Choosing the Right Cell Phone Plan
Choosing a cell phone plan should not be an impulse purchase no matter what the salesperson says. There are a number of features to consider before signing on the dotted line. Coverage, plans, provider technology and how you’ll use it are just the tip of the iceberg.
Pre-paid or Billed
Pre-paid cell phones are becoming more common and available with more features than just a couple years ago, but they aren’t for everyone. You might be a pre-paid phone candidate if:
You are only going to use your cell phone for emergencies
You do not anticipate using your mobile for more than 20 minutes per month
Your credit is poor and qualifying for a monthly billed cell phone is impossible
You are purchasing the cell phone for a teenager and don’t want to pay the harsh fees for minute overages of traditional billed plans
You are going to be visiting overseas (or the US) for a limited amount of time. Purchase a pre-paid cell in that country as you arrive.
You do not want to sign a service contract
Traditional monthly-billed cell phone plans are the most common and have their own ideal users. You might be a monthly-billed cell plan candidate if:
You anticipate using your phone more than 20 minutes a month
You want access to features like text messaging and web surfing without paying out the nose
You will call long distance more than once a month on your cell phone
You want a phone loaded with features
You like the flexibility some service plans offer, like traveling to Canada and Mexico without paying roaming fees or higher per-minute charges
Select a Carrier
Once you know the type of plan you’d like, it’s time to select a carrier. In addition to the service providers’ websites, ask your neighbors and friends in the area about their experiences with service providers. You don’t want to sign up for service only to find their coverage is spotty in your area or that you frequent areas that are subject to roaming.
If you are in a rural area, consider calling the local sheriff’s office or fire houses to find out which cellular provider they use. Law enforcement and emergency services require reliable, consistent service, just like you. Calling to find out which provider they use may help sway your decision.
Another aspect of the service provider to consider is the geographical calling options they offer and match them to the types of calls you’ll make. Are almost all of your calls local to your city or state? A local plan might suffice. If you call within a two state regional radius, look for a provider that offers a regional plan. If you know and call people from one coast to the other and everywhere in between, you probably need a national calling plan.
The smaller your coverage area, the smaller your monthly service fee will be. Be aware that calling outside your coverage area will cost considerably more. Take a good look at your land-line call history to determine who and where you call most.
Down to the Minute
Most wireless service providers offer numerous minutes plans. Essentially, you buy the minutes you believe you’ll use in blocks. If you sign up for a 500 minute plan and use just 100, you pay the same as if you’d used all 500. Go over, though, and you’ll pay your agreed-upon 500 minute service fee plus a hefty overage fee per minute. Some plans do offer a carryover of unused minutes to the next month, typically with caps on the number of minutes allowed and expiration.
In addition to minute plans, most providers group calling times into peak, off-peak and anytime minutes. Rates may vary depending on the time of day you use your cell phone and the kind of minutes you have on your plan.
Peak minutes usually cost more than non-peak ones because it is during these times that cell provider’s equipment has the highest demand. Most plans consider peak minutes between 7 am and 7 pm, Monday through Friday. Between 7 pm and 7 am, as well as all day on weekends, provider’s equipment is under less strain and minutes are usually cheaper. Anytime minutes are minutes you can use anytime without a change in calling rates.
After deciding when you are most likely to use your minutes and how many minutes you believe you’ll use per month, it’s time to start shopping for blocks of minutes. There is no real standard in the industry, but most plans offer plans including as few as 30 minutes per month and up to 2000 or even unlimited minutes. Unless you are using a pre-paid service plan, you don’t pay for what you use…you get to use what you pay for.
A plan with 2000 or unlimited minutes may cost $100 per month or so while a plan offering 30 minutes will probably cost $15 - $20 per month. That equates to a nickel per minute for the 2000 minute plan and at least fifty cents per minute for the 30 minute plan. You pay more per month the more included minutes you desire, but you pay significantly less per minute.
Most casual users can comfortably use 100 to 500 minutes per month without going over. Business users often use 500 to 1000 minutes per month but some require even more.
Minutes charged are not just calls you initiate or calls that you actually talk to a person. Bear in mind that each of the following are charged as used airtime:
Outgoing calls that receive a busy signal or no answer
Seconds from the moment the call ends until the next minute (a one minute, twenty second phone call will be billed as two minutes of airtime.)
Family plans, text messaging, rollover minutes and free roaming are just a few of the additional plan options offered by some providers.
Family plans usually include a higher service fee for the first phone with additional phones on the same plan billed at a much lower rate. Minutes are often shared (Mom uses 100, Dad uses 400 on the 500 minute plan). Calls between phones on the plan are unlimited and free on many plans (Mom & Dad can call one another without charging minutes.)
Text messaging packages are sold in blocks, much as minutes are. Texting is very popular among teenagers, text messages serve as e-mail-like communication. Text messages are usually charged for outgoing-only.
Rollover or carryover minutes is a feature offered by some carriers as a convenience to those that use their cell phone less one month and more the next. Minutes that are rolled over often expire after a month or two.
Roaming charges can be painfully expensive when traveling. If you are on a regional or local plan and are planning a vacation outside your service area, call your service provider and ask for free roaming during your vacation time. They will often upgrade your plan for a limited time in the hopes that you will decide to make the changer permanent (and pay the higher service fees.)
One last note about cell phones and emergencies – all 911 calls are free and cellular providers cannot restrict an emergency call from being passed through. If your phone is truly for emergencies (911 calls) only, obtain a low-tech phone for free and keep it charged. No service provider (or monthly fees) necessary.