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Travel Guide > North America > USA

USA Good to Know

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By phone

U.S. telephone numbers have a fixed format XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. The first three digits (XXX) are the area code, which is unique to a specific region of a state or sometimes a section of a city. You must sometimes dial "1" before the area code, if the area code differs from your phone's number. All of the digits must usually be dialed, even if "XXX" and "YYY" matches your phone's number. (In the smaller cities, XXX need not be dialed for local calls.) Calls to Canada and certain Caribbean islands can be dialed as if they were in the U.S. (some Caribbean islands are expensive); calls to other locations require an international access code (011). At some locations (businesses and hotels with internal phone systems), you will need to dial an access code (usually "8" or "9") to reach an outside line before dialing the number.

Numbers with the area code 800, 888, 877, or 866 are toll free within the U.S. Outside the country, dial 880, 881, 882, and 883 respectively, but won't be toll free. The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges applied to the call (e.g. "adult entertainment"). This is also true of "local" seven-digit phone numbers starting with 976.

Most visitor areas and some restaurants and bars have books with two listings of telephone numbers (often split into two books): the "white pages", for an alphabetical listing; and the "yellow pages", an advertising-filled listing of business and service establishments by category (e.g. "Taxicabs"). Directory information can also be obtained by dialing 411 (for local numbers) or 1-areacode-555-1212 (for other areas). If 411 doesn't work locally, try 555-1212 or 1-555-1212. Directory information is normally an extra cost call. As an alternative, directory information is available for free via 1-800-Free411, which is ad-supported. Information directories are also available online at each regional telephone company's web site (AT&T, Verizon, Bell South, and Qwest), as well as www.free411.com. Although each claims to have all the local phone numbers of the others, using the site of the region you are searching for yields the best results (i.e. AT&T for most of California, Verizon for the Northeast, etc.) Many residential land-line phones and all cellular (mobile) phones are unlisted.

Pay phones

Prior to the popularity of personal cell phones, pay phones were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States, and commonplace in other places such as gas stations. Today, however, many phone companies have removed them or have increased their charges substantially. You will probably have to enter a store or restaurant to find one, though some are against the outer wall of such businesses, usually in front, or near bus stops.

Calling cards

Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. Most calling cards have specific destinations in mind (domestic calls, calls to particular countries), so make sure you get the right card. Some cards may be refilled by phoning a number and giving your Visa/Mastercard number, but often operators refuse foreign cards for this purpose.

Mobile phone service

American mobile phone service (known as cell phones regardless of the technology used) is not very compatible with that offered elsewhere. While GSM has been gaining popularity, the U.S. uses the unusual 1900 and 850 MHz frequencies; check with your operator or mobile phone dealer to see if your phone is a tri-band or quad-band model that will work here. The two largest GSM network operators are T-Mobile USA and AT&T Roaming fees are high and text messages may not always work due to compatibility issues between networks. Alternatives to using your own phone include renting one (most larger airports have a shop, with rental fees starting at $3/day) or buying a cheap local prepaid phone. If you unlocked your home phone, you can remove your home sim and purchase a prepaid sim . Be aware, however, that prepaid mobiles in the U.S. are not nearly as common as in Europe; per-minute fees for prepaid service are generally high (usually around $0.25/minute). In addition, you will be charged for receiving calls or SMS

By mail

First class airmail postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $0.75 to Canada and Mexico and $0.98 elsewhere. All locations with a USPS zip code are considered domestic, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, U.S. Navy ships at sea, etc. Domestic postcards are $0.28, and small letters up to an ounce are $0.44. If you put a solid object like a coin or keys in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge.

You can receive mail sent both domestically and from abroad by having it addressed to you as "General Delivery." In other countries, this is often called Poste Restante. There is no charge for this service. You just go to the main post office, wait in line, and they will give you your mail after showing ID such as a passport.

John Doe

General Delivery

Seattle, Washington 98101-9999


The last four digits of the ZIP (postal) Code for General Delivery is always '9999'. If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will have the General Delivery service. This means, for example, if you're staying in the Green Lake district of Seattle (a few miles north of downtown), you cannot receive your mail at the Green Lake Post Office, and must travel downtown to get it. On the other hand, if you're completely outside of the city of Seattle, and in a smaller town with only one post office, you can have it sent there. UPS and FedEx also have a "Hold for Pickup" option.

By Internet

Most Americans have Internet access, mostly in their homes and offices. Internet cafes, therefore, are not common outside of major metropolitan, tourist and resort areas. However, you do have some options, except perhaps in the most rural of areas.

If you bring your own computer:

  • Chain hotels usually provide in-room Internet connections, sometimes wireless, either included with the price of the room or at an additional charge. Local establishments like bed-and-breakfasts and roadside motels are less likely to have Internet access.
  • Many coffee shops and bookstores provide free wireless Internet access, though you may need to make a purchase first. Starbucks, the country's largest coffee chain, now offers free public WiFi at all company-owned stores.
  • Public libraries frequently offer free WiFi.
  • Some cities have free WiFi access that spans a central business district (several square miles) or even citywide.
  • Most colleges and universities offer free WiFi in their libraries and student centers (sometimes called "student union"). Public access to these buildings varies from school to school. Some institutions severely restrict library access—for example, very few library buildings at Harvard University are open to the general public. Public (state-supported) schools generally open their library buildings to the general public. If you happen to be near a college or university with more than one library, note that the school's main library is generally open for longer hours than a subject-specific library or the student center. In any case, it doesn't hurt to check with the school's library regarding public access to buildings and WiFi.
  • Airports, even smaller regional ones, usually provide WiFi within passenger terminals, usually for a nominal charge.
  • If driving, in a pinch you can always park in a chain hotel parking lot, on a crowded suburban/urban residential street, or by a commercial strip by coffeeshops or libraries, and grab WiFi access from your car. Unlike Europe, most WiFi signals are not password protected and can be easily accessed. Some local municipalities are outlawing this practice, but enforcement is nearly non-existent.
  • You can also purchase a mobile broadband modem which can be attached to your laptop via a USB drive and subscribe to a prepaid plan. Service providers include Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile (Sprint).

If you don't have your own computer:

  • Internet cafes can still be found in some larger cities (e.g. New York and Los Angeles)
  • Some locations such as airports and shopping malls have pay-per-use internet access terminals, where 3-5 minutes of web time can be purchased for $1, although these are becoming increasingly rare and typically use older, slower dial-up technology rather than offer broadband speeds.
  • Nearly all public libraries have PC terminals with broadband internet access (and usually productivity software such as Microsoft Word) available for free, public use (this is the reason why the U.S. lacks internet cafes!). You may need a library card to access services, although staff will frequently make exceptions for visitors.
  • The best bet for computer rental is a "photocopy shop" such as FedEx Kinko's, now in the process of rebranding as FedEx Office (+1 800 2KINKOS/ 1 800 254 6567), which is a national chain.
  • Some higher-end hotels have "business centers" where you can use a computer connected to the internet, fax a message, use a printer and make copies.
  • Another, albeit less likely, possibility is a university library. Private universities in larger cities tend to restrict entry to the library building itself to enrolled students and faculty. Public university libraries are generally required by law to be open to the public (at least as far as books go), but almost invariably a student login is required to access computer terminals. Public university libraries sometimes have one or two computer terminals set up for visitor use, but its always best to call ahead to be certain first.

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