Before You Buy a Cell PhoneToday's wireless phones? Cool. Shopping for them? Complicated. Here's what you need to know about carriers, plans, data networks, contracts, and more.
Grace Aquino writes the Dialed In column on cell phones and services for PCWorld.com.
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal
Photograph by Blake Discher
Lewis ended up buying from a phone sales representative who promised to match the Web site's offer. But when the bill arrived, she saw that the company had not applied the incentives that she had been promised--namely, free activation and overnight shipping, along with instant rebates.
"When I went through telesales, I thought things would go smoothly," Lewis says. "The sales rep sounded very nice and reassuring. But when all was said and done, he caused even more problems. He was negligent either by omission or commission."
After Lewis complained, Verizon reversed the unexpected charges, but she remains disappointed. "I felt like I got a lot of hollow promises," she says.
As Lewis discovered, the deal you get often depends on where you shop--and the wealth of options can be overwhelming. But with research and planning, you should be able to beat the system and find the best deal.
Know the Networks
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal
Even if you can purchase a handset from a third party, your choices will at least be limited to phones compatible with your mobile operator's network.
The United States hosts two main families of cellular network technology. Sprint and Verizon use CDMA and its faster progeny--1xRTT, EvDO, and EvDO Rev A--nationally; meanwhile, AT&T and T-Mobile work with GSM/GPRS and a speedier upgrade, EDGE, nationally. (See "Net Nomenclature" for details on the various technologies' speeds and brand names.)
Of the two, GSM/GPRS is a little more flexible because all service and subscriber information is stored on a small, removable SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. In theory, you can switch carriers simply by replacing one service's SIM card with another's; conversely, you should be able to switch handsets by slipping your current SIM card into a new phone.
In practice, however, a number of GSM carriers--including AT&T and T-Mobile--use software that locks a handset to a specific SIM card. To use a different SIM card, you must unlock your handset--a process that usually involves entering a code that you obtain from your carrier.
In some cases, a GSM carrier will help you unlock your phone if you have been a subscriber for a certain period of time. For instance, T-Mobile users can unlock their phone after 90 days, though the company says that an unlock code isn't available for all cell phones.
Some mom-and-pop cell phone shops and Web services will unlock certain GSM phones for a fee. Another option is to buy an unlock code from sites such as Mobile Unlock, TravelInsider.com, and UnlockToTalk--or if you're lucky, you might find an unlock code on a forum by running a search for your particular model: "Nokia 5300 unlock code," say.
Alternatively, you can seek out a new, unlocked handset from a third-party vendor (more about that later).
CDMA phones don't use SIM cards. Rather, they must be activated by the carrier. These handsets usually have firmware that permits activation only by a specific carrier: There's no easy way to reprogram them to work on a different carrier's network.
Network services vary by location. So if, for example, you care about having high-speed data services, you'll want to check out coverage maps for different carriers.
If possible, you should do some reality checks on those maps, perhaps by borrowing a friend's phone. After all, there's no point in purchasing a high-speed handset if the carrier's network doesn't extend to the places where you intend to use it.
Help With Handsets
Once you have selected a carrier or have decided that your choice of handset will determine your carrier, you are ready to start looking at handsets. To get a sense of what's available, read editorial and user reviews, including our Top 10 Cell Phone-PDAs chart and our Cell Phones & PDAs Info Center. For general guidance on features, consult "How to Buy a Cell Phone". Another great resource is PhoneScoop's Phone Finder, an online tool that generates a list of cell phones that match your stated preferences.
Price Check: BlackBerry Curve 8300
• $45 at Amazon.com with 2-year, $40/month voice and $30/month data plan.• $100 at Newegg.com with 2-year, $60/month voice plan.• $300 at AT&T with 2-year, $50/month data plan ($100 mail-in rebate available).• $350 at eBay, unlocked version. Prices are as of 6/28/07.• Current prices (if available)
Where to Shop
You can buy cell phones just about anywhere these days, from 7-Eleven stores to online shops to vending machines at airports. Where will you get the best deals? (Well, certainly not from an airport vending machine...)
