Internet access is easy to get and usually free or cheap pretty much throughout California as long as you’re within WiFi or cable distance of a hotel, cafe, etc. That is, you probably won’t get access in the remoter parts of Death Valley or in the middle of nowhere, for example, but the main hotel at Furnace Creek in Death Valley has it, and almost any self-respecting hotel or coffee shop in even the smallest city or town in rural California will have access in one way or another. That old reliable standby, Starbucks, has free WiFi access at its stores, and since Starbucks is everywhere in this state (Resistance Is Futile!!), it’s not a bad way to do this if you’re not staying at a motel (and you’re OK with the security implications).
You may have to pay for access at an internet cafe if you’re not a regular, but if you’re staying at a basic chain motel (like Best Western, Holiday Inn, or Motel 6), it’s almost always a free part of the stay (but check first).
Most foreign or domestic visitors will probably find it convenient to bring a mobile phone with them or rent one when they get here; there’s almost no reason to fall back on land lines (fixed-location phones) here at all except for the sometimes-terrible coverage (see below…). But be aware that if you bring a phone from overseas, your GSM mobile phone from Europe or Australia won’t necessarily work here, as GSM is not the only mobile phone standard in the US (AT&T and T-Mobile do GSM here, but check beforehand with your own carrier, as there are all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle incompatibilities between GSM systems). Also, unlike almost everywhere else in the Western world, mobile phone service here is not usually available pre-paid with a topping-up card, etc. — you usually need to sign a fixed-rate fixed-period contract to access a mobile phone network at all. On the other hand it’s usually quite easy to rent mobile phones here cheaply for short periods like a week or two as part of a travel package or from car rental places (etc.), so you might want to consider that as a good alternative.
A few basic tips on things like numbers, etc., for foreigners:
- The N11 numbers (911, 511, etc.) are special: 911 is for emergencies, 311 for non-emergency access, etc. but see the California N11 Guide for details, as (except for 911 and 411) the details can vary from place to place within the state, and may not even be available in many places.
- Phone numbers in the USA and Canada are usually given in the form “(NNN) NNN-NNNN (e.g. “(510) 555 1212”) or “1-NNN-NNN-NNNN” (e.g. “1-510-555-1212”). The number in the parentheses or after the initial “1” (“510” above) is the area code; the rest of the number is the local prefix (“555”) followed by the rest of the local number. The initial “1” is not always given but (at least in California) is usually required to make long-distance calls from land lines (this confuses the fact that the USA and Canada’s international prefix is also “1”…). The initial “1” is not normally required with mobile phones.
- Long distance calls are usually termed “toll calls“; this differentiates them from local calls which are usually “free”, i.e. unmetered. What other people call “reverse charges” calls are here called “collect” calls.
- “1-800“, “1-888“, “1-877“, and “1-866” numbers (e.g. “1-800-555-1212” or “888 555 1212”) are toll free numbers. You are not charged for calling these numbers (but be aware of 1-800 numbers that try to entice you to call back on a special 1-900 number…). The “800” and “888” (etc.) here are pseudo area codes.
- “1-900” and “976” numbers (e.g. “1-900-555-1212” or (510) 976 1212) are definitely not toll-free numbers: these numbers are used for things like sex-talk lines or (increasingly) legitimate things like software support. You will be charged large amounts of money for calling these numbers, typically several dollars a minute. If you accidentally dial one of these numbers, hang up immediately — the first 15 seconds or so can not now be charged. Note: “976” numbers differ from “1-900” numbers in that the “900” is an area code; the 976 is just a local dialing prefix (i.e. part of the local number).
- The number for local directory enquiries (i.e. within the local area code) is 411; for a number out of the local area code, you dial the area code followed by 555-1212, e.g. “510-555-1212” for the 510 area code. Directory enquiries calls are not usually free, and a mobile phone service provider may also have a special number of its own to call for service as well as 411.
- No one mobile phone company has all of California (let alone the US) well covered for mobile phone service, unfortunately, meaning that if you drive or walk around a lot, you may lose coverage even in large cities, and out in the country or deserts there may be no coverage at all (check with the service provider). Treat the coverage maps provided by the phone carriers with extreme skepticism — California’s geography makes coverage physically difficult even without the poor service setups from the phone companies. In the San Francisco Bay Area, dropouts are particularly bad due to the local geography even in highly populated areas, and, yes, even in Silicon Valley, home of the iPhone.
- It’s illegal in California to drive while talking on a mobile phone without a hands-free setup (bluetooth headset, in-dash controls, etc.). This won’t solve the real problem (i.e. the loss of 50 IQ points the second you start talking on a mobile phone while you’re driving), but it’s a start, so you may need to buy a suitable accessory here or remember to bring one with you.
- In the US, with mobile phones it’s the person called (rather than the caller) who pays for incoming calls.
- US mobile phone numbers are not distinct from land line numbers (and are typically location-based): it’s usually impossible to determine by the phone number or prefix alone whether a phone being called is mobile or on a land line.
- If you rent a mobile phone here and you need to send and receive calls to or from another country, make sure that the rental agreement includes international calls. By default, the vast majority of mobile phone agreements here do not include international calling, and you will need to get an extra international calling package (at added expense…) in these cases (most phones seem to allow incoming international calls by default, but check first). Contract-free pay-as-you-go phones (e.g. MetroPCS in the Bay Area and LA) almost never let you call internationally on their cheapest rates.
- Mobile phones supposedly support the 9-1-1 emergency number, and are often used to report crashes, crimes, etc., on the roads, but the system still isn’t 100% reliable. In the one case where I desperately needed to report a serious crime in progress on a local freeway, the mobile phone company (which I’ll leave nameless, but it starts with “S”…) proved unable to put me through to the 911 dispatch center at all during repeated tries over a 5 minute period… (and they charged me airtime for the attempts). Still, it’s a very good idea to have a mobile phone for emergencies.
- All mobile phone providers are now required to let you call 911 from a mobile phone even if you have no service agreement with them, so even old phones with expired contracts can be useful in an emergency. Similarly, all mobile phones must let you call 911 even if you can’t unlock the main phone because you don’t know the PIN, etc.
- In some parts of the state, you can dial 211 to connect with community services near you – child care, senior services, counseling, food, shelter, job services, and much more (24 hours access). The service is available in most counties as listed here.
- In almost all of the state you can dial 511 for information about all modes of travel: traffic conditions for commuters, bus and light rail information, paratransit services, ridesharing information, and information on commuting by bike.
- If you’re going out into the desert or mountains away from the main roads, you might want to consider renting a satellite phone from a suitable US rental outfit. It’s a relatively cheap (maybe $50 per week) and easy way to ensure that if your car breaks down on that enticing little side track in Death Valley, you can get help without waiting a week for the next vehicle to come by… because there certainly won’t be any mobile coverage out there.
- If you’re using a landline (from a hotel or a payphone), there’s quite a choice of local and long distance telephone companies in this country. I can’t describe them all here or how to select or use them, but most local telephone books will have a section on how to access long-distance and other carriers. In my experience if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re better off sticking with one of the larger, better-known carriers like AT&T or Sprint for toll calls, and the default local carrier for local access.