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Buying a Mobile Cell Phone in America

Surprise, the mobile cell phone companies try to make life as complicated as possible so here’s a quick top down look at your choices and options as you answer questions along the way.

Note – this is intended as a guide for the average person, if you know your way around LTE and rooting your phone, you know what you’re doing and you can bork your phone with the best of them and do not need my help. 🙂

For everyone else …

#1 The big question is whether you want a state of the art smartphone or you just want a phone.

If you want a new state of the smartphone, you pretty much have to go with the Big 4 or perhaps better described, the Massive 2 and the 2 Others.

That would be AT&T & Verizon as the two massive choices and Sprint & T-Mobile as the slightly smaller but still huge companies. Basically you can choose from among the newest phones (including iPhones, the latest Android phones & Blackberry’s) at a subsidized price – you sign a 2 year contract with a large termination fee (up to $350) if you opt out early. Though after a year or slightly more, you can generally upgrade to a new phone – of course, they reset and roll forward the 2-year contract to your new date.

You choose a package of call minutes, text options and internet surfing. With most smartphones now, you have to sign up for the “big bundle.” For the single user, this usually is $70 to around $100 – you can upgrade to the family plan with additional users as part of your pool of minutes and internet usage for around $10-$15 per person.

You generally need a good credit rating to get an account – though you can also provide a security deposit so you don’t run off with your phone.

And unlike in most/many other countries, the phone is locked to the carrier so you cannot switch to another carrier with this phone (there are also technological reasons that we’ll get to later).

If you’re ready to sign up, add another phone or take a look, Amazon Wireless is set up for you to look through all 4 of these carriers.

Now the big geek decision is that AT&T & T-Mobile are GSM and Verizon & Sprint are CDMA. Without too detailed of an explanation, it’s simply two standards of transmitting your voice & info. Ultimately, it’s not really all that important – the two main differences are if you intend to use your phone overseas, there are a lot more GSM standard carriers than CDMA and the other one is that GSM allows you to talk and surf on the net at the same time – for instance, you can be talking on the phone and look up an address on Google maps. So, if you think this might be important to you, then go with GSM.

One next technology looming is the 4G or 4G LTE that is being bandied about. that is the next transmission standard for data retrieving and sending – much faster than the current standard, “3G GSM or 3G CDMA”  The main problem is in 2011, it’s really very incomplete and surprise, full of hype, puffery and outright lies. 🙂

So, again, if it’s important for you to download full movies or surf much faster, and you don’t mind paying A LOT extra for the privilege and it’s a HUGE battery drain, you know what you need and you don’t need our meager advice … but for the average user, LTE is incomplete (not nationwide), costlier, questionable as to how much faster it is and a battery drain so for now, it’s an option but not necessarily a very good option for most. And of course, at home, work, the office and even in a lot of places, WiFi is faster than 4G.

Here are all the phones available at Amazon with a phone contract (with the “subsidized” prices).

#2 If you don’t want a 2-year contract; don’t really care about the absolute latest smartphones; or just want a regular phone or don’t care to deal with a credit check; then there are at least a dozen “pre-paid” or no-contract mobile options with these as your most popular choices …

And no surprise, to be competitive, they are cheaper than than Big 4 – usually offering you unlimited call, text and internet from $40-$70 a month. While they do not generally offer the absolute newest phone releases, these companies do offer you a wide variety of choices ranging from $200 phones to nearly free. Amazon offers a wide variety of no contract phones & mobile choices.

It should be noted that to be more competitive, the Big 4 also offer no-contract phones so you have the full range of choices – the Big 4 tends to offer you fewer minutes, texts or internet usage so you can decide accordingly. Also, note, these smaller companies simply “rent” bandwidth from the Big 4 so it’s the same network. Again, you can look through Amazon’s choices to decide which is best for you.

The advantage no contract is pretty obvious of no long term commitment so if you don’t need the latest phone or the biggie, no iPhone.

(the Big 4 include general inducements to be under contract such as AT&T offering rollover minutes, etc, etc …)

#3 What about the iPhone?

Amazon, does not sell the iPhone directly. You can buy an unlocked iPhone at Amazon (or at Apple stores now – at the unsubsidized price, of course). If you buy a GSM one, you can use it on AT&T’s network by buying a SIM card (see next section) and sort of on T-Mobile’s network. The problem is T-Mobile’s 3G is not currently compatible with the iPhone so you only surf the internet at the much slower 2G … though of course, it’s just as speedy on WiFi and the phone portion (and apps) work just fine (that do not need the internet at 3G speed). As noted above, phones are locked to the carrier because they subsidize the cost of the phone and basically spread out that cost over 2 years. You can generally find a small mobile shop who will unlock a phone for you – or if you’re handy and not afraid, you can look around the internet for software to DIY.

You can also find a multitude of other unlocked phone choices at Amazon.

#4 What’s a SIM card?

