The USA Series: Signing up for a mobile contract in the States

I’ve received a terrific amount of feedback from readers on the first post (“The USA Series: Prelude to buying a mobile phone in America“). The vast majority of comments have been shock (from the European readers), frowning acknowledgement (from the Americans) and quite a few flames (from the know-nothings who refuse to recognise or exist in reality).

Do get a good cup of coffee for I am about to dispense with my experiences. Before I do, for the ultra outraged flamers who believe I’m denigrating the good ‘ol United States with my posts (I’ve had a few hothead communications since the first post), let me answer their accusations with an illustration:

George Bush and Tony Blair are at a White House press briefing. It’s being beamed round the world in real time. I’m sat watching on CNN. Blair steps up to the podium and takes multiple questions from the press. A few curveballs but he manages well. It’s te first time he and Bush have met so the last question (if memory serves, I’m paraphrasing in these examples) is “What common ground have you and the President discovered?”

Blair, ever the Statesman, opines about the ‘special relationship’, the commonality of spirit, the shared values of freedom, decency and peace — and so on. A good, off-the-cuff reposte. Whatever your politics, Blair can definitely hack it on the world stage, no problem.

The journalist poses the same question to President Bush (“Have you and Mr Blair found common ground?”). Bush does a blank stare for a few moments, smiles whilst thinking hard. “Well,” begins Bush, “I found out we use the same toothpaste.”


My point? Your Government is doing fine trashing the American reputation. Doesn’t need any help from me.

Me? I’m a big fan of America. Particularly the West Coast — because it’s a lot warmer. So, to be clear before anyone else thinks I’m trashing America: It’s the lack of innovation I’m trashing. The general spirit of the industry. The backward nature of the medium from the consumer viewpoint. Not the country, not the country’s values, not the flag.

Now, a step back about a month. It’s December and I’ve just arrived in America.

– – –

Here I am then, twenty-four hours in San Francisco. I’ve moved, temporarily, to the city by the Bay, to explore the mobile industry and meet with some innovative mobile companies. I’ll be here for just under three months. The first thing I did yesterday was go and get a car. You can’t do anything, really, in America, without a car. It’s possible to walk to places here in the city, but if you’re planning on going anywhere, seeing the sights, doing some mobile-company-drop-ins, then you really need a car.

A visit to Enterprise and we were sorted.

The next problem? No mobile phone. This particular issue had been eating me up since I arrived at the airport. Yes, I had my UK T-Mobile, my 3UK handset and my trusty MAXroam SIM (never leave home without your MAXroam), but I wanted to experience the whole ‘call me on 415…’ thing.

For decades I’ve been watching American movies and television shows featuring 10 digit mobile numbers (“212-555-5555”). In the past few years I’ve been trying to test out American-made mobile applications but have often had to apologise to eager entrepreneurs, explain that my UK mobile number is 11 digits (or more with the international code) — and generally, the sign-up boxes for many American mobile applications only allow ten digits. I’ve thus been reduced to peering in the window.

I wanted to see what it was like. I didn’t want to just look and empathise. I wanted to live it. Pay as you go would be fine of course. But I really wanted a contract. I wanted the full experience of buying a contract handset in America.

So after getting the car, the first thing I did was drive to the Stonestown Mall nearby. I’d done some research and found that it contained a Sprint store. Now there’s quite a few mobile phone shops around San Francisco but none that I was comfortable driving to, yet. Swapping to driving on the right is unnerving enough without having to arse about with a reverse park on a busy road, just so I could visit a phone shop.

Arriving at the mall, I made a bee-line to the Sprint store. I’d heard one or two comments about Sprint in the past but, crucially, none that I could remember.

The store looked bright, it was clean, there were quite a few special offers in the window. I looked in. It was empty. Just the sales chap typing away on his computer. There were quite a few handsets on the walls and a few laptops setup showcasing services.

“Fine,” I thought, “Let’s pop in.”

I walked in and had a look around. The chap looked up and said hi. Friendly.

As for decor, well, think ‘upscale hardware shop’ in yellow. We’re not talking Vodafone or 3UK flashy graphics, pumping sounds, 50 inch plasmas or the like. A quiet, sedate, bordering-on-functional store. Lots of yellow (that’s Sprint’s colour).

