How to Buy a Phone/Cell Phone Plan Online

The world is constantly changing, and so too are the ways we shop for our cell phones and cell phone plans. With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, traditional brick and mortar locations are either closed, or too risky to consider visiting.

Because of this, many of us prefer the convenience of shopping from home. And with carriers and retailers making online interactions more feasible, buying a cell phone plan and/or cell phone online is easier than ever before.

How do I buy a phone online?

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Compare phone pricing online

Before you buy a new phone or plan online from a carrier, compare pricing easily from one place. Our comparison tool makes it easy for you to check out phone and plan pricing across dozens of carriers in just a few minutes.

There is no shortage of places to buy a new cell phone online—you can purchase a device from major and small carriers alike (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, Cricket), manufacturers (e.g. Apple, Samsung), and retailers (e.g. Best Buy, Walmart).

Buying a phone online is generally a pretty straightforward process:

  • Browse the carrier’s phone catalog
  • Select the phone you want
  • Pick out any accessories or add-ons
  • Choose a device payment option (outright vs. monthly installments)

Keep in mind, depending on where you’re shopping (retailer vs reseller), and how you choose to pay, you’ll likely find some minor differences in the process.

Buying outright vs. monthly installments

Gone are the days of the two-year contract and its associated discount. Major carriers have opted to allow for either monthly installments or the outright purchase of your phone. There are ultimately no differences in pricing over the long haul; however, your monthly bill will be higher should you go the way of monthly installments, since the cost of your phone will be combined with your monthly plan price. That said, even with monthly installments, you’ll likely need to pay tax on the full purchase price of the phone upfront, in addition to any other associated costs (i.e. activation fees).

Regarding MVNOs, many will allow for the outright purchase of a phone, as well as offering financing options through third-parties (such as Affirm and SmartPay). It’s worth mentioning that many of these MVNO financing agreements are subject to interest payments, depending on both the MVNO and your credit history.

Leasing a phone from Sprint

If you find yourself wanting a new phone more frequently than most, you may want to consider leasing a phone through Sprint’s Flex Lease program. This gives you a bit more flexibility, as you’re paying less per month than you would on a traditional monthly installment plan. This is particularly helpful if you’re into getting the latest and greatest devices, which can easily run you over a thousand dollars.

Sprint is currently the only major carrier with leasing options, which gives you the chance to lease a phone for an 18-month period. The one downside is you won’t own the phone at the end of the lease—you can, however, return it and upgrade to a new model, or buy your cell phone via one lump sum or an additional six monthly installments.

Remember that leasing a phone isn’t always the most cost-effective approach; installments on a new device will almost always end up being the cheaper route if you’re looking to own your device at the end of the day.

Where to buy cheap phones online

Phones are quickly becoming handheld computers for many, and price tags on newer models often reflect that. Fortunately, there are other means of purchasing quality phones online, without breaking the bank.

Refurbished/certified pre-owned

If you’re looking for a newer phone, but not necessarily at its current price point, many carriers and retailers sell refurbished phones—ones that are restored to like-new condition.

A common fear with buying refurbished/pre-owned phones online is the uncertainty surrounding their reliability, but it’s worth mentioning that where you buy your phone largely determines its reliability. Apple, for instance, has excellent quality-control for their refurbished phones, including a one-year warranty with any iPhone purchase.

More ways to buy refurbished/pre-owned phones:

  • Verizon Wireless Certified Pre-Owned (90-day limited warranty)
  • AT&T Certified Restored (90-day limited warranty)
  • T-Mobile Certified Pre-Owned (90-day limited warranty)
  • Sprint Pre-Owned Phone (90-day limited warranty)
  • Best Buy Pre-Owned Cell Phones
  • Amazon
  • eBay

Older models

Many of today’s most popular phone models—iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and the Pixel series—release a new model at least once a year, if not more. Due to this, technological jumps between generations tend to be incremental, meaning older models stand the test of time better than they used to.

Most carriers usually carry stock of their older devices, and oftentimes promote deals to remind us that these phones still exist. You’ll likely be able to find great deals on older phones from third-party sellers as well, such as Amazon, Swappa, or eBay.

Here are some old phone models worth checking out:

Budget phones

Many of the major phone manufacturers—Samsung, Apple, and Google—are starting to become aware of the need for a “middle ground,” as far as their smartphones are concerned. The iPhone SE (2020), for instance, gives flagship-level performance at the staggeringly low price of $399—a far cheaper alternative to Apple’s typical high-end models.

Google and Samsung have also taken similar approaches, with the Google Pixel “a” series, and Samsung Galaxy “A” series—less expensive, high-performance variations of their respective flagship models.

Where to buy unlocked phones online

With so many carrier options at our disposal—both majors and MVNOs—unlocked phones have become increasingly desirable.

Most carriers have unlock policies, allowing you to unlock your phone with their assistance, assuming you’ve met the criteria. These criteria vary from carrier to carrier, but usually include some variation of the following:

  • Phone must be bought directly from carrier
  • Account needs to be in good standing/not delinquent
  • Phone cannot be reported lost/stolen
  • Must have been with carrier for specified period of time

Keep in mind that these are general requirements, and that you’ll need to check your carrier’s unlock policies for specific details.