A SIM card is a tiny plastic card that has your carrier and phone “ID.” When you buy a phone with a contract, a SIM card is included and your activation includes accessing that information to ID and keep track of your phone (otherwise, hard to find where to direct your calls to). For instance, if your phone breaks and you get a new phone, you simply take out the old SIM card and put it in your new phone and your phone number and ID is identified with the new phone now. But you can buy an unlocked iPhone-phone and buy a carrier SIM card to open an account and you can avoid a contract (or if you have an older phone to pass along to a family member – just buy a new SIM card). Amazon sells them by carrier – some include minutes – others do not. Keep in mind the iPhone uses a MINI SIM so if you’re looking to add an iPhone to a current phone plan, be sure to get the IPHONE MINI SIM. You can cut an existing one or simply buy a new AT&T or T-Mobile one.

That little “card” under the AT&T logo is the regular & mini SIM that you punch out and install. Having an unlocked phone is also nice for overseas travelers. Instead of having to pay exorbitant roaming rates – just swap out your SIM card in another country and you have “switched” to that carrier while overseas (Note – CDMA phones do not have SIM cards).

#5 Yes, the new iPhone is coming?

Yes, the iPhone 5 is almost certainly coming in September or October so if you need a temp phone, get a prepaid one until the iphone 5 comes out and you can decide if its what you want. The most credible rumors is that it’s faster, has a slighter larger screen, and higher camera resolution. The biggest addition is IOS 5.0 and the inclusion of iCloud & iTunes matching (though IOS 5 will run on the iPhone 4 – free upgrade).

So, here are your choices in the US.

Sign a 2-year contract with the 2-4 “majors” to get a subsidized newest phone.

Opt for a slightly older phone and just pay month to month.

Buy a SIM card to re-activate an older phone.

Buy an unlocked phone with no subsidy and buy a SIM card to go month to month on the majors.

Or cut yourself off from the mobile grid. 🙂

Good luck!






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5 September 2011 iPhone, Mobile 14 Comments


  • Tom says:

    Keep buyin’ them, folks! Baby needs new Cars, I mean shoes 🙂
    Sprint’s new network will be technology agnostic. The base stations are designed to support CDMA, UMTS, HSPDA+, LTE, Wimax, etc. radios. This way they will be more flexible in future network configurations as well as being more appealing to any potential buyer/investors looking to merge or acquire them.
    Look for IDEN to be finally phased out within the next couple of years as well.

  • sodabear says:

    I got a MyTouch android phone through T-Mobile (I’ve been with them since way back when they were VoiceStream) about a year ago, mainly for the internet since my youngest son sleeps in the computer room and is usually in bed by 7. The 3G network, it turns out, works absolutely fantastic- everywhere but in my house. So now I’m stuck waiting out the end of my 2 year contract so I can change carriers. By the way, in order to make this post I had to walk down to the next block. Awesome.

    (MET: I had a buy a Microcell “booster.” You might be able to give you one free if you complain enough. 🙂 ).

  • NascarFan says:

    As convenient as the Verizon Droid was at SDCC I do not need one every day.

    I was happy to give it back to the wife.

    I am happy with a phone that does not send or receive photos, barely send texts or receives them.

    I do not see the point of writing novels for text messages and even text messages period when a 15 second phone call will suffice, except in high noise situations such as SDCC, where standing in line is 75% of the time is boring and you do not need the next 15 people in line (either direction) hearing your conversation.

  • Jack says:

    For most once you go iPhone you never go back. That’s what happened to me. On my 4th IPhone and anxiously awaiting the 5.
    I had to go with AT&T here in the big Apple. Verizon has spotty service in some places around me.
    Love the IPhone and since we have the grandfathered in unlimited data plan for 30.00 a month I am going to keep on riding that train.

    • Jack says:

      Oh and another great thing about the IPhone is you pay 200.00 for a new one if your upgrade eligible and can usually sell your older one for more. You actually make money when getting a new upgraded phone.

  • 5oclockshadow says:

    right now I am using a Motorola Triumph android phone through Virgin mobile. It is $299 for the phone + $25/month for 300 minutes/unlimited text/unlimited internet. I bought the phone about a month ago when it was 30% off + free $50 gift card through Best Buy.

    They recently upped their plan rates to $35/month, but left the option to change your plan back to $25/month for some reason. You can add google voice and use it for free extra minutes if needed. It has most of the bells and whistles anyone would need – stream Netflix, 5mp camera, large screen, HDMI connection, etc. The only real downside is it runs on the Sprint network, which can be spotty in some areas; but it has run flawless for me so far.

  • collectormom says:

    We’ve always gotten contract phones, but I have wondered if its better to just buy the phone outright so we don’t have to deal with a contract. $500 upfront is a lot to spend on a phone which is why we’ve never done it.

    We’re anxiously waiting for iPhone 5, iCloud sounds very cool.

  • Wraukn says:

    Luckily, I get a phone through work and don’t have to worry about this process.

  • Mariela says:

    First!! 😛
    We upgraded our phones just in time for D23, and we got the Android…loving it!!

    • bobbyjack says:

      My wife and I got our first android smartphones a couple of months ago. I’m really happy she convinced me to finally get one. I don’t think either of us have used our old digital camera since then. It is nice being able to check emails while at work too.

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