Considering they provide a relatively straightforward service with a limited range of contract options and add-ons, mobile phone operators have done a fine job of making the market as bewildering as possible.
Ever-changing tariff and handset deals can make it tricky to work out how to get the best value deal, not to mention a phone whose battery won't die every 24 hours.
Switching contracts or provider isn't a barrel of laughs either. But research wedded to confidence and canniness can get you a long way. Here's how to get the best mobile deal.
Your mobile use
Before you sign up with the first phone company that offers you a zillion free minutes and a cool phone, step back and consider how you use your mobile. Bumper packages of free minutes and other incentives might be worthless, depending on how, when and to whom you make most calls.
For example, if you use your mobile mostly to call abroad, those headline-grabbing deals will make not a jot of difference to your (probably astronomical) monthly bill.
If you already have a mobile deal, have a look at your bills for the previous six months. Work out how many minutes you tend to use each month, as well as text messaging volumes and mobile internet use.
Other questions to ask:
- Do you make most calls during peak times?
- Is there a particular network you call the most?
- How often do you check your voicemail?
It's also worthwhile finding out which networks have the most coverage in your area. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of variation.
Network provider websites allow you to check coverage by postcode. Ofcom has figures on calls connected and completed on each network for each UK region: www.ofcom.gov.uk
Ofcom also publishes information on customer satisfaction and numbers of complaints.
Once you have answered these questions, its time to think about tariffs.
There are three ways to pay. With a pre-paid or pay as you go tariff you buy the handset then purchase talking time each month via the phone company website with a debit card, or by buying top-up cards in shops with cash. There is no monthly charge or contract.
This kind of deal prevents younger phone users running up massive bills. Also, there are no credit checks on users. However, call charges tend to be higher and the choice of handsets is limited.
Monthly tariffs charge a set basic amount each month and require that you sign up for a 12 or 18-month contract.
These deals usually come with offers of free minutes and texts. The range of free handsets that come as part of these deal tend to be more up-to-date and higher spec than with pre-pay phones.
Pay up front tariffs are the least common. Under these deals you are billed monthly for calls but you are not charged a monthly subscriptions. Call charges and the price and range of handsets are similar to pay as you go tariffs.
Most contracts allow mobile phone service providers to increase tariff prices within reason, usually with a notice period.
It's easy to put off changing networks. But there's no point on forking out more cash each month than you have to, while using a handset that is past its best.
Before you decide to switch, find out if it's worth staying with your existing network.
If you're out of contract, you hold the cards and so will almost certainly be able to renegotiate your deal. If your phone provider offers you a basic renewal of your contract, this is your cue to request a new phone, more minutes or texts, or a cheaper monthly fee. At the very least, ask if they can match whatever their current best offer to new customers is.
If your provider turns you down, ask (sweetly) to be put through to their disconnections department.
Remember: the mobile phone market is oversaturated with providers and consequently is a cutthroat business environment.
They want to keep your custom. Whoever is on the other end of the line has been trained to keep you on board, probably by offering you six months half-price rental or the latest phone.
Don't feel guilty about driving a hard bargain. Think of it as a just reward for your loyalty (or for going through the hassle of choosing a new provider). You are only cutting their already bloated profit margins by an infinitesimal fraction.
If you are offered a particular make of phone as an incentive to stay, ask to think about it, get the name and number of the person you are talking to and tell them you'll call back. Then do some research. Some mobile providers have a habit of fobbing off rubbish phones on unsuspecting customers. Checking some of the mobile phone reviews websites, and Which.com best buys will highlight any dud handsets you might want to avoid.
If you choose to switch
Your current network must give you a Port Authorisation Code (Pac) or a reason why it won't do so within two working days. You can get it from customer services. Usually you will be able to get it over the phone or by text. Orange customers currently receive the Pac in writing.
This is a unique code that enables you to port (transfer) your mobile phone number from one network to another. When you apply to a new network, you will be asked for this number. It is valid for 30 days.
Most providers will give you your code for nothing. They are however allowed to charge. This shouldn't be more than £25.
If you're still under contract, you may have to pay the remainder of your monthly fees.
Your new network will give you a sim card and phone. This should all take about five working days under rules set down by the telephone watchdog Ofcom.
Ofcom has set a deadline of September 2009 for networks to enable switchers to re-use their numbers within two hours of moving to their new provider. From 1 April, 2008, networks must cut port times to a maximum of two days.
A number of independent websites allow you to compare different packages and tariffs. These include Which? and Moneysupermarket.com.
Watch out for the middle men
The five major networks sell phones and contracts directly. However, they also authorise dealers to sell contracts on their behalf, in return for commission. These include big high street names such as Carphone Warehouse and Phones4U.
These are reputable businesses. However, you should be aware that staff are frequently given an incentive to push one network over another. They will also be paid commission if they can get you to take out insurance. Refuse it every time. The key is to shop around.
Way down the food chain from the High Street players there is a different type of affiliate. This is the one that will text or phone you - sometimes to the point of pestering - warning that your deal is about to end and it could help you to get a better one.
You'd do well to ignore these people, some of whom operate close to the fringes of illegality. Falling for their sales pitch could see you locked into a two-year deal with a useless handset and a contract worse than the one you're on.
Ofcom has reported a sharp rise in complaints from people who feel unscrupulous middlemen have scammed them.
In short: stick to your network provider or a reputable name with a High Street presence.
You know the scenario: you go on holiday and call everyone to tell them how great a time you are having. You also send a few texts and access your voicemail a few times. Then you get home, open your phone bill and consider fleeing the country.
For years, phone companies have got away with charging astronomical fees for mobile roaming.
Those days are nearly at an end though, as Ofcom and the EU are to force providers to cut their fees for using phones abroad. If you spend a lot of time abroad, check what the roaming charges are on each deal before you sign up.
Don't buy the insurance
When you buy a phone an attempt will be made to sell you insurance. Depending on how inventive he is, the salesman will posit a number of scenarios such as you getting mugged for your phone, before telling you that the cover he is selling is a necessity.
Ignore him. The premiums and excesses are usually extortionate and there can be significant exclusions, such as water damage. If you do take out the insurance, you have a 14-day cooling off period and can cancel and get a refund within this period.
These deals (offered by retailers, not the network providers) are notoriously unreliable. They are usually not worth bothering about - focus on getting the best long term deal instead.
Perhaps the only reliable cashback deal there is involves getting money in return for your old handset.
Ask if there is cashback for returning your phone to whoever you bought your package from. If not, there are plenty of companies (Envirofone and Mobile2Cash for example) out there who will pay you for your handset, although they usually require that it is in good condition.
When things go wrong
If your provider continues to charge you after you have left, contact them and ask them to desist.
Instruct your bank to stop Direct Debits to the phone company. If your phone provider won't give you a refund, ask for a deadlock letter. You need this to take up your claim with The Communications Ombudsman (The Communications Ombudsman) or The Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (The Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme).
If the company won't give you a deadlock letter, you have to wait 12 weeks from the time of your first complaint before you go to them.
Useful contacts:- Ofcom
- The Communications Ombudsman
- The Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme
- The Consumer Association