Crash course in U.S. cell phone deals for a Brit who's coming to live there?
March 23, 2011 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Crash course in U.S. cell phone deals for a Brit who's coming to live there...? What can I expect in terms of cost, minutes, data allowances, included wi-fi etc. I'll be in based in NY but travelling all over.

Here in the UK I get minutes, data and even wi-fi access with my cellphone package. From what I can see, this isn't usually offered in the US. What kind of things can I expect?
posted by deeper red to Computers & Internet (24 answers total)
 
Response by poster: For example, if I stay in a hotel, what's going to be the best option for getting my laptop online?
posted by deeper red at 9:59 AM on March 23, 2011


What kind of a cell phone are you looking for? I think the biggest influence will be smart phone/non smart phone.

Some smart phones can now do their own mini wifi hotspot things, but I'm not too familiar with them. Are you talking about wanting wifi for your home, or a wifi enabled phone? Wifi for your home is usually done through whatever internet company is local/cheapest/easiest. For traveling it would usually be stop at a McDonalds for fee wifi, or paying at your hotel.

All those other things are just something to ask about when you get the phone, but usually all packaged or billed together.

Welcome to the USA!
posted by raccoon409 at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2011


Most cell phone carriers have tiered plans for the basics, then extra charges for additional services. Depending on the carrier, data (ie what you need to use a smartphone), tethering, and unlimited text messages are all the kinds of things that will probably be extra charges on top of the basic monthly fee. Most carriers offer packages, but these change constantly -- if you plan to travel, you should probably be looking online at what various plans on ATT and Verizon would cost you, and make your decisions based on your personal needs. In my experience, particularly in NYC, Verizon is a better deal.

Most hotels will have wireless in your room. Some charge for it (usually $10 a day) and some don't -- hotels that offer free wireless will almost always advertise it on their websites.

FWIW: I traveled with my laptop for years before I got a smartphone/data plan, and had no problems getting my work done and keeping up with email. It's up to you if the extra expense of a data plan and tethering are worth it to you.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:12 AM on March 23, 2011


It depends hugely on the hotel. In my experience, less expensive hotels offer free wifi in your room; more expensive hotels will charge a daily fee for it (perhaps they assume you're on a business trip and will expense it). The in-room ethernet connection, if they have one, may be free.

Most cell phone contracts from most providers will nickel-and-dime you for everything. Tethering is generally extra. Or you can get a dongle that plugs into your laptop (or not, it depends) that will give you wifi, and there will be a monthly fee for that, and/or maybe a contract. Here's an example.

We do have paygo providers (Virgin is the first one that pops to mind), which may suit your needs well enough until you settle in a bit more, but I don't know offhand what phones they have on offer.

Letstalk is a good site to comparison shop for phones and plans.
posted by rtha at 10:14 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are you talking about wanting wifi for your home, or a wifi enabled phone?

They probably mean something like: In the UK there are places (shops, cafes, trains, airports) where there is wifi access a) for a huge pay-as-you-go fee, or b) FREE if your you mobile network is who is running that wifi.

So e.g. if I have a T-Mobile phone and I'm on a train with a T-Mobile wifi hotspot, I can use that wifi access for free. Otherwise if I have, say, an O2 phone and I want to use that wifi I have to pay a large amount for an hour's or day's access
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:17 AM on March 23, 2011


Response by poster: Is there any way to subscribe to a wi-fi service?

It's really odd to hear all this. Here in the UK I have a package for my iPhone that includes unlimited calls, text and even data. Some packages even include unlimited wi-fi via BT Openzone. I guess there are some advantages to being a smaller country :-)
posted by deeper red at 10:19 AM on March 23, 2011


Is there any way to subscribe to a wi-fi service?

There are a few. AT&T, Boingo, and T-mobile are what I can think of off the top of my head. These are useful if you're going to spend a lot of time in public places -- like airports -- and want to be able to access the internet quickly. But now that Starbucks offers free wireless in nearly all their locations, as well as a decent number of US airports, the only time I'm tempted to pay for wifi is when I'm sitting in the non-JetBlue sections of JFK waiting for my flight.

Very few hotels will offer paid wifi through a national subscription service.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:27 AM on March 23, 2011


I think AT&T has been trying to do the hotspot thing, but it's not really catching on as far as I can see. Generally wifi is either free for all users or there's a per-day cost for all users; monthly subscription plans are pretty uncommon anymore. Most pay wifi is in places where they have you cornered: airports, airplanes, and hotels.

