The U.S. phone system comprises regional service providers, competing long-distance carriers and several mobile-phone and pay-phone companies.
In the USA, cell phones use GSM 1900 or CDMA 800, operating on different frequencies from other systems around the world. The only foreign phones that will work in the USA are GSM tri- or quad-band models. If you have one of these phones, check with your service provider about using it in the USA. Ask if roaming charges apply, as these will turn even local U.S. calls into pricey international calls.
It might be cheaper to buy a compatible prepaid SIM card for the USA, like those sold by AT&T or Cingular, which you can insert into your international mobile phone to get a local phone number and voicemail. Planet Omni and Telestial offer these services, as well as cell phone rentals.
If you don’t have a compatible phone, you can buy inexpensive, no-contract (prepaid) phones with a local number and a set number of minutes, which can be topped up at will. Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile, AT&T and other providers offer phones starting at $15, with a package of minutes starting around $40 for 400 minutes.
Huge swathes of rural America, including many national parks and recreation areas, don’t pick up a signal. Check your provider’s coverage map.
All phone numbers within the USA consist of a three-digit area code, followed by a seven-digit local number. Typically, if you are calling a number within the same area code, you only have to dial the seven-digit number; however, some places now require you to dial the entire 10-digit number even for a local call. If dialling the seven-digit number doesn’t work, try all 10.
If you are calling long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus the phone number. If you’re not sure whether the number is local or long distance (new area codes are added all the time, confusing even residents), try one way, and if it’s wrong, usually a recorded voice will correct you.
Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 888, 877 and 866 and when dialling, are preceded by 1. Most can only be used within the USA, some only within the state, and some only from outside the state. You won’t know until you try dialling. The 900- series of area codes and a few other prefixes are for calls charged at a premium per-minute rate – phone sex, horoscopes, jokes etc.
1 is the international country code for the USA if calling from abroad (the same as Canada, but international rates apply between the two countries).
011 to make an international call from the USA (followed by country code, area code and phone number)
00 for assistance making international calls
411 directory assistance nationwide
800-555-1212 directory assistance for toll-free numbers
Local calls at pay phones that work (listen for a dialling tone before inserting coins) cost 35¢ to 50¢ for the first few minutes; talking longer costs more. Only put in the exact amount because pay phones don’t give change. Some pay phones (e.g. in national parks) only accept credit cards or prepaid phone cards. Local calls from pay phones get expensive quickly, while long-distance calls can be prohibitive, especially if you use the operator (0) to facilitate long-distance or collect (reverse-charge) calls. It’s usually cheaper to use a prepaid phone card or the access line of a major carrier like AT&T.
Prepaid phone cards are a good solution for travellers on a budget. Read the fine print, as many cards contain hidden charges such as ‘activation fees’ or per-call ‘connection fees’ in addition to the rates.
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