How to get a free data plan for your iPad

Who says you can't get something for nothing? If you have modest data needs, T-Mobile will hook you up, no strings attached.

I tend to think of tablets as "indoor" devices, used primarily at home or the office -- places rife with Wi-Fi. But what happens when you go out into the world and need connectivity? Now you have to pay for a 4G plan, right?

Not necessarily. As it has for a while now, T-Mobile offers a free 200MB-per-month data plan to anyone with a compatible tablet. I don't mean "free if you're already a T-Mobile customer" or "free with your existing smartphone plan" or "free not including several dollars in taxes and fees, not to mention whatever overage charges you'll almost certainly incur."

I mean free. No strings attached, no credit card required, no b.s.

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A free SIM card and 200MB of free data every month? Yes, please.

Rick Broida/CNET

If I sound overly enthusiastic about this, it's because I fully expected some kind of catch when I set up an iPad Air just the other day. See, I've always had Wi-Fi-only iPads, but for business purposes I needed one with GPS capabilities, and that meant a data-capable model (or "Wi-Fi + Cellular," to use Apple parlance).

But I didn't need a lot of data, so I decided to try the T-Mobile option. If you're interested in doing likewise, here's what you'll need:

A compatible tablet. You can try T-Mobile's device-compatibility checker to see if yours qualifies, but I'll make it simple: If you have a Wi-Fi-only tablet, it doesn't. As noted above, you need a model that also has cellular capabilities. And, it must be unlocked and/or compatible with GSM networks. Virtually all iPad Air and iPad Air 2 models fit that description, because Apple sells them unlocked and with support for both CDMA and GSM.

A T-Mobile SIM card. Ah, this must be the catch, right? It's not like T-Mo is going to give you a SIM card. Except, yeah, as of press time, you can get a free SIM when you bring your own tablet to the service -- even if you're opting for the free data plan. Just enter promo code FREESIM at checkout.

Update:My bad! Apparently to get the free SIM card you must sign up for a paid monthly plan (starting at $20), though you could most likely downgrade to the free plan later on. I already had one on hand, so my process was a little backwards. Thankfully, as noted in the comments, you can buy a SIM card for just 99 cents when you use promo code SIM99.

Once you have the card, you simply pop it into the tablet's SIM slot. On my iPad Air, this immediately brought up an activation window, at which point I thought, "Here it comes: activation fee." But, nope, I was able to choose the free 200MB plan without so much as a mailing address or credit card, and in a matter of minutes I had my megabytes.

Needless to say, your mileage may vary with a non-Apple tablet. I don't know if the activation process is as automated on, say, a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. You may need to work through T-Mobile's Web site instead.

What happens if you hit your 200MB cap? Exactly that: your connectivity runs out. If you want more, you pay for more, a-la-carte. That's awesome, because it means you won't end up with some unexpected surprise bill because you went over your allotment without realizing it.

Obviously 200MB won't satisfy all users' mobile-data needs, but it's a great option for folks who occasionally step away from Wi-Fi and want to stay connected. T-Mobile deserves due credit for this free and painless data plan.

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