Choose a service first, and then choose a phone. Specific phones work with an individual carrier's networks, so your choice of phones will be limited greatly by the carrier you choose. In the end, reviewers say, network functionality and customer service are bigger issues than whether or not your phone has 50 fancy ringtones.
Decide whether you want local, regional or national coverage. Although most carriers are now including long distance and roaming charges in their highest-profile plans, you can save some money with a local or regional cell phone plan if you will primarily be making and receiving calls within your area.
Estimate the number of minutes you need. Although coverage charges can quickly mount if you exceed your allotted minutes, consider starting with a cheaper cell phone plan -- but keep a careful watch on your usage. If you already have a phone, you'll have a good idea of how many minutes you'll need. An unlimited plan may or may not be worthwhile, depending on how much you chat.
Check the coverage area. Carriers have coverage maps on their websites. Some carriers are better distributed than others in rural or sparsely populated states such as Wyoming or West Virginia. That may further limit your choice of carrier.
Consider a prepaid cell phone plan. If you don't want to be locked into a contract, a prepaid cell phone is a good option. See our report on prepaid cell phone plans for more information.
Ask friends and neighbors. Do your own informal poll of people in your area. Those who live or work in your neighborhood can tell you how frequently they experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls.
Compare products and cell phone plans at a retail store or website. Some consumer electronics stores offer one-stop shopping, and store staff can help explain phone features and plan options.
Check carriers' websites for promotions. Also, phone them directly to ask about any current offers. Be sure to take advantage of the trial periods, usually between 14 and 30 days, offered by most cellular companies.
Weigh other features. Cell phone-plan features such as text messaging, picture messaging, Internet connectivity, games, music, etc., are usually not free and can quickly add up. If you start with a basic cell phone plan, carriers will let you add these services later.
Determine the early termination fee. These fees can be significant, sometimes up to $350, though some carriers now prorate their early termination fees based on usage. If in doubt, sign up for the shortest possible contract.
4G promises better service than today's 3G network, and allows for faster streaming and downloading of high-definition video and large data files. All of the major carriers have 4G plans in place, with varying coverage and speeds. There are several recognized 4G technologies, but LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is considered the fastest and is where the industry is moving. Experts warn that before you subscribe to a 4G service, check that it is actually 4G LTE technology and not just an enhanced 3G network.