Friday, September 10, 2021

Internet & Communications in United States

North AmericaUnited StatesInternet & Communications in United States

By phone

National calls

The country code for the United States is +1. The area code for long-distance calls (local area code) is also “1”, so US telephone numbers are often written as an eleven-digit number: “1-nnn-nnn-nnn”. The rest of the phone number consists of ten digits: a three-digit area code and a seven-digit number. In the past, area codes were defined geographically, but today they are assigned according to population rather than location (within a state). So you can expect to find many area codes in large cities and only one or two in a largely rural state. It is often not possible to tell from the area code or number whether it is a mobile or a landline (and sometimes even the location).

From a mobile phone, making a national call is easy: always dial ten numbers without the “1”.

From a landline, you can usually dial a local number with ten digits. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco require eleven digits. In places where a new area code is superimposed on another, you should dial a ten-digit number, while in areas where there is only one area code, you usually need seven digits. If a number is written or given without an area code, you can usually dial it that way locally, but ten-digit dialling should also work. For long-distance and toll-free calls, always dial eleven digits.

National calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844 are free. From landlines, they must be dialled with the full 11-digit pattern. With a few exceptions (e.g. Canada or, rarely, Mexico), they cannot be reached from abroad. (VoIP users may be able to get around this restriction by calling through a gateway in the US.) ) The 900 code is used for chargeable services (e.g. “adult entertainment”). This also applies to local seven-digit numbers beginning with 976 (or 970 in some locations).

International calls

To dial a number abroad, the international dialling code is 011 (“+” also works on a mobile phone).

Canada, the US territories, Bermuda and 17 Caribbean countries are part of the North American numbering plan and have the same country code (“1”) as the US. Calls between these countries are made using only the full 11-digit number, but almost all are charged at international rates. Calls between the U.S. and its territories can be more expensive than calls to the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., or even calls between the U.S. mainland and Canada (which are generally charged at a higher rate than domestic calls but lower than other international calls). In Alaska and Hawaii, depending on the network operator and tariff plan, there may also be a surcharge for domestic calls.

Telephones and directories

The once ubiquitous payphone is now much harder to find. The most likely places are in or near shops and restaurants, entrances to shopping centres and bus stops. In big cities, they can be hard to find outside transport stations and hotels. Most of them work with coins (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept paper tickets. Prices are usually $0.50 for the first three minutes and $0.25 for each additional minute. For an online directory of pay phones, visit Pay Phone Directory. Calls to 9-1-1 to report an emergency and to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844 (which are free) are free from pay phones. Some commercial toll-free numbers block incoming calls from US payphones, as these calls cost the called party an additional 60 cents.

Telephone books contain two lists (often divided into two books): the white pages list telephone numbers alphabetically by surname, the yellow pages list businesses by category (e.g. “taxis”). Many private landlines and all mobile phones are not listed. Directory enquiries can also be requested (for an additional charge) by calling 4-1-1 (for local numbers) or area code 1-555-1212 (for other areas). If 4-1-1 does not work, try 555-1212, area code-555-1212 or area code-1-555-1212. Free directory enquiries (with advertising) is available: call 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-3733-411) or visit free411.com or 411.info. Regional phone company websites (usually AT&T, Verizon or CenturyLink; also Frontier in Connecticut and West Virginia, and FairPoint in northern New England) also provide directory information. For best results, use the website of the company that operates in the area you are interested in (e.g. AT&T for most of California and Verizon for the Northeast).

Phone cards for long-distance calls are available in most shops. They are usually intended for certain types of calls (e.g. domestic calls or calls to certain countries). Credit can often be added over the phone using a credit or debit card, but foreign bank cards may be declined. Calls from public phones using the freephone numbers printed on the cards may be more expensive. There may also be an effective charge per connection as well as per minute; some cards also have hidden weekly or monthly charges that reduce the value.

Mobile phones

The four largest mobile networks in the United States are AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile. They cover virtually all urban and suburban areas as well as many rural areas of the country, with each network having its strengths and weaknesses.

There is no surcharge for calls to a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are charged in the same way as calls to landlines) and mobile phones do not pay a surcharge for national long-distance calls. However, the mobile phones themselves are charged for each use, outgoing or incoming. In other words, a call to/from a mobile phone has the same cost for that mobile phone, whether it is local, national long distance or free. With rates starting at $25/month, you can use hundreds of minutes of talk time. You will be charged for a missed call (or “missed call”) as you will be charged from the time the number is dialled.

