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Walking into an electronics retailer and throwing down some cash on the latest toy is always fun.  When it comes to choosing a wireless carrier however, that experience can be quite the opposite.  In fact, it can be downright exhausting.  Reading a carrier's brochure or browsing online can feel like a dead end, or even worse, a road to more questions without answers.  Do you get the 700 minute plan?  Do you get unlimited talk and text?  What is this data stuff?  How do these "share everything" plans work?

Often the process of picking a new carrier to work with breaks down the best of consumers and takes the fun out of buying a new device.  So let's take a look at how to simplify a complicated process in this PhoneDog 101: Choosing a wireless carrier.

What's available in your area?

It seems silly, but knowing what networks provide coverage in the area that you'll be using a mobile device in, is an important first step.  In most metropolitan areas AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile - known as the big four - are usually present with medium to strong signal strength.  Along with those traditional nationwide carriers, you might find regional companies like U.S. Cellular, MetroPCS, and other no contract carriers to be viable options as well.  Local and statewide carriers may not offer all of the newest phones, but the service may be better suited for your needs.  Remember to check your local carrier's coverage maps found on their website or in their stores to get an idea of what's available.

For those looking to purchase smartphones or mobile broadband internet solutions, checking what kind of data coverage the carriers in your area offer is another non-negotiable.  Internet speed is an important factor, so choosing a carrier with a more advanced data network can improve your experience.  Asking a friend or checking coverage maps are good places to start, but take the information gained with a grain of salt.  The networks are not perfect, and it is likely that you will find locations where signal strength may be lacking.  Just know that experiences with any carrier may be different user to user.

Plan features: The obvious and the hidden

We all want the best that our money can buy, so take your time and choose a carrier that will meet your needs better than any of the others.  Asking yourself what you want to do with your phone, or what kind of features you would like your plan to have is the first step.  After that, it's time to seek out the best match. 

With all of the different kinds of networks and carriers available to the public, I could probably write a book (and maybe someone should) about all the intricate details and features that each plan on each carrier offers.  But for this PhoneDog 101, let's just nail down some basics.  The obvious first questions are usually pretty simple to answer.  Questions like: How many lines will we need, and is anyone on the plan looking to use a smartphone? 

Once these questions are confirmed, you need to dig a bit deeper into your needs as an individual or a family.  Are you going to need a mobile Internet solution beyond what the smartphone can give you?  Is tethering an important feature, and of course what kind of minute and texting plan will be sufficient?  Features like mobile hotspot capabilities and unlimited mobile to mobile minutes are often bundled within certain packages by carriers, so inquiring about them is a must if you're looking to get the most out of your plan.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, you need to really understand what you are getting out of this deal, especially when a two year contract is involved.  Make sure you stop into a local retailer or check plan information from the carriers' websites.  The carrier's are not trying to hide information from you, but there is a lot of information that needs to be translated for you to make the best decision.

You don't have to sign up for a contract

Many people are still under the impression that you have to sign up for a two year contract to get the very best service.  Over the past several years, prepaid or no contract carriers like Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, Net 10, MetroPCS, Cricket, and many others have seen more innovation in terms of plan pricing and better selections of phones than ever before.  An average individual smartphone plan with a two year contract usually runs $80 to $110, whereas non-commitment plans usually gravitate around the $50 to $60 range.  With more 4G options becoming available with prepaid carriers, these plans are becoming more and more competitive.

Even the phone selection with no contract carriers has improved immensely.  Virgin Mobile currently sells iPhone 4 and 4S models along with the Samsung Victory; and Boost Mobile offers some higher end HTC Android models and Samsung devices like the Galaxy S II.  You end up paying more for the devices up front in comparison to getting the device with a two year obligation, but then again you end up saving more in the long run with a cheaper plan.

There are, however, other advantages in choosing a no contract carrier besides price.  For someone who doesn’t stay in one location for a long period of time, choosing an obligation free plan allows that user to pick up and leave to another local carrier when they need to.  Or maybe you only need a device for a short period of time. Prepaid services allow you to use the device when you want to use it.  Because its prepaid, you only pay for the times that you need to.

Checking out no contract carriers could be the wisest thing you have ever done.  They can save you a ton of money and grant you more freedom with your own personal plan.  Be sure to check these out at a local retailer as well.

Make sure you are happy

With the experience I have had both buying and selling mobile products, I always try to leave the situation on a satisfied note.  As daunting of a process as it may be, choosing your wireless carrier and device should be a fun one.  In order to do this though, you need to be honest with yourself and ask the right questions, make sure you understand what you are signing up for, and leave with a device and plan that will best suit your needs.  Whether it’s a no contract option or a two year obligation that offers the best solution, following these thought processes will surely start you off on the right foot.

What tips do YOU have when it comes to choosing a wireless carrier?  Let us know in the comments below!


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