Options for no-contract phones include prepaid and pay-as-you-go. These plans offer cellphone service without going through a credit check. A number of carriers such as Verizon and AT&T offer prepaid plans with unlimited text and calls with a daily, monthly or per minute allowance. With prepaid plans you pay up-front for a certain amount of usage. Pay-as-you-go plans allow you to purchase minutes up front and add minutes as needed.
While prepaid and pay-as-you-go plans used to offer only basic phones, today's prepaid options often include smartphones. They may not be the latest models, but you can get some nice phones. For example, Consumer Cellular [see Discounts, right] offers an LG Escape with touchscreen for $300 with its plans.
In certain cases, some carriers will let you use your existing cellphone. If the phone is compatible with their network, you just switch out the SIM card (a removable card that stores most of your data), and you're good to go.
Carriers featuring these plans include Net10. Net10's pay-as-you-go plan gives you 200 minutes for $20 with no contract. Plans that offer more minutes are also available.
Many of these smaller companies use cell towers and lines leased from other companies and have their own coverage maps. Not all have the fastest or most widespread service, but for many users they offer enough to keep them happy.
Sandy Berger is a technology journalist based in Pinehurst, N.C. She has written eight books on tech including Sandy Berger's Great Age Guide to Better Living Through Technology.
Choosing a Cellphone Plan
Coverage: Before you commit, study the coverage maps on the provider's website. Better yet, if you have a friend using the service provider you're interested in, see if she or he can get a signal from a few of your most frequented locations: home, bank, office, supermarket, etc.
Speed: If you'll be doing a lot of Web surfing or watching videos, check the carrier's listed speed. Speeds range from 2G, the slowest, to 4G LTE, the fastest. 4G or 4G LTE will give you the best connections, which you'll need for smooth and seamless video playback.
Hidden fees: Many companies charge an activation fee of $35 per line and an upgrade fee of around $30 when you get a new device.
You may not pay much attention to taxes, surcharges and fees when you sign up for cell service, but they can significantly hike your monthly charges. Your location and specific plan will determine how much you'll have to pay in extras. On its website, Verizon states that "as of October 1, 2013, [taxes, surcharges, and fees] can add between 6% and 42% to your standard monthly access and other charges." Other cell carriers have similar charges.
Bonus features: Some phones, like the Jitterbug from GreatCall, come with no contracts and offer additional features like the 5Star Urgent Response for 24-hour-a-day emergency service. A basic plan costs $19.99 for 200 minutes. With Jitterbug plans, you can even call a Jitterbug agent to add a contact to your address book for you.
Discounts: Some cellphone carriers have negotiated employee discounts with businesses, states and schools. These discounts can mean as much as 25 percent off your monthly bill. AARP members can get a discount through Consumer Cellular. Big-box retailers such as Target, Best Buy and Walmart occasionally have in-store promotions and discount coupons.
Returns and exchanges: Make sure you can exchange the phone if it doesn't give you good reception.
Each cellphone carrier has different return policies. For instance, Verizon gives you 14 days to return or exchange a cellphone with a $35 restocking fee. At AT&T you have 14 days with a similar restocking fee. Any phone purchased from Boost Mobile at its website can be returned within 14 days with preapproval, but exchanges are not allowed.
Also of Interest
- 10 things to know about using layaway
- 9 common ailments that drive you crazy
- Get free help with your taxes with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide
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