8 Steps to Picking Your Perfect Cell Phone

Remember the days when it was a novelty to have a camera on your phone? Then data plans became all the rage and now your phone can do just about everything but wash your car. (Or maybe there’s an app for that?)

After the two year mark (when most plans expire) you’re eligible for a new phone, and it can be overwhelming trying to catch up on all the new technology that has taken place.

You want to choose something that’s quick to learn and easy to use, but still had all the knick-knacks you desire. Some carries exclusively carry certain phones, so if you want that iPhone you’re pretty much stuck between AT&T and Sprint.

Here are five steps to start your new cell phone search and tips to consider along the way.

Choose a Carrier
It really doesn’t matter how much you love your new cell phone if you hate your carrier. Spotty reception, bad service, slow transmission speeds, and expensive fees can all ruin the experience of enjoying your dream phone. The four major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint) have maps on their website that shows locations that receive the best reception. Check it out and ask friends, family, and co-workers what plan they’re on and how they like it.

Location, Location, Location
You may get great reception at home and work, but what about travel? Not all carriers have the same access to international networks. You don’t want to be in a foreign place with no cell phone access—that’s as bad as having no cell phone at all. Call the customer service number for the carrier you would be using and find out what plans they have to offer for international use. Long hold times or rude sales reps? It could be a decision-breaker.

Smart or Not?
They’ve become so popular, you’re basically considered a technology dummy if you don’t own a smartphone. But, many people don’t need access to thousands of apps, unlimited messaging and minutes, and Web mail. Sure, it’s convenient, but will you use it enough to justify the cost? Recent studies of cell phone users discovered 25 percent of existing smartphone owners aren’t using their devices for data services of any kind.

Style & Features
The fun stuff! Cell phones come in a variety of styles and colors depending on the model. Plates and covers can also change up the look of your phone. If you have big fingers, tiny keys aren’t going to be a plus for you. Hate touch screens? You’ll want to find a phone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Then, there’s the extras to consider: megapixel cameras, video conferencing capability, battery life. Don’t just settle on a phone—choose something you really love. Remember, you’ll be using it every day for the next 24 months.

Expert Research
You’ve found a phone you love, but how well does it work? Do others love it? Consumer Reports magazine and consumer tech sites like CNET provide expert reviews on all new models. You’ll find out the pros and cons of your pick that may solidify your choice or nix it altogether. You can also compare your top picks side-by-side, seeing how they measure up next to each other. Need more input? Get recommendations from those around you. The plus side is, if you end up choosing the same phone as someone you know, they can help you get used to the features and answer any questions you may have. It sure beats waiting on hold!

Plan Preference
Now that you’ve decided on a carrier and phone, it’s time to select your plan. Decide in advance what you’re looking for—free texts and minutes? A $100/monthly budget? If you need to have Internet use 24/7, a generous data plan is a must. If you’re using your phone for work use, ask your company if they would be willing to cover a portion of your bill. It’s better to start off with a plan you can down-size to in the future rather than incur overage charges. They add up!

Read the Fine Print
We know, it’s a pain. But, the fine print tells you about all the undesirable aspects of your plan that the sales person isn’t going to tell you for fear of not making the sale. Look for these important terms: early termination fees, upgrade plan charge, charge to add a line to your phone, charge to change your phone number, roaming charges, etc. The grace period for most new phones is 14 days. If you decide you hate it, you can return the phone for a refund, but the carrier may charge you a restocking fee of up to 20 percent. Of course, it’s a small price to pay if you really don’t like the phone.

Purchasing a new phone and switching to a new carrier can seem like a real chore when it’s supposed to be a fun experience. Give yourself two months from your current contract expiration date to start doing your research so you aren’t feeling overwhelmed at the last minute making your choice. You might even decide a monthly contract using pre-paid cards is the right choice for you, so it’s important to take the time to consider all your options.