Cell Phone frustration in the US

My wife’s parents are visiting the US, and once more it hits me just how bad the US mobile phone system is compared to India. It’s so bizarre that it’s tough to even¬†explain to one not used to it. So instead of trying, I’m reproducing (with permission!) a rant mail written by my wife when we first came to the US two years back.

Dear All, 

After a great deal of fuss and a great deal of proclaiming that I dont have a “credit history” (dont ask! I’m tired of cribbing!), the American government finally decided to let me have a post paid mobile connection to suit my requirements!!

So now, even though my incoming calls are still charged on weekdays, I have managed to work a deal where I dont have to buy a new phone! It was of primary importance to me that I retain my current phone coz nothing else comes close! Apart from the Apple iPhone of course, which I was DENIED. Why? Because I dont have a “credit history” of course!!

Ok ok I’ll explain.

(Warning – venting session begining!)

Everyone who comes to this land (%$%@$#!!) is supposed to get an SSN number which enables anyone (and I mean ANYONE) to track, monitor and god knows what else, the person in question. So when you apply for a job, your employer checks your history via your SSN. The same holds good for opening a bank account, applying for a loan, paying your utility bills… everything!! Without an SSN, you just dont exist!

Anyways, so when I asked around regarding cell phone connections, I was told that unlike in India, you cannot just buy a SIM card here to insert into your phone here. You have to buy the whole package! The instrument included! This was disheartening since I really love my HTC touch. But I thought, oh well.. cant be helped. And decided to go for the best I could find – The iPhone. So I marched into the AT&T Store (the mobile connection provider for the iPhone) and asked for the deals for the iPhone. The lady promptly asked me for my SSN (as I had expected) and ran a check on me on her computer (So infuriating! To be nothing more than a number!). And then she looks at me straight in the face and tells me that since I am new to the country and have no credit history, the computer has declared that I will have to pay a deposit of $500 for a mobile connection!!! Can you believe it!! AND I would have to sign a 2 year contract (which of course, I would have to break, since I am going to be out of here in a year – thus resulting in my LOSING the entire $500!!)

Whats frustrating is the fact that this is not a universal law! It was specific to ME! She even asked Bhagwad to try and check what the deposit would be against his SSN (Implying that maybe he’s more credit worthy than I am!).. So its like a personal attack on me! A very focussed and personal insult!


(Venting session ends!)

So now I have had to settle for a lesser service provider. The drawbacks being, the service is bad and there arent really enough towers all over the country. But then I get to keep my own instrument. So thats as close to a good deal as I am entitled to! (Because I dont have any credit history!!!! – I just cant get over that!)

My boss tells me that Bhagwad and I have been very lucky in this country because usually people are not even given a place on rent if they dont have this credit history. And so, when you first arrive, you have no choice but to share accomodation with someone else and in the meantime, build up your credit worthiness! Thankfully we didnt face that problem. Lucky.

Oh well, I am happy that I get to continue to use my HTC touch. But its just the frustration of being told that you’re not good enough to get whatever you please that is a constant reminder that this is not MY country. I do not belong here. And I will never be accepted as a human being with the same rights as everyone around.

I so miss India!

If anyone’s interested, I can write a whole essay on why India totally rocks! :D

To summarize why she’s frustrated, here are the main points:

  1. You’re charged for incoming calls and outgoing calls
  2. You’re charged for incoming SMSs
  3. You can’t just buy a SIM card. You have to buy a phone with service from a provider
  4. You can’t change the provider for two years
  5. You can’t cancel service. You have to pay the service fee for two years even if you lose your phone in the first week

According to the carriers, the reason for the lock in is that consumers buy the phone very cheap – which is true – and the contract is to offset the subsidy. This logic fails because if you get your own unlocked phone from somewhere, the service plans are just as expensive! The entire system is designed to make sure you get locked in with them.

Awful. Not exactly what you expect from a free market eh? The Indian system is so much better.

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21 thoughts on “Cell Phone frustration in the US”

  1. Brings back memories of the days when I was young and green :D
    Now that I am two years into the system and in a better position to view things dispassionately, I still dont get how people here accept the standards of the industry so completely.
    Whats that they say about not missing the light if you’ve always been in darkness?

    We often joke about how, if you have a grudge against someone and want to get back at them, just keep spamming them with sms from a free sms site or something and deplete their cell phone balance! :D Nothing they can do about it!

    Also, Bhagwad – A correction to your summarising point 3: You CAN buy just a SIM card. (Go Phone cards) Its just that the calls made on that are obsecenely expensive. Regular incoming/outgoing/SMS at 25cents a minute.


