Consumerist Advice Needed: American Cell Phone Plans

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John Brownlee here, yet again slipping out of The Consumerist royal 'we' to the chagrin of that credit-garnering overlord, Joel Johnson.

John Brownlee here, yet again slipping out of The Consumerist royal ‘we’ to the chagrin of that credit-garnering overlord, Joel Johnson.

As mentioned at one point or another, I am a native Bostonian living in Ireland. When I moved here, mobile phones were still not particularly popular among the subset of un-Gawker-like bumpkins that formed my social circle. And I hated them anyway — it seems like cellular phones in America at that time existed solely so some business-suit jackass on the MBTA could call up his friends and have a loud, labored conversation with the party on the other end about the novelty of him holding a conversation on a cellular phone. While I was still living in the States, I swore to myself that I would never be so pathetic that I couldn’t afford to miss a phone call. Then I moved abroad and discovered that the inherent tardiness of the Irish meant that, without a mobile, I would spend on average a couple of hours sitting at a pub, gnawing off my arm in frustration, as I waited for friends to show up for dates and appointments. I bought a mobile the next day.

The point? I don’t know much about American cellular phone plans.

But recently, my mother came over to visit me in Ireland. She had a stroke a few months ago (my father and I like to call her “Strokey”, although my father may be calling her that less in playful response to her cerebral hemorrhaging and more for bedroom talents of which I remain blissfully unaware) and she’s gallavanting about Europe on her own, so I bought her a cheap mobile phone on a Pay-As-You-Go plan in case of emergency. The way these phones work is this: you buy a phone for maybe
100. It comes with a certain amount of credit, which you can use to make phone calls. When you run out of credit, you go to the local convenient store and buy a card that gives you more. You only pay for outgoing calls: all incoming calls are free for twelve months since your last top-up. Credit lasts indefinitely, as long as it takes you to use it.

This is perfect for someone like my mother, who doesn’t really have a lot of people to call on a mobile, but would like one in case of emergency. But as far as I know, this pricing model for cellular phones doesn’t exist in the States. Or does it? That’s what I want to know — my mother would really like a cellular phone, but just for emergencies. She doesn’t want to be locked in to a monthly bill, paying for minutes and options she won’t use. So the European pricing model makes a great deal of sense for her. Does any provider have anything similar in the States? If you could give me some advice in the comments section, I’d greatly appreciate it.