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Basic cell phone use tutoring for the USA

by FredS / June 15, 2007 3:27 AM PDT

I've never used a cell phone in the States. I may be going there soon and would appreciate some basic information about how things work.

In many other counties I know, people buy their phones outright and then use them either with a SIM card (pulses- and time-limited), or they sign up with a telcom provider to be billed monthly.

My question is, what are the options in the States? I've read all kinds of stories (good and bad) about the major telco service providers, and other stories about people trying to unlock phones to use with SIM cards.

What are the phone use choices in the USA and opinions of what's best will be read with interest. Thanks

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They vary...
by John.Wilkinson / June 15, 2007 4:19 AM PDT
Contract:
* 1-year or 2-year contract is required with a $250+ early termination fee if you break contract.
* Free mid-range camera phone is typically included.
* Usually offers the lowest cost per minute.
* These plans usually start at around $40 per month for 400 minutes. Specials/promotions can bump that up to 1,000 minutes.
* Nights (after 9:00pm with most), weekends, and holidays are free...they don't count towards your minute usage.
* Most are now also offering free calling to other customers with the same company.
* T-Mobile and Alltel offer plans where you can choose 5 numbers you call the most and have those numbers be free of charge.
* Overage fees run $.35 per minute on average, so try not to go over.
* Roaming is becoming less of an issue as more plans include nationwide coverage, but it's something to keep in mind if you travel.
* Depending on the company and phone a SIM card may or may not be used.
* You usually purchase your phone outright from the company's selection.
* You can use unlocked cell phones, but you may not be granted access to certain features offered by the service provider, such as the downloading of games and other applications...ask in advance.
* Coverage varies in each region, so check with the locals concerning reception before choosing a carrier. What's good in New York City may be horrible in San Francisco.


Pre-Paid:
* TracPhone, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Virgin mobile are the primary carriers.
* You must purchase the phone outright from their selection...only specific phones can be used. In that way you're really limited.
* No contracts, credit checks, etc are required.
* You can purchase phone cards from local stores or online as you need them, usually in $10 or $20 increments.
* Scratch off the label, enter the code into the phone, and you're good to go.
* Some companies, such as Virgin Mobile, require you to add another $20 every 3 months or the phone will stop working, regardless of the number of minutes remaining.
* Cingular offers a half-and-half GoPhone, where you pay $1 per day you use the phone and in exchange you get unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling.


Cingular also offers GoPhone Pick Your Plan, where you pay a monthly fee like with a contractual service, but you can terminate the service whenever you want. This may be your best option since it's the half-way point between 'traditional' service and pre-paid when it comes to cost and compromises.


Aside form that, remember that you pay for outgoing and incoming calls, as well as checking your voicemail. (I know some countries only charge you for calls you make.) In addition, text messaging is extra, as is wireless internet access. You can pay per minute/per message or agree to a monthly fee for a specific amount of usage.

That should about cover it, but if you have any other questions just ask.

Hope this helps,
John
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(NT) Wow!-helped a lot. Must study 1st & then will return. Thnxs
by FredS / June 15, 2007 11:59 AM PDT
In reply to: They vary...
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For clarification . . .
by FredS / June 15, 2007 5:05 PM PDT
In reply to: They vary...

John, I know I?m probably stretching my luck by asking these additional questions. I did search and go to a few web sites to find answers before posting this. I saw that your initial outline of goods & services was really good, because the carrier sites aren?t always so clear.

You can see from these questions that, to a newcomer (even if he?s a citizen <grin>), carrier plans in the States appear confusing. More than that, I would think finding the best deal is not easy. Thanks for the help.

Contract:
** 1-year or 2-year contract is required with a $250+ early termination fee if you break contract.
Q: Let me confirm what the $250 is for ? a security deposit for the phone, right?

** Depending on the company and phone a SIM card may or may not be used.
Q: So some companies use a SIM card and some companies? phones are ?hard wired? to work without a card. I guess don?t understand the purpose of a SIM card in a phone that is under long-term contract. Does having or not having a SIM card have any advantages or disadvantages? My experience is that SIM cards allow users who own their phones to renew call times (pulses) and calendar times and to change carriers as they wish (just buy a new SIM card).

** You usually purchase your phone outright from the company's selection.
Q: Again, why purchase a phone outright if it is going to be used with a contract? Is the advantage that you can take the phone with you if you change providers? With my present limited understanding of how it all works, that doesn?t seem like such a good deal because every year or two you might want to upgrade to a more modern phone, right?

