In 1949, AT&T commercialized Mobile Telephone Service. From its start in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1946, AT&T introduced Mobile Telephone Service to one hundred towns and highway corridors by 1948. Mobile Telephone Service was a rarity with only 5,000 customers placing about 30,000 calls each week. Calls were set up manually by an operator and the user had to depress a button on the handset to talk and release the button to listen. The call subscriber equipment weighed about 80 pounds (36 kg).

West Germany had a network called A-Netz launched in 1952 as the country's first public commercial mobile phone network. In 1972 this was displaced by B-Netz which connected calls automatically.

The first fully automated mobile phone system for vehicles was launched in Sweden in 1956. Named MTA (Mobiltelefonisystem A), it allowed calls to be made and received in the car using a rotary dial. The car phone could also be paged. Calls from the car were direct dial, whereas incoming calls required an operator to locate the nearest base station to the car. It was developed by Sture Laurén and other engineers at Televerket network operator. Ericsson provided the switchboard while Svenska Radioaktiebolaget (SRA) and Marconi provided the telephones and base station equipment. MTA phones consisted of vacuum tubes and relays, and weighed 40 kilograms (88 lb).

AT&T introduced the first major improvement to mobile telephony in 1965, giving the improved service the obvious name of Improved Mobile Telephone Service. IMTS used additional radio channels, allowing more simultaneous calls in a given geographic area, introduced customer dialing, eliminating manual call setup by an operator, and reduced the size and weight of the subscriber equipment. Despite the capacity improvement offered by IMTS, demand outstripped capacity. In agreement with state regulatory agencies, AT&T limited the service to just 40,000 customers system wide. In New York City, for example, 2,000 customers shared just 12 radio channels and typically had to wait 30 minutes to place a call.

In 1966 Norway had a system called OLT which was manually controlled.

First automatic analog cellular systems deployed were NTT's system first used in Tokyo in 1979, later spreading to the whole of Japan, and NMT in the Nordic countries in 1981.

In 1971 Finland had a system called ARP which was also manual as was the Swedish MTD.

In July 1971 Readycall was introduced in London by Burndept after obtaining a special concession to break the Post Office monopoly to allow selective calling to mobiles of calls from the public telephone system. This system was available to the public for a subscription of £16 month. A year later the service was extended to two other UK towns.

On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, made the first mobile telephone call from handheld subscriber equipment, placing a call to Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs, his rival. The prototype handheld phone used by Dr. Cooper weighed 1.1 kilograms (2.4 lb) and measured 23 by 13 by 4.5 centimetres (9.1 by 5.1 by 1.8 in). The prototype offered a talk time of just 30 minutes and took 10 hours to re-charge.

On 6 March 1983, the DynaTAC 8000X mobile phone launched on the first US 1G network by Ameritech. It cost $100M to develop, and took over a decade to reach the market. The phone had a talk time of just thirty-five minutes and took ten hours to charge. Consumer demand was strong despite the battery life, weight, and low talk time, and waiting lists were in the thousands.

The first analog cellular system widely deployed in North America was the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It was commercially introduced in the Americas in 13 October 1983, Israel in 1986, and Australia in 1987. AMPS was a pioneering technology that helped drive mass market usage of cellular technology, but it had several serious issues by modern standards. It was unencrypted and easily vulnerable to eavesdropping via a scanner; it was susceptible to cell phone "cloning" and it used a Frequency-division multiple access (FDMA) scheme and required significant amounts of wireless spectrum to support.

In February 1986 Australia launched its Cellular Telephone System by Telecom Australia. Peter Reedman was the first Telecom Customer to be connected on 6 January 1986 along with five other subscribers as test customers prior to the official launch date of 28 February.

In 1991 the first GSM network (Radiolinja) launched in Finland.

The second generation introduced a new variant of communication called SMS or text messaging. It was initially available only on GSM networks but spread eventually on all digital networks. The first machine-generated SMS message was sent in the UK on 3 December 1992 .

In 1994, IBM Simon was introduced. This was possibly the world's first smartphone. It was a mobile phone, pager, fax machine, and PDA all rolled into one. It included a calendar, address book, clock, calculator, notepad, email, and a touchscreen with a QWERTY keyboard. The IBM Simon had a stylus, used to tap the touch screen. It featured predictive typing that would guess the next characters as you tapped. It had applications, or at least a way to deliver more features by plugging a PCMCIA 1.8 MB memory card into the phone.

Mobile payments were trialed in 1998 in Finland and Sweden where a mobile phone was used to pay for a Coca-Cola vending machine and car parking.Commercial launches followed in 1999 in Norway.

2G also introduced the ability to access media content on mobile phones. In 1998 the first downloadable content sold to mobile phones was the ring tone, launched by Finland's Radiolinja (now Elisa).

The first full internet service on mobile phones was introduced by NTT DoCoMo in Japan in 1999.

The first commercial payment system to mimic banks and credit cards was launched in the Philippines in 1999 simultaneously by mobile operators Globe and Smart.

Advertising on the mobile phone first appeared in Finland when a free daily SMS news headline service was launched in 2000, sponsored by advertising.

The first pre-commercial trial network with 3G was launched by NTT DoCoMo in Japan in the Tokyo region in May 2001.

NTT DoCoMo launched the first commercial 3G network on 1 October 2001, using the WCDMA technology.

As of 14 June 2007, all new mobile phones applying for a license in China are required to use a USB port as a power port for battery charging. This was the first standard to use the convention of shorting D+ and D−.

By 2009, it had become clear that, at some point, 3G networks would be overwhelmed by the growth of bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming media. Consequently, the industry began looking to data-optimized 4th-generation technologies, with the promise of speed improvements up to 10-fold over existing 3G technologies. The first two commercially available technologies billed as 4G were the WiMAX standard (offered in the U.S. by Sprint) and the LTE standard, first offered in Scandinavia by TeliaSonera.