Updated on 06.01.07

Six Things To Do When Shopping For Cell Phones And Service

Trent Hamm

treoIn addition to our move, we’re about to switch cell phone services from a regional provider to Verizon, primarily because of signal availability in the area we’re moving to. We also happen to be not under a lengthy service plan, so we’re also looking to upgrade our phones as well since our old ones are on death’s door (we’ve been using them for several years and mine is literally on the verge of falling apart).

Here’s the process we intend to follow when switching to Verizon; it may be helpful for you in your own cellular plans.

Use your old bills as a basis for what you’ll do in the future. Looking at the last six months of our old bills, it became clear that we are paying for far too many minutes and so we’re looking for a lower-minute plan for our next purchase.

Do the research before you leave. Visit the websites of major providers and know what their plans are before you leave. You should especially know what sort of options you will want on your plan and which ones you don’t want, because salesman will often throw on services you don’t want if you don’t explicitly tell them that these are the only options you want. Also, have some idea of the phones available and what you want.

Know what you want before you walk in the door. For example, we just want a basic calling plan with only a relatively low number of text messages, because that’s what we use now, and also the ability to access a small amount of web data (limited data transfer, for Remember the Milk, for example). We also need new phones, but we don’t need high-end ones or Blackberries or anything like that.

Specify EXACTLY what you want and don’t want in your plan. Make it clear what you specifically want in your plan as soon as you begin talking, then tell them you’re going to browse the equipment for a bit. Why? This gives them a bit of time to think about their commission before you finish off the deal.

Don’t bother negotiating on the service plan. Plan prices are set by the national provider and local stores simply don’t have the option of negotiating with you, so don’t even waste their time. Instead, look for stuff you can ask for instead, like…

Ask for lots of other stuff. Ask for your activation fee to be waived. Ask for some free (or at least reduced) equipment. Since the salesmen typically don’t earn a commission on the equipment, they’re often happy to give a discount in order to seal the deal and get their commission from the plan. They’re going to be thinking “easy commission,” so take advantage of that mindset to get cheap phones.

This is almost exactly what we did when we first signed up for a cell phone service and we ended up getting no activation fee, all of our phones for free (they weren’t low end phones, either), and a few random items in the store for free, too. The guy behind the counter was about ready to explode with desire for getting his commission, so he was waiving everything and giving us all sorts of goodies just to get his commission on the plan we were purchasing.

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  1. Adam says:

    Often, adding those extra packages that can be canceled two days later (ie text messaging) will get you free goodies since the sales person gets commission on these. You just simply cancel the text messaging plan two days later (This is the key.)

  2. Mark says:

    One thing to be aware of if you buy a cell phone is whether your phone is locked or not. If you buy a phone that is locked, that means you bought a contract with a certain carrier. If you bought an unlocked phone, you did not buy a contract.

    Basically what it means to buy an unlocked phone is the freedom to switch carriers at will without any cancellation fees. This is very handy for people who travel outside of the country.

    If you do not plan on travelling for the next two years then a locked phone will almost be “virtually free.”

  3. Eric says:

    While price plans are usually set in stone, don’t forget to check with your employer/AAA/other large organizations you might be associated with.

    Because I work for the state I got a 10% service discount off the top. I got 5 phones on a family plan that I share with my wife, mother, and two friends driving down our per-phone price for sharing 700 minutes to $22.50. Not shabby and short of my mother having a brain fart and used her phone in mexico we have never been charged more than the base rate.

  4. HappyRock says:

    I wish companies would offer cheaper plans. My wife and I don’t use the phone but maybe 50 minutes a month, yet we plan for hundreds. We do get a nice 20% on verizon phones and plans, so that helps.

    Looking back it would have been much cheaper to do a pay as we go contract, but unfortunately I wasn’t convinced at the time.

  5. A good place to look for deals on phones before heading out is Amazon.com. They have fabulous rebates on phones. Print the page out and take it to your local store if you would rather buy local. They probably won’t match the Amazon rebates that EARN YOU MONEY, but they’ll probably throw in something for free.

    When I got my phone, I just went through and called four different Cingular stores in a row. I knew what phone I wanted and just said to the first one “how much for the phone.” The next time I said “the other store said they would give it to me for $X.” They said they’d give it to me for $20 (less than half the other one). I called the next store with $20 as a base price, and they said free. I called the next store with free, and they waived the activation fee and threw in a bluetooth headset. SOLD!

