The US phone system mixes regional service providers, competing long-distance carriers and several cell-phone companies. Overall, the system is efficient. Calls from a regular landline or cell phone are usually cheaper than a hotel phone or pay phone. Services such as Skype (www.skype.com) and Google Voice (www.google.com/hangout) can make calling quite cheap. Check the websites for details.
Foreign phones operating on tri- or quad-band frequencies will work in the USA. Or purchase inexpensive cell (mobile) phones with a pay-as-you-go plan here.
Most of the USA’s cell-phone systems are incompatible with the GSM 900/1800 standard used throughout Europe and Asia (though some convertible phones will work). iPhones will work fine – but beware of roaming costs, especially for data. Check with your service provider about using your phone here.
It might be cheaper to buy a prepaid SIM card for the USA, like those sold by AT&T or T-Mobile, which you can insert into your international mobile phone to get a local phone number and voicemail.
You can also 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 $30, with a package of minutes starting at around $40 for 400 minutes.
Electronics store chain Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com) sells prepaid phones, as well as international SIM cards. Online retailer Telestial (www.telestial.com) also sells SIM cards and cell phones; it rents phones, too.
Rural swaths of the East, especially in the mountains and various national parklands, 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 (though if it doesn't work, try adding 1 + the area code at the beginning). More information on dialing:
- US country code 1
- Making international calls Dial 011 + country code + area code + local number
- Calling other US area codes or Canada Dial 1 + area code + seven-digit local number
- Directory assistance nationwide 411
- Toll-free numbers 1+ 800 (or 888, 877, 866) + seven-digit number. Some toll-free numbers only work within the US
Prepaid phonecards are a good solution for travelers on a budget. They are available from convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacy chains. AT&T sells a reliable phonecard that is widely available.