Cell phones are a popular holiday gift. They’re also an easy gift to get wrong.
“It’s just such a personal thing, because people use it every day. People even sleep with it,” says Trish Tobin, vice president of marketing at Credo Mobile, a wireless provider.
To make sure your gift doesn’t fall flat or cause unintended headaches, consider these five questions before buying cell phones as gifts.
1. Do they want a new phone?
Cell phones are expensive. The latest smartphones retail for nearly $800 at the high end. Even a basic phone, one that doesn’t have an app store and can’t connect to a data network, can run close to $200.
Nearly a quarter of Americans hope to find a phone under the tree this Christmas, according to a recent survey by SquareTrade, which offers protection plans for cell phones and other electronics. That means a lot of people are either indifferent or would prefer something else.
If your loved ones didn’t ask for a cell phone but you want to get them one anyway, do a little investigating first. Are they making monthly payments on their current phone? If so, they’ll need to continue paying on it, even as they start using their shiny new phone.
2. Are they fans of a specific brand?
Loyalty runs deep among smartphone owners, especially iPhone owners. Almost 90% of iPhone users planned to stick with Team Apple for their next device, according to a recent survey by Fluent, a marketing and market research firm.
Just under three-quarters of Android users said they, too, would stay put, buying a phone that runs the Android operating system as their next device. Windows and BlackBerry phones also have die-hard fans.
To find out what type of phone recipients prefer, take a look at what they already have. Stick with that brand, unless they’ve told you they want something different.
The same is true for a phone’s capabilities. If someone has a basic phone, the learning curve of a smartphone could take the fun out of a new gadget.
“Sleuthing that out is really Step 1,” Tobin says. Step 2: “Figure out their best next phone.”
3. How do they use their phone?
This question is key to choosing the best new phone for your loved one.
“Large-screen Notes and iPhone Plus editions aren’t for everyone, but people who love media or conduct a lot of business on them might prefer larger screens,” says Brian Morris, spokesman for Flipsy, a price comparison website for people looking to sell phones and textbooks.
Mobile photographers, on the other hand, might appreciate a phone with an advanced camera and plenty of storage. And your great-aunt may prefer something that’s easy to use, with big buttons and display text.
4. Will the phone work with their carrier?
There are two main systems that carriers use for their networks: GSM and CDMA.
“GSM devices work on networks like AT&T and T-Mobile, while CDMA devices work on Verizon and Sprint,” Morris says. “You don’t want to get them an incompatible phone.”
Most phones work on only one of the systems. Exceptions include iPhones version 6 or newer.
Don’t assume your loved ones will switch carriers to use their new phone. They may be under a contract or device payment agreement. They also may not get adequate coverage with a different carrier.
5. What is the return policy?
Typically, cell phone carriers give you 14 days to return or exchange your phone. The same is true for retailers like Best Buy and Target. A handful of carriers, including Sprint and Credo Mobile, give you 30 days.
The catch: That return clock starts ticking the moment you buy the phone.
If you bought an iPhone for your daughter on Black Friday, the exchange period could pass before she opens it on Christmas morning.
Some retailers extend their return period during the holidays, but always double check before completing your purchase. Keep in mind, too, that most stores and carriers charge a restocking fee of around $35 when you return or exchange a cell phone.
Other things to consider
Accessories: Phones aren’t just personal, they’re particular. Cases, chargers and car mounts that work for one device won’t always work for the next. Most brands use a micro USB port as the charging connection, but Apple uses a lightning port. Home chargers usually are included with the device, but car chargers aren’t.
There are differences within the Apple universe, too. The iPhone 4 uses a different charging cable than the iPhone 5 and newer models. And Apple nixed the audio jack on the iPhone 7 series, forcing customers to buy new wireless headphones or a $9 adapter to use their existing headphones.
Protection plans: These cover the new phone against physical damage and, in some cases, loss or theft. But you typically need to opt in when you buy the phone. Most carriers offer a range of phone insurance and protection plans that are billed monthly, but do your research before buying.
Alternative protection plans include AppleCare+ for iPhones, which costs $129 for two years of coverage. SquareTrade also offers protection for a range of devices. If the new phone is going to someone who lives under your roof, check whether your homeowners insurance offers an affordable protection option for all of your devices.
A previous version of this article misstated which carriers use GSM or CDMA devices for their networks. This article has been corrected.