Cell or mobile phones are a way of life in the US and you'll almost certainly find that you would like to purchase one as soon as possible to "get connected." Finding the best and most cost-efficient way to do that is complicated, particularly because prices and offers change constantly. You'll need to check various companies and options, but here are some tips to help you.
Several major cell phone companies have kiosks in Sangertown Mall, a nearby shopping mall you'll no doubt visit during either international or regular student orientation. The campus shuttle also runs to Sangertown. You can visit the Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint kiosks to check their offers. Alternatively, if you want an inexpensive cell phone with prepaid cards you can top up, visit the Target store in Sangertown, or even the dollar store in Clinton.
If you use your phone (for calls and text) a lot, you may want to get a full-service contract. Check the terms and see which contract option best suits your needs. However, be aware that because you do not have a credit history in the US, you WILL be charged a deposit before you can start the contract. The deposit is expensive: approximately $400-$500 as of May 2008. New students who wish to purchase a contract-based phone during orientation will need enough cash or travelers' checks to pay the deposit. Sometimes companies run unannounced student specials offering deposit waivers. Ask about this before you pay. You may also be asked for your social security number and two forms of i.d.
Another option is "pay-as-you-go" or prepaid minutes. You can purchase a phone for as little as $20 to $100 and then purchase as little as $15 of prepaid minutes, so you can get started for less than a contract deposit. Prepaid minutes have an expiration date, but if you purchase additional minutes before that date, most companies "roll over" the leftover minutes. You won't be able to call and text as freely if you are paying by the minute, but this is a less expensive way to start and you won't be surprised by big bills. Prepaid plans may also require you to pay an activation fee and then a monthly or quarterly fee, so be sure to ask!
You can purchase "top up" cards to add minutes in many places, including the College Store, Target, the pharmacies and grocery store in Clinton, and more.
If you start with a prepaid phone from a big company like Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile or AT&T, you can change over to contract later on. You will likely still have to make the deposit mentioned above ($400-$500) unless you've developed a credit history, but starting with a prepaid allows you see how much you really need and also to save up for the deposit.
Some students find friends who want to go together in a Family Plan to reduce costs. Under these plans, offered by the major companies, one person has a contract that allows additional phones to be added for reduced costs.
Many students find international calling cards the cheapest way to call home. International cards can be purchased in pharmacies, College Store, dollar store, the mall and other convenient locations. You can use them to call from a landline or your cell phone. Be aware that if you are calling from a prepaid cell phone with an international calling card, you will be paying for the minutes plus the calling card.
There are many international calling cards on the market. How do you know which provides the best rates to the country you want to call? Check on line search engines to compare prices. Also, check to see whether the card you're purchasing expires after a certain date whether you use it or not. Otherwise, you may end up wasting minutes.
You can also check the cost of international calling via various cell phone companies. You'll find that rates differ, and that some companies are cheaper, especially for cell to cell calling, than others for some countries but not for others. For instance, AT&T may be cheaper cell-to-cell to Europe, while Verizon is cheaper cell-to-cell to China. So if you'll be calling your family's cell phone at home, be sure to check the differences.
Finally, at least one prepaid service, Tracfone, offers international calling to some countries at no additional charge. Check to see if your home is on their list, and then consider whether their package is a good option for you all around.
If your family and friends at home have good internet access, you can also consider using a broadband service via the internet, such as Skype.
In the U.S., you'll find that phone service is confusing! Every company's plan is slightly different, and the options change constantly. You may want to start with one plan and then switch to another — just plan to check every six months or so to see if a new plan may have come along that better and more cheaply meets your needs!