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a consumer checklist for deciding which cell phone plan and hardware is best

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Table of contents to cell phone, wireless and mobile plans, costs, hardware and providers

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Questionnaire to help you choose the best wireless mobile cell phone plan
Make realistic projections about costs, expenses, rates, charges, and fees

Buying a cell phone is a major purchase and committment. The cell phone can cost $200 or so, plus an activation fee and a 2 year contract which cannot be broken without a $200 penalty. In addition there is a monthly charge of $30 - $80 plus taxes plus any extra charges for calls such as roaming, as much as 99 cents a minute or overage as much as 45 cents/minute. And then you may want to buy accessories.

A prepaid cell phone is a much smaller committment. There are no contracts, and no commitments once you have paid for the initial phone and minutes. For example, you can get a prepaid cell phone initially for about $100 with a year to use about 150 minutes or get minutes cheaper with a 60-90 expiration period. For emergency use this might be adequate. With prepaid the more minutes you buy the cheaper they are. While prepaid is generally more expensive per minute, you will be much more aware of the costs and also how much you have spent. This keeps your conversations down to essentials and probably saves money in the long run. When you buy prepaid minutes you have paid the full amount, you will not be surprised by a huge charge on your bill plus extra taxes and fees. Prepaid cell phone providers have methods for notifying you of the number of minutes remaining in your account.

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This questionnaire is designed to help you decide just how much you should spend and what you can afford.

#1. How much can you afford to spend on a cell phone calling plan per year? _______________

#2. Take the dollar amount in #1 and divide by 2 __________________
This is roughly the amount of money you can afford to spend on a cell phone plan. The other half will be spent on the cell phone itself, an activation fee and taxes and surcharges plus overage and roaming charges.

#3. Take the result of #2 and divide by 12 ________________
This now is the amount of money you can spend on a monthly cell phone plan.

#1 = $800
#2 = 800/2 = $400
#3 = 400/12 = $33.33 cost of monthly cell phone plan

#4. Why do you need a cell phone. What is the most important reason? What is the second most important reason.
A. For emergency communications
B. To be able to coordinate better with my family
C. For my business
D. General need to be able to stay in touch with family and friends

#5. Where will you be using the cell phone?
A. Locally
B. Outside the local area (see maps from the cell phone provider)

#6. When will you be calling?
A. Mostly during the day
B. Mostly at night or on weekends

#7. How many minutes will you be talking during the day time?
NOTE: A good rule of thumb would be to double your initial estimate

With the above information you can now decide on a cell phone plan. Read the conditions of each plan carefully.
A. Calling Mostly Locally: For example, if you will be calling mostly locally, then buy a plan with more minutes (such a 400 month or about 15 minutes a day) that can be used locally. I have seen such plans for about $35 a month. If you go outside your local area, however, you will be hit with a roaming charge, but we already allowed for extra charges in the initial cost estimate.

B: Calling From Anywhere For People Who Travel a Lot: A typical nationwide low cost plan with no roaming charges might allow you 200 minutes (or about 7 minutes per day) for the same $35 a month but if you talk more than 200 you will pay overage charges.

C. Quick Calls and Emergencies: A monthly prepaid plan might cost you $15/ month for 50 minutes in which roaming minutes would equal 2 local minutes. Or $30/month for 100 minutes.
Note that with prepaid cell phones there are no extra charges: no activation, no taxes, no surcharges and no overage or extra roaming costs and no contract or contract termination penalty. When you have paid for your minutes that is the total price.
Also prepaid cellphone plans such as those by TracFone give you a readout on the LCD screen as to the number of minutes you have remaining, so you can control costs much better.

Buying the cell phone hardware

There are a number of free cell phone offers which you might want to consider. These could cut the initial cost of the plan by hundreds of dollars.

Here are some features you may want to consider when you purchase a cell phone.

#1. Before buying any cell phone read reviews and especially users comments. Some phones, for example, are clearer and louder than others.

#2. Before buying a phone, especially via mail order, make sure that the size and the weight is compatible with your lifestyle.

#3. How long will you talk before you can recharge the battery? This can be critical if you are on the road a lot or away from an AC power source.

#4. Do you want a clamshell, flip cover type phone? This protects it and also makes it smaller when traveling. Or do you want to put it in a case or carry it open?

#5. Do you want to be able to send text messages?

#6. Do you need a color display?

#7. There are other features as well that some may want to consider such as programming the ringtones, using the phone for voice memos, being able to connect to the internet, a wireless connection to a PC, a speaker for hands free communications, a camera and ability to use overseas.

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