Buying a cellphone doesn't have to be a challenge. Here's what seniors should consider before choosing a plan.

Buying a cellphone can be a daunting task for anyone. There are numerous carriers, models, data plans, insurance, and other factors to weigh and, at the same time, straight information can be hard to come by. For seniors, finding the right cellphone can be even more difficult with unfamiliar technology and sometimes confusing billing structures making things even murkier.

In this guide, we'll give you the knowledge to ask the right questions, and we'll point out some of the best cellphones for seniors. With a little patience and persistence, it isn’t too much trouble to get set up with a phone you feel confident using and a bill you understand.

The Basics

Cellphones come in several basic styles with a whole host of available features. Many of the top models can cost well over a thousand dollars while more modest phones can cost a few hundred. Unless you’re an aspiring videographer or Instagram celebrity, don’t be too drawn in by the flashy advertising for the latest and great models. Many of these have vastly inflated prices, driven up by high-tech cameras capable of taking cinema-quality video and photos. For most, a basic model is enough to cover checking email, placing phone calls, sending text messages, and surfing the web.

Flip-phones are the most basic models available. These can make calls and receive text messages, but they're a little limited in other features. They are, however, a great low-cost option for someone only looking to make and receive phone calls or as a second, emergency phone to keep in your car or home.

Jitterbug is a popular model of flip-phone featuring large, easy to read keys that make dialing simple. You may have seen their advertisements in newspapers and magazines. The company enjoys a reputation with seniors as being a straight-forward, no-nonsense phone that's easy to use and rather durable. 

Smartphones, such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, are the most common on the market today. Think of these as a computer, a phone, and a camera that you can carry in your pocket or purse. Almost every smartphone also includes Bluetooth, a wireless standard that allows your phone to be compatible with many hearing aids on the market, essentially turning your hearing aid into an earpiece. The Jitterbug smartphone, like their flip-phone, is a model designed especially for seniors with intuitive, easy to understand menus and features.

Finding the Right Carrier

Unlike landlines, you have a lot of choices in your cellphone company (also known as a carrier). Though consolidation has narrowed the field, there are still several major carriers. Before you go shopping, it's best to know what some of what to expect at the store and what kind of discounts to ask for.

Cellphones are sold with a service plan. The cost of purchasing the phone is separate from the monthly bill you’ll pay for your usage. It's often not necessary to purchase the phone outright, and instead, you can spread the cost out over a year or two.

When selecting a phone, ask the salesperson to demonstrate its core functions and features. They should be able to confidently show you how to use the phone, including how to change the text size and use other adaptive features like Bluetooth for a hearing aid. Most salespeople are very familiar with the phones and can tend to speed through some of the more basic features. Don’t be afraid to say, “hold up!” if something isn’t clear. It's their job to make sure you’re picking the right model. Don’t be talked into something with more features than you’ll use and be sure to handle the phone yourself before making a decision.

Choosing the Right Service Plan

Once you’ve selected a phone, it's time to move onto a service plan. This covers your phone service. A few basic terms to know:

  • Minutes: How many minutes of phone calls you’ll be able to make without incurring extra fees. There's no additional charge for long-distance, except for international calls. Your phone should be able to keep track of how many minutes you’ve used each month. 
  • Data: This is usually measured in gigabytes (GB). This is the data that brings you text messages, emails, and websites. Again, overages cost more, and your phone can keep track of this for you.
  • Family or shared plans: This is a way of putting several phone lines on one bill. Many carriers offer discounts for second phones and lines, making it easy for spouses or partners to stay in touch. 

If your web and email usage is limited, consider a plan with a more modest data allowance and a higher number of minutes. Email and texts use comparatively little data while streaming videos and downloading photos use a lot. Get a sense of how much you talk on the phone and how much you think you’ll use the internet on your phone before committing because you're often locked into a one-year contract with added fees should you choose to cancel. 

Also, be sure to inquire about plans especially for seniors. Several companies offer them but may don't advertise them heavily. Your AARP membership may also entitle you to a discount. As of this writing, the following companies offer discounts to seniors:

  • T-Mobile offers an Unlimited 55 plan much like their standard unlimited plans but at a good discount.
  • Sprint has a similarly named 55 Unlimited plan, offering unlimited minutes and data.
  • Verizon offers a rotating assortment of discounted plans aimed at seniors. They occasionally change the branding, so be sure to ask.
  • AT&T has offered a 10 percent AARP discount for some time now and also has plans for seniors 65 and over.

Cellphones for seniors don’t have to be a major headache. If you know what you need, ask the right questions, and have a bit of patience, it should be a breeze.