7 Mobile Phone Tips for Brits in America

(Image Source via AP Images)

It’s difficult to go even a day without your cell phone. (Image Source via AP Images)

Want to talk on a cell phone in the U.S. without racking up some serious charges? Read on…

Turn data roaming off

As soon as you touch down on American tarmac, you’ll most likely switch on your U.K. cell and start to incur horrendous roaming and data charges. This might be a manageable expense for tourists on a short stay, but freshmen expats need to take action fast. Switch data roaming off your phone’s settings, or risk draining your entire emergency fund in a fortnight. Make your first expat mission a trip to Radio Shack or similar to pick out an American phone.

Find the right sales person
There are a lot of options for mobile phones in the U.S.—the networks, the free minutes, the type of phone—and plenty of salespeople who would love to get your business. Make sure the individual you talk to explains everything about the deal they’re pushing, including hidden costs (there will be plenty of these), contract length and insurance options. Don’t be afraid to ask them to go over the same ground multiple times, and if they give you attitude, simply head to another retailer.

Think outside the contract box
If you sign an annual contract with one of the big networks—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint—be prepared to pay more than you would back home. Prices can run to well over $100 a month. Also, you may struggle to secure a contract without a domestic credit rating. Unfortunately, a solid score in the U.K. means nothing in the U.S. If you’re committed to the idea of a contract, and money isn’t an issue, you may be able to find a (not so great) deal. Otherwise, read on for your other options.

Consider a prepaid monthly deal
This is a great option for expats and several providers, including Virgin and Metro PCS, offer what is in essence a contract crossed with a pay-as-you-go. You don’t need a U.S. credit score (although you will need a U.S. bank account so monthly payments can go out), and prices are more in line with what you’d expect to pay in the U.K. I shell out a little under $35 per month for my Virgin iPhone deal. However, these deals don’t always offer the most up to date handsets, and you’ll have to pay for your phone upfront. (Two months ago, my iPhone 4S on Virgin cost $399.) But divide this cost over the year or two that you expect to keep the phone and it’s still much cheaper than a contract.

Get Google Voice
The one rather enormous hitch that comes with the pre-paid monthly option is that you won’t be able to make calls to—or receive them from—people with a non-U.S. phone unless you sign up or a special and more expensive international deal. But download Google Voice or a similar app for your Android or iPhone, and it’ll allow you to make cheap international calls to anyone, anywhere.

Get WhatsApp for your smart phone
This popular app is a great alternative to SMS messaging. Basically, it’s an extremely cheap way to send text, picture and video messages. WhatsApp delivers those messages over data, not text, so it doesn’t use up your monthly text allowance or cost a bomb. Right now it’s free for the first 12 months, then a not-so-whopping $0.99 for the year after.

Buy a pay-as-you-go U.K. phone

For those trips home, this is probably the cheapest and most convenient mobile option, and it means you’ll have the same British number every time you return without the cost or logistics of maintaining a U.K. contract. Unless you have money to burn—or you’re tied into a deal that it’s too expensive to extricate yourself from—don’t bother keeping up your U.K. contract.

See more:
7 Ways to Scrimp and Save in the U.S.
Say What?: How Brits Can Avoid Verbal Confusion in America

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

    If you google “how to save the battery life on your I-phone” there are dozens of articles on how you can change the settings on your phone that can help you prolong battery life too.

  • gn

    Whenever I travel internationally, I order a prepaid SIM-card for the new country from http://www.holidayphone.com/

    It arrives in the mail before I leave, so I can switch the SIM during the flight and be ready to go when I land. You need to have an unlocked phone (I jailbreak and unlock my iPhone).

  • frozen01

    Be careful with GoogleVoice! I don’t know about the Android app, but with iPhone, it says in the description of the app that it uses your regular cell phone minutes. There is another app, called Talkatone, that works in conjunction with your GoogleVoice number so that you don’t use your minutes.

    Also, you don’t necessarily need to buy an American phone. My other half brought his iPhone 4s with him from the UK and just had to get a SIM card from TMobile, and he was set. $30 per month = 100 minutes, unlimited data, unlimited text, no contract. Also, you don’t necessarily need a bank account – you can pay in cash at the store if you want. My other half uses his UK credit card to top up.
    By the way, I have the same plan and use Talkatone to supplement the minutes on my plan, so I never run out of minutes no matter how much I use my phone.

  • UncleNat

    A few things: firstly, one really important difference to note is that US mobile numbers cost the same to call as landlines and are indistinguishable (in fact, when we dropped our landline in favour of a 3rd mobile, we just ported the number over). This is true for people calling US mobiles internationally too (but not vice versa – your mum can call your mobile for the same price as calling you at home but you’ll get horribly gouged for calling her on her mobile in the UK!).

    Secondly, unless you’re going back to the UK pretty frequently, buying a pay-as-you-go UK phone won’t help much. Most providers only keep PAYG numbers for six months or so before reissuing them – if you don’t use it and/or top it up within that time you’ll lose the number. If anyone knows of a UK provider that allows you to keep PAYG numbers longer, please let me know!

    Texts to the UK are usually pretty reasonable, about 25c (not covered in a texting bundle, obviously). But Skype, Facebook etc. all offer good messaging options via their smartphone apps that work internationally if you have a decent data connection, and some of them offer voice and video call functions. I’ve Skyped with my dad on his UK landline on my commute (voice only, with a Bluetooth of course!), using mostly a 3G connection, and it works fine and costs very little – maybe 4c a minute?

  • Jim Cofer

    “[Y]ou will need a U.S. bank account so monthly payments can go out”.

    Not exactly. You buy prepaid cards with cash at most drug stores, big box stores, even convenience stores. I’ve been a Virgin customer for almost 4 years, and didn’t have a bank account for much of that time. Even though I finally do now, I still prefer using cash to buy Top-Up cards than giving Virgin my debitcredit card number.

    It’s not nearly the hassle you might imagine: I’m an independent IT guy, and my income varies wildly. When I get a check for a big project, I stop by CVS or Walgreen’s and buy a $100 Virgin top-up card, which covers my service for 4 months. If I’m out and about a month or two later – when money’s a bit tighter – I might pick up a $50 one, which would add two more months service.