This chapter covers the most important aspects of starting cellular service: choosing your phone, carrier, and rate plan. Each person needs to base their decision on several factors including budget, calling habits, and the type of phone you need or want. Start by determining your priorities for what you'll use your phone for and how often you expect to use it, then work from those priorities to find the best combination of phone and service for you.
Saving money on your monthly bill
Every carrier offers a wide selection of phones, so if cost per minute of service is your top priority you should begin by finding the best rate plan to fit your needs. Every carrier offers at least one no- or low-cost (with yearly commitment) phone that will suffice for basic talking and voicemail needs. Finding the best plan is easy by staring at our ?Rate Plan Finder Tool? and continuing to choose your phone.
Understanding your first monthly bill
No matter what carrier you choose, expect your first monthly bill to be substantially more expensive than the monthly rate plan fee you signed up for. This is because all major carriers charge an activation fee for new service that's tacked on to the first billing cycle of each new line. Activation fees average $30-35 per number activated; so a new two line family plan could see an additional startup charge of up to $70 on that first bill.
Additionally, some carriers prorate the first month of service based on their standard monthly billing cycle dates. For example, if your new carrier starts billing cycles on the 1st and 15th of each month and you activate your new service on the 7th, your first bill might include eight days' worth of service charges (from the 7th through the 15th) plus your first full month of service, making for a larger than expected bill.
Also, don't forget about taxes. Many new cellular customers are shocked to learn that taxes can add up to 25% of their monthly service charge; that's an extra $8-10 on a $39.99 monthly plan. There's no way around this, as federal and other taxes can't be avoided.
And finally there's text and multimedia messaging, data plans, and other additional services to consider. Extra monthly charges of $2.99 and $4.99 might not seem like much when you're signing up for new service, but add those on to your monthly base rate and then figure in taxes on the whole package, and that $39 plan can very easily wind up costing you $60 or more each month.
Getting the newest ?it? phone
Phones have gone well beyond basic calling functionality to become an extension of the individual and their unique needs. You can break today's phones down into three basic types: Standard, Advanced, and Smart Phones. It is not uncommon for a users to switch carriers solely because he or she wants a particular model of phone only available through a different carrier.
The large nationwide carriers typically work with the phone manufactures to offer phones exclusive only to a particular carrier or technology; similarly, carriers will work with manufacturers retrofit phones with their own software and branding before offering them to customers. For instance, the same phone may be offered in slightly different versions with different model numbers through different carriers. If you?re set on a particular phone, then your rate plan and carrier options will be more limited. Use our ?Phone Finder Tool? to find a phone that fits your needs.
This is becoming less of a priority for most people, as most areas offer several carriers who offer more than adequate signal quality. You?ll hear users claim their service is "the best" for certain areas, and while this may be true, they are also likely to encounter other areas where another carrier provides better coverage. A generalization such as, ?AT&T offers better service than Verizon?, or vice-versa really can't be made beyond referring to a specific geographic locale.
We recommend asking family and friends in your area to help you determine which service works best in the area(s) you?ll being using your phone. You also might want to try different carriers in phones in places you know you'll be using your phone frequently; factors such as the physical construction of your home or place of work (coupled with proximity to the nearest cell tower) can make a difference when it comes to cellular signal quality.
Choosing a Plan
The rate plan chosen is the most important decision for most people signing a service contract. Your rate plan will dictate how many minutes you?ll receive for your basic monthly charge, as well additional charges for extra minutes ("overage" charges) and messaging/data usage, service features, and more. Each carrier offers several rate plan packages to attract customers and while the terminology may seem confusing at first, after a little research you?ll be able to compare rate plans between each carrier fairly easily.
