The near-constant barrage of cell phone companies – each advertising their lowest rates ever, best incentives, zero fees, and no contracts – can all begin to sound a bit like white noise. How do you know you're really getting the best bang for your buck? What even constitutes a good deal?
These are the questions that pingpong through your head. And every month when your cell phone bill arrives, you feel that small twang of hesitancy. Perhaps it really is time to switch.
There are a number of factors to consider when looking into a new cell phone provider. The best place to start, however, is mapping out a few preliminary questions within yourself. What are phone features that are absolute must-haves? When and for what do you use your phone the most? Are you looking for a single line or family plan? Are you a tech-fan who loves touting the latest and greatest, or do you like the reliably familiar?
While almost all plans start out rosy-hued and cost-effective, the truth is they don't stay that way. It pays to do your research. And with the right facts and tips under your tool belt, you can rest assured you're carrying the ideal provider for your wants, needs and lifestyle.
The most obvious thing on your mind is probably a total carrier's price package. This can be broken up into two clean sides: the price of your actual phone and the price of its service.
Phone price tags include but are not limited to:
Early upgrade packages
Some combo between the two
On the other hand, service tags are where you'll find the vast amount of differences and discrepancies between providers. A cell phone deal can include or exclude any of the following major services:
Talk and text amounts
4G technology availability
Fees for additional lines
Rollover fees (if the plan has data rollover at all)
Now if that seems like a lot of service ground to cover, don't worry. There are explanations and suggestions for each below.
Given the advancements of smartphone technology, it's practically unheard of to not have data included across any provider or deal. Standard lines can start as low as 1GB of data per phone (ranging from $45-$50 between the big four's plans) and can go up to 5GB per phone (at a per person rate, prices sit between $65-$95 but is slightly hard to compare, as different providers have different data chunking and therefore can't be perfectly matched). Providers like T-Mobile actually offer unlimited data, whereas the likes of Verizon have more adaptable data packages where you pay in bulk and sprinkle the data load between up to 10 devices.
It's also not uncommon to include unlimited talk and text these days. While some plans may still carry minute caps or overage charges, you'll typically only find these on customized, single-line plans where individuals are tailoring their deals down to the last pixel. If this interests you, talk to a specific provider about what they have to offer. Otherwise, don't sweat about it too much – an unlimited amount of each really is becoming the norm.
Flex perks are another service to keep in mind. This refers to a cell phone provider and their more subtle plan allowances. Features like international texting, GB cloud storage and even rewards programs all fit under this niche and help further distinguish what kind of provider to look for. All are interesting bonuses you may find convenient, crucial or completely unnecessary.
To really gather how the depth and breadth of the services you'll need, think about the activities you do on your phone hour to hour.
1 GB of data is probably okay if you monitor the heavy data-drainers. If you're simply checking email, browsing online news or reading ebooks, minimum data will fly.
2-3 GB is a goldilocks amount, the balance between basic web browsing and streaming services. If you use your phone to listen to music or peruse the occasional video, you'll want to opt for this middle ground.
4+ GB of data is meant for those who use their phone for nearly everything. If you're constantly watching Netflix, Youtube, needing step-by-step GPS directions, downloading files, Skyping or playing lots of games, a high-limit or even unlimited plan is worth the extra penny.
Big Four Overview
The top four cell phone carriers in the world – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless – each mix and match various package deals, incentives and cost reductions to outshine the other. And each holds a relatively distinct title in the mobile market, too:
AT&T is known for its top-notch 4G service and reception reliability, both for voice calling and data.
Sprint has updated its contract regulations and reintroduced better pricing across the board.
T-Mobile comes out on top regularly for customer service and product value.
Verizon has some of the steadiest and well-rounded packages for talk, text and data combos.
Just about every other second it seems a new smartphone hits the market – this one faster, sleeker and with even greater capabilities. It's no wonder plans that include upgrades are particularly appealing nowadays.
Most carriers include upgrade deals within their standard carrier packages, both for individual deals and family plans. But it's the time frame on these upgrades you'll need to keep an eye on. A typical, fee-free phone swap can become available anywhere from 12-24 months.
Early upgrades are a bit of a different ballgame. These include fees and repayments separate from your monthly service plan (a.k.a the amount you expect to pay every month). And while they show up on the same bill, it can often be dicey to pick through the payout pieces. Early upgrades fees are calculated using the percentage of that phone's total retail purchase price. When you place your new phone order, you usually won't be charged any kind of upfront or down payment. Instead, you pay for that order through these subsequent repayment fees after returning your old phone. Sounds pretty nice, right?
For the most part, it is. If you've waited the minimum upgrade timeframe and made all your repayments, your carrier will notify you of the upgrading option. Whether you take it or not is your call – but hey, you're already sort of paying for the selection to begin with.
Subsidized or Upgraded?
The counter option to constant phone upgrades comes in the form of subsidies. Phone subsidies are cheaper-than-retail-price phones you have access to purchasing with most carrier's two-year contracts. Unlike early upgrades, there is a down payment you'll need to make immediately when placing your phone order, which seemingly lets you off the hook from those independent upgrade fees mentioned above. You also get to keep any subsidized phone whereas upgraded ones must always be sent back to the provider.
This is where some carriers can get you. Both subsidized and early upgrades plans often have phone cost factors built in to your monthly bill already. Which means unless you did your work and signed up for a reduced plan with included early upgrade possibilities, you could be paying these extra, independent charges no matter what. And no one should be doing that.
It's clear no two cell phone providers are alike. Yet it's also clear no two people's cell phone needs are identical. That's why the first – and best – step in hunting down the best deals rests is questioning yourself.
Keep on top of your cell phone use. Know what's in your package and why you're paying for it. Ask questions, check online reviews. The more you know, the better off you – and your wallet – will be.
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