Cell Phone & Service Buying Guide

If you haven't looked for a new cell-phone plan in a while, you may be paying a price for your loyalty—or your inertia.

In a recent survey of more than 103,000 Consumer Reports members, more than half of those who switched providers in the previous year said they saw a drop in their monthly bill. After making the shift, some respondents said they got more reliable coverage, a bigger data allowance, and better customer service.

If you're considering a new plan, you might want a new phone as well. Have your eye on that top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung model? These days, wireless carriers give you the option of paying it off in interest-free installments or buying it outright and enjoying a lower monthly bill. Many phones are also available unlocked through major retailers.

Before you choose a plan, think about how much data you need. If you don't require much, you can save on a low-cost option. But if you stream a lot of music or movies over your cellular network, an unlimited plan may be a smart move.

Follow these steps to find the best service and phone for your lifestyle—and budget.

Provider: The First Choice You’ll Make

Go Big or Go Small
Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers—such as Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, Republic Wireless, and Ting—benefits people with modest data needs (web browsing, email, Facebook). Heavy data users, especially those who want three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with one of the big carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless).

Confirm the Coverage
Large carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, have a distinct advantage. They have the country well-covered with high-speed 4G internet service. And they're steadily building new 5G networks. To confirm basic coverage in your area, especially if you're looking for 5G, use the ZIP code maps and other resources provided on the carriers' websites. But those references don’t take into account small dead zones in your neighborhood or home, so try to ask local friends how well their phones work in those spots.

You should also make sure you can cancel service and return any phone that you might have bought if a coverage problem crops up. For some carriers, the grace period is a brief 14 days. They also might charge you a restocking fee.

Count Your Phone Lines
That’s easy: That’s pretty much you, plus your immediate family, but it's okay to cover people who don’t live with you, too.

Do the Math
For smartphone users, the biggest decision is whether to sign up for a monthly allotment of data or an unlimited plan. Generally speaking, the more lines you have, the more attractive the unlimited plan becomes. 

The Lowdown on Data

The amount of data you burn through each month depends on your WiFi access (the more you're away from it, the more data you use), how much you regularly stream or download content, and whether you're a gamer.

While the smaller carriers, which lease network space from the three big companies, will sell you bundles of gigabytes each month (divvied up by line or pooled in one lump sum), AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have moved away from this in recent years.

AT&T offers just one post-paid limited data option, Verizon has two, and T-Mobile doesn't offer one at all, saying its cheapest unlimited plans offer consumers a better deal. 

And for many families with multiple lines and at least one or two heavy data users, that's usually true. Shared buckets of data don't go very far. And plans like these don't include higher-tech features and extras like 5G connectivity, HD streaming, or overseas service.

You can forget about extras like free subscriptions to your favorite streaming services, too.

Do You Need a New Phone?

Take a clear-eyed look at whether your phone is past its prime. Here are three cases when it might be wise to replace it.

Your Current Phone Is Giving You Trouble
You can replace a cracked display or an anemic battery, but when system improvements from Apple or Google reduce the performance of your phone, it's probably time to replace it. Ditto sluggish response times, frequent crashes, and a battery that gives out before the end of the day.

And if your phone is so old that it's no longer receiving security updates, it's definitely time to say goodbye.

You're Moving to Another Provider
In the past, switching carriers meant you were definitely getting a new phone. Providers locked the phones they sold so that they could be used only with their service. But that’s no longer true for most phones. Both Apple and Samsung sell unlocked models with the technology to operate on multiple networks. So you don’t have to get a new phone if you’re switching providers. But it can still be a great idea. You may be able to trade in your old phone for money toward a new one, or even replace a model from your old provider with one that’s the same or similar at no additional cost.

You Can't Resist a New Gadget
These days, annual improvements in handset technology are less significant than they were a few years ago, so there's less incentive to upgrade. For instance, the iPhone XR is still recommended by Consumer Reports, even though it was introduced back in 2018. Ditto for the Samsung Galaxy Note10. Phone cameras and displays have been excellent in many smartphones for several generations now. Only you can say whether the incremental improvements are enough to make you want to upgrade. 

Consider Your Options in Operating Systems

Smartphones all share the ability to browse the web and run apps, handle office and personal email, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do these tasks varies by operating system. The OS also affects apps selection, though highly popular apps such as Facebook, Google Maps, and Spotify are available on multiple platforms.

And although most people tend to stick to the same OS, it's worth knowing all the facts. A switch could bring you additional features or a way of interacting with your stuff that’s more appealing than what you have now.

An Android phone.


If you want a wide choice of phones, you've come to the right OS. Google's Android platform supports a large variety of hardware from handset makers such as Samsung, Google, and OnePlus. Options include everything from compact models to phones with displays larger than 6 inches.

The Android OS is highly customizable, thanks to widgets and other tools for tweaking phone controls, as well as the desktop’s overall look and feel. Android’s native Google search engine, Gmail, Maps app, and cloud-based Drive and Photos services are among the most widely used smartphone apps (even among iPhone users).

The major drawback to Android is that many phones are sold with older versions of the OS, and users don’t always get updates in a timely way. And the individual companies that make the phones tend to layer their own software on top of the OS, which can eat up storage space and clutter your home screen.

Smartphones Ratings
An Apple iPhone.

Apple iOS

iPhones complement their sleek designs with intuitively simple operation. The iOS interface is not only ultra-easy to master but also among the best for accessing music, videos, games, and other content. Consistency is another plus: iOS is the same from carrier to carrier and almost identical to the OS on the iPad. Older iPhones have a home button for closing or backing out of apps and returning to the home screen. Newer versions eliminate all of that in favor of a system of presses and swipes. 

The Siri voice-controlled assistant is quite adept at interpreting and executing an impressive number of requests. Recent versions of iOS brought peer-to-peer payments to Apple Pay, along with new augmented reality (AR) capabilities.

And it's hard to beat the immense selection of apps, content, and gaming options from iTunes and the App Store. You’ll also find accessories galore from Apple and third-party vendors. On the downside, iOS is less customizable than Android, though you can create folders to organize apps. 

Smartphones Ratings

Cell-Phone Carriers

Odds are you haven't made changes to your cell service in years. That's too bad. According to Consumer Reports' most recent member survey, 54 percent of the people who had recently switched cell-phone carriers said they saved money. Many of them also said they now enjoy more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service. But only 5 percent of our members switched cell-phone carriers in the past year—perhaps more should consider shopping around.

Among the biggest brands, T-Mobile was the only one that received favorable marks for value and customer support. For more, check out our cell-phone service provider ratings.

Features Worth Your Consideration

In addition to making calls and giving you web access, today’s smartphones are loaded with features to help you be more creative, productive, and efficient.

How to Pay for Your Phone

With the demise of the two-year contract, the cost of your phone is now clearly separated from the cost of your service. That leaves you with two solid options.

Pay Up Front, Enjoy Lower Monthly Bills
Not a bad choice if you’re eyeing an affordably priced model. It also makes sense if credit problems prevent you from buying a phone in installments.

Pay for It Over Time
This is a great way to purchase a phone, especially if you have expensive tastes. The full retail price is usually divided into 24 monthly installments. After two years, you can scratch that fee from your phone bill. Plans differ by provider, so read the fine print before signing up.

If you buy the phone from your carrier, you’re going to have to commit to that carrier until the phone is paid off. If you leave, the balance will most likely be due immediately. But retailers like the Apple Store also will allow you to finance your purchase. And they'll sell you an unlocked phone, so you won't be tied to any particular carrier.

Smartphone Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our video below.

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