How to Buy a Cell Phone Without a Service Provider

By Rebecca O'Brien

To receive the outrageously low advertised price for a new cell phone, you need to agree to purchase service from the carrier for one or two years. These contracts lock you in to one service for the duration, unless you pay a "termination fee" which can range from $150 to $250. You can often establish service with a company, on a month to month basis, if you purchase the phone separately.

Decide what type of phone you will need. There are two types of cell phone technologies, GSM and CDMA. Some phone models support both. Find out which technology the network you plan to use supports and look for phones for that technology. See Tips for the technologies used by popular carriers.

Search second hand options. Check websites like eBay and Craig's List for used phones. Many users will sell their old phones after they upgrade. Other phones are available from companies that broker refurbished cell phones. Both of these options usually results in a lower price than you would pay in the store.

Shop retailers. You can purchase cell phones directly from the carrier, even if you aren't establishing service, for the retail price. Visit the stores that carry the technology you need and ask how much the phone costs "unactivated".

Make sure it can be unlocked. If the phone you are going to purchase isn't branded for the service you will be using, you need to "unlock" it, or make it compatible with all carriers. Most GSM phones can be easily unlocked through the company they were branded for or the manufacturer. CDMA phones are often more difficult to unlock, as they may require additional programming. Be aware that the unlocking service may not exist, and, if it does, can be costly.

Purchase and unlock the phone. Only take these final steps once you have established that the phone can be unlocked and reprogrammed and is compatible with your current provider in that state. Once you have unlocked a phone, you will not be able to return or exchange it.