  6. Cathy says:

    I highly recommend T-Mobile To Go prepaid if you don’t use that many minutes. I used to have a 600 minute plan that I didn’t get good value out of, but the next service level down was 300 minutes. I use around 400 minutes a month. Thus, I switched to prepaid. I feel better about paying for only the minutes I use.

    T-Mobile has one of the cheaper pay as you go rates around. Works to around $0.10/minute. If you pay $100, you get 1000 minutes that don’t expire for a year. Many other prepaid plans expire after 3 months. This is great for people who don’t use a mobile phone much except to… make phone calls. With my minute usage, I’m paying about $33/month as opposed to the $54/month with taxes and fees. All those unused minutes were costing me $250/year and lining the pocket of the mobile company!

  7. We’re lucky, my wife’s company has a deal with Verizon where we get 15% off our monthly cellular bills. And I have a buddy who gets accessories for next to nothing.

  8. patrick says:

    sprint sero has the cheapest plan around if sprint is an ok provider in your area. visit sprint.com/sero and type savings@sprint.com for the referal email address. $30 for 500 minutes, unlimited text, unlimited data, nights start @ 7pm you won’t find anything better than that.

  9. Bill says:

    Verizon uses phones that must be programmed – “locked” has no meaning (no SIM card as with a GSM phone)

    Prepaid is often the better deal up to 300 minutes/month (see howardforums.com)

  10. Michelle says:

    Watch out for Verizon. When we moved to a place where the phones didn’t work, the customer service people insisted that I was receiving service when I wasn’t and wouldn’t let me out of my contract. So another point to add is Don’t Move.

  11. Klaus says:

    Aye, for low volume, pre-paid looks to make a lot of sense. At T-Mobile, $100 gets you 1,000 minutes that last for a year, so after phone cost, under $10 a month….

  12. Paramveer Singh says:

    How do you figure out what things are negotiable and what are not? You say that the service plan is set by the national provider and stuff… for any particular purchase, be it a car, phone, washing machine… how do you figure out what is negotiable? This is a critical thing to know when I want to apply the simple dollar principals in situations I face. I am in India (and its really the simple rupee for me) so a lot of the things don’t really apply exactly. However, I would love to apply your principals – and do whenever I can.


  13. Stephen says:

    My biggest complaint at the moment is that my wife and I are on a plan that is probably close to being 3 years old now. And we have been out of contract for close to 2 years now.

    Anyhow, my first complaints is that to switch to a new plan it would cost me more money, because the plans have gotten WORSE in the past couple of years with all the buyouts and less competition.

    My second complaint is that I refuse to sign a 2 year contract as I believe them to be way too long, and there are NO deals for existing customers for new cell phones. My wife needs a new one and unless I want to pay full price or get a used one of ebay there are no other options.

  14. Rob in Madrid says:

    Just a note for those who do alot of texting, skype offers hassle free text messaging. Very handy if you hate trying to key in letters on the phone pad. Price is around 10 cents a text.

  15. beth says:

    I researched the phone & plan I wanted, then made my purchase at Amazon and got a massive rebate. The terms were tricky to meet (save the shipping paperwork, then submit the *second* month’s bill showing the first month was paid in full, by a very tight deadline) but I did it and made a hundred bucks on it.

  16. Andy says:

    Re: Mark (comment #2).

    That’s not my understanding. A locked phone does not equal a contract, and a unlocked phone does not equal freedom from a contract.

    A provider “lock” on a phone just refers to whether or not you can use the someone else’s SIM card (e.g. one from a Cingular phone, if your phone was bought from T-Mobile) in your phone. If they choose not to lock your phone to their network’s SIM cards, you’re still obligated to carry out the two year agreement you just signed. (The SIM card is just a little chip that gives your phone its phone number and account association. It easily pops out when you want to remove it and it’s usually located behind the battery.)

    A lock is a technical deterrent to using your phone on another network, not a legal statement.

    For what it’s worth, this stuff only applies to phones on T-Mobile and Cingular (and some old Nextel phones) – they use a different technology to the other carriers.

