So, you're going to be one of them, huh? Well, it was just a matter of time. We're warning you, once you get a cell phone, there's no turning back. Fine, we'll help you find the perfect cellular phone, but we're going to be rolling our eyes with the rest of the people you encounter on the street and at stoplights. And if you use it in a movie or restaurant, we are legally obliged to hurt you.

Wait one sec… we got a call… OK, we're back.


What makes cell phones different from land-based lines is that they transmit by radio waves, and therefore rely on these big damn antennae that are strewn about the U.S. Cellular, by the way, refers to the interconnection of these radio fields around those antennae. As you move from field to field, it is like moving from cell to cell in one big organism. Naturally, there are more in the populated areas, like, you know, cities.

These phones operate on three different systems. Don't worry; we're not gonna explain how or why. We're only gonna give you the bottom line – the advantages and disadvantages of each one. To be precise, you shouldn't start out by choosing an "actual phone." (So we lied in the heading.) You really can't choose your phone until you complete Step 2. and choose a service plan. This is because you may need to buy a phone from the company that it providing you service; they may offer you a free phone, etc. For now, you are just selecting a phone type.

The three types of phones

Analog phones. Analog is the original cell phone type. What does that mean? On the plus side, the phones themselves are a bit less expensive than the alternatives, and the nation is already equipped for these phones, so you can use them in 95% of the country. Yes, even in Podunk, North Dakota. Analog is for you big travelers. On the negative side, the sound quality is not the sharpest, and the minute rates tend to be higher than the alternative. The times, they are a changin'. We recommend that you forget about analog phones and go with a digital or PCS.

Digital phones. These have better signals, and cheaper call rates. Batteries tend to last longer as well (because the phones require less power). The problem is that coverage tends to cut out (or be patchy) once you are not in those aforementioned populated areas; digital-equipped antennae aren't covering the country the way analog-equipped ones are. But they will be soon. In any case, if you are planning to use your cell phone while traveling cross-country, digital phones may give you a problem for this reason.

PCS phones. PCS stands for Personal Communications Service. For all practical purposes, it is effectively the same as digital. You may have heard the term used in connection with Sprint (e.g., Sprint PCS).

Additional features to consider

Dual mode phones. These are really cool phones that can automatically switch between digital and analog. When you are in range of digital antennae, they go with that, and as you move out, they automatically utilize the analog lines. Good for those cross-country types we just spoke of. Funky. Useful.

Battery Life. When you choose a phone, you should consider how long it can last on standby (turned on, but not in use), and how much talk time you have before recharging. By the way, many believe it is a good idea to invest in a second battery, so you can always have one charging, and a fresh one in the phone at all times. Remember to ask about the strength of the signals between phones as you shop around. Some phones don't work while inside buildings. If you're planning to use the cell phone as your all-utility phone (as many people are increasingly opting), you'll want a phone with a strong signal.

Weight. The lighter it is, the more pleasant to carry around (and lose).

Size. Frequent readers of SYW are probably expecting a "does" or "does not matter" joke. We're taking the fifth. Just think about it.

Color. What can we say? This is a personal choice. Phones come in many colors from chrome to emerald to basic black. If this is an important consideration to you, you have warped priorities, but hey, we said we'd provide you with all the information, so there you have it.

To find a selection of phones from various major brands that fits your needs and price range, answer this six question custom survey at


Unlike "regular" phone plans where you just get billed for how many minutes you use, cell phone agreements generally require you to determine in advance how much you will use your phone. Below we outline the two major arrangements.

Prepaid accounts

Prepaid accounts allow you to pay in advance for a fixed number of minutes. These plans afford you a great deal of flexibility because you can usually use the minutes whenever you want. Their major disadvantage is that the per minute rate is higher than the alternatives.

"Block" minute plans

The most common cell phone services plans today involve the purchase of a "block" of minutes per month. What this means is that you will pay a flat fee for a set number of minutes—the going rate is about 10 cents a minute (a 500-minute block, for example, would probably cost around $49.99). Putting extra charges like taxes aside for a minute, you can spend your entire block of minutes talking on your phone in a given month without paying more than your flat rate. In other words, if you had a 500-minute plan, you could spend up to 500 minutes on the phone for $49.99. Of course, if you only used 200 minutes you will still have to pay the full $49.99. You might be wondering, "What happens if I use more than my allotted minutes." Well, you're not going to like the answer. For every minute that you use above your block, you will pay an extremely high "penalty" rate. This rate can be as high as 25 –50 cents per minute. For this reason, you must give serious thought to how many minutes you want. Are you using your cell phone as a replacement for your normal phone, or is it an "emergency" phone? Many people are opting for the former, replacing their normal phone with this high-tech gadget. Just keep in mind that cell phones, while convenient, are not as reliable as standard phones. As you now know, cell phones depend on airwaves being available for you to use, and if you are not relatively near a station or if the airwaves are overloaded, your phone won't work. Bummer.

Anyway, as intimated above, the most important decision that you will make when you sign up for cell phone service is "how many minutes." Of course, every phone company employee will recite the mantra that you can always switch (i.e., add minutes to your block) later. What they will not volunteer is that such a change will not take effect until the next month. Therefore, if you guess incorrectly and use far more than your block, you could end up wasting hundreds of dollars.

