Cell phone service is well on the way to becoming the new must-have utility, right up there with electricity and gas and water. In fact, cell phone service could be more important, in some cases! For example, you'll need a phone number to look for a job, even if you are sitting in the dark at home while you take that call. However, the unfortunate truth is that cell phone service can seem complicated, when you only deal with it now and then. Here are some basic terms explained, to help average consumers avoid being taken advantage of by big companies.


Your "account" is the general place that all your cell phone service takes place. Think of the "account" as a bucket or any other type of container. You can have many things in a bucket, and likewise, you can have many types of cell phone services in your account.


This person may be called by different names at different companies, but in general, this is the main person who is the primary user and authorizer on the Account. The Account is in this person's name. They will have the credit check done on them. They will have their social security number used, if needed. They will set the passwords and be able to change them. The Account Holder is the boss of the Account. Even if the Account Holder lets someone else manage the account for most things, if a legal issue arises, the named Account Holder is responsible for payment, and responsible for the activity that takes place on the Account.


An Authorized User is someone that the Account Holder lists as being able to also manage the account, giving them full and complete access to the account, and the ability to make changes without any further permissions needed, once they are listed as an Authorized User. Be careful who you list as an Authorized User


There are many kinds of "plans" available. Another way to think of this is "service option" or "way to use it". Don't confuse the term "contract" with the term "plan". There are both prepaid and contract (postpaid) "plans" available. You can have various different types of Plans in your Account at the same time.


This is a type of service where you agree to maintain yourself as a regular customer each month, typically for one or two years. There are often great deals on discounted or free phones for contract service, because the company assumes it can count on your business for a long time. This service is also called "postpaid" which means you pay the bill after you use the service.


For prepaid, you first purchase the amount of service you want, in advance, and then you use it. There are many advantages to prepaid, no-contract, service, such as not being committed to a monthly bill, not having an account, being somewhat less trackable and somewhat more anonymous (not entirely, though), being able to set up your service pretty much entirely on your own, and having no credit check or deposit required (typically).


This is a service option for one person. Each cell phone service company will offer its own particular combination for number of minutes for voice calls, or texting or web usage or a combination of those or various other features. The key thing to keep in mind is that "individual" means "for one person at a time". You can not "add" a line to a Plan that is for one person, because it is for one person. If you want to share minutes with several people, you need a Family Plan.


The Family Plan is for a group of people, sometimes actually a "family" in the traditional sense, but this also could be a group of housemates or any group that gets together. A Family Plan is intended to have more-than-one line in it, perhaps 2 or 3 or 5 or some other number allowed by the cell phone service provider. You can "add" a line to this type of plan (if you have lines left, of the allowed amount).


Many people make the common mistake of checking the box "I agree" without actually reading the Terms Of Service (TOS) or Terms Of Use (TOU) of their contract. For example, it is quite usual for the contract/terms to say (basically) that you can get a new phone at the best rates at the END of the contract, and even then, only if you renew your contract. There might be free phones available, but not necessarily the one you want, in particular, and certainly not before your official date of the end of your contract. This author encourages the reader to read the terms closely.


QUESTION: I want to let my adult child handle my account for me, now that I'm too busy enjoying the sunny beaches of Florida to bother with my bill. What can I do?

ANSWER: Make that person an Authorized User. You usually set this up yourself first, somewhere in your online account management system, or by calling Customer Care at your cell phone service provider.

QUESTION: I have a plan by myself right now and I want to help out my friend by getting a prepaid phone for them. Can I do that?

ANSWER: Yes. You can have both prepaid (the friend) and postpaid/contract (you) Plans in the same Account. Best, though, is to encourage your friend to set up their own prepaid account and help them learn to manage their own life a little better.

QUESTION: I've had a plan with my cell phone service provider for many years and now I'm married and want to add my new spouse to the plan. What should I do?

ANSWER: You will need a Family Plan. Procedures differ at various companies, but in general, remember you can not "add" someone to an Individual Plan. You will need to check with your cell phone service provider for the exact procedure.

QUESTION: We need 2 lines for mom and dad and 4 more lines for the kids, but you only let us have 5. What can we do?

ANSWER: Consider having two separate Family Plans, one for mom/dad (with two lines) and the other with 4 lines, for the kids. Or, consider having each kid with their own separate prepaid line. Or, if one adult uses the phone for business a lot, consider an individual Plan for that line, and everyone else on a Family Plan.

QUESTION: Why can't I . . . . (fill in the blank with your question).

ANSWER: Because that is not in the Terms that you agreed to.

(This author encourages the reader to read your Terms closely!)