I did some comparison shopping on the Web, at a few local retailers, and over the phone. The best place to start is with an online pricing engine, such as DealTime, Google Product Search, MSN Shopping, Pricegrabber.com (PC World's pricing engine), and Yahoo Shopping; use the engine to check out sellers and estimated prices for the phone models that you're interested in.
For the best deals and the widest selection, online stores generally beat brick-and-mortars and phone-order systems hands down. Sites such as Amazon.com, eBay, and, yes, the carriers' own Web outlets, consistently offered low prices. To get in on the really great bargains, though, you must commit to a service plan (typically for two years), either as a brand-new customer or by renewing an existing contract.
For instance, I found the Samsung BlackJack on Amazon.com for a penny! (At this writing, it costs $175 on AT&T's Web site.) To get Amazon's price, you must sign a two-year AT&T Wireless account with both voice and data plans, at a minimum rate of $80 per month, excluding taxes and other fees. And if you break the contract, Amazon will automatically charge you $250 to cover the cost of the phone.
Also, the carrier must have network coverage in your area: When you place an order, the first thing Amazon (or any other vendor) asks for is your zip code, so you'll know immediately whether you qualify for service.
You can find similar deals on eBay, if you have the time to go through multiple listings. Review a seller's feedback record. If something goes awry, you'll have to convince either your credit card company or the PayPal service to reverse the charge--an inconvenient hassle.
Buying from a carrier provides more peace of mind. You have direct access to customer service and a better guarantee on the equipment if something goes wrong. You can easily walk into A carrier's retail store or call customer service for help from a human being.
Elusive Tech Support
Amazon and other online retailers back their products, too, but sometimes you must jump through hoops to get tech support, and you rarely have access to help from another human being.
Amazon, for example, does not readily provide its customer service phone number. (That number, in case you ever need it, is 800/201-7575.)
Amazon shoppers should also note whether the seller is Amazon itself or a third-party merchant: Policies, support, and contract terms may differ.
If you want to hold an actual phone rather than just view an image, visit a carrier's brick-and-mortar store, a retail chain such as Best Buy or RadioShack, or a mom-and-pop cell phone shop.
"I may buy online, but I go into stores so I can touch and play and ask questions," says Michael B. Barnum, a computer programmer from the Albany, New York, suburb of Niskayuna.
Barnum, 49, says shopping in person minimizes the chance that he'll order A new handset, wait two days, and pay shipping charges for a product that doesn't live up to his expectations.
Going this route (or shopping by phone) means dealing with a human being, a circumstance that you might be able to turn to your advantage. Try asking the sales reps if they can waive the activation fee (usually about $35) or renewal fee (around $20). They might agree to do it--especially if you're activating several phone lines, signing up for many services, or renewing your contract and buying a new phone.
Price Check: Motorola Krzr K1 (GSM)/K1m (CDMA)
• $100 at Verizon with 2-year, $40/month voice plan. • $130 at Sprint with 2-year, $30/month voice plan ($50 rebate available). • $150 at T-Mobile with 2-year, $30/month voice plan ($50 mail-in rebate available). • $250 at AT&T with 2-year, $40/month voice plan ($50 mail-in rebate available).Prices are as of 6/28/07. • Current prices if available
Sweetening the Deal
With Sprint, you don't even have to be at a store or on the phone to request activation credit. Just ask one of the online consultants via live chat. Mention a competing carrier's offer if it's a good one; this might get you out of paying an activation fee, or gain you a freebie phone offer. But you might not get a carrier's stores to match its Web prices.
If you are going shopping in person, check out the series of "Confessions" that purport to be from current and former cell phone sales reps on The Consumerist. For example, "11 Confessions of a T-Mobile Sales Rep" says that stores are more likely to grant concessions at the end of the month in order to meet sales goals. We can't vouch for all of the tips (be sure to read the updates challenging some), but several sounded reasonable.
Do what you can to get your deal in writing. Then, if there's a problem later on, it won't just be your word against the sales rep's (or the standard contract).
