(BPT) - It's easy to be overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a cellphone provider. Everyone claims to offer the best, cheapest and most comprehensive service. It can be especially baffling for seniors who, despite boundless wisdom elsewhere, may be newcomers to this technology.
When you boil it down, it's actually fairly simple. You need two things: a device that does what you need it to do, and a way to connect that device to a reliable wireless network. And there's no reason you shouldn't get it all at a price you can afford.
It's all about the phone.
The type of phone you choose will determine everything else you need. Will you use it primarily to make and receive calls? Do you want to send and receive text messages? Will you be searching the internet or using social media?
Familiarize yourself with the types of phones on the market, and decide which is the best fit. Cellphones range from simple models offering basic call-and-text functions to sophisticated smartphones, capable of performing a mind-boggling array of tasks. Make sure you're getting what you really need, and don't tie yourself to something you'll quickly outgrow.
Coverage is key.
Your cellphone is only as good as the network it connects to. Before you sign up for service, you'll want to be sure a provider can deliver coverage to the places you'll be using your phone the most.
While most providers display general coverage maps in their retail stores or on their website, distinctively local things can impact cellphone reception. Your home's building materials may create interference, or tall buildings standing between your neighborhood and the nearest cellphone tower could disrupt the signal.
Rather than relying solely on a map, ask around. Check if your neighbors are happy with the quality of their cellular service. Or have friends make calls from your house to hear what the reception and sound quality are like. This could go a long way toward narrowing your choices.
Minutes, texts and data: Solving the plan puzzle.
The last piece of the puzzle will be deciding what type of monthly service to sign up for. Cellphone plans are packaged in a dizzying array of formats, but there are three basic types.
Contract plans bound you to a carrier for a fixed term, usually two years. This means if you're dissatisfied, there's no opportunity to change until the contract expires without paying a significant penalty. Prepaid plans allow you to buy a fixed amount of minutes, texts and data, and use them until they run out. At that point you'll have no service until you purchase more.
No contract, post-paid plans offer a nice mix of both. There's no long-term agreement, so you can make changes without penalties. Unless you cancel, your plan renews month-to-month, so there's no worry about running out of minutes and losing your service. There are even special rates just for seniors: Consumer Cellular, who specialize in wireless service for users over 50, offers exclusive discounts to AARP members.
Avoid surprises on your bill.
Before you sign up, ask about any penalties or hidden fees that may apply. Some carriers charge a fee just to activate your service. On contract plans, you're required to pay a hefty "early termination fee" if you cancel your service early. Find out up front to avoid being ambushed later on.
Whatever you choose, your monthly bill should be straightforward and understandable. You should be able to tell at a glance what period of time the bill covers, what your monthly charge is for accessing the carriers network, the cost of your monthly plan (and what it includes), plus any applicable taxes or fees.
Put yourself in charge.
Shopping for the best deal on your cellphone service is no different than shopping for a dishwasher or an automobile. No one knows better than you do what your needs are.
Just remember: there's no shortage of wireless carriers in the market, and they're all vying for your business. Use this advantage wisely - do your homework, ask questions and don't be afraid to walk away if you don't get the answers you want.
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