1. Determine where you will use your phone. Where you will use your phone will determine whether you get a long distance plan or not. Some plans focus on giving you a good deal if you stay in a certain area, and only make local calls. Other plans allow more leeway for travel and long distance calls, by giving you a less expensive rate for long distance, while ignoring where your calls are made from and who you are calling.

  2. Consider the roaming charges. A word about traveling, by the way: You will probably hear the phrase "roaming" thrown about. "Roaming" is when you make a call outside your Home Service Area (where you set up your account). Usually, an additional charge is levied for this service. More and more companies are now providing plans with no roaming charges, so it may be a good idea to check the policy of the plan you are interested in to see how it is addressed.

  3. Find a local service provider. The bottom line is, when you get a cell phone, you're going to have to contact a local service provider, because it's their airwaves you'll be using. To find a provider nearest to you (and to find out about every single deal they offer), go to http://www.point.com. Type in your zip code, and it'll direct you to your nearest providers, as well as tell you about each one.

  4. Consider when your calls are made. The times of day and day of the week that you will use your phone are also important variables in choosing a service provider and airtime deal. Once you join cell-phone-world, you'll be bombarded with offer after offer. They usually revolve around "nights and weekends." Free nights and weekends typically gives you uncharged minutes from 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. from Monday to Thursday, and from 9:00 p.m. Friday to 9:00 a.m. Monday morning. However, if you want the phone primarily for your business use, you would want to focus on the Monday through Friday daytime deals you could get. For example, AT&T offers one rate for anytime you call - including daytime.

  5. Pick a plan. Here is a list of contact numbers for some of the larger service providers:

    AT&T Wireless Services 1-800-888-7600
    Bell Atlantic Mobile 1-800-922-0204
    BellSouth Mobility 1-404-249-5000
    Cellular One 1-800-CELL-ONE
    GTE Wireless Services 1-800-677-2109
    MCI Worldcom 1-800-444-3333
    Omnipoint Communications 1-800-BUY-OMNI
    Pacific Bell Wireless 1-800-393-7267
    Southwestern Bell Wireless 1-800-347-5881
    Sprint PCS 1-800-818-0961

    The world's largest service provider, Verizon, doesn't have a single contact number, but if you go to their website they will refer you to their local affiliate in your area.

    As far as the going rates for 'blocks' of time, examples of the four most popular calling plans from the two most popular providers are provided below. Keep in mind, though, that this is a competitive industry, and the numbers change so quickly, that our information below serves only as a guideline. Still do your own research, because these companies really want your business and may be offering deals.

    Sprint PCS (Free and Clear Plan; for all minutes long distance or local)

    180 minutes for $29.99 a month
    500 minutes for $49.99
    700 minutes for $69.99
    1000 minutes for $99.99
    1500 minutes for $149.99

    AT&T (Digital Plan; local minutes only)

    200 minutes for $29.99 a month
    300 minutes for $39.99
    500 minutes for $49.99
    700 minutes for $69.99
    1100 minutes for $99.99

    AT&T (One Rate Plan; long distance and local)

    600 minutes for $89.99 a month
    1000 minutes for $119.99 a month
    1400 minutes for $149.99 a month

A footnote about the phone itself: most good plans will give you the phone for free if you sign up with them. Unless you need a high-tech phone with lasers and gizmos, just take the one they give you. It'll do the job just fine.

Now, don't sign anything yet. You're just calling for basic information right now, to confirm the cost of the basic block packages. Before you actually sign a contract, you'll have to decide any accessories that you may want.

SoYouWanna know more? Check out our full-length article SYW buy a cell phone?