“Can I help you?” asked a chap.
“Er,” I thought, “Yes, I’m looking for a phone.”

We had a conversation. The chap was polite, attentive and friendly. I explained I was from the UK and I needed a phone to use for three months.

He pointed me toward their Boost Mobile stand. For some reason I went with the flow and thought, ‘Yeah, Pay as You Go. Fine for me. Let’s try it out.’

“These are our pay as you go services,” he explained. He detailed the prices of the handsets. I picked one for $50 and asked him what the call charges would be to the United Kingdom.

“Let me just check,” he said. He went into the back of the store and brought out a new shiny Apple MacBook Pro and logged on to

As he navigated around the website I caught sight of the Sprint PCI Express data card sticking out of the laptop.

“Are you on WiFi?” I asked him.
“No, Sprint,” he replied, finding the right page for Boost’s international mobile charges.

He was navigating around the web faster than I’d ever seen. I was supremely impressed. The data speed was just phenomenal, continuous, reliable. I was immediately taken with the card. Even more so when the chap pointed out the fantastic tariffs.

But focus. Focus MacLeod!

“It’s 25 cents a minute,” the chap explained.

“Right, give me two of those Boost mobiles,” I declared, my mind still lingering on the data card. [One for me, one for the other half]

I forgot the data card as the chap demonstrated push-to-talk working with Boost. Really, really smart. I’d never actually seen it ‘live’ in the flesh before. We don’t have anything like that in the UK unfortunately.

I walked out the store with two Boost Mobiles (or ‘mobils’ — that’s how Americans seem to pronounce ‘mobile’) and felt good. I’d initially thought about a contract but, screw it, Pay As You Go is fine, right?


Or no.

I spent a day winding up my other half by making push-to-talk ‘calls’ every five minutes. It’s an acutely annoying medium if you get a push-to-talk message whilst browsing in a very quite upscale boutique shop.

Quickly I exhausted my credit. I logged on to and looked for the credit card recharge option.

Arse. You can’t do it online. You have to phone them. How stupid. I phoned up customer services to setup my credit card. We got into all sorts of trouble together unfortunately. First off, the line was really bad. Think VOIP running over a 9k/sec connection whilst someone is downloading a 100 meg file. Boost itself was fine when calling other numbers. But calling customer services was painful. Secondly, they didn’t quite get the international ‘thing’, repeatedly asking me what State my credit card was registered to and getting severely annoyed when I refused to give them a numerical zip code (“It’s a BRITISH POST CODE”).

Eventually I gave up. I went to Walgreens — a ‘pharmacy’ similar to Boots in the UK — and purchased a $20 credit for both phones. Logged on to and … well, my credit upload worked. Hers didn’t. The card had already been used. I couldn’t be arsed phoning customer services. I bought another card only to find that we couldn’t login to because she’d forgotten her PIN number and customer services were… well, you’ve guessed it, yes? They were distinctly unhelpful.

Screw this.

I need to transact business internationally. Although I’ve got my MAXroam, I would like an ‘American’ handset — and by this time after messing around with Boost — I decided it was time I got a contract handset, whatever the cost.

I’m going to be here for three months. Might as well.

I went mobile phone shopping. And that’s where the nightmare began.

I’d had good service at Sprint but I thought I’d check out the other mobile operator stores and see what they were offering. Obviously my demands were quite different from your usual American. This became immediately clear when I walked into the Verizon shop on Market Street, one of San Francisco’s main thoroughfares.

I didn’t bother looking at the handsets, instead I headed straight up to the sales desk. I’d spent the whole night previously working out the best possible introductory pitch to the shop salesmen to make things as easy as possible. Here’s the pitched I decided upon:

“I’d like a contract. I’m here for three months and I’ll be returning to America regularly. I am a British subject therefore I don’t have a social security number and thus cannot pass a credit check. I need to call the United Kingdom regularly so I’d like an add-on that lets me call the UK cheaply. Money, within reason, isn’t an issue.”

I thought that initial pitch would tell the salesman everything he needed to know. I also reckoned that it would be a good comparison to put that to each mobile operator salesman and see what they come up with.

My experience of Verizon was severely limited. I knew it’s linked to the Vodafone group, that it’s CDMA and that it’s supposedly ‘Americas Most Reliable Network’. There are billboards all over the place announcing this to all and sundry.

