Foreigners, Beware of Tracfone

by JL Beeken on 4-02-2011

TracfoneForeigners, from the U.S. point of view.

I was so impressed when someone’s U.S. Tracfone saved the day when I had a flat-tire. So I bought one of my own for future travels in the U.S. I thought, gee, how smart and organized of me.

Assuming you already own a Tracfone from a previous trip to the U.S., and you want it to be functional, you’re going to have to buy minutes for it, obviously. That’s how it works; prepaid minutes. If you’re not in the U.S. right now, prepare yourself for a really tough day or two because this ain’t easy.

Re-activating Tracfone, Non-U.S. User

First of all, they have an automated phone system that’s designed to handle everything by clicking numbers. You know the drill. So, if you’re trying to find an actual person, (and you’re going to need one) you’re going to have to travel the maze over and over trying every possible combination before you find the right one. They don’t make it obvious. Consider an afternoon gone, if your patience lasts that long.

Don’t quote me on this but after 3 hours I think I hit the jackpot with 1-1-2-2-4. If you do find it, write it down (which I didn’t) because you don’t want to go through this again, trust me. And then you’re going to be on hold for a long time because they’re really busy over there. On one line they told me to not even bother holding, just call back later. You’d better hope you’re not heading out of town anytime soon.

First off, you should tell them you’re not in the U.S. because that’s a really hard concept for them to grasp. They’re immensely friendly but they can’t handle non-U.S. credit cards without a labyrinth of stress. Their form fields don’t recognize anything except U.S. states and U.S. zip codes.

This also applies to their online service. It’s not possible to set up an account and purchase air-time and minutes online if you live outside the U.S.

Assuming you’re speaking to them on the phone, they’ll have to write a support ticket and pass it to the higher-ups but that’s probably a really exciting moment in their day so let them. This will come after spending an hour giving them serial number, Tracfone number, SIM number, credit card number, security code, address, postal code, (you know that thing that’s not a U.S. zip code) on and on and on.

You may eventually get an approval to allow your purchase to go through. This will not be on the same day. You’ll have to go back through the automated maze and talk to someone else who’s unfamiliar because, if you have my kind of dumb luck, the person who writes the support ticket will be a little short on descriptive words even though they keep you on the phone for over an hour. And you’ll have to answer some of the same questions again.

I think they put my purchase through. I won’t be sure til I see my credit card statement. I couldn’t understand a word she said. It’s worse than talking to DELL support in India.

And then, for some other reason I couldn’t understand, she transferred me over to another department where someone (another incomprehensible accent) started talking to me about my phone being deactivated and needing a new SIM card. According to their computer, mine doesn’t work anymore. More incomprehensible gibberish. Being deactivated is a different issue. That’s because I haven’t used the phone in the U.S. in the past two months. Well, duh, because I live in Canada.

But they can’t activate the card until I get a new SIM. A SIM card is an actual physical thing they have to mail to me. And for some other unknown reason, they can’t mail it to Canada. So, they want to mail it to somewhere in the United States. Could I give them a zip code? Well, sure, just pick one for all the sense this makes. There’s millions.

I bought the phone for traveling through dense forest, not for after I reach my destination where there are thousands of telephones in every square block. I wonder if they could mail it to the border. Do the U.S. border stations have zip codes? Do you think the border guards would mind receiving mail for me?

By the time he was asking me for a U.S. hotel address to send the SIM card to, I was watching my life flash before my eyes. Over the last six decades I have traveled, lived and worked all over the world and I’ve done all of it, except for about 20 minutes, without a cellphone. So, I excused myself and hung up.

I had a very civil conversation with Tracfone a year ago where I suggested they get their act together for non-U.S. travelers. Because there are millions of us and, on occasion, we go to the U.S. And we spend money there. And we’d be happy to spend money on a functional cellphone.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy Lavender 4-02-2011 at 8:20 PM

OUCH. I’d never heard of Tracfone but then I’m in Oz. But when u mentioned Dell and India phone calls, I felt your pain :o)

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JL 4-02-2011 at 8:32 PM

Anyone who’s had a DELL can relate. Unless they’ve paid extra to have tech support from this side of the Atlantic, a more recent offering. Too late. My next computer will not be a DELL.

Ah, Tracfone. If I’d warmed myself up to this a few months ago it might have gone better. I dread calling them about the same way people dread doing their tax returns. I’m cranky now so if I start throwing around words like U.S.-centric it’s going to come out encompassing several centuries worth of grievances in a way I’ll likely regret in a saner moment. So, I’ll take my own advice – Never miss a good chance to shut up – and if Tracfone wants to continue being a brick wall … oh well.

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Geoff Coupe 4-04-2011 at 10:22 AM

You know, you’d think that Tracfone or similar companies would offer pre-paid SIM cards at major US entry points, so that you could just buy one for $20 and pop it into your mobile phone to replace your own SIM card while you’re in the US.

I’m pretty sure that I can do just that in the shopping centres at most European airports…

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JL 4-04-2011 at 11:04 AM

Maybe they do. I don’t travel through major entry points or airports, so maybe that’s the problem. Although I’ve told them point blank several times now, they still don’t care that they’re throwing away millions of dollars in business. If any decent competition finds its way to this market it’s wide open.

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