Cell Phones
If you are an experienced cell phone user and international traveler, you will have alternatives to the advice in this post. I am a first-time cell phone user, so every step of this process was initially confusing. I will explain it all for other first-timers.

There are all types of cell phones, with a seemingly limitless array of features, most of which you'll never use once you get a look at the instruction manual. I'll tell you what I have, which works perfectly for me and can serve as a departure point for you, either upward or downward in features.

The cellular world is not uniform in its technical standards. There are four different frequencies, or "bands", which a cell phone may operate on depending on the network service provider -- five if you include satellite phones. The phone I have is a Motorola V550, which is a "quad band" phone, capable of operating on any of the four bands, but not satellites. This phone will work anywhere in the world which is within reach of a cell tower. You will not have to change phones when you get back to the U.S. or wherever. There is a fancier phone, the Motorola 660, which incorporates "Bluetooth" technology, a luxury I can do without and, given the price, so should you. Satellite phones work everywhere but calls are very expensive.

In order to operate, a cell phone must be on a band supported by the area you're calling from (in Belize, its the 1900MHz band). It must have a SIM chip, which sends a signal to the cell tower announcing your telephone number (i.e., your telephone number is hard-coded into the SIM chip), and some means of paying for your calls. I'll address each of these below.

Make sure the phone you buy supports 1900MHz and is in an "unlocked" state. Locking is a nefarious means by which a service provider sells you a telephone and a calling plan in one package, and imposes a penalty if you switch service providers. My advice is to buy the phone unpackaged, "a la carte", with no service plan attached. You'll receive an "unlocked" phone.

The SIM chip is a little thumnail-sized wafer that fits into your phone. It comes with a phone number, so you won't know your phone number in Belize until you buy the SIM chip. There are places on the Internet offering to sell SIM chips for Belize, and will deliver them to you in the U.S. so that you'll know your number before you get to school. Your phone won't work, of course, until you get here, because cell towers in the U.S. won't understand your Belizean SIM chip signal. However, several students and administration staff have advised me that chips bought this way do not actually work in Belize. I don't know the reason for this. My advice is to be safe and wait until you get to San Pedro before buying your chip.

In San Pedro many stores sell SIM chips, and the price is uniform. I bought mine at Milo's (pronounced MEE'-LOW) Money Exchange. Everyone in town will know where this is. They cost $20BZ. You can install it yourself, or the store clerk will do it for you at no charge. The SIM chip comes with an initlal starter value of $10BZ, i.e., you can make $10BZ worth of phone calls before you run out of money. You can replace the SIM chip, but this is not a good idea because changing the chip will change your phone number. You will have the same phone number as long as you keep the same SIM chip.

There are three main options for paying for phone calls, and you will find minor variations of each depending on the service provider. I'll tell you what I did, which works fine for me.

One option is to buy a card that gives you an initial amount of money for phone calls, and then charges your credit card for anything over that.

A second option is to buy a card which gives you an initial amount of money for phone calls, after which you can get on the Internet and use your credit card to deposit money into a "sinking fund" from which debits are charged as you use your phone. Depending on the provider, you may be able to have your credit card charged a fixed amount each time your account reaches a "low water mark", or you may have a system which is strictly manual.

The third option, which I use, is to buy prepaid cards, which come in various denominations up to $50BZ. The card's face value, i.e., what you paid for it, is added to your sinking fund. When you're almost out of money, you buy another card to add its value to your account. Your phone number never changes.

In the foregoing three options, "card" means a piece of plastic about the size of a credit card. You buy it from stores which seem to be all over the place, much as lottery tickets are sold in the U.S. And, like lottery tickets, you scratch off the coating over a code. Then you dial a number on your cell phone (135) and follow the insructions for entering the code into your phone. The code is transmitted to the cell phone system, which knows how much money is associated with that code, and the money is added to your account.

The prepaid card business is very competitive, and there are several companies in San Pedro that provide them. You can use prepaid cards from different providers on the same cell phone. I use DigiCell, but other folks will recommend other brands. Besides calling time per dollar, different prepaid cards may implement optional services on your cell phone, for which the card company pays a fee to the network provider. The cheaper cards won't have these extras, like fax reception, conference calling, call waiting, caller ID, and the like. Some features are inherent in the SIM chip and do not depend on the prepaid card provider.

This all sounds very complicated, but if you follow what I did -- a V550 phone, and SIM chip and DigiCell prepaid calling cards from Milo's Money Exchange, you can at least be sure that that combination will work.

Both the SIM chip and prepaid calling cards have timeouts. The SIM chip is 180 days, so if you don't use your phone for that period, you lose your phone number. The timeout is reset each time you make a call. Without a timeout the phone company would eventually run out of available phone numbers.

You will lose all the money in your sinking fund if you don't make a phone call for 60 days, but you won't lose your phone number for 180 days, as noted above. The 60-day timeout is reset each time you make a call.

After your SIM chip is installed, dialing 135 will get you into a menu that allows you to either enter the code from a newly purchased card, or to find out how much money you have left and when it expires. DigiCell told me to ignore the expiration part of the message, which is wrong; the balance, however, is correct.

Making and receiving calls around San Pedro is easy. Once you get used to your cell phone, you will never use a landline. Therefore I advise you not to turn on your landline until you've given yourself a chance to acclimate to your cell phone.

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