How's this for user friendliness - when I went to Virgin Mobile online to activate my phone, this is the final step in the process:
1. Turn on your phone and wait for it to power up.
2. Using the keypad, dial ##virgin (that's #-#-8-4-7-4-4-6) and press the red phone key.
3. You are now on the SPC Code screen. Enter the number "1" six times (that's 1-1-1-1-1-1).
4. Now you're on the Sub-NAM Menu. Select MSID and press the OK key.
5. You are now on the MSID screen. If any numbers appear on this screen, clear them out by pressing the clr key. Enter the new 10-digit Network ID number that we gave you (you can leave off the first two zeros). Then press the OK key.
6. You're now back at the Sub-NAM Menu. Select MDN and press OK.
7. You are now at the MDN screen. If any numbers appear on this screen, clear them out by pressing the clr key. Enter the 10-digit Phone Number that we gave you. Then press OK.
8. Press the red phone key. Your phone will turn off and then spring back to life on its own.
9. That's it - you're done! Nice work. It might take a couple of hours to get you set up on our network, but we'll send a text message to your phone to let you know you can start talking. Also, it may take up to 24 hours for VirginXL, voicemail, and Top-Up features to come online. But we bet you'll find us worth the wait. Enjoy!
The parts about hitting clr to erase the numbers was actually sort of tricky to do... Now, I pick on Virgin only because I was prescient enough to copy this text, but my experience with Boost Mobile's signup was even worse - and they have SIM cards. Part of this has to do with how nutty American wireless is, the other half has to do with carriers and manufacturers structured around a completely different model of doing business.
Here's how you buy a pre-pay phone in Europe. Step 1) Buy phone. Step 2) Insert SIM. Step 3) Make phone calls.