Mobile phones and the network they operate under vary significantly from provider to provider, and nation to nation. However, all of them communicate through electromagnetic microwaves with a cell site base station, the antennas of which are usually mounted on a tower, pole, or building.
The phones have a low-power transceiver that transmits voice and data to the nearest cell sites, usually 5 to 8 miles away. When the cellular phone or data device is turned on, it registers with the mobile telephone exchange, or switch, with its unique identifiers, and will then be alerted by the mobile switch when there is an incoming telephone call. The handset constantly listens for the strongest signal being received from the surrounding base stations. As the user moves around the network, the mobile device will "handoff" to various cell sites during calls, or while waiting between calls it will reselect cell sites.
Cell sites have relatively low-power radio transmitters which broadcast their presence and relay communications between the mobile handsets and the switch. The switch in turn connects the call to another subscriber of the same wireless service provider or to the public telephone network, which includes the networks of other wireless carriers.