Alternatively, you can buy an unlocked phone from a number of different online retailers and resellers:

  • Best Buy
  • Target
  • Apple
  • Samsung
  • Amazon

Can I sign up for a phone plan online?

The short answer is “yes”.

Most carriers have online portals that allow you to do things like create an account, add lines/features, and more—but it’s important to have an idea of what you’ll need before creating any accounts.

Compare Cellular’s search tool keeps updated information on carrier deals, plans, and pricing, which will save you the trouble of bouncing around from site to site to compare.

Factors to consider when choosing a plan

Picking a plan ultimately comes down to your personal needs, but there are some questions you should be asking yourself, regardless:

What is my monthly budget?

Arguably the most important factor for selecting a plan is going to be your budget. Such a wide array of carriers to choose from guarantees that no matter your range, there is a plan that will work for you. There are some general guidelines when it comes to plan pricing:

  • The less high-speed data included the cheaper your plan
  • Smaller carriers are generally cheaper than carriers like AT&T, Verizon, etc.
  • Basic plans without perks like mobile hotspot, entertainment subscriptions, and travel benefits are generally cheaper

What kind of coverage will I need?

Coverage will obviously depend on which carrier you decide to go with, but keep in mind that many MVNOs rent network space from the primary carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. Some MVNOs operate on multiple networks as well, giving you a bit more flexibility as far as coverage is concerned.

Before picking a plan, be sure to check each carrier’s coverage map to ensure you won’t be left with spotty reception.

Below is a list of some MVNOs and the networks that they operate on:

Carrier NetworkMVNOs on Network
AT&TCricket Wireless, Good2Go, FreeUP Mobile, H20 Wireless, Consumer Cellular
VerizonGreatCall, Twigby, Straight Talk, Tracfone, US Mobile.
T-Mobile Mint Mobile, Metro by T-Mobile, Simple Mobile, US Mobile, Consumer Cellular
SprintBoost Mobile, Tello, TextNow, Virgin Mobile, Twigby

Note: Newer phones tend to get better network coverage due to hardware upgrades, allowing them to take advantage of network improvements over the years

Do I need unlimited data?

Odds are you probably don’t need an unlimited data plan, particularly if you’re within range of Wi-Fi most of the day. Most carriers have made the shift towards unlimited plans in previous years, given the fact that most of today’s phones are built around data-based applications. But unless you’re away from Wi-Fi access; frequently streaming video; or constantly using social media apps like Facebook or Instagram, one of the limited plans offered by carriers will likely be perfectly fine.

If you’re unsure how much data you need, check your current cell phone bill or log into your account to check your usage data.

Should I get a family plan?

Family plans typically offer significant savings over individual plans, and sometimes cut costs on the phones themselves through special promotional deals. Some carriers even offer plans geared specifically towards kids, including parental controls and restrictions.

Will I need global roaming/travel features?

If you’re a frequent traveler or need to use your phone internationally, it’s worth considering plans that offer additional travel features—things like free international data, texting while overseas, or inflight data.

Should I choose a major carrier or an MVNO?

While major carriers are still essentially the backbone of the wireless industry, many smaller mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) have popped up over the years—offering a range of affordable plans.

These MVNOs rent space on major carriers’ networks, allowing them to pass savings onto you. But be aware that data speeds with MVNOs can potentially be deprioritized in favor of those with the actual carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint—but this is not always the case.

Can I change my phone plan online?

Most carriers make it fairly simple to change your plan online. The real question is whether you’re changing plans within your same carrier, or looking to change carriers altogether.

If you’re looking to only change plans, most of the time you’ll need to log into your account and find your “Account” section. You’ll then choose the “Change/Manage My Plan” option—from there you can follow the appropriate prompts in order to make your changes.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to switch carriers/port your number the process is a bit more involved.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that not every phone is compatible with all carriers, so you’ll want to check your phone’s compatibility with the carrier you’re looking to switch to.

Once you’ve checked your phone’s compatibility and selected a new plan with the new carrier, you’ll be prompted to either receive a new number or keep your old one. You’ll likely need to have your old account number handy, as well as a few other bits of information (i.e. last four of SSN, billing address, pin/password, etc.), depending on your new carrier’s requirements.

Note: Number ports don’t typically take place immediately, and you’ll likely need to wait anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours for it to be completed.

Who has the best cell phone plans?

Finding the best plan available will always come down to your individual needs. Between the major carriers and countless MVNOs, there are plenty of quality options to choose from.

If you’re looking to cut back and save some money, checking out popular MVNOs like Cricket, Metro by T-Mobile, or Mint Mobile may be your best bet. But remember that MVNOs often have less phone purchasing options available, and tend to have fewer resources/capabilities regarding customer service inquiries.

On the other hand, if you’d rather stick with a major carrier, you’ll have plenty of reliable plans to choose from—this in addition to the added peace of mind of being able to deal directly with the network provider. Because of this, you’ll also likely have a wider range of customer service options made available to you.