  2. Thanks for adding yet more ammunition to my contention that the US is NOT the greatest country on the face of the Earth. So much American bluster and hubris with nothing of substance to back it up. I better be careful lest I be asked to “love it or leave it” myself. There are a few of us here who welcome all and see this place for the farce it really is, but we usually get drowned out by the Tea Party types.

    With any luck, someday I’ll get to do a bit of travelling and find out first-hand just how much more enlightened much of the world is compared to my homeland.

    And I’d love to read an essay on how much India rocks! So bring it on!


    • In reply to Thurman

      While the cell phone scene (and others) could certainly improve, I’ve come to see lots of nice things in the US – though these are not usually the things that one associates with it.

      The food is awesome, and there’s a bit more to do, though in Chicago there was even less to do – but that was because of the awful weather. Also, since most of the US has a low population density, people are polite to random strangers and make small talk. You can’t do that in India cause there are people everywhere (I like that though – I sometimes feel very lonely on US roads walking alone.)

      So the people are nicer, there’s more to do, and the food is just out of this world! When my wife and I travel to Europe, we’ll get an even better basis for comparison :)


  3. Wow, India would probably really freak me out. I have an intense dislike fo crowds – no – make that an intense irrational fear of crowds. Even the relatively small cities in my region intimidate me, and we have a reputation for excessive hospitality down here in the southeast. Looking forward to your Euro adventures and perspectives.


  4. Are we ranting about US? Can I rip off cable companies, telephone services, internet providers, medical insurance and others? US is the land of hidden fees. And since automated billings are so convenient, these companies simply add some xyz fees in your bill and deduct it from your account EVERY MONTH! And you won’t notice it unless you check your bills every month. And if you call them about it, they will make some lame excuse and stop charging you from next month. I mean its burglary, if you ask me.

    But then there are certain advantages of living in US. Not getting molested on daily basis in broad daylight is one of the biggest. At least for me. I simply can’t live in India any more, at least now when I have discovered this other way of living where I am not blamed for being a victim on a daily basis. I can live with the other faults: I will crib, I will complain but I am way better off living here than India.


    • In reply to Richa

      I’ve heard this often Richa – about women being able to live a more free life in the US. My brother’s wife says the same thing. I really had no idea it was such a huge problem for women in India cause my wife doesn’t feel this way at all. I wonder what makes some women feel its unbearable and others to feel it’s not an issue. We might get some interesting insights…


      • In reply to bhagwad

        Bhagwad, no woman in India feels “its not an issue”. The difference in the reactions to eve teasing and molesting in India arises merely from whether or not there has been a personal experience.
        We all know its out there. We all know its extremely prevalent. And every single woman who comes to the US from India, breathes a sigh of relief at being able to walk out wearing whatever she pleases.. at being able to take a bus without having to carry a safety pin! Its just the intensity of the sigh of relief that varies.
        In my case, I have been lucky in India. I got away with almost no bad experiences of this sort. But that doesnt mean I dont feel more comfortable in a safer country as well. Just because something hasnt happened till now doesnt mean it never will. And this is one experience I’d rather not add to my kitty :)
        I grew up in Air Force Stations in India. Probably the most secure place in the country for women and children! Which is probably why, when I think of India, I dont really think of it as a place where women are unsafe. Of course, it just takes one little experience to change everything. And I think thats the crux of it – your proximity to the problem.

        To give you another example that may help you understand better – Everyone in the US “knows” that distances are large and places are spread out. But it is only those who do not drive (you, for example), who feel the distances most keenly. So distances in the US are a deal breaker for you because of your personal experiences. It may not be for another who has a car and drives around.


      • In reply to Anupa

        Fair enough. What I’m now interested in knowing is whether or not women who prefer to settle in the US have had a worse experience with regard to this than most other women in the country. Not making judgments here – just trying to dig deeper.


      • In reply to bhagwad

        I don’t think women who prefer to settle in the US have had a worse experience than others…I think people usually move to another country for career and economic reasons…Being/feeling safe is just a good by-product…


      • In reply to bhagwad

        Digging deeper: I think it depends on the sensitivity of woman in question, I guess. I am not saying that some women are insensitive, simply they can take in their stride and accept it as part of daily life. Rest of us can’t. I have cried on the road (with real tears) more than one time. To be touched by a stranger on the road in broad daylight without your permission, just because you are a woman. And if you object: you are blamed for being a victim. It’s your fault that some pervert on the road touches you because you are wearing whatever you are. And you know what? I believed them. I always thought its my fault. Result? I used to dress my worst when I was in India. Trying to avoid any attention what-so-ever. In US, I dress my best. For once in my life, I actually like to dress up and look my best.