So after delivering my pitch, I stood back slightly and waited.

I was surprised. Very surprised.

“Well er, your best bet is to get a calling card sir.”

“Sorry? No, I want a contract. Could you tell me about your international rates to the UK?”

I was staggered by the chap’s immediate animosity. I was prepared for an engagement — a discussion — a bit of ‘discovery’ and, frankly, I was expecting him to get out a brochure and start walking me through price plan options.

Instead, he folded his arms and repeated, “Just go and get a calling card in Walgreens across the road.”

“Listen, it’s ok, I’ve got money,” I explained, “Can’t I just get a contract?”

He grimaced at me. I was, clearly, a piece of shit, as far as he was concerned. I should point out I was dressed reasonably smartly. Jeans, jumper, iPhone, Nokia N95 and SHOES. I wasn’t even wearing trainers! (“sneakers”).

He stared derisively at me, then uttered, “It’s 400 bucks.”

“What is?” I asked. A sign! Movement!

“400 bucks deposit, to get an account,” he explained.

I did some ultra quick, ultra simple maths. 400 dollars is 200 pounds. Steep, but with most US Pay as you Go networks charging upwards of $1.60 per minute to call the UK, I’d have gone through 400 dollars worth of credit quickly. Plus, it’s entirely a business expense.

“Ok, that’s fine,” I said, taking out my passport and credit card. Your move, PUNK!

The chap’s pupils enlarged. He was clearly annoyed that his ploy hadn’t worked.

“It’s a two year contract,” was his next stupid statement. Take my money already!

“I understand, that’s perfectly fine,” I replied. At this point I’d had enough. I’d already looked up all these details on the internet and knew that I could terminate my contract — yes there’d be a fee — but all the termination and deposit fees in the world would be nothing compared to the costs of making 120 minutes worth of international mobile calls to the UK each day. I needed a work-horse of a phone to transact business while I was out here.

“I’m fine,” I explained, “with a 2 year contract, that’s no problem at all.”

Could we get on with doing business? No.

“Just, go and get a calling card,” he snapped and promptly turned his back and asked another customer if they needed help.

Transaction closed. OOOkay.

So, that’s Verizon, eh?

Coming shortly… my experiences trying to buy a phone at T-Mobile USA, AT&T, Sprint and Helio.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

12 replies on “The USA Series: Signing up for a mobile contract in the States”

WOW!!…no wonder you haven’t responded my calls these last couple of days Ewan and there’s me thinking it was down to something I said 🙂
Guys in our L.A. office can’t even buy a SYMBIAN OS NOKIA anywhere…so they say!


Wow, what an absolutely arse experience. You were telling them “I want to be a customer, I have money” and they look at you like you’re a freak. No wonder foreigners go prepaid in the Land Of The Free–or almost anywhere else for that matter.

@mark most shops don’t carry those phones, though I know Nokia is starting to roll Nseries devices out in some L.A. stores.

PhoneBoy’s last blog post..Getting Closer To IPv6?

I must say that sux. I feel sorry for the American consumers. Im really looking forward to read about your “future experiences”

I had similar, though not so bad, experience when I first moved over here. Never tried Sprint, though.

In fact, after a false start with Cellular South or something, I went to t-Mobile, then later AT&T. No way am I going to lock myself into CDMA hell!!!! I don’t care HOW reliable the service is, or HOW fast the data is … I want the freedom of an ulnocked GSM phone 🙂

By the way – in my experience, Americans have no idea what a jumper is 🙂

so you going to tell us what a “jumper” is to you. I thought it was a stock broker who jumps out the window when market crashes.

And we wonder why the terrorists hate us. 😉

Still, I’m rather surprised to see that out of Verizon’s sales reps. As a company (i.e. business practices, locking down handsets, screwing customers with fees) they suck — but I’ve always thought from a Customer Service standpoint they did a fairly good job (they, along with T-Mo USA, win awards for CS every year).

But yes, in fact, the American mobile market sucks, sucks, sucks, and sucks some more. They only thing we’ve managed to not mangle are data fees (I love it when you Brits say ‘Tariffs’, so much nicer to say than fees!).

I’m really curious to see what the rest of your experience has been — and willing to make a few predictions!