If you want to have a mobile phone in the US while you travel, you have several options:

  • Using your phone from home is not as easy as in some other countries, as 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies are used in the USA (as well as in Canada and many Latin American countries), instead of the 900 and 1800 MHz used elsewhere. If you have a three- or four-band phone (which includes many modern phones), you should have no problems; otherwise, this option will not work for you. You also need to pay attention to whether your phone is GSM/UMTS (used by AT&T and T-Mobile; common in Europe) or CDMA (used by Verizon and Sprint).
    • Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling over a US network) is expensive and depends on the networks your home provider has contracts with and your own provider’s charges. Internet data rates are ubiquitous in the US, but the normally high prices become exorbitant once roaming charges are added.
      • Canadian cellphones can roam for $1.50/minute or more, though plans vary; prepaid users may not roam at all. A fourth small operator, Wind Mobile, is an exception: a $39 plan (about $45 prepaid after taxes) covers unlimited calls, international messaging and 5GB of data in the US with no speed limit on standard T-Mobile and AT&T cellular frequencies.
      • Homelessness is also a problem for Americans who live, work or travel in areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders. Roaming on non-US networks is just as costly for Americans. For example, if you are visiting Detroit, there are some places near the border where Windsor’s signal is stronger, which means your phone will connect to the Canadian network unless you turn off roaming. You will end up with unexpected roaming charges for voice or data on a future bill.
    • Buying a SIM card is a better way to use your personal phone. By installing the SIM card in your phone, you have a local US prepaid phone number without a contract, hundreds of minutes of calls and large amounts of data. Prices are cheaper for longer stays, but the convenience of cheap calls and data makes it a great option for any visitor.

SIM cards are available in some electronics shops and hypermarkets. You must ensure that your phone is not locked and that it is compatible with the SIM card and network frequencies. Read the terms and conditions carefully as some tariffs are actually monthly recurring contracts and not one-off prepaid tariffs.

Providers selling prepaid SIM cards include AT&T’s GoPhone, Cricket (owned by AT&T), Straight Talk’s Bring Your Own Phone and T-Mobile.

  • Buying prepaid minutes and a basic mobile phone is the next best thing. You can find them in some grocery shops, most electronics, office supply and convenience stores, and of course online. A basic phone (without internet access) and 60 to 100 minutes of time can be purchased for less than $50. In addition to the minutes, some prepaid services charge a monthly fee (e.g. $20/month) or a fee for the days the phone is actually used (e.g. $1.25/day). Prepaid and no-contract mobile phone services are available from many prepaid carriers, e.g. Boost Mobile, Cricket, Straight Talk, TracFone and Virgin Mobile USA, and to a limited extent from the major carriers: AT&T’s GoPhone, T-Mobile and Verizon Prepaid Wireless.
  • Renting a phone costs about $3 per day and can be done in the shops at most major airports. Depending on the length of your stay and the amount of calls or data you want to use, it may be cheaper or easier to use a prepaid SIM card or phone.
  • Signing up for a phone plan, which most Americans do, is something only visitors planning a long-term stay should consider. Unless they have been living in the US for several months, international visitors do not have a credit score recognised by US service providers and therefore cannot sign up for these plans (although some providers will allow you to get one for a deposit, usually at least $500). The contracts usually require a 24-month commitment (termination fees can be as high as $300!) to a specific monthly plan, and in return they subsidise the cost of the phone (so basic phones are “free” and smartphones “cost” only $50-$200).

By mail

Addressing your mail with a correctly formatted address will speed it on its way through the United States Postal Service (USPS, not to be confused with the UPS abbreviation for private carrier). The most important thing is the postal code (ZIP Code); you can look up ZIP Codes and correct address formats online. Postcodes were originally 5 digits; later a hyphen and 4 more digits were added, which are recommended but still optional and more commonly used by businesses than individuals.

Addresses should be written in three or four lines, similar to the format used in Australia and Canada:

Name of the recipient
House number and street name
(If required) Suite, flat or building number.
City or town, two-digit state abbreviation, postcode.

or, as an example :

Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500-0001

There are recommended abbreviations for state names and terms (e.g., street = ST, avenue = AVE); the USPS address and ZIP code search automatically uses these. The USPS also recommends that addresses be written only in capital letters and without punctuation (except for the hyphen in the postal code and the dashes and slashes in some house numbers), but the automatic sorting machines accept capital letters and even italics just as well.

