My Mom On Buying A Cell Phone In The States

John Brownlee here. I just want to tell you all that I love my Mom. A four foot eleven firecracker who followed her recent stroke up with a healthy regime of climbing up twenty foot ladders to chainsaw branches down from the roof, she’s a hell of a girl.

I’m fairly protective of the warhorse, so when she came to visit me in Ireland, we bought her a pay-as-you-go phone from Vodafone for emergencies. Because they don’t have anything similar in America, it works like this: you get a phone loaded with free minutes and can top it up with credit at any convenient store throughout Europe. You are only charged for incoming calls. Credit lasts for a year and you don’t need to sign any contracts.

Despite the fact that old Mrs. Brownlee (or as my father and I call her, “Strokey”) had previously expressed contempt for the American cell phone movement, she quickly discovered how handy they can actually be. So when she got back to the States, she decided she wanted to get a mobile phone. The way the European Pay-As-You go system worked seemed pretty ideal for her, so she wanted something similar.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy, and my mother has put together a really wonderful email detailing the confusion, obfuscation and incompetence that she dealt with when trying to buy a mobile phone in America. She has some really great insights on what it’s like to navigate the confusing plans and options as someone who might be on the more curmudgeonly side of the philosophy of technology. She has questions, she has observations, she has withering and snarky criticisms of the entire process.

Keep in mind as you read this that when my Mom was in Ireland, getting a phone was as easy as walking into a store and putting €80 on the table. Compare that to her American experience after the jump.

    My Mom’s Email

    I admit to being telephonically challenged*. I gave up my rotary phone only after it fell apart from old age. I’ve never learned about my “calling” features, I can’t do 3 way calls, call transfers, or automatic redial. Caller ID leaves me cold. I tried a cordless phone, and threw it out after 2 days. I do have an answering machine, but everyone complains that I never listen to it. Why should I? The only messages are computer generated, or hang-ups by the very people who complain that I never listen to messages. So I have never had any desire to have my very own mobile, cell, or wireless phone.

    However, I’ve had a few health problems recently, and the comfort factor of having ready access to a phone in an emergency has started to appeal. I’ve been thinking about it for the past 6 years, and seriously thinking for the past 18 months. The tip factor was a recent visit to my child in Ireland. I think that he’s trying to reverse the roles about 20 years too early, but decided that I’d pacify him, and agreed that if I was going to be wandering around Ireland and France on my own, “Fine I’ll get a phone so that you can keep tabs on me”. I walked into a Vodaphone store in County Mayo, and bought my first mobile.

    They gave me a pay as you go package. I got a little phone, I could make outgoing calls until my call credit ran out, and receive unlimited incoming calls for 365 days. I was able to add additional time by making a call and using a credit card to buy more outgoing time. The girl at the counter set up the account, explained everything, showed me how to make calls, and off I went. My major problem was trying to answer the phone before it switched over to the voicemail system. I was able to text message with a bit of practice, and only paid for outgoing text. When I got a text message it was very easy to respond to, all in all I was pretty amazed. Returning to the US, I decided that maybe now that I had actually used one, I might actually be able to figure out what all of the mall kiosk hawkers, and TV ads were talking about.

    Yesterday, I trotted off to the Mall to “buy” a USA cell phone. My son had told me the closest I would find to Vodaphone was either T-Mobile, or Virgin mobile. There were at least 2 kiosk for every vendor, and that didn’t count the sections at Best Buy, Walmart, and Targets. I took a brief glance at Cingular, but minute charges, daily access fees, unlimited calls to other cingular mobiles, I was confused before I even talked to someone. Verizon was even worse, although affiliated with Vodaphone, the plans, and charges were nothing like what I had experienced in Ireland, and having worked for multiple incarnations of this company for 30 years I was not about to additionally line their pockets when they were delining mine with raised retiree copays, and decreased benefits.

    My stop at the first T-Mobile kiosk was a bust. Not too sure what Jim wanted to be doing, but it wasn’t explaining his product. I had looked at and wanted to know about a special offer I had seen, and an explination of the pay as you go packages and what was covered. All he was able to say was that I could get 1000 minutes with some type of “gold” card but first I needed to spend an additional up front amount every 30 days before the “gold” kicked in, and he didn’t know anything about any starter packages. I left feeling dumb and dumber, but decided to give Best Buy a stab.