If you're wanting a smartphone, you'll likely select a minutes package and a data package. I have an iPhone on AT&T, the larger data plan* with tethering and personal hotspot (so, for example, my work laptop and netbook can use my phone as if it were a wireless router), unlimited text messaging, and a voice plan with 450 daytime minutes (I have a special plan that lets me call within the US, to and within Mexico, and from Mexico to the US with my normal minutes) and 1000 night/weekend (if I didn't have the Mexico plan these would be unlimited) and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes, which is new for AT&T. For all this I pay about $133/month**.

*I was grandfathered into the original unlimited data plan, but then I had to turn on tethering and had to get a new data plan. It is adequate to my needs, and I don't skimp on data usage.
**If it wasn't for all the Mexico crap, this would be less than $100
posted by Lyn Never at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2011


If you're bringing your iPhone with you, there's really only one choice: AT&T. Your iPhone will work with a T-Mobile SIM, but T-Mobile USA uses a nonstandard 3G frequency so you'll be on 2G/EDGE speed for data. It sucks (I'm still using a first-gen iPhone on T-Mobile USA). I don't even know if AT&T will sell you a SIM card with service; they might make you buy a new iPhone. Bollocks, indeed.

Regardless of which provider you chose -- if you want a smartphone, you're looking at a 2-year contract, and a minimum of $79/month, which will get you around 500 voice minutes, 1000-2000 SMS messages, and 2-5GB of data. Add $20-40/month if you want wi-fi tethering.

Yes, here in the USA we get screwed by mobile phone providers and we like it. Sorry :(
posted by bhayes82 at 10:56 AM on March 23, 2011


bhayes82: "if you want a smartphone, you're looking at a 2-year contract, and a minimum of $79/month, which will get you around 500 voice minutes, 1000-2000 SMS messages, and 2-5GB of data."

Hilarious - here in the UK we can get 250 minutes, free calls to our own network, unlimited texts and truly unlimited data for about $30. And that's with no contract and whatever phone you want and no charges for incoming calls/texts.

Even with the recent merger, I thought there was a fairly decent level of competition in the US. There are even plenty of VMNOs. Why do you guys get so screwed?
posted by turkeyphant at 11:09 AM on March 23, 2011


Sorry, correct that - I meant ~$15/month not $30.
posted by turkeyphant at 11:09 AM on March 23, 2011


IF Sprint (the network they piggyback on) has a decent signal in the areas you're looking to frequent, I'd definitely check out Virgin. They've got decent smartphones with a no-contract $25 a month plan that includes unlimited data and 300 minutes of call time (they don't currently support tethering, but you can get a broadband USB thing for computer use with a couple of additional pricing plans).

Use it for a few months while you figure out who's offering the best combo of phones and plans wherever you find yourself, then switch knowing you've had a chance to figure out the best deal. Frankly, had my wife not been so obsessed with getting family-plan iPhones on Verizon (which I love) I'd have strongly considered Virgin.
posted by jalexei at 11:13 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't most wifi free in the U.S? I've seen free wifi all over the place, I've never really seen paid wifi. McDonald's, most coffee shops and hotel should have free wifi.

Some phones now have tethering enabled by default (such as the Galaxy S 4G, and probably some others) so you can use your cellphone as a wireless modem for your laptop. I don't know about data caps, though.
posted by delmoi at 11:19 AM on March 23, 2011


Check the major carriers in the area you'll be living. You can get unlimited everything plans (Sprint), unlimited tethering (T-Mobile), etc.

Sprint
T-Mobile
Verizon
AT&T
posted by blue_beetle at 11:28 AM on March 23, 2011


I have 1400 voice minutes, unlimited messaging, unlimited data, through Verizon for $70/month (plus obscene taxes and fees).

The wifi subscription is the thing you won't find. However, driving around town my phone is always locating open, free wifi networks everywhere from the McDonald's to oil change place (since you'll be sitting for an hour). It's airports and hotels that want you to pay for it.

High-use, unlimited, and a la carte plans for voice, messaging, and data are all readily available all over the U.S. You will, however, pay out the ass in the U.S. compared to what you pay in Europe, and you can expect around $20 in taxes and fees on top of whatever your monthly cost is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:34 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


if you want a smartphone, you're looking at a 2-year contract, and a minimum of $79/month, which will get you around 500 voice minutes, 1000-2000 SMS messages, and 2-5GB of data. Add $20-40/month if you want wi-fi tethering.

You can get a T-Mobile SIM card for your smartphone (or any phone) without a contract. I pay about $60/month + tax to T-Mob for 500 mins talk time and unlimited data and SMS on my Nexus-1. No extra for tethering. I'll probably try get a contract before AT&T swallow T-Mob, because AT&T will certainly raise costs and cut allowances.
posted by anadem at 12:05 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


$20 in taxes and fees on top of whatever your monthly cost is.