National Calling Plans
These plans generally allow you to travel anywhere in the United States while utilizing your Peak minutes without having to worry about Roaming Charges as long as you stay on the carrier's network or partner networks. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Nextel, and Sprint are the dominant providers offering National Calling Plans. If you travel often outside of your local or regional area, we highly recommend choosing a National-type calling plan to lessen the possibility of incurring roaming or other additional charges. See each carrier's specific plan details for more information on each plan. Compare all national calling plans
Regional Calling Plans
Consumers who travel infrequently and usually remain in their local or regional areas may find better deals by looking at Regional plans. The monthly fees for these plans are generally less expensive and offer more minutes so long as you stay within your Regional calling area. Most areas offer one or two Regional-type carriers who may also offer National plans. A consumer choosing a Regional plan can still use his phone elsewhere in the country; he just needs to be more careful to avoid excessive roaming fees while traveling. Compare all regional calling plans
Geared to the individual who won't need to add additional phones to his/her account. Compare all individual plans
Family or Shared plans allow families to add multiple lines to one account and share the plan minutes between all phones. Often, users are not charged for minutes when calls are made between users on the same family. Most carriers offer significant discounts on the purchase of two or more phones on the same account, and this type of plan provides the consumer with an effective way to manage multiple phone s across the entire family. AT&T, Verizon, SunCom and others allow additional phones to be added to a shared plan for as little as $10/month. Compare all family/shared plans
Changing Plans during the agreement
Most carriers allow you to change rate plans during your agreement. For instance, you may sign up for an individual plan and later decide you'd rather have a Family or Shared plan. Major carriers will let you make the change, though often you can only do so after a certain portion of your initial agreement as been completed (three or four months, on average). Additionally, most carriers will require you to renew the length of your agreement when you change plans. So a two-year individual plan changed to a Family Plan after six months will likely lock you into a new two-year plan starting on the first day of the "new" Family Plan
Basic minutes included in a plan during peak-usage hours (usually weekdays). May be referred to as Anytime, Whenever, or National minutes. If the plan also includes other types of minutes, your Peak minutes will not be used during certain times or when placing certain types of calls. For instance, many plans offer Nighttime, Weekend, and In-Network calling as "Non-Peak" minutes.
Night and Weekend Minutes
Many carriers offer extra "Nights and Weekends" minutes as part of their plans. Nights and weekends calls are usually defined as those placed/received starting sometime between 7-9pm Monday ? Friday, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Your peak minutes are not used if your call is placed during these times. See each rate plan for specific details; many now offer unlimited nights and weekends, where others offer a certain number of nights and weekends minutes in addition to your allotment of peak minutes.
AT&T is the only carrier offering rollover minutes, allowing the consumer rollover any unused from month to month, up to one-year. If your cell phone usage tends to vary dramatically from month to month, "banking" minutes during low-usage months can save you money later during high-usage months.
Many carriers offer free mobile-to-mobile or "In Network" calling, meaning that you are not charged for minutes when calling another mobile user and/or another subscriber on your carrier's network. Be sure to check the specifics of your plan if this feature is important to you.
Free Incoming Calls (US only)
A few providers offers plans where incoming minutes are free and therefore not deducted from your allotted plan minutes. Under normal circumstances, the cellular user is always charged for any minutes used, whether he placed or received the call.
Long Distance Calls
Most carriers now include free long distance with the majority of their monthly calling plans. This means that long distance calls are treated the same as local calls: you are charged only for the minutes of cellular service used, and not any additional fees for making/receiving a long distance call.
Currently certain carriers, Nextel being the biggest, offer push-to-talk or "Walkie-Talkie" services. This means that in addition to regular cellular service, you may connect directly to a limited number of other subscribers in a manner similar to using a walkie-talkie. Push-to-talk minutes are tracked separately from regular cellular calls; check your carrier's various rate plans for specific information.
Cellular networks have become widespread enough in the United States that huge roaming charges are much less of a problem than they were even a few years ago. Still, you should be aware of your carrier's policies on roaming from their network to a partner's network. Particularly if you have a Local or Regional (as opposed to National) Plan, you may encounter hefty fees for using your cellular phone outside of "non-roaming" areas as defined by your carrier.
Best for people who generally only use their phone for voice calling and basic text messaging. These phones are often free or very inexpensive when purchased with a new service plan. Don't be fooled by the "standard" label, as many of these phones are very well built and more than adequate for most people. We recommend reading the User Reviews before choosing any phone.
Best for people who want the latest and greatest features such as Bluetooth (for wireless connections to headsets, PCs, etc), custom ringtone/mp3 capabilities, megapixel and video cameras, and small and unique designs.
Best for people who want a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and an advanced phone built into one. These devices are basically miniature computers built around advanced scheduling functionality combined with a built-in phone.
Must Have Phone Features
The list of "must have" features for a new cellular phone has changed radically over the past five or ten years. Once thought of as advanced, call-related features such as voicemail, call waiting, caller ID, and speaker phone are now part of every carrier's service package (see below). Must haves now include speakerphone and Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling, and features unrelated to calling such as built-in cameras for picture messaging and picture Caller ID, digital music players with stereo headphones, and Web/Email/Instant Messaging capabilities using high-speed data networks. Many phones now also feature removable memory cards to facilitate easier transfer of music, photos, and video clips between your phone and personal computer.
Features such as Caller ID, call waiting, voicemail, three-way calling, and text messaging are considered service features which are provided by the carrier. All phones are able to utilize these features, though certain service features require advanced or smartphones capable of taking advantage of them.