    Brad was a very nice sales person, and he was the first to ask me what I wanted the phone for. I told him about Vodaphone, and as I listed the features he nodded sagely. Until we got to the no charge for incoming calls and 365 day expiration on minutes, then he said don’t do that in this country. But he did suggest Virgin Mobile, and told me that it came closest to meeting my requirements, and the coverage for most of the state was pretty good. Then he started to explain cards, you bought a phone, you bought a card, then you put them together, of course there were access fees that ate into the card, and minute charges. The phone model that I liked was being discontinued because some one at MIT had been able to hack into it and drain minutes, that left the “kid’s meal” look alike or the model that did dishes and vacumned the floor. I had reached my limit, I hadn’t had a cell phone for 55 years I could do without one for another 55. I really wasn’t intending to use the blasted thing, just to have it.

    Back to the parking lot, and as I walked past T-Mobile kiosk #2, two of the 4 identically dressed young men called out a cheery hello. I must have hesitated because immediately I was asked if I wanted them to tell me about their plans. Why not? Surely they couldn’t confuse me anymore than I was already. I told Jorge about Vodaphone, we talked about pay as you go, he showed me their starter kit. No daily access charge, nationwide roaming, didn’t seem as if they cared which or what TN I dialed. Mobile, land, Cingular, Verizon, or Virgin, all the same, as far as they were concerned. Regional transmission coverage about the same as everyone else. Doesn’t look too great for Nevada and Utah, but Jorge said they used a different network if the T-Mobile wasn’t good, all without cost to me. Yes they had started packages, here is what one looked like, and it came with 150 minutes of call time, and they weren’t going to charge me a daily access fee. What I used was what I was charged for. So I signed up. I’ve still got some questions, but they were nice, polite, charming, they took care of everything, and smiled at me throughout. I left with a functional phone, that I could use immediately, and I didn’t feel all that dumb.


    • Does receiving a call or text message charge against my minutes? Seem to think that it does but I don’t see it explicitly stated anywhere.

    • Not sure about the “gold”, seems as if you need to spend $100 on top offs before you join the gold category, but I got confused about the buying/expiring schedule. My current minutes expire in 60 days, and I need to spend an additional $70 to reach “gold” status. It looks as if I need to buy $100 block, and then I will
    have all existing and new minutes extend to 365 days. Whether that puts me at gold status or if I should even care still confuses me.

    • The menus are a royal pain. I keep ending up either where I started without doing anything, or somewhere I don’t want to be and not able to get back. I’m too old to remember what is where, and my fingers aren’t flexible enough for all this paging to and fro.

    • Which “features” I get charged minutes for , and which I don’t, seems a bit nebulous. Funbox, WAP, etc. Could use a spreadsheet that has a feature and a Charge/No Charge block. Actually it would be very helpful if they had something like that for the plan as well as the features. Outgoing = Charge, Incoming = NC, Voice Mail = Charge for mail/Charge for pickup. Or whatever the thing was.

    • Most of the Wireless sales people (I’ve talked to) seem to be male. However their tendency to Baffle with BS, and/or Dazzle with Brilliance works against them.

    • All this nonsense where they are telling you about access charges and when/whoever minutes, seems designed to hide costs that shouldn’t be there to begin with. I hate seeing people who can’t be without a phone in their hand, but service should be universal. Okay rates may vary with time, usage, and even distance, but all networks interconnect, and a rate variance between networks doesn’t exist. Having free calling within a network is just a marketing ploy to get people on an individual network.

    • Similarly, if you have a number the access is there, so to charge you a daily or use access fee is paying for a service that isn’t,particularly if you are already paying either a monthly rate, or a high pay as you go minute plan

    • Young men who smile at middle age ladies, and are charming, clean cut, polite, and helpful can sell even to crabby old crones like me.

    * – Being telephonically challanged does not mean that I don’t understand telephones and networks. 30 years of working in telecommunications means that I hate telephones, I’ve spent most of my professional life on them, and I want to minimize time spent with them. However I also spent those 30 years, working on cutting edge network technology, evaluating and implementing network enhancements, and co-ordinating, purchasing, and manging IT/Network projects. I’ve worked with the FCC regulations, DPU rate commisions, and all of the other groups, vendors, research outfits and suppliers that the modern telecommunication providers interface with. I’m not a total dummy, but wireless service and the whys and hows of the pricing structure are completely beyond me.

