I have an AT&T 'dumb' phone that is locked. AT&T won't unlock it but for $50 will make it workable in UK. I plan to use the phone to communicate with our accommodations as we travel in England and Scotland (Edinburgh) in July. it looks like I can get a phone card for about $20 with 600 min ( probably more than I need). Is the phone card a no-brainer or am I missing something ?
If you make the smaller investment in the phone card and it somehow gives you trouble, there will be lots of other card and phone options you can buy locally. Does the phone card work with the cell phone you're carrying, or only with land lines? Rick's Britain book (appendix, p. 1003) says that British pay phones add surcharges so that you don't get the rate promised by International calling cards, but pay phones will take coins and credit cards. If you don't have that book, then see general tips at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/phones-tech.
What kind of phone is it. We are with ATT and I have a quad-band Nokia that works fine in the UK with no "permission" from ATT, but it costs $1.50 a minute. Or we could sign up for their European international calling plan for $30 and get 30 minutes prepaid, so it is only $1.00 a minute that way, but no refund for unused minutes. Last trip I just did pay-as-you go since I used it very little, like 10 minutes total.
Phone booths are not all that easy to find any more.
Carphone Warehouse do PAYG mobile phones for £0.99p bought with a £20 airtime top up.
I should add that I could not access my voicemail messages as that requires a password to access from abroad, which I don't have. But I could see who called a left a message! and call them back.
Depending on what type of "dumb phone" you're using, you should be able to get it unlocked at other locations besides AT&T. What brand / model of phone is it? It's likely an older phone, so $50 seems a bit steep. Could you clarify what they're planning to do to make it "workable in the UK"? I believe their international voice roaming packages cost less than that.
I find that a cell phone is much more convenient than phone cards, as a cell can be used even while travelling from one location to another. It seems more difficult to find the iconic red English phone booths these days, although there are still some in use.
The previous suggestion to stop at Carphone Warehouse is certainly something to consider. They represent most (if not all) of the U.K. networks and often have some really good pricing. You could also consider buying a phone from one of the travel phone firms such as Roam Simple, Cellular Abroad, Telestial, Mobal, EuroBuzz or others. Many of these have U.K. numbers and although their pricing is slightly higher than a phone purchased in-country, it's not really that much more. Billing is often post-paid (calls charged to a credit card), so no worries about having to top-up. Typical prices are $29 for a phone and $5 for a SIM card.
Have you asked AT&T for the unlock code, if they won't unlock it themselves? Do they say why they won't unlock it? I had a dumb phone when I went to Europe 2 years ago and I called AT&T to make sure it was unlocked. I never had a problem getting my dumb phones unlocked, maybe because most people had that type of phone until the late 2010s/early 20-teens. Maybe if you call again and try a different representative, they can help you.
...oops...I was under the impression that I could use a phone card with my cell.......
Update- I contacted AT&T today and got a different answer than I got a month ago.......my phone is an LG 8340, quad. They offer an International plan : $ 30 for 30 min, $60 for 80 min, $120 for 200 min. Best news is that they will unlock my phone ! They send me a request link and it's done within 5 days. I'll plan to get a SIM card when we get to the England.
Thanks for all the responses. Great Forum.