How to get a free data plan for your tablet

Who says you can't get something for nothing? If you have modest needs, you can score some no-strings-attached data.

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. Both Freedompop and T-Mobile offer a limited amount of free data for tablet users. Let's take a look at the two services and what you should expect from each.

Freedompop

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Yep. Free! The real deal. Just make sure to bypass Freedompop's numerous upsell attempts.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Last year, Freedompop added a new option to its long (and, frankly, confusing) roster of services: Totally free global phone service and messaging. That comes courtesy of a global SIM card and WhatsApp, but the deal also includes 200MB of data per month.

The SIM card will run you about $12, and you'll want to make sure to opt out of other offers during the checkout process. (Freedompop works hard to upsell you along the way.) Although the deal doesn't specifically reference tablets, the company's blog says you can plug the SIM into your "Android or iOS device." Take note, however, that only unlocked GSM tablets are compatible.

If yours is a Sprint-based CDMA device, check out Freedompop's Bring-Your-Own-Device plan, There's a one-time $19.99 activation fee, but you end up with 500MB of free data per month instead of just 200MB.

Although I haven't had the opportunity to test Freedompop with a tablet, I did successfully use the WhatsApp SIM with a phone. See how I fared here.

T-Mobile

T-Mo also 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 even "free not including taxes and fees, not to mention whatever overage charges you'll almost certainly incur."

I mean free. No strings attached, not even a credit card required. Okay, you do have to buy a SIM card, but that's the one and only expense.

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200MB of free data every month? Yes, please.

Rick Broida/CNET

When I first set this up on an iPad Air, I fully expected some kind of catch. See, I've always had Wi-Fi-only tablets, 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. Just as important, it must be unlocked and/or compatible with GSM networks. Virtually all iPad Air and later models fit that description, because Apple sells them unlocked and with support for both CDMA and GSM.

A T-Mobile SIM card. At the time of this writing, T-Mobile's 3-in-1 Mobile Internet SIM Kit was selling for $20. But bop over to Amazon and you can grab one for $9.39 (again, the price at press time -- it's very subject to change). Or, keep an eye open for T-Mobile SIM sales, which happen often. Currently, coupon code SIMDEAL will drop the price to just $3.99.

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 model. 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.

If you've found another option for free tablet data, by all means share it in the comments!

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