Can you explain the US Carriers' saga to a non-American


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Sep 13, 2012
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I'm British, and reading through these forums and news items, there's often a lot said about US carriers, and exclusives, and this one is crap, that one screwed me over, available for $100, etc etc...

At first I thought I understood how it all worked over there, as on the surface, it seems pretty comparable to the UK systems, but now and again I think I haven't grasped it at all.

So if anyone is bored, feel free to explain for me! :)

If I explain how things work over here, I might be able to work out how things differ...

In the UK, there are essentially 4 ways to buy a phone:

1. Unlocked, unbranded - probably the least common, for these you will need a "SIM-only" monthly tariff or PAYG SIM from any network.

2. On-contract direct from a network(carrier) - can either be with an upfront phone cost + monthly tariff or free phone + more monthly tariff. Will include some kind of package of free calls/texts/data.

3. Pay-as-you-go direct from network - generally for cheaper phones, phone usually costs slightly under unbranded price, is often tied to a network and you add call/text/data credit as-and-when you need to.

4. Via a 3rd party retailer/supermarket/online store - this incorporates 2. &/or 3. but 3rd parties can often lever different combinations of packages/tariff and some add extras, e.g. buy x,y,z phone, get a 'free' xbox/ps4/TV (you just pay more monthly).

Contract tariffs are usually either 12-, 18- or 24- months (24 being most common), included call/text/data packages will generally be the same (per specific tariff) regardless of term, but the shorter-the-term the more expensive monthly. Once the term expires you're free to stay on the same tariff, change tariff on the same network or completely move your phone and/or number to a different network. However your current network will always offer you a choice of phone upgrades (which again, are usually a free to reasonably-priced upfront cost) which if you accept will tie you into another contract term (the old phone is yours to do with as you please).

You can leave PAYG at any time. If you want to move the phone to another network you'll usually have to pay a small fee to get it unlocked.

Over here, I can name 8 nationwide networks off-the-top of my head, but there may be more... but the 'big three' are O2, Vodafone and EE(Orange & T-Mobile), the others tend to 'piggyback' the big three networks' antennas.

We do have network/3rd party retailer exclusives, but it doesn't seem to be such a big deal over here... If you're that desperate to get one of these specific devices you can freely change networks if your term has expired, or pay a get-out-early fee, or buy the phone unlocked and put it on any network of your choice.

There is generally little to differentiate the networks overall, prices are fairly comparable, as is coverage, especially in built-up areas. There are obviously areas of countryside where only one network or another has coverage, or in rare cases, there may be black-spots with no coverage at all on any network. But I'd guess over 90% of the population is pretty well catered for.

Essentially, we don't have too much to complain about in terms of 'mobile consumerism' (obviously we still do, we're British), but if you want a specific device<->network combination there's generally a way to do it, if you're prepared to pay for it in one way or another.

Most adults I know go for option 2. above, It's generally the best balance of being both a manageable cost and giving you access to high-end devices. Kids/teenagers will often be on PAYG as it's easier for parents to monitor spend, similarly with the elderly. Overall option 1. is probably both the cheapest and most flexible, if you can afford the initial device cost that is.

Example prices:
SIM-Only 30-Day contract on 3 - 200/mins calls, unlimited text & data - ?15($25) p/m
Lumia 930 24-month contract on O2 - Unlimited calls & texts, 2GB data - ?33($55) p/m + ?9.99($16) upfront cost
Lumia 630 PAYG on Virgin Mobile - ?109($180) includes ?10($16) credit.
HTC One Mini + XBOX One + Kinect, 24-month contract on Orange via Phones4U - Unlimited calls & texts, 1GB data - ?40($67) p/m

Sorry for the epic post! Just got carried away... really interested to understand how things differ on opposite sides of the pond. :amaze:

Cheers all!

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