T-Mobile: Polite but clueless rep, and surprisingly so given the connecting between DT and T-Mo USA.

AT&T: Fairly informative, but treats you as if you were a moron, and not someone who actually knows something about mobile phones.

Sprint: Impossible to get a contract since you aren’t an American, some backasswards corporate policy somewhere will limit you.

olly’s last blog post..Yes, The Death Penalty IS Immoral

Don’t worry about the flaming. I agree with you and I AM an american. The mobile phone industry over here sucks, the cars suck. I will be the first to admit, we do a lot of things very well here but we don’t do;
TV’s or VCR’s

I long for the day when I can finally get a “3G” icon on my N95 or N80 or N70

Hm. Condescending, arrogant, and acted like they don’t really need your business. Yeah, that’s Verizon.

Wow, we experienced the EXACT same thing, even in the same order! From Boostmobile to a contract.. Only difference is that I tried my luck in NYC and that it was almost 2 years ago. Oh and I’m from Germany. Nowadays I also have got to travel back and forth to the US Westcoast for the next couple of years. My girlfriend works for Verizon in Cali and I can not believe some of the things she told me. I thought Vodafone Europe was bad, but at Verizon they are truly taking it to another level. I understand your point of view when you say you are not bashing the US, instead you are expressing your dislike of how the US mobile market works. We as Europeans have got it good and we can not expect it from US that mobile customers are treated well.
Unlocked phones, freedom to choose any operator you like isn’t possible in the land of the free. After having tried several American handsets I’m glad that I have got a N95 with a great and easy to use s60 operating system. Windows Mobile is alright over there in the US but a lot of companies lock the OS of their phones down. And if you buy a Blackberry you can not assume that you can install java apps on there just cause RIM says it’s possible. The network carrier might only allow a few certain handpicked java apps you have to download and pay OTA from their mobile website. There is a lot US carriers could do for their customers. They didn’t understand yet that it will pay off if you give customers a little more freedom, because if the price and the usability is adequate people will use it and run up their bill nevertheless.
Since I don’t have to make and accept calls 24/7 while being in the US, I simply just use truphone whenever I’m in the range of a wireless network. That helped me cut down the costs a lot. In your case you might want to have a look at
That might solve the US contract problem.
My gf said Americans think it’s normal that cellphones can only be used with the network it was sold with, simply because they don’t know about all the freedom Europeans have. I really wish more Americans would know about that and would demand a change. That’s wishful thinking of course, that will never happen, unfortunately.

cj’s last blog post..Free text messaging from your cell to US-numbers and intl. Mobiles

Regarding BoostMobile or MetroPCS, those are not marketed to the “high end cell phone user” like yourself. Based on your circumstances, as soon as you said “BoostMobile” I knew it you weren’t going to get what you were looking for. If you goto any mall, you’ll encounter the same scenario (I don’t know about the rudeness in service though).

Why not try going with AT&T/Cingular Wireless? They are GSM and carry a variety of phones. They also have pay as you go phones too. If anything, you’ll get a SIM card from them and you can use it in any “aftermarket phone,” like an N95.

I live in San Francisco, and in my experiences, you will have to goto a “highly Asian” (not European Asian but Chinese Asian) area to find a store that sells unlocked aftermarket phones (Nokia E and N Series, for example). These stores usually provide unlocking services as well. You can also try the electronics seciton of to locate GSM phones and unlocking services (got my Nokia N93 off of craigslist).

Here are some stores you may want to consider visiting in SF:

Citicomm Wireless Inc
821 Folsom Street Suite 102

1812 Irving St/19th Avenue

In terms of contracts, AT&T or TMobile would probably be your best bet since you could take your unlocked phone there and get decent plan with add-ons for international calling. You will probably have to get a contract which unfortunatley can last up to 2 years.

These are the hoops one must go thru for the high end mobile user!

Good luck. Excellent blog by the way. Looking forward to more stories regarding your adventures here in the US.


Actually, you can get your N95 unlocked if it isn’t already and just go to T-Mobile or ATT and you won’t be locked into a two year agreement and you can just swap sim cards as you come and go. Also, I find that customer service and pricing are a lot better at T-Mobile than ATT. To give you an example, I am an ATT employee and would get an employee discount but I’m STILL with T-Mobile.

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