(BPT) - Changing your wireless carrier is an important (and potentially expensive) decision. Before you make the switch, answer these simple questions to make sure you make the move that's right for you.
1. Are you free to go?
While carrier contracts in the U.S. are quickly becoming things of the past, you still have to make sure you're free and clear of obligations to start up somewhere new without getting hit with penalty fees. If you've bought a phone from another carrier, double-check to make sure you've paid it off in full, or else you may need to pay the rest of what you owe before you can cancel your service.
2. Will you need to buy a new phone, or do you have one already?
Unless you're bringing your own existing cellphone to your new network, you'll need to buy one, which means you'll be paying for the whole thing up front, or via monthly installments. These are payments you'll need to factor in as you calculate how much you want to pay your new carrier each month.
If you plan to bring your own phone, make sure it's unlocked and works on your new carrier's network (GSM, such as AT&T and T-Mobile versus CDMA, like Sprint and Verizon). When in doubt, give their customer service departments a call.
3. Individual or family plan?
Are you looking for yourself or for a group? A shared plan or family plan, which splits a monthly allotment of data among multiple phone lines, usually winds up being cheaper per month than going solo. The downsides? You get a smaller amount of data for yourself, and you can't predict how much everyone else on your plan will use. Carriers can also vary widely on how much they charge for adding extra lines to your account, so be sure to compare to find the best price.
4. Is low price something or everything?
How important is price to you? If you simply need the lowest rate, look for seasonal sales or promotional offers. Some carriers will cut you a better deal if you bring your number over from a previous carrier or trade in your old phone. Occasionally, you'll find a deal that pairs a specific phone model with a particular rate plan. And sometimes you'll flat out find a great overall deal: Consumer Cellular, for instance, regularly receives top recognition in independent consumer surveys for its low-priced, no-contract service, as well as its outstanding customer support.
5. How flexible do you need to be?
Carriers have largely done away with two-year contract pricing, but you can still get it if you want, which often comes with a free or reduced-price device. You can also buy your phone outright in a lump sum, or through monthly installment pricing. As a benefit of this, the dreaded early termination fees of yesterday are gone, though you're still on the hook for paying off the hardware before you switch (see number one above).
It's also a good idea to find out if the new carrier offers a grace period, just in case things don't work out. Many provide a 14- to 30-day trial, so if it turns out the service doesn't meet your needs, you can cancel without penalties.
6. How good is carrier coverage in your area?
The fanciest phone on the market won't get you anywhere if you can't get data or voice service. Ask your friends, colleagues and neighbors how good their reception and signal strength are where you work and live.
There's no shortage of competition for your cellphone dollars these days. By finding the right answer to these questions, you're sure to find a carrier that fits your needs, and at a price you're satisfied with.