Like I said, I love my Mom, and you probably do too now. Can anyone shed some light on any of her questions?

And remember, if your mom has a great consumer complaint, send it into us at!


Edit Your Comment

  1. Danilo says:

    Your mom is sharp as a tack, Brownlee. Nice of you to share.

    That’s a hell of a contrast between US and European expectations for wireless service. I’ve always known that wireless in the US was hopelessly, needlessly, ridiculously convoluted, but that story really seals it.

    What will it take for our wireless industry to stop sucking? You’ve got to be doing something really special when your industry ranks well below used car sales in customer satisfaction.

  2. Das Ubergeek says:

    The gentleman was right about free incoming calls not happening in this country. It simply doesn’t happen, or if it does, it’s a temporary promotion. In most of the world, incoming calls on one’s mobile are free.

    That said, it might be worth it for your mum, who sounds like a real firecracker, or you on behalf of your mum, to browse to — there are forums for each section of the country where she can post her requirements and the users will help her — usually in plain English — to get as close as they can to her goal.

    (Full disclosure: I am a moderator on

  3. kerry says:

    AFAIK free incoming calls are only available without a special plan or promotion on US Cellular, but I think they might be exclusively local to Chicagoland. Other local carriers may have similar deals, though. Since Mrs. Brownlee already got a prepaid phone and plan, however, that information doesn’t help her. TMobile *used* to do free incoming text messages, but not anymore. Minutes and texts are treated as total number used, incoming or outgoing. It stinks, but it’s just the way it is.
    As for WAP and downloads (so hilariously called “funbox” on Samsung phones, so I guess that’s the brand she’s got), I think the only way to find out how much they’d cost her is to call TMobile directly. Their support site is miserable, but I’ve found their phone support to be better than average. I have a feeling the first representative she talks to could tell her how WAP pricing works with prepaid.
    Oh, and I totally feel her pain with the menus on her phone, it’s Samsung’s operating system and it stinks. If it’s been less than 30 days since she got the phone she should take it back and exchange it for a Nokia, the navigation is 600,000 times better. According to the TMobile web site they have a Nokia flip phone available for prepaid users.

  4. Nick says:

    I can clarify the ‘gold’ issue. I had to figure it out a month or so ago when I got a prepay card for T-Mobile.

    Basically, until you have spent $100 – total – on top-ups, your minutes will expire after 60 days or so (I think it actually varies depending on how much you spent at the last top up, but never mind that). As soon as you’ve spent $100 in top-ups, you’re ‘gold’, and your minutes – all of them – won’t expire unless you don’t top-up for a year.

  5. Ben Popken says:

    Ian writes:

    “I’m surprised your mom was so easily steered away from Virgin mobile. They have a decent ‘pay as you go’ plan that has been around at least since 2003.

    I have the ‘minute 2 minute’ plan: calls are $.25/minute for the first 10 minutes and $.10/min after that. You only have to put $20 on it every 2 months. I have it set to top-up automatically from a credit card when my account runs low.

    They’re available at BestBuy. You do have to shell out a few bucks for the phone. The cheapest (The ‘K7 rave’) is $20 – not pretty, but it’s a sturdy SOB. Mine’s been soaked, dropped, and sat upon and still keeps ticking.

    I use my cell phone only as backup – I don’t spend hours chatting away on “any time minutes” – but it sounded like your ma was looking for something along the same lines.

    Website here: Worth looking into once you get past their Gen-Y marketing.


  6. Gari N. Corp says:

    I can share a similar story – I was unable to sign a cellphone contract when I first got off the boat, not without an $800 deposit, and ended up in the arms of T-mobile pay as you go (Voicestream as was). 50 cents a minute for incoming and outgoing, and this was before US cellphone companies had even heard of texts. I eventually signed up with this abusive Sprint contract-type plan for people with no credit, before jumping to AT&T (now Cingular). But around the same time, the next set of Brits off the boat were signing up for Virgin, and many of them still seem to be with Virgin. I remember a few of them having trouble activating the phones, and the phones being deeply confusing french models, but the network is fairly reliable. It’s possible that she was steered away because Virgin is marketed, and associated, as a teenager’s brand.

