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Pew: U.S. lags in cellphone market penetration


With the seeming ubiquity of mobile phones in the U.S., it’s important to realize that America is below the median percentage of cell phone users in many other countries. That information is quantified in a new report from the Pew Research Center that makes for interesting reading.

The study of 21 countries found that 86 percent of U.S. respondents had a mobile phone, one point lower than the median. That’s a lower market penetration than the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, China, Japan and several other countries. The Czech Republic tops the league with 99 percent of its adults having a mobile phone. (See below for the full chart.)

But the primary finding of the report is that cell phones are now “nearly universal” in much of the world, and they’re often used for texting and other purposes besides talking. In Mexico, for example, more people use their handset to text (93 percent) than to talk (91 percent).

Taking photographs or videos is not as popular as texting, but it’s another common handset use especially in Japan (79 percent), Mexico (70 percent), and the U.S. (67 percent).

Accessing the Internet from a phone still shows a lot of scope for growth. Most likely to engage in this activity are the British (52 percent), Japanese (51 percent) and Americans (51 percent). Age makes a huge difference, however. In all but three of the surveyed countries, 18-29 year olds are at least 10 percentage points more likely to use their phone for Internet access than those the 50 or older group.

Related links:

Pew Research Center – Pew Global Attitudes Project

Download the report here [PDF].

Photo by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity & Live Music Photographer, used under Creative Commons license



  1. Your article is somewhat misleading, in that neither you, nor Pew, provide the backdrop of wireline/copper infrastructure in those countries listed. It makes sense that those countries with inferior wireline infrastructure (greece, egypt, tunisia, pakistan) would adopt wireless at a much faster pace. The cost per home to deliver a dialtone with wireless in the last five years has dropped precipitously. On top, messaging is a simple bonus for those wireless subscribers, as the cost structure in those countries is essentially free.
    So compare to the farmer in Iowa that has copper to the home and a satellite dish for television. Why would he want/or need a wireless handset?

    I think you (and Pew) need to reframe the argument, and describe the percentages of population that want/and can afford a wireless service, but do not have a signal in their village. I suggest the results would be very different.

    • You make some very valid points, Brad. It’s true that countries with historically poor or non-existent wireline phone services have jumped ahead in mobile adoption. It’s just like how mobile payments are becoming commonplace in several third-world territories where no trustworthy banking facilities are available.

      But I think that’s a topic for a different report. This Pew report presented findings about the difference in usage patterns that I believe are useful for those in the industry to consider, such as the percentage who use the camera and the age disparity evident in some behaviors. It didn’t address the reasons people got a phone in the first place, but it wasn’t trying to.

      – Chris