Holly does a wonderful job of describing our various adventures, but they all come out sounding like we’re chasing rainbows through fields of daisies every day. Stay tuned for some posts about what life with a pair of travel weary three-year-olds is really like, but in the meantime I’ll share some of the frustrations we encountered in getting set up with mobile phones here in the UK, to keep things grounded.
It didn’t make financial sense for us to keep our US-based phones and use them here, so we decided to buy inexpensive phones and go with a cheap pay-as-you-go plan (“paygo” to the locals) from a UK-based provider. In other circumstances we might have just opted to get new SIM cards for our phones, but we had iPhones in the US, and they were locked to AT&T even though our contract had ended. (Thanks, AT&T!) I did quite a bit of research on phones and plans, and selected what that I thought would suit us best: A pair of cheap phones from the 3 network, and their £10 a month deal on each.
I’ll spare you most of the details, but here are the key points: Their network has good coverage where we need it, and if we “top up” with £10 a month (about $16), we get 100 free minutes of calling time, 3000 text messages, and 500MB of data traffic. They also look favorably on Skype usage — it’s supported on even their low-end phones, and they don’t bill us for the Skype traffic. (This lets us make cheap calls back to the US from these phones as necessary.) Given that we’ll mostly be calling and texting each other, the plan’s limits are more than sufficient.
I’ve neglected to mention that the US and the UK approach billing differently when it comes to phone calls: In the US, you pay a flat fee per minute (or use minutes from your plan) regardless of whether you’re calling a landline or a cell (mobile) phone. In the UK, the per-minute fees are typically higher when calling a mobile than when calling a landline. Somewhat surprisingly, the 100 minutes on our plan can be used to call either mobiles or landlines, and on any network. I patted myself on the back for having done enough research to even ask these sorts of questions, which pretty much guaranteed that something would go wrong, in retrospect.
What I’d neglected to notice is that there are lots of other categories of numbers that are more expensive to call as well, and they’re not covered by our 100-minute allotment. Here’s the start of a long list of phone number prefixes that I eventually discovered on page 27 of the fine print — the fine print that one can only find online after much digging. (Click the image to see all of page 27.)
I’d like to think that even if I had seen page 27 (and 28), I’d have thought that these numbers must be unusual in some regard, and ignored them. (I’m not planning to call the UK equivalent of any 900 numbers.) But it turns out that most businesses have numbers in this range — or at least that’s been my experience so far.
We got our phones just as we were ramping up our house-hunting search, and the first phone call I got was from a property rental agent. I missed the call, which is kind of anti-climactic when one is toting a brand new cell phone, but I eagerly set about trying to return the call — only to discover that my phone didn’t have enough credit to do so. Yikes! Adding more credit was a challenge, since we didn’t yet have credit cards tied to our new bank account or have a 3 store around the corner. The pattern repeated itself at the most inopportune moments. I couldn’t call the car rental agency to change the drop-off location, or get in touch with the bank when they refused to carry out an online transfer I’d requested to cover a few extra days’ worth of rent in our current house. (Turns out the bank was following standard procedure since we hadn’t been at our current address for very long.)
The good news is that these issues have been resolved. We were eventually able to add a bit of extra money to our accounts and can now call anybody we want. So there. But it was one of many temporary stumbling blocks we encountered as we tried to learn the ropes here in Jolly Old(e) England.