  7. Ben Popken says:

    Mr. G. writes:

    “Me, I’m from Mayo in Ireland. I work in Dublin, Ireland most of the time. But I do fly back and over to NY. Why does this matter I hear you ask? Well, I work in the mobile industry and not for any service provider, I work for a company that develops software for handsets (App’s, Games, etc…). I deal with Networks in countries globally, from Ireland to Japan and everything in between, but one of the most confusing and, althought you might not think it, outdated systems has to be the American Networks. I deal with almost every, if not every, American network. Verizon, Rogers, T-Mobile, Cingular, Sprint, Nextel (I’ll get back to them in a second) to name a few. The billing systems, minutes, varying charges is crazy.
    When I’m in NY, I use T-mobile, purely because a friend of mine has a business relationship with T-mobile and he hooked me up with a pay as you go system over here (I’m on bill pay back in Ireland). It’s the craziest thing. The amount you are charged for calls depends on how much credit you top up by!!! I’ve been using mobiles in Ireland since the early 90’s, and I have to say never have I seen this scam!! You top up more, you pay less… it’s crazy… there should be one day rate and one night rate… confusion ends there… it’s the way it is on 90% of the worlds networks that have pay as you go.

    In Ireland, on my bill phone, I pay X amount a mount, get 300min’s free that can be used to any network, any time, and that’s that… I don’t get charged for incoming calls (that’s tops the crazy scale) or text messages. A text costs 10cents and that’s it. If I go over my min’s I get charged a day rate and a night rate. Fine, I know how much I’m being charged, there is only 2 numbers to remember.

    The pay as you go system is just a simple. There are 3 main networks in Ireland, they have variations, but It’s done on Cost, not time on the pay as you go networks.

    You top up with 20 euros, you are charged, for example, 40cents a min during the day, or 12cents a min evenings and weekend. A text anytime is 12cents (don’t quote me on these prices!). that’s it… no incoming charges, for calls or texts. So if you get 20 euros, you know how long you can talk to ppl for, and if you run out of money, you can still receive calls and texts for like a year. You can top up in any convenience store, ATM, over the phone (free call), brand stores (vodafone, O2, Meteor)…

    I’ve been working in the industry now for 2 years and I still can’t figure out the US pricing structure… if I check my balance on my t-mobile sim, it says 101mins, or like 14dollars… what??? That makes no since… seriously, I just need to know how much money I have, and how much it’s going to cost me to make a call and night or during the day.

    Back to Nextel… I had to sign up to a Nextel yesterday to get a contract so I could get content on the phone… and all I can say is OH MY GOD… One and One half hour later I eventually walked out of the store with a phone. AN HOUR AND A HALF TO GET A PHONE!! I just wanted a phone with a sim… it’s a contract phone, so you can charge me what you like (although their prices are no less confusing)… and this whole together the Sprint BS… I have sprint contracts, but couldn’t add the Nextel contract to my account as it was a separate system. I have to say the sales person was very nice, but there is just to much confusion out there, and it’s doing nothing but hindering the publics adoption of mobiles here in the states. Ireland has something 107% penetration now (107… how does that happen!!!) and this is because the communication regulators (COMREG) make sure the networks keep things as simple for the comsumer as possible. Not in a dumb way, but in a way that will allow users to adopt, upgrade and see what they are actually getting instead of the BS that is over here (I’m in NY at the moment).

    Anywho, sorry for the long rant, but after seeing that ladies letter I just had to vent and agree with her.

    On a final point, what’s this about “National Roaming”… this is the same county here as in LA right?? I mean, roaming charges have been dropped between the UK and Ireland in the last month. So you can actually go to a different country and pay no more for your calls. A DIFFERENT COUNTRY COMPLETEY and you have to cross sea to get there…

    I better stop now… Thanks for reading this rant.”

  8. plumpy says:

    It’s true that you really never get free incoming calls in the US, and while that policy does seem to be unfair, it (perhaps inadvertantly) is a big part of why cell minutes are so much cheaper in the US than they are overseas.

    Here’s a decent explanation of why paying for incoming calls keeps overall rates down.

