I'm not a big phone person. Perhaps I'm just not that social. However, the little hand held computers that are now marketed as "phones" have enough functionality that I find myself using them all the time. A major consideration for our UK trip was how we'd keep the phones doing their job.
I alternate between iPhone and Android (G1). I want to love the Android more, but the iPhone is just a very well designed little device. It must have something to do with the infamous Job's reality distortion field... I'd vowed when I first got the iPhone that I wouldn't got nuts and hack it. In spite of iTunes lock in and frustrating piecemeal access to the storage on the device, I restrained myself. Then I found out what it would take to use it anywhere else on the planet.
AT&T will work overseas, either by charging your first born per minute or taking that pound of flesh out for twice the domestic fee if you pre arrange it. AT&T will unlock a phone moving out of area unless, wait for it, it's an iPhone. At the first AT&T store we went to the employee actually recommended jailbreaking it for travel! After exploring all available options I ultimately had to agree. AT&T forced me to unlock the phone.
And off to the UK...
Queensway in London has transformed into a strange, ethnically diverse, tourist trap. Just the kind of place to get your traveling phone working. A multitude of places sold scarves, hookahs, the usual of crap emblazoned with London landmarks, phone sim cards and phone unlocking services. Our first sim card was geared toward international calling. It was £7 for £5 worth of time and the card. At something like 5p a minute for US calls, that's 100 minutes for about $8. We didn't have a data plan, though.
Phone unlocking? It's a gray area in the US. In the UK, it's offered boldly. Residents believe it to be completely legal. I took this picture close to Derby:
While pay as you go programs technically exist in the US; they suck. They artificially age out the minutes you've paid for, making the option far less economical that it first appeared. In the UK, it's all pay as you go. You actually pay in cash and the cost of services are taken out of the balance. Topping up the amount on the plan is common enough to be available in drug stores as well as the ubiquitous phone stores.
Incentives are offered to make you buy larger blocks at a time. One of those incentives is a free data plan. If I had it to do again, I'd probably do O2, but we found Virgin first. For £20 we could get not just £20 on the sim card and a free card, but also 30 days of "unlimited" data plan. This is a more traditional style of service for international calls, charging obscene amounts for that service. We swapped sim cards for US calls.
In contrast, the US system relies on shamefully totalitarian contracts. I have an iPhone because I found Verizon's practice of extending that contract for simply talking to them offensive if not quasi legal. AT&T is more expensive up front, but is more palatable on the hidden stuff. Note, the whole coverage map thing is crap. AT&T is more honest about their coverage area, tending toward actual rather than theoretical. Verizon's map show what you'd have if the towers always achieved max broadcast range. The term 3G is also a place to fake it. 3G is a specification that encompasses a number of technologies, including Edge. Max speed is implied, but doesn't need to be delivered to be called 3G.
I'm sure there must be some hidden gotcha in the UK system. I keep telling myself that. From what I've seen, it still feels like the US phone system is screwing it's customer base more effectively than any other.