Using a cell phone as visitor to the States

One of the perennial annoyances of world travel in the early 21st century is the difficulty inherent in having the wireless connectivity abroad upon which one has become dependent in one’s country of residence. To say, having operable cell phone service. Yes, the entire world now generally recognizes GSM and unless you are foolish enough to travel abroad with a CDMA only provider like America’s Verizon or Sprint, or Japan’s AU, then your foreign phone shall operate locally, but with the combination of using a foreign phone number and operating said number in a foreign land under a roaming agreement, which produces a particularly usurious fee schedule, wherein a simple text message or phone call of greetings is so expensive as to chill the blood and whiten the face.

The solution to this problem is inherent in the same GSM specification that allows phones and service provider accounts of most nations and varieties to operate worldwide – the SIM card. In most countries, a traveler may simply peruse a local vendor of inexpensive SIM cards offering a reasonably priced prepaid service, whether said vendor be official company store, or marketplace stall, or even automated machine, and after completing the local procedure shall simply replace their existing SIM card, being extremely careful not to lose it, whereupon he or she then has a local phone number.

The difficulty of obtaining such a prepaid SIM card varies greatly by nation. In my experience, the most difficult of all is Japan, where they are simply not sold; the only options for the foreign traveler is to cavort without a cell phone, in the manner of a twentieth century hobo, or to pay a truly outrageous fee for a rental phone or the aforementioned international roaming service. The easiest of all may be The Philippines, where there is a SIM card vending machine located in the lobby of the international airport, allowing one to purchase the chip without providing any personal identifying information, or even to interact with a human being. Someone higher on the scale is Taiwan, where the item may be purchased cheaply and readily at any of the innumerable vendors dotting the market-places, but where the traveler is required by law to show both one’s passport and a supplemental form of identification, quite a burden for a thing so small.

And this brings me to today. Here I am, in my country of citizenship and birth, but only for a short time. Far too short a time to obtain the ongoing contractual wireless service of a resident, and yet far too long, and with far too busy a calendar of engagements to vainly search for working examples of the antiquated coin-phone, or to scurry from doorway to doorway, in search of an unprotected WiFi signal, like a starved and lonely rat trapped out in a storm, trying to sniff its way home before the scent fades.

Here in the US we have two providers of GSM service. AT&T and T-Mobile. Yesterday I was in Manhattan, I believe at 6th Avenue and 17th Street, where stores of these competing firms stared down each other across the Avenue (increasingly full of bicyclists, in these recessionary days). I first inquired at AT&T, the original provider of my retired Samsung Blackjack, now being asked to come out of retirement for one more short campaign. Absurdly, they told me that the fee for a SIM card was $100, with $100 worth of service included. So, there is no base fee but I would be required to spend far more money than I will actually use. And across the way, loquacious Dennis of the T-Mobile store, resident of The Bronx, informs me that their basic fee is a mere $10, with service structure that becomes increasingly favorable (to both parties) the more credit one purchases, in the grand mercantile tradition of the bulk discount.

In fact, it turns out that my old Blackjack was still SIM-card locked to AT&T (meaning that it would not work with any other provider), but either a law of congress or regulation of the FCC now requires that providers of services provide the code needed to unlock said lock, which AT&T (relevant tech support # is 1-800-331-0500 ) did most readily upon request. And now, here I sit, surrounded by phones and computers of divers sizes and capabilities, but amidst them is a single unit, made in Korea, purchased in New Jersey some years ago, containing within itself an accurate and complete record of the telephone numbers of family, friends, associates and acquaintances domiciled in these United States, and once again with the capacity and license to contact them.


19 thoughts on “Using a cell phone as visitor to the States”

  1. The question I would like to get the answer to is, can I go to the US as a non-citizen non-resident – ie sans any previous phone I used to use there – and get a SIM card to stick in my cheap SoftBank phone? The story above gets close to a resolution, and then a Deus ex Blackjack is pulled out and we never know for sure. At least I don’t think we do (is a Blackjack anything like a Blackberry?).

  2. Yeah, it struck me as Victorian.

    So T-Mobile is the way to go… interesting. Seems like it’s even cheaper if you buy the SIM online — practically a steal at that price. When I was in the US last month, though, I found that it was much more fun to simply ditch mobile connectivity altogether, though I had my Japanese phone (with GSM roaming) for absolute emergencies.