  9. drewheyman says:

    i hate to be the one to tell her, but there are rate variances between “networks.” do you think
    tmobile allows cingular to use their network for free? or verizon allows sprint to use theirs for free?

    heck no.

    also, i may have the terminology wrong, but you have to pay connection charges to connect to local exchange carriers (clecs) to connect a cell phone to a landline phone network. that’s why mobile to mobile calls are cheaper – no clec surchanges to deliver the call.

    international network carrying and delivering usage data is the same — not free.

    that’s why carriers charge different rates for calls that never leave their networks, they don’t have to pay surcharge fees, which can be from $0.01 to $0.05 per network element delivered — most voice calls only require 1 or 2 network elements to be delivered to the carrier, but data (picture email & internet can have dozens if not hundreds). network elements delivered to the carrier are the actual records off the switch, which give call time, location, features used, etc.

    she should have made some calls to the carriers, to clear up some of the nonsense in that blurb.

    oh, yeah, the charts for special features aren’t hard: don’t use the internet, don’t send picture emails, and you won’t incur those charges.

  10. VA_White says:

    @Ian: said: I’m surprised your mom was so easily steered away from Virgin mobile. They have a decent ‘pay as you go’ plan that has been around at least since 2003.

    This is the plan we went with for our ten-year-old son as well. It has worked out great. They test you when you need to top up and since my son doesn’t chatter on the phone endlessly, it has been very economical for us. He can call us when he needs to, I can reach him when he’s out riding his bike or at a friend’s house, and I am not breaking the bank to do it. His phone is not fancy and he doesn’t download stuff fo for now, it is perfect.

    I’m sure when he gets older he will want texting plans and downloaded ringers and the like but when he’s older he’ll be more able to help for all that himself.

  11. lonelymaytagguy says:

    Yes, incoming calls are free in most other countries, but the caller pays. I can call an Australian land phone (from the US) for 5 cents a minute, but to call an Australian cell phone is 22 cents.

    While cell phone companies compete on their outgoing rates, this cell phone tax on the calling party seems to never vary.

  12. lonelymaytagguy says:

    Re T-Mobile prepaid charges:

    You’re paying between 10 and 33 cents per minute for calls depending on what denomination refills you use.

    Once you have spent $100 all subsequent refills will get at least 15% more minutes and last for 1 year. This gives you the possibility of having a cell phone for as little as 83 cents per month.

    T-Mobile’s refill algorithm does some rounding of the rate and you will nearly always get more minutes than the refill card’s official value.

    A good strategy is to buy $100 refill immediately, this gives you 1000 minutes for 1 year. Refill with $10 at or above 625 minutes and you’ll get 100 minutes. Generally the $10 and $50 cards give you more bonus minutes than the $25.

    Text messages are 10 cents to send and 5 cents to receive. I think picture messages are 25/15.

    You do pay minutes for both incoming and outgoing calls.

    The T-Zones internet access to CNN, ABC, and ESPN is free and unlimited.

    If you have a camera phone, you have access to an internet based photo album and photo diary/journal. You can send entries to them from either your phone or upload from your computer. (send text to: album=222, journal=2222)

    You can view your album and journal from the phone for no charge and download photos from the album to your phone, also for free.

    Occasionally glitches in the system give you access to the entire internet, once again for no charge. One site that seems to work all the time is

    The ringer, wallpaper, and games downloads vary in price, but the price is always stated before you actually commit to the purchase.

    If your phone has an Instant Messaging Client (AIM, MSN, ICQ) then login, logout, add buddies, etc., is free, but actual messages are 10 cents to send and 5 to receive.

    The following calls are free:
    *TOGO (*8646) hear your balance and talk to customer service
    877-778-2106 customer service direct
    #999# display your balance
    *NUM hear your telephone number
    #NUM# display your number
    *ADD buy minutes with a credit card

    There is no charge when people leave voice mail messages. You are charged airtime to retrieve your messages, but if you do it from a land-line there’s no charge.

    Voicemail numbers from your cell phone (all work on most phones)
    – press and hold 1
    – 123
    – call your number
    – 805-MESSAGE (805-637-7243)

    from another phone
    – 805-MESSAGE (805-637-7243)
    – call your number, press * during the message

    Did I miss anything?

  13. UnholyAngel says:


    i can call US or austrailia (landline or cell) for the grand old price of 2p (4c) a minute.
    i’m in scotland. ok the UK mobile networks may have their bad points but its not as if the US one is fault free. I can even remember when we could send texts for free (they were supposed to be for service settings and such but some of the networks customers figured out you could send a message to another phone on them and when the networks caught on that people were texting each other, they obviously saw the potential to make billions).