If you're unsure about going with a particular phone or service provider, ask about a trial period. Almost all carriers, including the major providers and mobile virtual network operators such as Boost, Helio, and Virgin Mobile (see "Cell Phone Services for the Young, for Parents, and for Frugal Callers") offer a 30-day return policy (the trial period for T-Mobile is only 14 days, except in California, where it's 30 days). You pay for a phone and the activation fee up front, and receive a bill later for any voice and data services that you use. (Verizon's Test Drive program waives voice-call charges, but you still have to pay for data usage.)
A trial period is a great opportunity to test the quality of a carrier's call reception and data connection around your house, at your office, and in other places where you routinely find yourself. You should also check out your handset. Is it easy to use? Is its battery life satisfactory? Is typing comfortable? Are the buttons in the right places? How simple is the photo-sharing process?
If the trial leaves you unhappy for any reason, return the phone, get a refund for the handset and the activation fee, and move on to something else.
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal
With a contract, carriers subsidize the cost of the handset in order to collect two years' worth of service fees--and maybe swell their profits further by selling you extras such as text and picture messaging, or content such as games, ring tones, and music.
But being bound to a single carrier for one or two years may not be suitable if you move around a lot: The carrier you sign up with in one town may not have coverage in your new home.
Also, if you like to get a new phone every six months or so, a contract does not make sense: Canceling early typically incurs a $150 to $250 penalty, depending on the carrier. A compromise might be a one-year contract; it won't save you as much money on the handset, but you'll be able to get a deal on a new one once the year is up.
You might also be able to get out of an early termination fee by finding someone to take over your obligation. You can buy, sell, or trade wireless plans on sites such as Cellswapper.com and Celltradeusa.com. Sellers sometimes throw in a free phone or a cash incentive to sweeten the deal. If there's a match, Celltradeusa charges the seller $20, and Cellswapper charges $15. See "Mystery Cell Phone Charges" for additional information on these services.
Price Check: T-Mobile Wing
• $200 at Amazon.com with 2-year, $40/month voice plan and $30/month Internet plan ($50 rebate available). • $350 at T-Mobile with 2-year, $30/month voice plan and $30/month Internet plan ($50 rebate available). • $630 at J&R.com, unlocked Version. Prices are as of 6/28/07. • Current prices (if available)
If you need only a fairly simple handset, consider prepaid phone service, where you pay up front for services as you need them. This can be ideal if your usage tends to fluctuate from month to month. It also helps limit spending on wireless services, which makes it attractive to parents concerned about unexpected charges on their kids' phones.
You won't find the latest and greatest phones in the prepaid aisle. Services such as AT&T's Go Phone, T-Mobile's To-Go, and Verizon's INpulse and EasyPay provide handsets that usually cost less than $100. T-Mobile, however, does offer the Sidekick 3 as a prepaid option.
Prepaid services cover basic data functions such as text messaging, instant messaging, limited Web browsing, and access to POP3 or Web-based e-mail. You'll find prepaid and pay-as-you-go offerings from national carriers, several smaller carriers, and retail chains such as 7-Eleven, Best Buy, and Target.
Locked vs. Unlocked
As mentioned earlier, carriers normally sell GSM handsets locked to keep you from switching services by swapping out the SIM card. But you can buy an unlocked phone from a third party, typically an online store or an eBay vendor. The benefits: No contract is required, and you're free to use any SIM card at any time, including cards from overseas carriers (for more on this option, see "Roam If You Want To: Tips for Globetrotters").
The downside: Unlocked phones are generally expensive. For example, at this writing, in late June, I noticed that several eBay vendors were selling an unlocked version of the BlackBerry Curve 8300 for $450. At the same time, AT&T was offering a locked Deluxe version for just $300 (after a $100 mail-in rebate).
But be sure to shop around--prices will vary. Pricegrabber.com found an unlocked Curve for $400 at Newegg.
E-mail, messaging, and Web access on a smart phone can be terribly addictive. And unfortunately, like many other addictions, mobile data can get pricey.
Some carriers, most notably AT&T and T-Mobile, charge more for data services that run on PDA phones--Palm Treos, the Samsung Blackjack, the T-Mobile Dash, and the Sidekick--than for those on standard handsets.
