It Might Be Time to Switch to an off-Contract Cell Carrier

If you’re like most Americans, getting locked into a cell phone plan probably feels just a bit like indentured servitude. Carriers like AT&T and Verizon continually change the rules of play, hit us with mysterious fees, and charge extra for features that are already baked into our smartphones.

So if you’re getting a little frustrated with your ridiculous cell phone bill, it might be time to check out an off-contract cell carrier.

I was as surprised as anybody to learn that many of these off-contract providers match – at least for the most part – their larger counterparts for customer service, coverage, and choice of phone. There are plenty of caveats, but the thing to remember is that many of these smaller providers are actually subsidiaries of the so-called “Big Four”: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

If you’re looking for the fine print, you’re about to get it. Let’s take a look.

What Do You Need to Know?

There are quite a few things to consider any time you’re thinking about switching to a different cell carrier, but we can distill these down to three:

Speed: Depending on how you use your mobile devices, speed may not be as important to you as other considerations. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that off-contract carriers do limit their speeds. AT&T’s Cricket, for example, throttles users to 8 Mbps. For basic phone functionality, this is just fine – and it stands to reason that if you’re trying to do something more data intensive you’ll use Wi-Fi anyway.

Coverage: For most people, coverage is going to be the most important deciding factor. Even the Big Four are still fighting uphill battles when it comes to extending even basic coverage to certain parts of the country, so don’t expect any miracles from the off-contract carriers. That said, most of the little guys offer similar coverage, since they use much of the same physical infrastructure. Before you make any decisions, be sure to take a look at the available coverage maps.

Phone Choices: If you plan on switching to an off-contract carrier, you can breathe easier knowing that you can bring along just about any type of device you like. Naturally, you’re limited to unlocked phones that aren’t under contract with another carrier. This does mean that you’ll pay a premium for an unlocked top-of-the-line phone, such as the still-pretty-new iPhone 6, but that cost might be offset by your savings in the long run.

Do the Research

Let’s be clear about something: the Big Four are already a mixed bag when it comes to the services they offer, and you can expect more of the same if you decide to go with one of their off-contract subsidiaries.

That being the case, I’d encourage you to check out Tech Hive’s report card for the Big Four. But don’t stop there; do plenty of your own research, talk with your friends, and read reviews. It’s a shame that we have only four major choices when it comes to cell carriers. Compare that to the hundreds of salad dressing choices we have at the grocery store, and you start to appreciate just how inconsistent the world of choice really is.

But choosing a cell carrier is a bit different than deciding between blue cheese and sweet vidalia. So weight your options. Take a look at the Big Four and their smaller subsidiaries. You might actually have quite a few more attractive choices than you may have guessed.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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