The Phone Handbook

Making Calls Away From Home

There may be times when you want to make calls when you are not at home or work. At these times, you can carry a wireless phone with you or use a public pay phone with a prepaid phone card, calling card number, or just coins.

Things to Consider When Evaluating Whether to Purchase Wireless (or Cellular) Service

Consumers who want a wireless or cellular phone should evaluate their options carefully. Wireless carriers often require customers to sign long term contracts and charge hefty fees for early termination; be sure to ask about these issues when deciding whether to buy a wireless phone. A contract for wireless service may represent a one or two year commitment and once you sign the contract it can be costly to get out of it early. Therefore, it is important to choose a service provider and plan that work for you. There are many different companies offering a variety of service plans and equipment. Generally, many of the phones offered by the different carriers are roughly equivalent to each other, so you should mostly focus on the terms of the plan being offered. The right plan for you will depend on the way you will use the phone. You should ask yourself a number of questions before signing a contract for wireless service, including:

Be aware that the price of wireless service plans are typically advertised before any extra taxes and fees are applied, and data plans allowing you to access the Internet with your phone will also cost you more.

What Should I Know About Wireless Contracts?

When purchasing wireless phone service, read the contract carefully. You can specifically ask the company to explain the amount you will be charged for service, the amount of any government mandated taxes and fees, and variable charges for extra minutes or for roaming outside your service territory. You can also ask for an estimate of the amount of your first bill, which may include more than one month’s service. Be aware that some contracts allow wireless carriers to change the price during the term of the contract, and the carrier may also impose a hefty termination fee if you want to cancel the service before the end of the contract. Keep your contract even after you’ve started your service so you’ll have the document if there is a dispute about your service down the road. Also, be careful about making changes to your service during the term of the contract and ask whether the change will extend the length of the contract term. If you feel uncomfortable signing a contract, but also feel you need a wireless phone, consider getting a prepaid cell phone. That way your commitment is limited and if you don’t like the service, you aren’t tied down with a contract.

If you have a “smart” phone and want to access the Internet, you will likely be required to purchase a data service plan in addition to your voice/messaging service plan. These plans can add considerable costs to your total wireless service bill. Data plans can vary based on the amount of data you expect to use, the number of devices on the plan, or other services such as voice and texting that are packaged with the data plan. Pre-paid data plans are also available.

Where Will My Phone Work?

A wireless carrier’s coverage area is based on the geographic area in which the carrier has built out its network. While carriers often provide maps showing areas they say they have coverage, these maps may only be rough guidelines of the area where the phone will work. The companies often say that they do not guarantee that a phone will have coverage in a particular area. When deciding whether to purchase wireless phone service or when choosing between carriers, you may want to ask your friends and neighbors about their coverage with their wireless companies. You should also inquire whether the carrier offers users a trial period, usually 14 to 30 days, during which a customer can return the phone without a penalty if the coverage is insufficient in their area. If the phones work in an area, but the service quality is poor so that calls drop, you experience static, or otherwise have a bad connection, you should document your concerns and contact your carrier right away to make a complaint. Carriers may be more inclined to be responsive to the problem if you call right away, but less inclined to help if you continue your usage and make lots of calls. Beware of the company’s offer of a new phone to fix the problem. By getting the new phone, you may be entered into a new contract, and it is possible that the new phone won’t work any better in your area than the old one.

Are Rebates on Wireless Phones and Equipment a Good Deal?

It’s a good idea to do some homework before signing a wireless contract based on a rebate offer. Be aware that wireless carrier rebates that come with signing up for a new plan or buying a new phone are typically not instant rebates and can take months to arrive through the mail. Often the rebates offered aren’t instant rebates allowing the customer to get the benefit right away, but instead require the customer to keep their phone packaging and copies of their bills. Customers may not be able to claim the rebate until they have had the phone for some time, and even afterwards it may take a long time for the customer to receive the refund. For this reason, instant rebates are preferable. Consumers should read the fine print, and can even check out a rebate company online to see whether other consumers have had difficulty obtaining a rebate’s benefits from a particular company.

The Customer Service Representative I Talked to Wasn’t Helpful

If you have difficulty dealing with a wireless carrier’s customer service representative, you should ask to speak to a supervisor. Also, document your experience so that you can provide a clear picture of the treatment you received and then file a complaint with one of the government agencies that handle wireless issues. While the wireless companies aren’t legally required to provide good customer service, documentation about your experience may make it easier to resolve your complaint.

Why are There Charges on My Wireless Bill for Third-Party Services?

As already discussed in the section on cramming, many wireless carriers aren’t just charging for their wireless service anymore, but have opened up their bills as a platform for billing for third parties. Like landline phones, cramming is a problem on wireless phone bills as well. Carefully study your bill each month to ensure there are no unauthorized charges buried within the bill. Carriers often include extra charges on bills for ring tones, text messaging, and other services downloaded from third parties or through the carrier. If you make a change to your service that will result in an extra charge, you may want to ask the carrier for specific information on the amount of any increase in your monthly bill. Further, you should always review your bill carefully each month to see whether the charges are accurate. If you notice an inaccurate or unauthorized charge, contact your wireless carrier immediately to dispute it. Many carriers will remove recent charges, but may not remove charges that are more than a few months old. Also, if you provide a phone to your child, you may want to set some ground rules in advance about the child’s usage and explain that there are extra charges for extra services. You may also want to contact your carrier to find out if they offer blocking for third-party charges on the phone your child uses.

What are My Options When Using a Pay Phone?

Once heavily regulated, pay phones now operate more like vending machines. As a result, pay phone operators set their own prices for the service they provide—sometimes many dollars per minute. Unlike vending machines, however, the price for calling may not be clearly posted. You should carefully review rate information posted near a pay phone for information about per-minute and access charges. Some pay phones are illegally set up to block your ability to use the long distance company of your choice. If you find this to be the case, hang up and try to find another pay phone. Before you make a call, read the fine print posted on the pay phone, and follow some of these options that may help you and your family save money:

Calling Card Calls

Calling cards issued by your long distance company are usually the lowest cost option. Many calling cards that advertise a low per-minute rate often make up for this low rate by levying significant surcharges and fees on each call, which can quickly eat away at the value of the card. Make sure you know about any surcharges, monthly fees or minimums, in addition to the rates for using a calling card. Remember to guard your calling card and access numbers. If your card is stolen or abused, it can be difficult to dispute the unauthorized charges.

Pre-paid Calling Card Calls

Unlike standard calling cards, prepaid calling cards work like a debit card and are often sold in retail stores or even vending machines. You dial a toll-free access number and then punch in a code. Buy prepaid cards from long distance companies and retail outlets that you trust. Before you purchase a card, make sure you read the terms and limitations. Be aware that it is possible that the charges for the service will change even after you purchase the card.

Collect Calling Using a 1-800 Access Code

This is a less perilous way of making the old fashioned “collect call,” and charges for these calls will appear on the bill of the person you are calling. You may save money compared to direct dial and operator assisted calls, but be sure to listen for rate information before the call is connected. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that companies disclose their prices before your call goes through.

Direct Dial Calls

Calls made by dialing a long distance number and paying the required amount or using your credit card are direct dial calls. Direct dialed calls from a pay phone are not cheap, but there are fewer surprises associated with them.

Operator Assisted Calls

Operator assisted calls, which are long distance calls made from a pay phone by dialing “0” plus the number, are almost always the highest cost, particularly when you use a live operator. In addition, you are limited to the long distance company that provides service for that pay phone.