Some data plans depend on a particular model. For example, BlackBerrys require a BlackBerry-specific plan to support the push e-mail feature that BlackBerrys are known for. Some carriers also charge for the ability to sync corporate e-mail accounts on clients like Outlook and Lotus Notes.
Text and picture messaging, as well as over-the-air music and TV downloads, incur additional charges; check with your carrier if you or a family member intends to use these services. Ask what options are available for transferring images captured with your cell phone to your desktop PC.
If you do plan on heavy data usage, get an unlimited data plan that covers all of the above. Otherwise, you might be quite content with subscribing to the basic data connection and paying for each text message and a megabyte or two of Web surfing each month. You can change your data services if you find you're not using them or need to expand your plan--but you may have to extended your contract if you change its terms.
Like virtually every other aspect of your contract, this point is well worth asking about before you agree to sign on the dotted line.
Price Check: Samsung Upstage M620
• $130 at Sprint with 2-year, $30/month voice plan ($50 rebate available). • $150 at Amazon with 2-year, $40/month voice plan. • $300 at J&R.com without service plan. Prices are as of 6/28/07. • Current prices (if available)
Cell Phone Services for the Young, for Parents, and for Frugal Callers
Family Friendly: Disney Mobile's phones come with GPS receivers that allow parents and kids to track each other's whereabouts. If you want a cell phone service that lets you track your friends or kids, or that specializes in cool phones for messaging and multimedia, you might consider a specialty carrier. Companies such as Boost, Disney Mobile, Helio, and Virgin Mobile target niche types of customers with services and handsets that set them apart from national operators.
These carriers are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) because they don't own their own network infrastructure; instead, they lease network capacity from the national carriers (Sprint Nextel is the most popular lessor). Many MVNOs provide pay-as-you-go or prepaid services to a mostly youthful clientele.
Boost Mobile, for example, is a pay-as-you-go service. Its most unusual feature is Loopt, a technology that lets you track friends who are Boost customers themselves (if you and those friends own GPS-equipped phones). Boost also supports Nextel's reliable walkie-talkie feature. Other MVNOs deliver similar push-to-talk service, but Nextel's implementation is the most stable.
Like Boost, Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's network and caters to a young crowd: Its Web site is filled with offers and news about ring tones, games, graphics, and the like. Disney Mobile, another service on Sprint's network, provides services and phones that are designed with families in mind. Its handsets include a GPS locator that lets parents and kids track each other's physical location. In addition, robust parental controls enable moms and dads to specify what times their kids can and can't use the phone, and even whom they can call or text-message.
Helio is all about Web services and hip handsets. It's the first service in the United States to offer MySpace support on its phones, and its GPS handsets let users upload photos and videos with GPS tagging. Like some other MVNOs, Helio operates on Sprint's network.
If you do decide to go for one of these specialty cell phone services, however, note that you can't count on enjoying the financial and service stability of the major carriers. Amp'd Mobile, another youth-oriented service--it uses Verizon Wireless's network--filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this June, and while the company says it is committed to maintaining service to some 200,000 customers, a growing number of unhappy subscribers are posting complaints on gripe sites. Last year, an ESPN-branded MVNO went out of business.
Another group of alternatives to the major national carriers is made up of regional service providers such as Alltel, Cricket, Metro PCS, and US Cellular. These regional carriers usually offer relatively inexpensive service for people who don't need a phone with national coverage. But if you do sign up with a regional service and roam on its plan, be prepared for hefty charges.