For this reason, you should be extremely liberal when estimating how many minutes to include in your block. Trust us, as frustrating as having unused minutes can be, the alternative is worse. And here are the biggies to consider:

  • You not only have to count the minutes for the calls you've made, you are also charged minutes for all of the calls you receive. Think of it as somebody doing you a favor by letting you use the radio waves; any time you cause a signal to be used, you pay for it.
  • Most calls are rounded up to the highest minute. So a 15-second call will cost you 1 minute. Now, a lot of phones have a groovy little feature that displays how many minutes you've used. DON'T be fooled. This option calculates your total time by seconds, not minutes. Whatever the display reads, your actual use is much higher.
  • If you get a busy signal or no answer, you'll still get charged. Some plans now have it where you'll only get charged if you wait for three rings, or other variations, but think of it this way: you're still using radio waves, so you're still getting charged.

That said, here is a formula that we find works well in deciding how many minutes your should get in your block plan:

  1. Guesstimate the length of time you spend on an average phone call.
  2. Multiply that by the number of calls that you make and receive in one month.
  3. Add another 50 minutes.

So, for example:

Mary spends about 20 minutes on the phone per call.
She knows five people.
She calls each friend once a week.
Each friend calls her once a week.
There are about 4 weeks in a month.

20 minutes per call X 10 calls per week (5 made, 5 received) X 4 weeks per month + 50 "safety" minutes = 850 minutes


Before you start clogging the airwaves there, tiger, you've still got a lot of work to do. You have to determine where you're going to use the phone most, and when you're going to use it most. In other words, you've got to choose a service plan.

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.

If you want a cell phone because you travel all over the continental U.S. of A. and need to be in continuous contact with the home office, that is one thing. If you are super-paranoid about the only trip you ever make – the two-block drive to church - and want a cell phone in case the Almighty decides to smite you en route, that is quite another. You may recognize the different sorts of plans from your land-based home phone. You can get different deals from your phone company if you mainly call locally, or if you frequently call long distance.

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.

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 Type in your zip code, and it'll direct you to your nearest providers, as well as tell you about each one.

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.

Once you have decided where, when, and for how long you are planning to use your phone, you are ready to contact service providers, and see if they have plans that not only fit your needs, but do so for the least amount of money.

Determine if you want web access

Now, lots of providers are offering web browsing as part of their service plan. You need to make sure that your cell phone is Internet ready before you choose this option. If you're the type of person who has to know the latest sports scores and stock quotes no matter where you are, then you might want to get web access as part of your service plan. If you sign up for web access, you will get a certain number of messages or updates that you get to choose. For example, suppose you want to know when your favorite stock is going up. You can set up an update to inform you whenever this occurs. You can do similar things with sports scores, the weather, or even your horoscope.

You can also browse the web just like on your computer, save for the fact that there are no graphics, and the cell phone does not support all websites (like those with Shockwave, for example). While you're browsing, you'll be eating up minutes of your plan though, so be careful not to get too wound up in the web.

Pick a plan

Here is a list of contact numbers for some of the larger service providers.

AT&T Wireless Services1-800-888-7600
Bell Atlantic Mobile1-800-922-0204
BellSouth Mobility1-404-249-5000
Cellular One1-800-CELL-ONE
GTE Wireless Services1-800-677-2109
MCI Worldcom1-800-444-3333
Omnipoint Communications1-800-BUY-OMNI
Pacific Bell Wireless1-800-393-7267
Southwestern Bell Wireless1-800-347-5881
Sprint PCS1-800-818-0961

The world's largest service provider, Verizon, doesn't have a universal 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 there is a good chance that you can get a great deal. If you go to, you'll get a side-by-side comparison of the major plans out there, including what the latest deals are. The lesson: always do research, or else you'll get snookered.

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
Wireless Web: 50 updates for $9.99 a month

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
1400 minutes for $149.99

Verizon Wireless (SingleRate Plan; long distance and local)
150 minutes for $35.00 a month
400 minutes for $55.00
600 minutes for $75.00
900 minutes for $100.00
1500 minutes for $150.00
2000 minutes for $200.00
Mobile Web: 100 updates for $6.95 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.


While picking your actual phone, see if the phones in your price range include accessories that you want. Some examples of accessories to ask for are:
  • Number storage - can the phone hold an address book of frequently called numbers? If so, how many can it hold?
  • Voice mail - does it include the ability for callers to leave voice messages?
  • Text messaging - does it have the option for callers to leave text messages? (Text messaging is a service that callers can choose where they speak a message, and it is typed verbatim by the service, and appears on your screen.)
  • Fax capabilities - can you hook up your phone and send faxes?
  • Caller ID - can you see the number of the person who called when they called?
  • Paging - can your phone double up as a pager?
  • Call waiting - does it have it?
  • Conference calling - does it have it?
  • E-mail - can you hook a computer up to your phone and get Internet/e-mail access?
  • Insurance - some phones can be pretty expensive, so if something happens to yours, will you be covered?
NOW it's time to call those numbers we gave you, complete with a list of 1-the number of minutes you need, 2-where you'll usually be using the phone, 3-when you'll usually be using the phone, and 4-all of the accessories you want. Then once you have a calling plan from a service provider signed and your phone in hand, you are ready to dial. Who are you going to call? Do not say anything about anyone who has anything to do with ghosts or the busting of said ghosts thereof.