We thought it would be handy to have a mobile phone while in the States,
particularly as we were going to be there for 11 weeks. We did not intend to use it a lot, but it was good to have one while on the road so we could call ahead and book accommodation, etc. It was also good to know that people back home could reach us if they really needed to.
The mobile phone system is quite different from Australia’s and many if not most Australian mobile phones will not work in North America at all, although I believe they generally will work in Europe, due to a similar GSM system being in use there. Some phones which are ‘Multi-band’ may work in Nth America; your provider should be able to confirm whether this is the case or not. In our case we only have work-provided mobiles phones so there was no prospect of taking them anyway.
Anyway, we researched this a bit before we went, using the newsgroup rec.travel.usa-canada and a few other forums. We were advised that ‘TracFone’ would be a good option for us, and would be reasonably cost-effective. These are prepaid so there is no contract involved, which would probably not be practical for a non-US resident anyway. I have
no idea whether this was the best possible solution, and I guess things change pretty rapidly in the wireless phone market, but we took this advice and it worked pretty well for us.
TracFones are sold by common stores like OfficeMax, Target, Office Depot, Wal*Mart and many others. We bought ours from a Wal*Mart in Las Vegas for about $40 US. The kit comes with a handset (a choice is available – we got a Nokia 5100 series CDMA), a battery and charger. They give you 10 minutes of airtime to start with. You can buy additional airtime at the same stores or also at 7-Elevens and similar convenience stores.
To get more airtime, you buy these cards, which come in various denominations. You then call a 1800 number (not from your cell phone) and key in the PIN from your airtime card. You are given a string of numbers that must be keyed into the TracFone handset. Once done, the handset will show the number of units you have remaining. You can call anywhere in
North America with the TracFone but cannot call overseas. However, you can receive calls from overseas. You can also buy and redeem airtime online at tracfone.com using a credit card.
The other thing that is well worth doing is picking up a rechargeable phone card, such as the ones AT&T sell through Wal*Mart. Using these, calls cost 5 cents per minute domestic, and 10 cents per minute back to Australia. There may be better deals around, but you need to be careful, as many phone cards in the US are not rechargeable. Once they are used up you need
to buy another one. With the AT&T ones through Wal*Mart, you can recharge them at the counter of any Wal*Mart store, or over the phone using your credit card.
****When doing anything by credit card over the phone in the States, the automated system may well ask you for your billing Zip Code as well as the credit card number, expiration date, etc. The system will not accept a four digit Aussie postcode, so it may kick you to an operator or just reject the transaction. I found that keying 90210 (the only US Zip Code I knew, from the old TV series) would work fine. It seems to just require a valid Zip Code, as opposed to actually checking it against your Amex or VISA billing address*****
The phone cards are very handy, as you call a 1800 number, and local calls or calls to 1800 numbers are generally free from hotels in the US. You should check first with the front desk though, as the hotels will sometimes have strange rules that could cost you money if you are unaware.
By the way, it’s also worth picking up a phone card in Australia (from any newsagent) if you are going to be making calls to the States while planning and booking the trip – it will save a fair bit of money.
Another peculiarity of the US phone system is that it costs an extra surcharge to use a phone card from a payphone, even though you are calling a 1800 number – your phone card will be debited a certain number of units, in addition to the units used up by the duration of the call itself. Given a choice, it’s usually better to use the phone card from the phone in your motel
room than a payphone, and use it only if you need to call long-distance. Another use for the phone cards is if you need to call overseas using your cell phone while on the road.
As I say, the mobile system is totally different. For example, you get charged for incoming calls as well as outgoing calls, which has never been the case in Australia or anywhere else outside North America, as far as I am aware. The cell phone numbers are also based on area codes. For example, if you tell TracFone when activating the phone that the place you expect to use it most is LA, you will end up with an LA area code such as 310.
At least with TracFone, but I believe with other providers also, they have the concept of ‘roaming’. In my case, a call made in the LA area was considered ‘local’, with a call made anywhere else treated as ‘roaming.’ A ‘local’ call uses one unit of airtime per minute, while a roaming call uses two units per minute. I think this concept may have existed in the very early days of
mobile telephony in Australia but it is uncommon nowadays, as far as I know.
At the end of your trip, you could try and sell the TracFone to another tourist, keep it in case you or family and friends travel there again or just accept that you now have a paperweight to remind you of your trip. In our view the $40 USD or so was well worth it to have a phone. We’ve since given ours to a friend who was travelling to the States, in return for some duty-free!
Another option I found out about after we got back is through Venture Mobile. They offer plans from $29.95 per month, prepaid, with no contracts required. You can call overseas, including Australia, for what appears to be a reasonable rate. The handset would be mailed to your hotel or other US address within a few days of signing up. We can’t really comment directly on the service as we have not used it, but it may well be worth a look. More info can be found at the following links: