Using Telephones in the USA

Using Telephones in the USA

Excellent telephone services are available in the United States. Many families have a landline as well as multiple cellular (or mobile) phones. Some families no longer use a landline and rely only on cell phones.

The phone system in the U.S. is handled by private companies. Phones are not allocated by the government or government-owned companies. Verizon, Bell South, and SBC are a few of local phone companies. AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Sprint, and Frontier are long distance companies. If you have not signed up for a long distance plan with any of these companies, default long distance rates using other services may be very high.

Phone instruments are available in various sizes, shapes, and colors. Almost all phones are currently touchscreen or used with buttons. It is very rare to find a rotary dial telephone still in use.

Obtaining a phone connection is fast and easy. Simply call the phone company and request that they activate a connection. You will usually be charged a one-time connection fee for about $38 per phone line.

Prepaid calling cards

Telephone dialing system

Each telephone number has an assigned area code. If you are calling a number within the same area code you are generally making a local call. If you are calling outside of your area code but within the United States, you are generally making a long distance call, but there are of course exceptions.

All area codes are three digits long and phone numbers are seven digits. Landlines and cell phones are assigned phone numbers the same way. You cannot tell by looking at a phone number whether it is a landline or a cell phone. A map of U.S. area codes is printed in the front cover of most telephone directories.

Many large metro areas overlap area codes when they run out of numbers in a given area code. For example, the area codes 214, 972 and 469 are overlapped in the Dallas, TX area. The area codes 703 and 571 overlap in Northern Virginia, as do the 650 and 408 area codes in the San Francisco Bay area. Therefore, it is possible that your area code is 703 while your neighbor’s is 571. In such areas, even when you are making local calls, you have to dial 1 and then the area code in addition to the phone number. This is generally only the case for long distance calls. If you are dialing within the same area code in an area without overlapped area codes, you can simply dial the seven-digit phone number.

Some calls may be considered regional toll calls (somewhere between local and long distance calls) even when you are dialing in the same area code. You may be charged by the minute for such calls. You may have to dial 1 and the phone number or 1 and the area code then the phone number, depending on whether you have overlapped area codes or not. 

The general rules for area codes are described here, although there are always exceptions. For example, the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Metroplex area uses three area codes for Dallas (214, 972 and 469) and one for Fort Worth (817). Sometimes when trying to place a call within a certain area code, you will receive a message from the operator such as “I am sorry. It is not necessary to first dial 1 while dialing this number.” There is no way to know in advance whether dialing 1 is necessary within these area codes, even if the phone number is your next door neighbor’s. 

Calling plans

Many telephone companies now provide unlimited local, regional, and long distance services for a flat fee of about $25 a month. Some companies provide unlimited local calls, but charge on a per minute basis for regional toll and long distance calls. It is possible to let different telephone companies handle your local, regional toll, and long distance calls. If you choose, you can let one phone company handle all your calls.

Hotel phones

Most phones that you find in hotel rooms are essentially extensions. Many hotels even have such an extension in the bathroom. The hotel charges a fee, which can range from small or large, to make every phone call, even if it is toll-free. You can find a public telephone, usually located in the hotel lobby, if you do not want to pay fees.

Pay phones

Pay phones are for public use. You will need to insert 50 cents (or 2 quarters) to make a local phone call of up to 3 minutes. Instructions for making calls of all types (local, long distance, calling card, or collect) are usually posted on the phone itself. To make any phone call, follow these steps: pick up the receiver, drop your coins into the coin slot (unless paying with another method such as a credit card or making a toll-free call), and dial the number after you hear a dial tone. When you dial the number, don’t confuse the letter ‘I’ with the number ‘1’ or the letter ‘o’ with the number ‘0’. You may have to insert extra coins if the phone number you are calling is not local. If you are not able to make a phone call or the number you are dialing does not register, your money should be returned in the coin return slot located towards the bottom of the phone.

If no one answers the phone or you get a busy signal after you place your call, place the receiver back in the cradle, and your money will be returned in the coin slot at the bottom of the phone. If this doesn’t work, you can usually rotate a knob to get your coins back.

Collect calls

During a collect call, the answering party pays for the call. To make a collect call, dial ‘0’ to reach the operator and inform them that you would like to make a collect call. Before connecting you to the other party, the operator will confirm with that party whether he or she is willing to collect (or pay for) the call. Provided the receiving party agrees to the charge, you will then be able to talk with them. This method of paying for calls is useful in case of an emergency.

Another method of making a collect call is to dial a toll-free number such as 1-800-COLLECT or 1-800-CALL-ATT from any phone (private or public) and follow the recorded instructions.

International calls

In order to make an international phone call, you generally have to dial a series of numbers, including 011, the country code, the area code, and the phone number. One example is the number 011-91-22-12345678 to reach Mumbai, India. In this number, 011 indicates an international call, 91 indicates the country code for India, 22 indicates the area code (or STD code) for Mumbai and 12345678 is the phone number itself.

International telephone dialing tips

While making international phone calls, it is wise to keep the time difference in mind so that you are able to reach the person you are calling. 

Many phone companies charge a flat monthly fee of $5 or $6 on per minute charges to other countries. In the absence of such a plan, you may be charged excessive rates of $2 or $3 per minute. To avoid these rates, many people use prepaid calling cards at low rates when making international calls.

Important numbers

Emergency (Police/Fire/Ambulance) – 911 in most areas – no charge
Local phone directory assistance – 411 – charges may apply 
Long distance phone directory assistance – 1-areacode-555-1212 – charges may apply 
Toll free number inquiry – 1-800-555-1212 

When you dial directory assistance, you will need to provide the city and state of the person or business you are calling, as well as the type of listing (“people” for a person and “restaurant” or “florist” for a specific business). You must also provide a name. Most of the time an automated system will find the phone number and give you an option to automatically connect with that number at an extra charge. If an automated system can’t complete your request, a live operator will come on the line to assist you.

Toll-free calls

Some phone numbers have prefixes such as 800, 888, 877, 866, 855 or 844 that look like area codes but in fact, they are toll-free numbers. When dialing such a number, the answering party pays for the phone call and you will not be charged any fees. This is true even if you call from a pay phone. Many companies use such numbers to make it convenient for consumers to call them regarding products and services.

Vanity numbers

Many companies publish their phone numbers using a word or alpha-numeric combinations. For example, (866) INSUBUY is the number for a company that sells international travel insurance and (800) GO-FEDEX provides courier service. The telephone dial has numbers as well as letters on its face, so you press 2 to dial A, B or C and 3 to dial D, E or F and so on. A number such as (866) INSUBUY is just an easy way to remember the format for (866) 467-8289.

900 calls

The “900” numbers charge very high rates of $1 to $3 per minute and offer entertainment services such as sexually suggestive conversations, sports scores, or horoscope readings. Before dialing a “900” number be sure that you know what service you are trying to reach.

Cell phones

Cell phones (or mobile phones) are widely used in the United States. Many people no longer keep home phones (or landlines). There is a wide range of cell phone companies in the U.S., including Sprint, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Metro PCS. Each company offers a variety of plans, although most people choose to use a post-paid billing plan. These plans require the customer to sign a contract to remain with that company for one or more years and usually provide a free basic cell phone instrument to the customer. A more expensive model of the phone can be obtained by paying the difference. Most people use smartphones that have many capabilities in addition to just using it for communication.

Answering machines and voicemail

Many people use a phone with a built-in answering machine or connect a separate answering machine to their phone line. An answering machine is a voicemail system. If you call a phone number and if no one is available to answer the call, generally a prerecorded message plays. After the message finishes playing, you will hear a beep and be able to leave a brief voicemail with your name, phone number, the date and time you called and the reason for your call. The person receiving the call will call you back at their convenience.

Phone directories

A local phone directory is very useful for searching up the phone number of a specific person. Almost everyone has a phone number of some kind, so you can use a directory to find those numbers and addresses. However, many persons keep their phone numbers unlisted due to privacy concerns.

The white pages lists the names of the people, while the yellow pages alphabetically lists all businesses in a given category, such as ‘Insurance’, ‘Restaurants’, and ‘Grocery stores.’

Most people use the internet instead of paper phone directories.

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