  17. Lisa says:

    I am about to leave Verizon so this is a timely discussion. I can’t stand the software that Verizon insists all phone companies use with them. I have some friends who have all had good luck buying used phones from ebay (must be a jillion teenagers trying to keep up with the Jones).

  18. Tyler says:

    Trent, go to Wirefly.com or LetsTalk.com. I ordered two very expensive brand new phones and got them for free with a 2 year commitment to my new provider. This may be a good deal for anyone else too!

  19. ck_dex says:

    Terrific post, Trent, and good responses as well.

  20. RT says:

    RE: Michelle @ 7:38 pm June 1st, 2007

    We’ve had the same problem with Sprint. We moved and had 2 months left on our contract, but they would not let us out of our contract either. The only company that carried coverage there was Verizon.

    My beef is that the cell phones are made so cheaply. You get a discount after the end of your 2 year contract, but the phone rarely make it to the 2 year mark. All I want is an inexpensive phone to talk on. I don’t care about the camera, texting, or getting online. I just want a phone the talk on that has good battery power and will last more than 18 months!

  21. Phil P says:

    To those who are complaining that they don’t use all the minutes in their plan you definitely need to investigate prepaid.
    I had the same problem. I was paying $66 a month for minutes I barely used. My contract with Verizon expired. After a little research in howard forums (mentioned above), I found a small prepaid carrier called page plus cellular. The great thing is they use the verizon network and you can activate any verizon phone. They also have pretty decent customer service considering how small they are.
    This has been by far one of my biggest money savers since I don’t use my phone much.
    I just wanted to share this since I’ve gotten so many great ideas from this blog.
    Also, I should mention that they don’t do data as of yet. Just voice and text messages.

  22. Isaac Grover says:


    I am replying to an old post because I used (or attempted to use) the advice contained therein. My wife and I switched from pay-as-you-go plans to Midwest Wireless about a year ago and have been happy with them on all points. In July, Alltel bought Midwest Wireless so all the Midwest Wireless towers switched over to Alltel at that time. Also, at the same time, dropped calls suddenly happened where they hadn’t before so after two months I had decided to go with Verizon.

    I researched phones and plans and knew exactly what I wanted when I went to Verizon’s retail store not too far from here. However, attempts to negotiate proved futile as we were being given hefty discounts on activation and accessories without asking. We didn’t shop at a reseller, so company-branded stores might handle their salesperson commissions and customer discounts differently. YMMV.

    Also, since Alltel’s coverage changed for the worse, would I be able to negotiate out of the early termination fee for our Alltel phones?

    Thanks for the great advice on The Simple Dollar,
    Isaac Grover

  23. Nic says:

    My biggest complaint at the moment is that my wife and I are on a plan that is probably close to being 3 years old now. And we have been out of contract for close to 2 years now.

    Anyhow, my first complaints is that to switch to a new plan it would cost me more money, because the plans have gotten WORSE in the past couple of years with all the buyouts and less competition.

    My second complaint is that I refuse to sign a 2 year contract as I believe them to be way too long, and there are NO deals for existing customers for new cell phones. My wife needs a new one and unless I want to pay full price or get a used one of ebay there are no other options.
    Stephen @ 7:19 am June 2nd, 2007

    —-I’m in the same boat…
    I’m done with my cingular contract…rates have gone up…but i want a new phone…if i get an Iphone… i have to pay a shitload for web browsing and aim and texts and whatnot because ATT is ridiculous… but i want a pda/nice phone…at the same time i can go t-mobile(not as great of service?) and get the sidekick i.d….but i’ll be resigning a 2 year contract and might not even like the service/phone. thennnnn my mother wants me to go verizon…and they’re same as ATT… i like one phone…and rates for free web browsing and internet text etc on your phone is outrageous. im a college kid…that just wants to go on the internet and aim in class… i dont want to have to pay $150’s a month to talk for 600 minutes and do so.. it’s just ridiculous.

  24. Zahir says:

    Since my company is giving away free long distance minutes to its employees courtesy of Onesuite Business account, I only have a pay as you go on Virgin Mobile because I only need to make mobile calls when its really necessary. I usually use Onesuite for long distance on both prepaid and voip calls to maximize savings. I pay 20 cents per minute on my Virgin mobile calls and I only average about 60 minutes a month or 2 minutes a day which amount to $12 a month.

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