International postcards and first class letters (up to 1 ounce/28.5 grams) cost $1.15. (The reduced rate to Canada and Mexico has been phased out. (The reduced rate to Canada and Mexico has expired.) All places with a postcode are considered domestic, including all 50 states, US possessions, Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, overseas military bases, ships (APO or FPO) and diplomatic posts (APO or DPO). Domestic postcards cost $.34 and regular letters up to one ounce cost $.47. “Forever” stamps are available for the first ounce of domestic and overseas postage and protect against future increases. Sending thick or stiff mail or non-standard shapes will increase postage costs.

Poste Restante, the receipt of items at a post office rather than at a private address, is called “general delivery”. This service is free of charge. You must show identification, such as a passport, to collect your mail. Your mail does not have to be addressed by name to a specific post office – just use “GENERAL DELIVERY” on the second line.

The last four digits of the postcode for general delivery are always “9999”. If the city is large enough to have several post offices, only one of them (usually in the centre of the city) will allow general delivery. For example, if you live in the Green Lake area of Seattle (a few miles north of downtown), you will not be able to pick up your mail at the Green Lake Post Office and will have to drive downtown to do so. However, if you live in an independent suburb outside a major city with only one government post office, you can have your mail sent there. Another option is to rent a post office box.

FedEx and UPS also offer the hold for pickup option and have offices in major cities in the US. Although they are usually more expensive, these services can be a better option for receiving an important item from abroad.

Internet

Given the ubiquity of private internet access, internet cafés are rare outside major cities and tourist areas. They do have some options, however, except perhaps in the most rural areas. Accessible Wi-Fi networks, however, are widespread.

Wireless

The most useful Wi-Fi points are in cafés, fast food chains and bookshops, but you may need to buy something first. Some cities also offer free Wi-Fi in their city centres. Try to use only public networks. Using a private network (even without a password) is illegal unless authorised (although enforcement is almost non-existent) and can also allow criminals to track your browsing behaviour and thus defraud you. Traffic on public networks can also be recorded.

There are a few less obvious places where Wi-Fi is available:

  • Public libraries – Free wifi is almost always available, but you will need to get a connection at the information desk. The network can even be available around the clock, so even if the library is closed, you can sit outside and surf.
  • Hotels – Chain hotels usually have them in rooms and common areas; small independent hotels vary. An overpriced option in high-end hotels, but included as standard in most limited-service economy chains.
  • Colleges and universities – may have networks in their libraries and student centres that are open to non-students. Some have networks that are accessible across the campus, including off-campus.
  • Airports – even small regional ones – offer Wi-Fi. But it can be expensive.
  • Paid Wi-Fi channels – give you access to many hotspots, e.g. Boingo, for a small fee.

Mobile broadband via a USB modem is also an option. Service providers include Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile (which uses the Sprint network). Be sure to check a coverage map before buying, as each company has large areas with poor or no coverage. Also, these plans have data limits that can easily be exceeded without knowing it! Avoid watching videos on a mobile network.

Public PC terminals

Internet cafés still exist in some major cities (e.g. New York and Los Angeles). Airports and shopping malls offer internet access kiosks for very fast use, although these are generally disappearing. Access usually costs $1 for 1-2 minutes of web time. Any public computer is likely to block access to unwanted sites and record your internet use.

You can also consider:

  • Public libraries – these have PCs with broadband for public use (but in some areas you need a library card). Ask at the information desk for more information.
  • Copy shops – they have computers available to the public (for a fee). FedEx Office (formerly Kinkos) (+1-800-463-3339/+1-800-GOFEDEX; when prompted by the voice menu, say “FedEx Office” or press “64”), for example, is open 24 hours a day and operates nationwide. Some are also commercial mailrooms (e.g. The UPS Store) and offer fax services.
  • Clever hotels have “business centres” equipped with computers, printers, photocopiers and fax machines that you can use for a fee.
  • Electronics shops – the computers on display are often connected to the internet. A quick email is tolerated with a smile, six hours of Warcraft is not. The Apple Store is particularly generous and allows browsing without the intention to buy; however, some websites, such as Facebook, are blocked.
  • University libraries – while private universities may restrict access to their students and faculty, public university libraries are usually required by law to be open to the public (at least for books) and may also have one or two computers for public use.