In the rest of the world, you (mostly) have phones and carriers. The two are merrily separated. You buy your phone, you get your SIM card, you put your SIM into the phone, and you are good to go. When you don’t like your phone no more, you get a new one and put the old SIM into the new phone. If you find a cheaper carrier, you get the new SIM card and put it into your old phone. Simple.
In America, it doesn’t work that way. Your phone is typically tied to your carrier in a way much deeper than just by a SIM card. Your phone won’t work on any other carrier (except for roaming with the corresponding charges). Even after your contract expires, that’s typically true and your phone or other device will essentially be an electronic brick with no connectivity.
The first reason for this is purely technical: America was the first to adopt a wireless standard, and it failed to make the standard for the world. That’s been the case for TV, too, and the result is that most of the world uses PAL versus America’s SECAM. In the phone world, most of the world uses GSM, while America is split between the older standard, CDMA, and GSM itself.
Nowadays (2013), the four big carriers are split right down the middle, with the largest two and the smaller two one in each camp. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. That’s why, if you have a world (generic) phone, you will have to use AT&T or T-Mobile.
The second reason is that Americans like to buy their phones from their carriers. A whole ecosystem revolves around this, with carriers giving healthy subsidies for you to buy one of their phones, and then making up for it with higher contract prices and mandatory buy-in. AT&T of course landed the coup of a lifetime when it became the only partner for the iPhone in its first years. But other phones have been just as strongly tied to their carrier – like the immensely popular T-Mobile SideKick, or the rugged line of Sprint phones.
The problem with the contract buying is two-fold:
- The nominal cost of phones and of contracts is sky-high; that’s true despite the fact the service is incredibly poor even by lower-cost standards
- The extremely long duration of contracts buffers providers from innovation; even if another carrier has a much more compelling value proposition (as T-Mobile currently does), it takes years for the customer base to have a chance to move over
The end result is lack of choice and high cost. That’s definitely one of the areas where European regulation, by forcing common standards and common access costs, created a better environment for everyone.
If you come to America with your phone, you have several choices for access:
- You can get a temporary (prepaid) SIM card; you have a choice of providers, but the only ones that matter to you are AT&T and T-Mobile; almost all other vendors use the two big one’s network
- You can get a temporary (prepaid) phone from any provider
- You can use your existing phone on a WiFi network (losing built-in SMS and voice)
If you choose to make your own phone work, remember that when you get the SIM card, you have to make sure the plan you are buying into allows you to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). T-Mobile certainly does, I didn’t check AT&T. The same is true for the MVNOs. Wikipedia has a handy list of those, certainly more up-to-date than anything I’d care to keep up with.
You can shop for your SIM card online or in a store. Currently, Walmart sells cheap-ish (for America, that is) StraightTalk plans. You’ll find prepaid plans in all major supermarkets, and the electronics chains (like BestBuy) are more than happy to sell you a variety of plans.
If you choose to have a prepaid phone, you have a lot more options. All Big Four have their own prepaid plans and are more than happy to sell to you. You will have to front the cost of a phone, which is a huge expense relative to the limited value, but you will have a device that works on the particular network.
This is particularly of use with Verizon, who has by far the best network quality in most of the country. If you plan on traveling to far-off places and need to be reachable there, Verizon may be your best bet. When I am at the house in Hawaii, which is so far from everything, it doesn’t even have power or water or sewer lines, I still get a perfectly clear 4G signal from Verizon that is faster than anything I have here in San Diego.
(That said, Verizon is a really annoying vendor to deal with otherwise: their 5GB limits are strictly enforced and they cut you off when you reach them, or tack on some usurious charges, depending on plan.)
The third option, to do without phone connectivity, is mostly for people that have a smartphone and don’t spend much time talking on it, and who will be in urban areas most of the time. The basic idea here is that your phone is essentially a messaging and information gathering device (in addition to providing amusement), and that a phone network is unnecessary overkill.
If you want to go that route, the first thing you should do is create an SMS forwarding account. That’s something that takes your incoming messages and routes them to some form of email – something you can get without being connected to a phone network. My brother didn’t do that when he came to America, and I couldn’t text him because my plan didn’t allow for international SMS (most plans don’t, unless you specifically ask for it), despite the fact his phone was just a few feet away.
Google Voice has been a good option for me, despite rumors it might die in some future incorporation into Hangouts. It forwards all incoming messages (and calls) to my various phones (T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and until recently Verizon) and it sends me an email. Sweet.
If you go the WiFi route, you may want to think about getting a data connectivity device. You can either bring yours from Europe and attach it to the T-Mobile network (advantage: no hard data caps; disadvantage: spotty coverage, especially for high-speed); or you buy a cheap-ish device on one of the networks here (Verizon’s Jetpacks, again have the opposite situation: great coverage, but expensive and hard-capped).
Whatever you do, make sure you sort out the situation before your trip, because you will have to provide people with instructions on how to reach you. That’s easy if you have a forwarding service (like Google Voice), but you still have to know that’s what you are going to use.