All I've ever known is a traditional, multi-year cell phone contract. Several people in my close circle of friends have switched over to prepaid wireless when their contracts were up. Should I switch too? I decided to delve into the matter for a couple of reasons: I don't know much about the prepaid wireless players and, just like anything else, I'm assuming that some prepaid mobile providers are better than others for different users and different coverage areas. Starting your search for the prepaid wireless provider that's best for you involves asking yourself some basic questions.
How much will you use your cell phone? Are you an everyday, all day talker and texter? Or do you check in on your phone once or twice a day or more like a few times a month? Is your phone just for emergencies? Do you do a lot of social networking? It doesn't take long to figure out that the type of phone and number of minutes you need directly relates to the way you use your phone.
Identify the type of cell phone you want. Take a look at each type of phone, including smartphones, camera phones, flip (or clamshell) phones, slider-keyboard phones, and Bluetooth-enabled phones, and consider that every one of them comes with a different price tag and functionality requirements. And unlike traditional contract-based mobile providers, prepaid carriers don't typically subsidize the cost of the phone, which means you'll most likely pay full price for your phone. Take an honest look at your budget and if you're really worried about cost, rest assured that several online sites (like TracFone, for example) and retail outlets (think Walmart) carry lots of phones starting in the under $20 range.
Are you a data hog? Viewing videos, sharing photos on social networks, and email traffic can consume a lot of network data. Keep in mind that some prepaid wireless carriers will charge you extra fees if you surpass your data limit (even if you have an unlimited data plan). Or, if they think you're purposely abusing their network, they could cut off your service altogether.
Where will you use your mobile phone? Determine which prepaid wireless providers offer the best service coverage in your area by checking their coverage maps (this info is usually available on the provider's website; I found one on Straight Talk's home page). If you call or travel internationally, make sure your provider of choice has service that works in the countries you visit or dial the most.
Do your homework. Friends and family are invaluable sources for information and recommendations about prepaid wireless provider coverage and customer service, especially if they use their phones in your same geographic area. Online sites are great for comparing rates and service plans (the links below are a good start). When you're narrowing down your list of prepaid wireless providers, make sure to read the fine print to identify any overage costs or hidden charges.
As you do your research and weigh your options, keep in mind that ultimately, you want to select the prepaid wireless provider that has a plan with optimal rates and coverage for you, and a phone that you want.