Yes. This is something I wasn't prepared for when I signed up for my contract because it is not included in the price and the salesperson probably won't be able to tell you how much taxes and fees will amount to before you get your first bill.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:01 PM on March 23, 2011


I have a plan with 450 minutes talk, 250 texts and unlimited data through Verizon. Night time phone calls as well as weekends don't count toward the 450. (Since I don't make that many calls during the workday, this means I actually only use about 50 minutes a month.) This runs me, with tax, $67 a month. If I were to jailbreak the phone, I could use this as a free tethering device for my laptop, but since I don't feel like jailbreaking right now, it would cost me $20 or $30 for tethering extra.

As far as wi-fi, lots of places will have it for free, like mid-range hotels, coffee shops, some fast food places, and book stores. I've never had a big problem finding wi-fi in the U.S. when I travel, and I know no one that subscribes to a wi-fi service. It took me about three read-throughs of the thread to even figure out what you were talking about, and I'm still not positive I have it right.
posted by wending my way at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2011


It's really odd to hear all this.

Yes. When I was back in the UK for a month, I borrowed an old unlocked iPhone and shopped around the various high street outlets for a PAYG deal; I ended up giving T-Mobile £35 for a chunk of minutes, unlimited data/SMS and good international rates. That's how it's meant to work.

You will be staggered by the lack of competition, the length of contracts, the lack of portability across carriers, and the overall expense.

If you have decent Sprint coverage where you're moving, your cheapest long-term option is probably to go with Virgin's no-contract setup, buy an Android phone, and put your iPhone in a drawer for travel use. If you're attached to your iPhone, and want 3G data, then you're paying whatever AT&T deems fit. You can technically use an iPhone with their PAYG "GoPhone" SIMs, but only through a hack to regenerate the APN so that it's not detected as an iPhone.
posted by holgate at 1:44 PM on March 23, 2011


But as others have said, you don't often find the equivalent of the walled garden wi-fi environment that I noticed in London, where the majority of hotspots have a corporate branding and a pricetag. Smaller independent places like coffee shops might have a WPA password, but it's either on display or available by asking, as an attempt to avoid freeloaders.
posted by holgate at 1:54 PM on March 23, 2011


Why do you guys get so screwed?

The population density of the 48 contiguous states is about 6.4 times smaller than that of the UK (40.0 per km² compared to 255 per km²) with about 31.5 times the area (7,663,942 km² vs 243,610 km²). It takes a serious amount of capital to create a nationwide network, which means that there are really only four players on the market, soon to be three if AT&T buys T-Mobile as announced. And only two of those are GSM; the other two are CDMA which doesn't use SIM cards and makes it hard or impossible to use a phone on a competitor's network. Consumers here are therefore pretty much used to buying their phones locked and signing onerous contracts that bind them to service for 2 or 3 years, making it a lot harder to vote with their dollars by switching to a competitor.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:35 AM on March 24, 2011


Response by poster: Thanks for your replies, everybody. I have everything I need to know.

Here in the UK we seem to have it better than the US, which is something I thought I'd never say.

We're a tiny country that'll fit several times over into most US states but we have many competing carriers (Orange, T-Mobile, Three, Vodafone, O2 and maybe one or two others I've forgotten).

For what it's worth I currently pay £15 (around $24) a month for 100 free minutes, essentially unlimited SMS (though not picture messages), and 1GB of data (including tethering, but not all carriers allow this). However, I bought my phone outright at the start -- you can probably add around £10 to this for a subsidised contract.
posted by deeper red at 4:09 AM on March 24, 2011


We look forward to your questions about navigating our health care system! ;-)
posted by rtha at 5:59 AM on March 24, 2011


deeper red: "Thanks for your replies, everybody. I have everything I need to know.

Here in the UK we seem to have it better than the US, which is something I thought I'd never say.

We're a tiny country that'll fit several times over into most US states but we have many competing carriers (Orange, T-Mobile, Three, Vodafone, O2 and maybe one or two others I've forgotten).

For what it's worth I currently pay £15 (around $24) a month for 100 free minutes, essentially unlimited SMS (though not picture messages), and 1GB of data (including tethering, but not all carriers allow this). However, I bought my phone outright at the start -- you can probably add around £10 to this for a subsidised contract
"

Actually it's less than that - Orange and T-Mobile are part of Everything Everywhere. Of course though, we have dozens of very competitive VMNOs.

And if you're paying £15/month for that, you're being ripped...
posted by turkeyphant at 6:29 AM on March 24, 2011


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