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To use a GSM phone in the USA you need to ensure it supports the 1900MHz band.
Originally GSM phones in Australia were single band using 900MHz. Then they started the dual-band service, including 1800MHz as well. Many phones are now tri-band, being 900/1800/1900MHz and can be used in the USA.
My old Nokia 8890 was dual band at 900/1900MHz and could be used in the USA (it was purchased there), but I don't know of any other dual band with 1900MHz support.
Some early tri-band phones had to be manually switched between the 900/1800 and 1900MHz bands, such as the Motorola L Series+ phone. Most newer tri-band phones automatically detect the available services without manual switching.
Depending how long and what you want to use your phone for (incoming or outgoing calls) in the US, and want to save some money, do this.
1) Obviously make sure your phone is 1900Ghz compat.
2) Walk into a T-Mobile phone shop when you get there and buy a prepaid sim.(Usually about $65.00 with $50 of free calls)(2 refill you must buy refill cards, as T-Mobile wont allow Intl CC to refill via their automated service)
3) For incoming calls, (If your phone company will allow 2 diverts, Divert your Mob to home phone, then to US mobile number. If not, then put a divert on the home phone and tell people to ring that) You end up paying normal Mobile + home Intl rates, which some are as low as 3-5c per min)
4) For outgoing calls, just use the credit.
If money is no object, please disregard the previous statements.
PS. If you go to Mexico dont use the AUS mobile their. I found out the hard way Optus charge about $7 / M. A 5 minute call back to aus ended up being $35.00 !! Also, local calls in the US are not charged at a normal rate. Another pitfall....
It may also depend heavily on who you use in Australia as your provider, and what networks they work with in the US.
As an example, on the Vodafone website in NZ it lists down all the providers in the US that it uses, see if your provider does the same.
Why is this important? Simply because if your phone is set to automatically detect a network you could end up paying a fortune, calls to NZ on Cingular and AT&T are around USD$5.50-5.85 per minute, but on Tmobile and Nextel they are between USD$2.45-3.15.:!: :shock:
Setting your phone to manual should be easy enough.
As has been said you need a tri-band phone. But beware of the costs. As Wantok pointed out, it can be VERY expensive to call O/S from the USA using a US SIM card (been there done that). But a US prepaid SIM card like T-Mobile is excellent for calls within the USA; gives you a local number which is really helpful when eg organising travel and dealing with companies / friend while you are there.
Also expensive (very) is international roaming using your existing Oz based SIM card. You could consider using VOIP or Walmart type pre-paid phone cards.