Most Americans call mobile phones "cellphones." The major North American service providers all cover Boston; in the suburbs, you'll encounter some dead spots. Don't count on reliable service in rural areas, especially if your phone is on the GSM network, which most of the world uses. Among major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile are compatible with GSM, and Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. To see where GSM phones work in the U.S., check out www.t-mobile.com/coverage.
If you're traveling from overseas and haven't used your phone internationally before, call your provider before you leave home to determine whether your phone will work where you're going, whether you'll be able to send and receive SMS (text messages), and how much everything will cost.
If you plan to call home frequently, the cheapest option in many cases is Skype (www.skype.com). Sign up before you leave home, and you can place calls from a computer or mobile device. Calls to other Skype users are free; add credit to your account to call non-members.
If you want a phone just for emergencies and don't have to know your number ahead of time, I suggest heading straight to one of the Boston area's numerous freestanding cellphone stores or to Radio Shack (tel. 800/843-7422; www.radioshack.com) and buying a prepaid phone to use during your visit. Phones sell for as little as $15, but calling time can cost as much as 35¢/minute. Make sure you're choosing a provider that allows you to activate international calling immediately (try making an international call while you're still in the store). Most important, be sure you understand all fees and per-minute charges and have enough money loaded onto the phone to cover the calls you're likely to make and receive.
A reliable outlet for "unlocked" cellphones -- which recognize any carrier's SIM card -- is Mega Mobile, 278 Washington St., Downtown Crossing (tel. 617/573-0073; www.megamobileboston.com). It also sells international SIM cards and does repairs. If you prefer to rent a phone, you can have it shipped to you before you leave from InTouch Global (tel. 800/872-7626 or 703/222-7161; www.intouchglobal.com). Rates start at $29 a week, plus a shipping charge.
If you can't use your mobile phone, you may be able to find a public pay phone. Pay phones are increasingly scarce on the street, but they remain available in most hotel lobbies and all airport terminals. Some hotels include local calls in the room rate, but most impose astronomical surcharges on both local and long-distance calls; a quick trip to the lobby can spare you an unpleasant surprise at checkout.
Many convenience stores, drugstores, and packaging services sell prepaid calling cards in denominations up to $50. Many public pay phones at airports accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. Local calls made from pay phones in most locales cost 25¢ or 35¢ (no pennies, please). Most long-distance and international calls can be dialed directly from any phone.
To make calls within the United States and to Canada, dial 1 followed by the area code and the seven-digit number. For other international calls, dial 011 followed by the country code, city code, and the number you are calling. The country code for Australia is 61; for Ireland, 353; for New Zealand, 64; and for the U.K., 44. To place international calls to the United States, dial your country's international code plus the country code (1), the area code, and the local number.
Calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, and 866 are toll-free. However, calls to area codes 700 and 900 (chat lines, bulletin boards, "dating" services, and so on) can cost $3 or more per minute. Some numbers have minimum charges that can run $15 or more.
For reversed-charge or collect calls, and for person-to-person calls, dial the number 0, then the area code and number; an operator will come on the line, and you should specify whether you are calling collect, person-to-person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator.
For directory assistance ("information"), dial 411 for local and national numbers in the U.S. and Canada. For dedicated long-distance information, dial 1, the appropriate area code, and 555-1212.
Internet & Wi-Fi
Internet access is widely available in the Boston area, where a wireless connection can be easier to come by than a wired one, and Wi-Fi is often (but not always) free. Most hotels and many businesses offer Wi-Fi access. (Paradoxically, high-end hotels tend to charge guests a daily fee for access, while many cheaper lodgings include Wi-Fi in their room rates.) Many coffee shops and fast-food restaurants, some lines of the commuter rail, and numerous other businesses have free wireless access. Wi-Fi is free at Logan Airport, in and around the Quincy Market rotunda at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park and Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square. Most businesses on the upper end of Newbury Street provide free wireless thanks to Tech Superpowers, 252 Newbury St., 3rd floor (tel. 617/267-9716; www.newburyopen.net), which also offers access by the hour with ($5/day) or without ($5/hr.; $3/15 min. minimum) your own computer or hand-held device. A good way to find public Wi-Fi hotspots is by searching www.wififreespot.com.
If you're traveling without a computer or hand-held device, Boston's Logan and most other major airports have Internet kiosks that provide basic Web access; the per-minute fee can be steep. FedEx Office (www.fedexoffice.com) offers free access at some locations if you have a hand-held device and charges about 25¢ a minute to use a computer. Locations include 2 Center Plaza, Government Center (tel. 617/973-9000); 10 Post Office Sq., Financial District (tel. 617/482-4400); 575 Boylston St. (tel. 617/536-2536) and 187 Dartmouth St. (tel. 617/262-6188), Back Bay; and in Cambridge at 1 Mifflin Place (Mount Auburn St. and University Rd.), Harvard Square (tel. 617/497-0125).