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Tech Report – Choosing a Cell Phone Plan

Choosing a cell phone has become more and more complicated as phones have become smarter and customers more demanding. Making the wrong decision on a phone or carrier can lead to untold frustration and cost hundreds of dollars over the life of a typical service plan. Here are some pointers to get you moving in the right direction:   

Choose a service first, then choose a phone. Most phones are designed to only work with a specific carrier’s network, so your choice of phones will be limited greatly by the carrier you choose. In the end, most people say network functionality and customer service are bigger issues than whether or not your phone has 50 fancy ringtones. Pick the carrier first, then the phone.

Check the coverage area. Carriers have coverage maps on their websites. Some carriers are better distributed than others in more rural or remote states such as Wyoming or West Virginia. That may further limit your choice of carrier. CellReception.com is a useful site for finding the carrier with the best coverage for your area. DeadCellZones.com is another independent site that links to many carriers and their coverage maps. The FCC has also published a helpful primer on Understanding Wireless Telephone Coverage Areas.

Ask friends and neighbors. Do your own informal poll of people in your area. Those who live and work in your neighborhood can tell you how frequently they experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls.

Decide whether you want local, regional or national coverage. Although most carriers are now including long distance and roaming charges in their highest-profile plans, you can save some money with a local or regional plan if you will primarily be making and receiving calls within your area. Be sure to confirm whether roaming or long-distance charges apply to your plan.

Estimate the number of minutes you need. It makes sense to start with a cheaper plan, but keep a careful watch on your usage – coverage charges can quickly mount if you go over your allotted minutes. A cell phone service provider will always be happy to let you upgrade to more minutes later. If you already have a phone, you'll have a good idea how many minutes you'll need. Keep in mind that most plans count both outgoing and incoming calls against your allotted minutes.

Weigh non-voice features. Features such as text messaging, picture messaging, Internet connectivity, games, music, etc., are usually charged separately and can quickly add up. If you start with a basic plan, carriers will let you add these services later. Or you can always get a plan that bundles together the features you want.

Consider a prepaid plan. If you will only need a phone for emergencies, or if you want to spend less than the $30 or $40 per month base price for a cell plan, a prepaid cell phone is a good option. Most carriers will allow you to select this option.

Check for promotions and special offers. Once you decide on a particular service, check the carrier’s website and newspapers for promotions, such as 2 for 1 deals or family plans. Shop their retail stores and call them to see where you can get the best deal. Whatever you choose, be sure to take advantage of any trial periods offered to new subscribers. Most carriers provide for a 30-day grace period during which you can return a phone and not be charged an early termination fee.

Compare products and plans at a retail store or website. Some consumer electronics stores offer one-stop shopping. For instance, Best Buy Mobile has phones and plans from different carriers that allow you to compare products side by side. Store staff can help explain phone features and plan options and, because staffs are not commissioned by cellular carriers, they may provide more impartial and candid information.

Increase your choices with an unlocked phone. An “unlocked” phone will allow you to pick a phone that's not tied to a specific carrier. You'll have to pay for your phone up front, and you'll be fully responsible for any service repairs, but some experts say the trade-offs in freedom of choice and international compatibility are worth it.


Comment by Mark Mckinley, posted 7/22/2009, 11:12 PM:

Thanks for the Post! This is a great reiview.It is very important for the companies as well as customer to chose their perspective cell phone.The cell phone plan,personal usage,price and discount should be considered by buying the cell phone.Be aware when you buy the plans like some of them will give you unlimited talk time when some will give unlimited messaging.
Comment by Infanta, posted 7/21/2009, 2:32 PM:

no need to get sucked into a long term contract. prepaid phones like TracFone's Motorola W376 phone has a camera, FM radio, web access, blue tooth, and comes with the "Double Minutes" feature, which gives you one minute free for every minute you buy. The phone costs less than $30 at Walmart, Kmart, Target, or even Dollar General and can cost as little as $7 for monthly service. If looking for a deal, this is your homework assignment. It's working for me
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