    Jade: I think most Softbank phones are SIM-locked, which means they will only take a Softbank SIM unless you hack their innards somehow. Last time I checked, though, you can get a crappy prepaid phone off the rack at a drug store or Wal-Mart for $40 or so. The US doesn’t care about seeing ID, unlike Japan, although you do need ID to pass a credit check for a contract phone.

  3. “Twentieth-century hobo” – LOL

    Guess that’s me, then. I have never owned a cell phone, and have no intention to as I would almost never use it even if I had one, and would probably just end up losing the damn thing somewhere due to neglect.

  4. Unfortunately, au also has the worst lineup of international-roaming phones out of all the major carriers. Only two of their handsets have GSM capability and the others are useless in many large countries.

  5. I bought a pair of prepaid motorola phones at a suburban Chicago CVS after losing my family’s passports last December. They worked great in that they were tiny, easy to use, and thinking of each and every call/text deducting money from my prepaid balance made me use the phone less.

    I went over with a Nokia once, and got reamed by roaming charges, when I was really only using the phone to speak, and maybe look up phone numbers. Next visit, I will probably have my iPhone (for the contacts) and the clunker Motorolas.

    What’s the argument for bothering with a SIM card?

  6. @Curzon: I was just in a mood to have more fun with the writing. Perhaps I’ll experiment with some various styles in upcoming posts, purely to amuse myself. Noir mystery? Pulp adventure? Harlequin romance?

    @Jade: As Joe said, there is no ID check when getting prepaid service, so your citizenship or residency is entirely irrelevant. I think all Softbank phones come SIM card locked, but if it’s a more common model you should be able to find unlock instructions online somewhere.

    @Peter: The prepaid SIM card service is basically the same as what you were using with the prepaid phone that you bought, except for two things. One, it’s slightly cheaper to just get the SIM card than to get the phone. And two, I still had my old phone from the last time I was living in the US, so it already had everybody’s number in its address book and I’m more familiar with its operation, making it generally more convenient and comfortable than buying some random disposable phone.

  7. BTW, the card I bought in the store seems to have included slightly more prepaid credit than the online one Joe linked to, so I’m not actually sure if either one is a better deal.

  8. By the way, just to illustrate how small the world is: last December, I was headed back to Japan when one of my connecting flights caught fire (!) right after takeoff. I ended up stranded for a couple of days (with a comped hotel room and friends in town, fortunately) and eventually got rebooked on a United flight from Chicago. I was settling in when I heard a flight attendant page Peter’s name, but as it turned out, he had missed the flight because of the above-noted loss of passports.

  9. Joe, Roy: thanks for the info re prepaid cellphones in the US. Might be worth looking into the next time I am there. I could save enough on hotel phones to make it worth it (last time I was in DC I was very annoyed to be charged money for calls that were never answered).

    I’m not sure if that small world thing is right though – after all, *I* have never heard Peter’s name being paged. Can’t be that small yet….

  10. Its usually quite easy to unlock your phone either off the net or ask your local provider – think they are obliged to unlock it nowadays… then whenever you go travelling to the States or anywhere else for that matter try using a prepaid international SIM card like Buzzroam. Ive used my card lots of times and the prices are really good.
    You can also assign local numbers around the world to the card which is good if you want other people to be able to reach you for local rates as well…

  11. could save enough on hotel phones to make it worth it (last time I was in DC I was very annoyed to be charged money for calls that were never answered).

    Oddly enough, I stayed in mid-range hotels in New York, Philly and DC last month, and all three had free local calling from the room, which I had never encountered before.

  12. That was a “Lost”-esque moment.

    Jade Oc, you are somehow connected to Joe, me, and the magnetic island as well.

  13. Now I am even more confused. I wondered if Joe’s comment was something on the lines of “I am sorry you had to call a hick state,” going by vague notions of hillbillies in the Appalachians or something, but this “Lost” reference has lef tme, well, totally lost. I have never seen the show, and all I know about it is that some people are stranded somewhere after a crash. The “magnetic island” comment leaves me completely disoriented and directionless as well.

  14. Perfect!

    No, basically Lost has all these seemingly random people who survive a plane crash on an island in the Pacific. In the show are many flashbacks of the airport, where it turns out many of the passengers knew each other through freak coincidences, etc. etc.

    Joe and I weren’t supposed to fly the same day, let alone the same flight. His connecting flight explodes, and he gets rebooked onto my flight out of Chicago. So we would have ended up on the same flight, but I lost the family passports on my own connecting flight, and that’s the reason they were paging my name prior to takeoff.

    Wait, what did this have to do with mobile phones?

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