Size up your needs. When you sign up for cellular, your monthly bill can add anywhere from $20 to $100 or more to your household expenses. It's worth asking yourself whether you really need to take on that commitment.
Weigh all your options. The Internet has made shopping for plans much easier than just a few years ago, when all you had to go on were service providers' newspaper ads or brochures.
Consider a prepaid plan first. The consequences of committing to the wrong service contract can be costly, since most come with stiff early-termination penalties that can run as high as $200. That's why, if you're new to cellular, it may be a good idea to size up how you'll actually use the service before you sign on for a longer-term agreement. Most providers offer, at no monthly charge, plans that don't require a contract. You'll have to purchase an allotment of minutes separately and replenish your prepaid time when it runs out. Though more expensive on a per-minute basis, calling a la carte will help you better understand your usage patterns - whether the carrier meets them. Armed with those insights, you'll be better able to match a contract to your needs.
Don't gorge on "free" minute plans. Bigger buckets of included minutes of air time and the extra off-peak time you can purchase for a few dollars more may be as tempting as an all-you-can-eat buffet. But curb your appetite: Any unused time remaining in your account at month's end cannot be carried over, inflating the per-minute cost of calling time you do use.
Keep track of air time. Most handsets can keep a running count of minutes used, which may help track calls. But they cannot differentiate between peak and off-peak periods, if that matters in your plan. (Be clear on what your carrier considers a "weekend" some include Friday night, others don't.
Check contract details before signing. The price of getting a free or heavily discounted handset or the lowest per-minute rates might be a one- or two-year commitment with a stiff cancellation fee. But recognizing that it costs them less to hold onto a current customer than to recruit a new one, companies may allow you to upgrade or even downgrade your service plan without penalty.
When your contract expires. One year, the standard length of a cell-phone service contract is an eternity in this fast-moving industry. When your contract is up for renewal, should you jump ship and sign on with another carrier? (If you do nothing, your service will typically continue on a monthly basis.)
It's worthwhile to explore your options, but think twice about switching providers: You may have to buy a new phone, pay a new activation fee, and get a new number. What's more, the new carrier may present new aggravations. You may discover that you have problems calling in places where you've been used to phoning without a hitch.