He also implied that there would never be Apple SIMs in a Verizon store, so I showed him the now-notorious web page. He said this was the first he’d heard about it, and assured me they still didn’t have any Apple SIMs.

Are you beginning to detect a pattern? My last stop was the T-Mobile store, where I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a salesperson who knew almost as much about the Apple SIM as I do. Alas, she wasn’t sure if or when T-Mobile stores would have them in stock.

So, at the end of the day I was batting 0 for 3 and was still Apple SIM-less. And, as of today, I’ve yet to find a store—online or off—that has a single Apple SIM available.

The moral of the story is: If you want to choose your cellular data provider on the fly, and not be locked into a single provider, you need to buy your iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 from Apple or an Apple reseller (and even there, once you choose AT&T, that company will lock your Apple SIM to its own network). If you buy from a wireless operator and want that same freedom, I implore you to ask if you’ll be able to obtain data from other cellular providers with this iPad before you plunk down your cash (and don’t be surprised when they say, “are you freakin’ kidding?”).

One last thing: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a third-party alternative that’s similar to the Apple SIM, works in over 100 countries including the USA, and costs just $19.95 with a la carte data options beginning at a mere $10. For details, check out Dave Hamilton’s Cool Stuff Found: GigSky Is Apple SIM For Everyone

And that’s all he wrote…