Cell Phone & Service Buying Guide

cell phone service buying guide

Choosing a cell phone and service provider is a tough decision simply because there are so many choices available. The following tips can help you to pick the cell phone and service that’s right for you, based on your needs and usage patterns.

Is it Best to Go Through a Carrier, or Buy an Unlocked Phone?

When buying a cell phone, one of the first decisions that you will need to make is whether to go through a carrier, or if buying an unlocked phone is a better choice for you.

Benefits of Buying a Locked Phone

While some cell phone users dislike the idea of being tied to a contract, there are some advantages to buying a phone that’s locked to a specific carrier. Many of the major carriers offer special prices on the cost of a cellphone and the service as part of a bundled deal.

The four major carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, typically allow buyers to pay for their phone and service in monthly installments. Some carriers even offer subscribers the option to lease a cell phone, instead of buying it, as part of the contract.

This is a good deal if you want the latest, most expensive smartphone, but don’t have the money to pay for it upfront. If you can’t afford to pay the full cost upfront, and the cellphone’s maker doesn’t offer a pay- as-you-go option, then buying on installment through a nationwide carrier is probably the best choice for you.

Buying a locked phone through a carrier is also a good choice if the service provider that you want to use restricts certain features or services to cellphones locked to their network. For example, some carriers only offer Wi-Fi service to subscribers that use a locked phone.

Compatibility can become an issue as well as there are a several types of networks that carriers use to provide service, and not all phones are universally compatible with all of them. Using a locked phone provided by the carrier eliminates this concern.

Most carriers will also unlock the phone for you once you’ve paid for it. Many also allow you to upgrade directly with them at the end of your contract, or offer trade-in allowances for your existing cell phone.

Why You Might Want an Unlocked Phone

Buying an unlocked phone is a good choice if you can afford to pay for the phone upfront, but have credit issues that would prevent you from buying the phone on an installment plan. Unlocked phones are also a good choice if you are extremely budget conscious, and prefer to use a discounted, prepaid service for your cell phone.

If you make a lot of trips out of the country, an unlocked phone makes it easy to swap out your SIM card to one that is compatible with the networks available from the carriers in other countries. If you are moving to a new region of the country with a different carrier than your current provider, buying an unlocked phone can make it easier to switch from one carrier to the next.

Unlocked phones are also easier to customize, as they typically aren’t preloaded with a lot of carrier specific apps. You might have more choices in the type of cell phone that you can buy as many mid-priced cell phone makers offer more features on their unlocked phones.

One of the best reasons to buy an unlocked cell phone is that you can sell it to anyone at any time since you own it outright. This creates the possibility that you could make more money on it by reselling it yourself rather than trading it in with a carrier.

If you like to change phones a lot, buying an unlocked cell phone is also your best choice since you aren’t locked into a plan or other contract. This eliminates penalties and early termination fees that you might face if you have a contract with a carrier and frequently upgrade.

Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Service Provider and Plan

As mentioned before, prepaying for service can save you money if you don’t want or need a lot of features and like knowing upfront how much you will spend on your cell phone service.

If you will need several lines for multiple users, or, have a high demand for data usage, you may save more if you go with a bundled deal or other plan with a major carrier.

Check Your Coverage

Coverage area is typically a major concern when choosing a carrier. Search each provider’s coverage map by your zip code to confirm that your location is in their coverage area before you commit to a plan.

Dead spots can exist anywhere, however, so follow up with your local friends and neighbors and ask them about their network coverage before you sign a service contract.

Be Realistic About Your Data Needs

While some carriers offer unlimited data plans, others limit data usage. While you might be tempted to try to save a few bucks by going with a smaller data plan, be aware that most offer a hefty charge for exceeding your plan limit.

If one or more users on your plan downloads a lot of videos, or is a frequent online gamer, then you need to be honest with yourself about your true data needs. Pick either an unlimited data plan, or choose a plan with one of the higher data limits.

Tips to Choose the Best Cell Phone

When it comes down to choosing the best cell phone for you, should take into consideration how you will use your phone, and what features and apps you truly need, and enjoy using.

Does Your Phone’s Operating System Matter?

Most cell phones provide certain basic functions, such as the ability to make phone calls, take pictures, use apps and so forth. Some popular features and apps, however, are tied to specific operating systems.

If you want to be able to use specific programs and apps, make certain that they are supported by your cell phone’s OS. The four major operating systems are iOS, which is compatible with Apple iPhones and their apps, Android which is compatible with Google apps, Blackberry which is also compatible with Android’s OS, and Windows which is compatible with Microsoft apps.

For example, if you use a lot of Google apps, it makes sense to choose a phone with a compatible operating system. If you prefer apps you can get from the Apple store, or enjoy using Siri, then you will want to choose a compatible iOS.

Choose a Phone with Features that Match Your Lifestyle

Another important factor to consider when choosing your phone, is how you will primarily use it. For example, if you use your phone to watch a lot of videos, you should pick a cell phone that offers a display with good resolution and color saturation.

If you take a lot of pictures, then you should look for a cell phone that has a camera with features that help you to take better pictures, such as a high megapixel rating and image stabilization.

If you take your cell phone with you wherever you go, then you may want to choose a phone that is small enough to allow you to operate it with one hand, and that can remain charged for a longer period of time when it is used.

Don’t Forget to Protect Your Phone

Once you’ve decided on a cell phone and service, don’t forget to protect your investment. Most cell phones come with only a very limited warranty, if they come with one at all.

If you have a very expensive phone, an extended service plan can protect you should there be a defect that you do not notice right away, or, if you have an accident that damages it.


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