        I am not sure if you understand the difference dressing up can make. I don’t know if it works for man, but as a woman dressing up and looking my best boosts my self-esteem. Not being constantly molested helps as well. I know my self confidence, self-esteem has touched the sky ever since I landed in US. I actually discovered all the things I want to do and simply went for it. For example, I can’t imagine going around taking pictures in India without being hyper conscious but in US, I can and I do. I don’t even think about it twice. I love martial arts and have done it for 2 years without anyone in class trying to molest me even though i have been in close physical contacts with a lot of guys while practicing. Can’t imagine that in India.

        I think its more to do with having a control of your body and I feel violated if someone touches it intentionally without my permission. And yes I am sensitive that way. My body is not public property that any stranger can come and grab it whenever they feel like it. I HATE IT. At times I don’t even want to visit India just for these reasons. I simply can’t take it any more especially when I have learned a way of life where no one blames me for being sensitive about my personal space and my body. They respect my right to both. As a woman I love that.


      • In reply to Richa

        You’re right Richa. It depends on the level of sensitivity, though no one likes to have their privacy violated and I’m sure everyone feels as offended as you do.

        It also seems that friends and family play a big role in making you feel bad about yourself – no stranger can do that. If they are such that they don’t provide the support you need in times of crisis, then I can see why you want to move away…


  5. Brings back memories of when I first landed in the US…Thankfully, my parents were there so I didn’t have to rent but I couldn’t get a credit card…I finally got a pre-paid card to build my credit history…

    Despite it’s faults, I like the US especially for the food and people…Also, I think their laws are great…


  6. This is the first time I heard anyone compliment the food in the US. :)

    But I agree with you about cell phone companies here, I have done the Go Phone option, which is good for awhile but you have to keep re-filling and the minutes can run out fast. I hear some phone companies don’t like giving Go Phones as an option because they don’t make much profit from them.

    I had friends from India who have told me about the phone service there, and judging from what I was told it seems much better there. :)


    • In reply to RenKiss

      Hi RenKiss, welcome to my blog :)

      There are two great things about the food. The size of the servings and the variety of non veg stuff. In the US, if we order a cheesecake for example, the icing and strawberry toppings are liberal. In India, it’s scrawny. And people in the states serve meats in a dizzying variety of forms – yum!

      I was hoping that Google’s Nexus one would introduce the concept of buying “just the handset” without a service, but it seems it just didn’t take off. Not enough marketing, and people balked at the idea of spending $550 instead of “just” $199 – though the contract fees over two years makes one pay through the nose for it.

      But here’s hoping things will change slowly – VoIP etc should slowly make inroads, though that seems to be taking its time…


  7. I think the cable companies are the worst. I live in Philadelphia and have Direct TV. But Direct TV is not allowed to show Phillies and Sixers games. I have to get Comcast cable.


    • In reply to Hari

      I think part of the problem is the lack of competition. It’s not a free market or perfect competition here – it’s an oligopoly and that causes the extreme distortions that we see…


  8. Thanks for the welcome. I’ve been mostly lurking here. So I decided to finally comment.

    Yeah, I worked at an international student office when I was attending university and worked with many students from all over. They would make comments about the food portions, but mostly it was out of shock.

    But overall, the US does certainly have it’s faults.


  9. I have been reading a whole lot on the comments and it makes me nod on most of them In India ,it’s very crowded. I don’t say I hate crowded places but sometimes it’s really a necessary to be more lenient in what you call following orders on almost everything. The next thing I worry about living in India is sanitation,not in every part of India because there are some places that are clean. Then ,the last thing that worries me are the roaming animals. In the US you can never find those. Yes,there are some places where mobsters lived and some squatter areas too,but you can never see the animals roaming around. I don’t really imagine living in India at all.


  10. I’m replying to this in 2013, and the cell phone situation in the US has improved somewhat. Not because the contract terms have gotten better – they have not – but because the options for prepaid phone service have gotten a lot better. MetroPCS is a relatively new prepaid-only company, and prepaid companies that use one of the big four major carriers have proliferated – Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, Straight Talk, and many more.

    One major carrier, T-Mobile, will sell you a SIM for prepaid service ($0.99 online but you’ll need a credit card for that deal, slightly more in T-Mobile stores) which you can then refill with a variety of plans including unlimited monthly plans. You can buy the refills with cash in just about any chain drugstore (and other places as well) and buy the phones with cash at Best Buy or a T-Mobile store, and get everything you need without any credit checks or need for a credit card.

    Prepaid service also tends to be a better deal. So much so that people who are credit-worthy are choosing to give up their contracts and take the prepaid path instead.


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