Net Nomenclature: Carriers, Technologies, and Data Speeds
Here are the major data network technologies in use today, the carriers that use them, and the brand names that they're sold under, where applicable. Carriers often do not brand their older, slower data networks, and you may have to check coverage maps or call the carrier to find out whether upgraded network service (such as the upgrade from EvDO to EvDO Rev A) is available. Click on the icon below to see our chart.
|Network Technology||GSM/GPRS family||CDMA family|
||CDMA 1xRTT||EvDO Rev 0 (1xEvDO)||EvDO Rev A|
|-AT&T Broadband Connect||-Sprint Vision
-Verizon Wireless NationalAccess
|-Sprint Mobile Broadband
-Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess
|-Sprint Mobile Broadband
-Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess
|Average upload speed:||28.8 kbps||40-80 kbps||220 kbps||60 kbps||50-70 kbps||350-500 kbps|
|Average download speed:||40-60 kbps||75-135 kbps||400-700 kbps||50 kbps||400-700 kbps||600-1400 kbps|
Roam If You Want To: Tips for Globetrotters
If you're a frequent overseas traveler, your cell phone needs will differ from those of homebodies. Here are key options, viewed from a globetrotter's perspective.
GSM vs. CDMA: In most cases, a GSM phone is the better choice because GSM networks are widely available throughout Asia, Europe, Oceania, and South America. But you should get a quad-band or so-called world phone--a handset that supports GSM on the 800-, 850-, 1800-, and 1900-MHz bands--because foreign nations don't use the same GSM frequencies as North America does.
CDMA networks, used in the United States by Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless, are less common overseas, although they are widely employed in Japan and Korea. Sprint or Verizon customers who travel a lot should consider a CDMA-GSM hybrid (see "Dual-Mode Cell Phones," below, for more details).
International roaming: If you have a GSM world phone (or are using your CDMA phone in a region that supports it), you should be able to get it set up for international roaming with your carrier, but be prepared for voice and data charges that will be much higher than what you're accustomed to paying back home (check with your carrier about rates). When traveling, turn your phone off when you're not ready to answer it, or you'll pay even more for calls that aren't sent directly to voice mail.
Using an overseas carrier: Instead of roaming on a GSM world phone, consider opening an account with a local carrier at your overseas destination and swapping in that carrier's SIM card for your usual one. (You typically cannot activate a CDMA phone on a different carrier's network.) But you'll need to either buy an unlocked GSM phone or ask your carrier (or someone else) to help you unlock your handset. Our chart lists the pros and cons of this approach versus international roaming.
Renting: If your phone won't work in the country you'll visit, consider renting one that will. The major U.S. operators (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) all rent and sell international phones; a few, including Verizon, even offer satellite phones, which work in remote areas without conventional cell service. You could also rent or buy a prepaid phone from a carrier at your destination.
Wireless PC cards: If you are taking your laptop along, consider buying or renting (if that's an option) a wireless card and subscribing to a global broadband service. Though pricey, this option lets you surf the Web in areas where Wi-Fi is not available.
Roaming vs. Using an Overseas Carrier
Click on the icon below to see our chart comparing these two international calling options.
|International roaming||-You're reachable through your usual phone number.|
-You need to set up international service only the first time you use it.
|-Voice/data services cost a bundle.|
-Roaming privileges may be tied to a long-term contract.
-Service may not be available at all destinations.
|Overseas carrier's SIM card||-Prepaid voice and data services are relatively inexpensive.|
-No Contract or long-tern commitment is required.
|-Setup with a foreign carrier (whose reps may not speak English) can be inconvenient.|
-You'll need an unlocked handset, which may be expensive.
-You won'thave your address book, and you won't be reachable at your usual number.
Dual-Mode Cell Phones: Get Two Networks on One Phone
CDMA at Home, GSM abroad: Samsung's IP-830w. Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless customers once had to rent or buy different handsets when they traveled in Europe, where most cell phone service is based on GSM technology. But in recent years, these national CDMA carriers have begun offering handsets that can operate on both GSM and CDMA networks.
Verizon has four phones with this capability: the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition and Samsung i830, for those seeking PDA features; and the older Motorola a840 and Samsung a795.
Sprint sells the 8830, the Samsung IP-830w, and Motorola's V555 for Nextel users.
Note that you will have to purchase a special plan or pay international roaming charges to use these handsets overseas. The carriers supply the GSM SIM card these phones use, and lock them so that you don't have the option of swapping in an overseas carrier's SIM card to get a cheaper plan. Nevertheless, for frequent business travelers who want to be reachable on the same phone number wherever they happen to be, the premium charges for international roaming may be worthwhile.