I'm a non-resident and I need a disposable PAYG phone in the U.S.
January 2, 2008 5:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be visiting the U.S. for a month shortly. I'd like to have a U.S. cellphone (and U.S. number) while I'm there. I'm not a U.S. resident, so I have no credit history or bank account, and I don't particularly want to sign up for a contract anyway. Will I be able to walk into a store in Park City, Utah (which store?) and buy one? Can I steal a march by ordering on online and having it shipped to my hotel despite my lack of U.S. credentials? Which carrier has the best Pay As You Go deal?

My current plan is to have the refurbished Nokia 2610 advertised on AT&T's GoPhone PAYG plan shipped to my hotel. It's $9.99 with $10 of credit. This almost seems to good to be true, so I wonder if I'm missing something.

Also, having watched Season 3 of the Wire, I wonder if it would be simpler to walk into any store and buy a burner with cash.

I mainly want the phone to receive calls rather than make them, so I'm not very sensitive to calling/texting cost (but I'd obviously rather it wasn't punitively expensive!) I don't anticipate using the phone again, but bonus points if the number/account/calling credit doesn't disappear after, say, 12 months of non-use.

So, what's my next move?
posted by caek to Shopping (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One thing I'll tell you, just as a clarification point, is that cell phones in the US charge you for incoming calls as well as outgoing calls. This means that your incoming calls will be clipping off at .10 or .25 per minute. It's not like internationally, where you can have a cell and receive calls with a low balance.

Other than that, there's no catch. You can go into convenience stores, and other places, and buy the phones with cash. So, I'm sure the non-resident thing isn't a problem at all (lots of immigrant labor have cell phones).
posted by wflanagan at 5:29 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wflanagan beat me to it on the charging for incoming calls point...something I was very happy to discover in Europe. So you should care about costs, as you will be charged for both incoming and outgoing calls.

With that said, a lot of the wireless carriers have pre-paid plans or plans that require you to give a credit card number (for people with bad credit, for example). You shouldn't have any problem finding a pre-paid phone at a big superstore like Target or Bestbuy, or at one of the wireless carriers' individual stores.
posted by elquien at 5:30 PM on January 2, 2008

Best answer: I don't think you're missing something. The prepaid wireless phones are pretty cheap because they make all their money on the refills. Be careful of GoPhone's $1 use fee per day (if you use it once during a day they charge you a $1 fee. I don't know for sure but I'm guessing they screw you by counting a text message as use)

The only way you can get 12 months of non-use is to do To Mobile To Go and adding $100 at the start. This makes the minutes for 1 year, which isn't so bad if you don't use it very much and really want the number to last.

BTW-- we're just starting Season 5 of The Wire here so be careful about flipping by HBO so you don't get anything ruined.
posted by sharkfu at 5:30 PM on January 2, 2008

Best answer: I use Virgin Mobile. My phone cost me $20 two years ago, and it's half that now. Call options are fairly cheap. Register a debit/credit card on your account and you only have to pay $5 a month (a $15 payment every 90 days) to keep it running. No per day use fees or anything. Everything is either a la carte or part of a plan you select. Text messages are 5 cents apiece to send and receive, or cheaper if you buy a messaging plan.
posted by cmgonzalez at 5:37 PM on January 2, 2008

Just for clarity: Do you want to make and receive calls to/from phones in the U.S., or do you want to talk to people outside the U.S.A. also?
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:46 PM on January 2, 2008

I ordered a T-Mobile SIM card on eBay and had it shipped to me in Canada on my last trip to the states, and it worked great in my unlocked GSM phone.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:59 PM on January 2, 2008

Just for clarity: Do you want to make and receive calls to/from phones in the U.S., or do you want to talk to people outside the U.S.A. also?

Actually, this is thankfully irrelevant to this issue. If you're receiving calls, they cost you the same no matter where the person is calling you from (and, similarly, the person calling you from overseas is simply calling a US number, which is charged identically whether you are a cell phone or not).

It is prohibitively expensive to call overseas using your cellphone, which is why you do not use your cellphone on its own; you use a calling card, specifically one of the "local access" phone cards which is cheaper than calling the 800 number. Since you're using a mobile, and mobiles in general have free long distance, it doesn't matter whether there is a local access number in your area or not, as you can call long distance. So calls overseas will cost you the per-minute cellphone cost, plus the cost of the card (which, depending on the country you're calling, can be anywhere from 1c (yes, really, just one cent) to around 20c per minute. This is still cheaper than the rate you will get from any other source unless you get a special rate plan.

