Everything You Need to Know When Choosing a New Wireless Plan

PHOTOS: SHUTTERSTOCK; DESIGN: REBECCA HOSKINS

Whether you just graduated and are getting off the family plan, or you're merging finances with an S.O., setting up your own wireless plan is a key milestone on the path to becoming a true grown-up. But, there’s so much to consider: like if you need a new device, or if your plan fits your data usage. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems — especially if you look into virtual mobile network providers like Straight Talk Wireless — and keep a few things in mind:

Time your swap with when you need a new phone

There are situations when a new phone might be in your best interest, like if yours is broken, is lacking a new feature you're interested in, or is overdue for an upgrade. On most occasions, you'll purchase your device through your wireless carrier — especially if you’re planning on using a smartphone and don’t want to pay for it in one lump sum. (And, some will require you to have a phone that’s “unlocked,” so you’re able to use it on your new network.) Because of that, you can usually get the best deal on a new phone when you switch, as carriers will offer promotions (in the form of discounted, flashy phones) to get you to sign up. Be on the lookout for promotions at key times of the year, too: many run specials around back to school or the holidays. 

Save money by keeping your old phone, if you can 

Life gets in the way sometimes, and if you find yourself in a position to either get on your own plan, or link up on an S.O.’s ASAP, the simplest way to save $5-$50 on your monthly bill is to keep your own phone, rather than leasing a new one. (This is also the move if you just finished paying off a phone from your old carrier.) Some carriers, like Straight Talk Wireless, don’t require you to swap your old device in for one of theirs. Instead, the company will send you a new SIM card or activation code. If you’re planning on buying your next device outside of the carrier, you can also consider getting a compatible unlocked phone, too. 

Know who covers your hometown 

The last thing you want is to be unable to place a call while you’re out and about — or worse, be stuck on a loading screen when you just want to mindlessly scroll TikTok. So, before you choose your next carrier, check coverage maps to see who supports your area best. If you live in a big city, this isn’t as much of a concern, and you’ll likely have your pick of all that’s out there. But if your home (or regular weekend spot) is in a more rural area, you’ll want to check to make sure you can still get wireless access sans WiFi. 

Don’t overlook the little guys 

Big wireless networks used to tout that they had the best coverage in the nation, but really, smaller providers, like Straight Talk Wireless, have access to the same wireless towers. The company is a mobile virtual network operator, meaning that it partners with all of the “Big 3” wireless companies to provide coverage across the country. Plus, it offers less expensive plans and no contracts, which makes it easy to budget for and adjust if your usage changes.

Be real about your data usage 

Kind of like ordering a four-course, pre-fixe lunch, unlimited data seems like a great deal, but if you’re not going to actually eat, er, use it all, you’ll save money by just ordering a single entree. Your phone likely keeps track of your data usage, so check it out, and if you're using less than you expected (which is most likely the case), you can probably save some money each month on your bill by going with a lower data option. These days, most carriers automatically bundle unlimited calling and texting into the data plan, no matter how much you use (or not use, if you absolutely hate talking on the phone), but if you are super disconnected and just need the phone for emergencies, (a) who are you?; and (b) check out a basic phone plan. 

Keep an eye out for mystery fees

The price advertised for your plan could be a lot less than what you actually end up paying. In fact, Americans pay about $225 per year in fees on their wireless plans, which is ludicrous. Some, like taxes, are unavoidable, but there are providers out there that are upfront about these costs. Straight Talk Wireless, for example, doesn’t charge any mystery fees on top of its plan costs. Additionally, if you’re switching from one service provider to another, you’ll want to double-check the contract for any termination fees associated with doing so. Then, seek out a plan with a bit more flexibility, especially if you don’t want to be tied down to a contract.