By Lewis Lang
One of the questions seniors most frequently ask me is, “What company should I use for cell phone service?” I do have some recommendations depending on a couple of different factors, and if you are not satisfied with you current provider, you should know that the process of switching does not have to be complicated. You may even be able to save some money getting service that is better suited to your needs.
In the past, most people bought a cell phone through one of the big communications companies, such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. You signed up for a one- or two-year contract, and you either got a free phone or a heavily discounted one. The catch was that you had to complete the contract even if better deals became available. Plus, many times the phone you got was locked to that company, and it was complicated to unlock and take to another provider.
The market has changed dramatically over the last several years, especially with the appearance of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). These are companies that provide service using the cell phone networks of the big three: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. They don’t carry the overhead of physical stores, so they tend to be cheaper and normally do not require contracts. The tradeoff for their lower prices is that it is more complicated to get help in person compared to the big three. Examples of these low-cost providers that would be good choices for seniors are: Consumer Cellular, Visible, and QLink. Consumer Cellular does have a presence in Target stores, so there is someone available to help you.
Who do I recommend?
Consumer Cellular might be the first choice for most seniors. You can purchase a phone and sign up for a plan in Target department stores, and the representatives will assist you in setting up your phone. Their phone-based customer service is in the United States, so getting help over the phone is typically a better experience than talking to someone in a call center overseas.
Consumer Cellular also offers a base unit for your home to which you can connect a landline, if you prefer to have a traditional phone experience in addition to your cell phone. Limited data availability is one primary drawback with Consumer Cellular. However, if cellular data is not a priority for you, or if you can connect to Wi-Fi at your home, this is probably not an issue.
T-Mobile is another good option. T-Mobile has its own stores, which is practical when you need help. The plan the company offers for seniors is called Essentials 55+. It is reasonably priced and data is unlimited. Their customer service is also fairly good.
Visible is a company to consider if customer service is not as important to you and you are comfortable setting up your service online. Visible does not have physical stores, but since the company is owned by Verizon, you should be able to get some basic help with your phone in Verizon company stores. However, Verizon employees will not be able to assist you with Visible account questions. Visible has a very good unlimited data plan for the price, and it includes phone calls to Mexico and Canada.
QLink is unique in that it provides free cell phone service if you meet certain requirements. If you are low-income or live on tribal land, this is a great option that many people are not aware of. To be eligible, you need to participate in a government program such as SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit Fund, or have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. You must sign up online and show proof of your eligibility. The federal program that provides the subsidy for your service is called “Lifeline” or “ACP”. QLink has good customer service available by phone, but they do not have physical stores.
With all the companies above, you can continue to use the phone you currently have. Consumer Cellular and T-Mobile will set up your phone in person at their stores or kiosks. Visible and QLink will mail you a new SIM (a small paper chip) and you will have to insert it into your phone yourself. It is not difficult to do, but you need to be comfortable following some simple instructions and creating an account online.
If your phone is not working well, or if you would like to upgrade to a new phone, I would recommend buying a phone directly from the cell phone company that is going to provide your service. I would suggest an Android phone that costs no more than $200 and that supports 4G (5G, if possible), or any Apple iPhone. Personally, I prefer iPhones because I think they are somewhat easier to use, but they are also more expensive. Also, if you are accustomed to Android, there are a wider variety of phones to choose from.
I should mention that the phones I’m referring to are “smartphones”. They have a screen that is made of glass and are essentially small computers. Some people find them too complicated, and you always have the option of buying a more traditional phone that has a physical number pad for dialing — a “flip phone” or something similar. No matter which cell phone you choose, if you are paying for a separate fixed home phone (a “landline”), you should think about saving some money and dropping what is probably an unnecessary service.
The process of choosing a cell phone company and buying a phone can be confusing with all the options that are available. Take your time and think about how much you want to spend and the level of support you will need. Remember that it is relatively easy to switch companies if you are not happy, and whatever you do, I would advise against signing any kind of contract.
Consumer Cellular: www.consumercellular.com
SIM card: small paper chip that inserts into your phone and allows it to communicate with cell phone towers. You have to change this chip if you switch to a new cell phone company.
eSIM or Virtual SIM: Same as a SIM, but there is no physical paper card. It is installed electronically.
4G, 5G or LTE: Speed of the network your phone uses. 5G is the fastest but is not available everywhere, and 4G (LTE) is more than adequate for normal use.
Smartphone: Phone with a glass screen that will connect you to the internet and has a built-in GPS, camera, etc.
Flip Phone: Phone with physical keys, only basic functions for calling and texting, and a longer lasting battery.
Big Three Phone Companies: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Have physical stores where you can buy phones, sign up for service, and get help.
Virtual Phone Companies: Consumer Cellular, Visible, QLink, and many others. Sell their services and phones online or at retailers like Walmart and Target.
My name is Lewis Lang, and I have been helping individuals, schools, and companies with their IT needs for more than 20 years. I recently relocated to Albuquerque after living abroad, and my current focus is on helping seniors navigate the sometimes confusing world of technology.