** You can use unlocked cell phones, but you may not be granted access to certain features offered by the service provider, such as the downloading of games and other applications...ask in advance.
Q: This is similar to the question above. It seems to me that in the States an ?unlocked? phone equals ?owned outright?. Is this true? As I asked above, why own an unlocked phone if it?s going to be used under long-term contract with a single carrier?

** Coverage varies in each region, so check with the locals concerning reception before choosing a carrier.
Q: Which carriers are known to have the widest coverage? I just read on the net that Verizon is supposed to have the widest coverage. Do you know of any place on the internet where I might see a visual ?carrier coverage map? for the States?

Pre-Paid:
** You must purchase the phone outright from their selection...only specific phones can be used. In that way you're really limited.
Q: If all a user needed was basic commo ? phone, sms, and maybe email service ? would not the three carriers you mentioned offer a phone good for that?

** Some companies, such as Virgin Mobile, require you to add another $20 every 3 months or the phone will stop working, regardless of the number of minutes remaining.
Q: I read somewhere that with one carrier?s cards, a $20 card loaded into your phone expires in 90 days. The unused amount of money is rolled over into the new card?s amount. And then you also pay the other $20 fee on top of that. Is this correct? If you didn?t use the phone much, that would be only ( minimum) $40 for three months.

** Cingular also offers GoPhone Pick Your Plan . . . pay a monthly fee but you can terminate the service whenever you want. This may be your best option . . ..
Q: Right now, without having looked at other carrier?s details, I?m thinking that either pre-paid $20 phone card service or this ?GoPhone Pick Your Plan? look best. I assume that with this Pick Your Plan service, you must own your own phone.

I promise to hit Google and the web as soon as I have a better grasp of what to look for <grin>. Thanks much.

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No problem...
by John.Wilkinson / June 16, 2007 1:57 AM PDT
Contract:
1.) There is not actually security deposit on the phone. With the contract they either give you the phone for free or sell it to you at a greatly reduced cost, depending on which phone you choose. The $250 early termination fee covers the discount they gave you as well as part of the expected profits from a year or two of your service. You only have to pay it if/when you break the contract.

2.) Here in the States the SIM card is beneficial for those who want to swap phones. You can store all of your contacts, notes, etc. on the SIM card, relieving the burden of typing all of the data into the new phone. (We tend to switch phones more than some others, and some companies let you trade in your phone for a newer model every year.)

3.) That's true. None of the cellular companies 'rent' you a phone or include it as part of the package. However, they almost always offer a free model or two if sign a contract, and as I mentioned above there are also trade-in programs. The phone is yours to keep no matter what, and you can usually move to another company with it.

4.) Unlocking a phone doesn't relate directly to owning it. Instead, it lets you switch from one carrier to another and keep the same phone. ("Locked" cell phones only work with a pre-defined carrier until they are unlocked.) It's an attempt to get you to stay with one carrier, but you do have the option to leave and still be able to use the phone elsewhere.

5.) Coverage maps are controlled by the carriers themselves, unlike home phones which are charted by the public utilities commission. There are third-party groups that have the maps too, but for the most up-to-date information you should stick to the carriers' websites. They all have maps available, though some aren't as readily available as others.


Pre-paid:
1.) Yes. Even a basic $30 phone from any of those companies should be able to handle those features.

2.) Well, it's only $20 for 3 months. After you purchase the phone all you have to pay is for each card you buy. Thus, it could be just $20 every 3 months if you don't use all of the minutes. There's no limit to the number of cards/minutes you can purchase, though.

3.) Yes. As I mentioned above, you must always purchase your own phone unless a promotion makes it free. However, you can find capable cell phones starting for $30, and some older models for $10. You can also go towards the higher end and get a new Razr. It's all up to you.


Personally, I'd recommend avoiding Tracfone for they are overpriced compared to some of their competitors and don't have the best of reputations. Virgin Mobile is good but their service was originally designed for teenagers, as you'll notice if you look at the 'quick start guide' included with the phone. T-Mobile is very good but their coverage area is lacking a bit. Cingular (now AT&T) is also very good but their prices usually aren't as competitive as Virgin Mobile or T-Mobile.

Seriously, if you have any other questions don't be afraid to ask. I've heard about some of the plans offered abroad and know how different it can be, so I'm more than willing to share my knowledge with you.

Hope this helps,
John
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(NT) Thank you much! All clear -- for now :-)
by FredS / June 16, 2007 6:08 PM PDT
In reply to: No problem...
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