You might want to look into seeing if the new Skype phone is a possibility in your area. Additionally, you can use just the Skype program to stay in touch with your loved ones for long conversations (including the long "receiving" phone calls that you unfortunately thought were going to be free). Oh, and you definitely need to make this clear to your friends too, as many of them might have really generous calling/mesaging plans and not realize that every 'OMG!' they send you is costing you around 0.07EURO.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:08 PM on January 2, 2008

Sorry, 5p. Should have checked where you was from first.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:08 PM on January 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice. Please keep it coming! I should have made clear that I want a U.S. phone so that I can receive some work calls that will originate within the U.S. This isn't so I can keep in touch with people in the UK.
posted by caek at 6:31 PM on January 2, 2008

If you stick to urban areas, Virgin mobile is a good deal. If you plan to move around and travel in rural areas, I'd definitely go with Tracfone, which has much better coverage. BTW, I have a basic Virgin mobile (US) which I don't use anymore. I'd be willing to let it go for the cost of shipping, but I wonder how difficult it would be to "transfer" the account (or if it's necessary at all...). The again, the shipping would probably be more expensive than betting something new ....
posted by bluefrog at 6:51 PM on January 2, 2008

To be more specific about the question, I've bought and used a Virgin mobile phone and a Tracfone in the US although I wasn't a resident. I don't remember having to give a local address and they didn't mind that the billing address for my credit card was in Canada....
posted by bluefrog at 6:55 PM on January 2, 2008

Thirding VirginMobile and seconding bluefrog's caveat about the lack of rural coverage: VM leases space on Sprint's cell network and does not offer roaming (Sprint does, I mean, but VM doesn't offer roaming to its pay-as-you-go customers). Also, unused minutes purchased for your VM account do not expire so long as you keep your account active (active = adding a minimum of $15 every 90 days via a credit card registered on VM's website OR adding a minimum of $20/90 days via VM's retail "top up" cards). VM top up cards can be purchased using cash or credit in many retail stores. In Park City Utah specifically, the phones and cards are available at Target, KMart, Walmart (big box discount department stores), Circuit City, and Radio Shack (electronics stores). Cards are available at Walgreens, Rite Aid (drug stores), and 7-11 (24 hour convenience stores that are seemingly on every other corner). Directions and maps to these shops available from VM's store locator.

Although I'm a US resident with a fixed address and all, I had my VM phone for about 2 or 3 years before I got around to giving them my credit card/address information, so that part shouldn't be an issue for you.
posted by jamaro at 7:30 PM on January 2, 2008

Response by poster: Is Park City, UT urban enough to get good Virgin coverage?
posted by caek at 7:51 PM on January 2, 2008

Caek-- In case you need it, here are some forums for each of the prepaid providers in the US. Typically there are "crucial info/ FAQ" posts at the top of each forum. You could also post a question there about specific coverage and might get good responses.
posted by sharkfu at 9:34 PM on January 2, 2008

I bought a Virgin Mobile from Radio Shack a few months ago, and have it set to top up automatically with PayPal. It was fine to use in NYC, but I couldn't get coverage in upstate NY (Woodstock, so not even way upstate).
posted by essexjan at 12:53 AM on January 3, 2008

As people have stated above, different companies' coverage varies greatly. You can compare coverage maps online. When I go to the US I get a Tracfone because it has the best coverage in the areas I travel. Getting pre-paid phones in the US is super easy and pretty cheap.
posted by wallaby at 3:35 AM on January 3, 2008

FYI, the answer to any question that could be phrased, "Should I do what the people on The Wire do?" is NO. At least shop around online for the best burner prices.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:24 AM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: Looks like we have a winner with Virgin Mobile and their el cheapo $10 phone. They claim to have a signal in Park City, which is a dealbraker. I'm going to order it online and have it shipped to my hotel. If I don't get signal I'll just pick another one up in one of the stores jamaro suggests.

Thanks everyone for pointing out that it costs to receive calls in the U.S. I was not aware of that. Ah, our American cousins!
posted by caek at 7:33 AM on January 3, 2008

I have the AT&T / former Cingular GoPhone PAYG plan. On this plan, and I think it may be the case for other U.S. carriers, you will get free calls to other mobile phones on the same network. So, if you find out who you'll be talking to most, it's worth considering being on the same network as they are.
posted by galaksit at 8:16 AM on January 3, 2008

« Older What's the prettiest, most colourful spot in...   |   Things to see and do in Colombia? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.