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How to Buy a Cell Phone

According to a recent survey, 85 percent of American adults now own a cell phone. For many of us, the cell phone has become an essential tool of everyday life. We use it to text our kids, check our schedules, take impromptu pictures, surf the web and even make the occasional phone call! Often, our cell phone is the first thing we look for in the morning and the last thing we put down at night.

But eventually, every cell phone needs to be replaced. Maybe the current plan has expired; or we need to add more features; or maybe the phone just gave up and died. Whatever the reason, it’s time look for something new. And if it’s going to be our constant companion for at least the next two years, then we better make the right choice. Here are some tips on how to go about it.

Choose a carrier first

The first step to being happy with a cell phone is being happy with your carrier. It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles your new phone has if you have lousy service. You may love the idea of an iPhone but if your home is in the wrong place on those AT&T and Verizon maps, then your love will quickly turn into frustration as calls are dropped and transmission speeds slow to a crawl.

Ask friends and family in your area about their experiences with the four major carriers. If you can, check what kind of reception their phones get in various areas of your home. Think about how much you travel and where. If you travel abroad, not all carriers have the same access to international networks.

Finally, make a note of the quality of customer service you receive as you check out phones and visit the stores. Having a store nearby with a friendly representative behind the counter can be a huge help as you try to get used to all the unfamiliar features on a new phone.

Do you need a smartphone?

There is a world of difference between a smartphone, with e-mail, web surfing, and access to thousands of apps, and an ordinary cell phone which handles calls and texts but not much else. Decide at an early stage which one you want.

Although sales of smartphones are set to overtake ordinary cell phones by the end of this year, recent studies have found that a quarter of existing smartphone owners aren’t using their devices for data services of any kind. That can be a terrible waste of money as well as computing power. Make sure you get the right type of phone for your needs.

Choose a model

Now you get to the fun part. For some people, it’s all about style; for others, it’s the features. Whatever you are looking for, make sure the phone satisfies your needs. If you want blue, get blue; if you want a phone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, an 8-megapixel camera, e-mail syncing, and video conferencing capability, keep looking until you find what you want. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a phone that doesn’t do what you want it to do.

As well as getting recommendations from friends, do a little research. The carriers’ web sites will list all available phones, including their various features and any special deals. Don’t be afraid to visit Consumer Reports or some of the consumer tech sites like CNET. They review phones in terms that non-techies can understand and will often include straight-up comparisons between similar phones from different manufacturers or service providers.

Select a plan

Once you have identified your preferred carrier and the phone you like, it’s time to select a plan. Unfortunately, there are almost as many cell phone plans as there are cell phones.

Here, you should use the store representatives to help guide you through the maze. But first, you need to give them some parameters. How many minutes do you use a month? Do you text a lot? (If yes, an unlimited texting plan is the way to go.) Do you need a data plan? Does it make sense to be part of a family plan? If so, is a second phone available for free?

If you are buying a smartphone for the first time, then it may be difficult to estimate your data needs. Again, use the expertise of the people in the store. They can explain what you will get in terms of e-mail, web surfing, music or movie downloads, or whatever else you will use the phone for.

For both call minutes and data, err on the side of caution. Make sure your monthly allowances are sufficient, so you don’t incur costly overage charges. While it’s usually possible to upgrade later, a contract extension may be required.

Check for extras

Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you understand the total commitment and what extra fees could be incurred. If you want to get out of the contract, is there an early termination fee? What if you wanted to upgrade to a different phone or add a line? What are the roaming charges and what happens if you go overseas?

Finally, all providers are required to give you a grace period usually 14 days during which you can return the phone for a full refund. Don’t be afraid to do just that, if the phone or the service doesn’t meet your expectations.

Depending on your comfort with electronics, finding the right cell phone can be fun or it can be a chore. But if you do it the right way, it’s something you will only have to think about once every couple of years.

Monica Vila is TheOnlineMom -a community devoted to promoting a healthy understanding and appreciation for the positive role technology can play in a child’s life. She’s constantly chatting on Facebook here or on Twitter @TheOnlineMom where you are more than welcome to join the conversation.
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