Phone Guide
- save $$ on those long conversations!

How I wish someone had compiled a 'phone guide' for me.

When I first moved to America 6 years ago, my mom made me promise I'd call home every other day. It was the first time someone from the family had relocated to another country, and mom was worried sick.

I kept my promise but ratcheted up a huge phone bill. A friend suggested I use a 'calling card', instead of the regular phone. So I got one from a nearby store. But there were so many to choose from, I still wasn't sure if I had gotten the best deal. Was I really saving the most I could? Was I compromising on voice quality?

Years later, as I look back on those days, I (and others like me) can't help but smile. A lot more aware and experienced, we are now happy to pass on our knowledge to other movers via this Phone Guide. With technology changing rapidly, new communication options are continually springing up (just see all those ads on TV!). This guide is a humble attempt to help you navigate these options and unlock the secrets of mobile phones, calling cards, landlines, VoIP, digital (cable) phone services, prepaid and postpaid services.

Calling Cards

No need to be confused here - calling cards are undoubtedly a good idea for international calls, especially when you just arrive and haven't subscribed to a phone service. Making international calls from a payphone, public phone or hotel phone is relatively expensive and must be avoided.

A calling card (also known as a phone card) can be purchased in various denominations, online or from a variety of stores. It comes as a printed, physical card or as a virtual card. Either ways, it'll basically have a local or toll free access phone number, and a PIN number. Once you dial the toll free number from any phone, and when prompted, dial the PIN, you can make international or domestic calls at much cheaper rates.

Calling card companies purchase minutes in bulk at a deep discount from telecom carriers. That's why their calling rates are lower - they're passing on some of the discount to you.

When it comes to domestic calls within the US, calling cards are still convenient, but not necessarily the cheapest.

For tips and details on how to use calling cards, click here.

For our Phone Guide recommendations on good calling card services, click here.

Landline Phones

Once you've finalized your apartment and have settled in, you're surely going to think of subscribing to a phone service. Landline phones refer to the traditional phone service where a telephone plugs into your wall jack. Landline phone services are provided by a variety of nationwide and regional telecom companies (called service providers). There are 2 types of landline services you'll need to consider: basic (or local area) calling and long distance calling. In the US, you do not need to take local and long distance services from the same service provider.

Many people consider having a landline a necessity. But in this age of ubiquitous mobile phones, quite a few people have started questioning the need to have a wired phone at all. For more information on this interesting debate, click here.

Click here for tips on how to choose a landline phone instrument.

VoIP vs. Digital Phones vs Traditional Phones

Once you start researching landline services, you'll stumble on an array of smaller providers whose rates are much cheaper (sometimes by 50% or more) than traditional service providers. And you'll wonder, "is there a catch?" How can these lesser known companies provide services equal to say Verizon or AT&T at a price lower by that much?

Well, firstly, the prices are true, and its not a racket. The reason for the huge difference is because these companies use an alternative technology called Voice over IP or VoIP. Simply put, voice signals are converted to a digital format suitable for transfer over the Internet. And since the (virtually free) internet is used to transmit the signals as opposed to a physical telephone network, costs are significantly lower.

Of course, the reason traditional phone companies still retain their customers is because VoIP has disadvantages too. But undoubtedly, a VoIP service is something to seriously consider as an alternative to traditional landline.

Yet a third type of landline service is the digital phone (or cable phone) service. This service is usually provided by the companies that bring cable TV and broadband internet connectivity to your home. Technologically the service is very similar to VoIP, and uses the internet to transmit voice. Pricewise, digital telephony is a lot lower than traditional network service but a little higher than VoIP service. Again, digital telephony comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Click here for a Phone Guide discourse on VoIP

Mobile Phones

Mobile phones (also called cell phones, cellular phones, or wireless phones) will likely be your primary form of personal communication in America.

Mobile or wireless services are provided by a variety of telecom companies in America (many are the same that provide traditional landline services). It is very common (and recommended) to get an instrument/device free or highly subsidized when you sign a contract with a service provider. Therefore selecting the service (rather than the device) is usually the first step.

Once you've short-listed your vendor, the next step is selecting a 'plan'. It is important to note most companies in the US charge for airtime minutes - both incoming and outgoing. Each company has devised calling plans that limit the number of airtime minutes you can use every month. You then add extra 'features' to your plan (examples of features include: texting, international roaming, international dialing), and come to a fixed monthly price. If you exceed your airtime minutes, you are charged extra on a per minute basis.

Prepaid vs. Postpaid

A prepaid phone is a plan where you pay money upfront and receive a fixed number of airtime minutes to be used in a defined time frame. As you make calls, your 'balance' reduces. Once depleted, you re-charge the account for further use. In effect, a prepaid service is the equivalent of an institutionalized calling card on your phone.

A postpaid account is the more conventional one, where you subscribe to a phone service, get charged a monthly minimum charge or rental, and then pay a fixed and/or variable amount based on the plan opted for and additional minutes used.

Prepaid and postpaid options are available across America for both for landline and mobile phones. While postpaid is usually the normal choice, prepaid phones can be a great option in certain circumstances, and should definitely be considered.

Click here for an evaluation of when you should use prepaid vs. postpaid phones.

Skype, MSN messenger and similar services

You might have heard of people using their computers to make virtually 'free' phone calls. This is technically correct. Using software like Skype, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, and with a little investment in an internet-enabled computer, speakers, headset and microphone, you could call domestically and internationally at virtually no cost. However, this solution has its own share of disadvantages, and lacks the convenience of a conventional phone.

Click here for a Phone Guide rundown on how to use messenger software and the associated pros and cons.

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