* 1-year or 2-year contract is required with a $250+ early termination fee if you break contract.
* Free mid-range camera phone is typically included.
* Usually offers the lowest cost per minute.
* These plans usually start at around $40 per month for 400 minutes. Specials/promotions can bump that up to 1,000 minutes.
* Nights (after 9:00pm with most), weekends, and holidays are free...they don't count towards your minute usage.
* Most are now also offering free calling to other customers with the same company.
* T-Mobile and Alltel offer plans where you can choose 5 numbers you call the most and have those numbers be free of charge.
* Overage fees run $.35 per minute on average, so try not to go over.
* Roaming is becoming less of an issue as more plans include nationwide coverage, but it's something to keep in mind if you travel.
* Depending on the company and phone a SIM card may or may not be used.
* You usually purchase your phone outright from the company's selection.
* You can use unlocked cell phones, but you may not be granted access to certain features offered by the service provider, such as the downloading of games and other applications...ask in advance.
* Coverage varies in each region, so check with the locals concerning reception before choosing a carrier. What's good in New York City may be horrible in San Francisco.
* TracPhone, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Virgin mobile are the primary carriers.
* You must purchase the phone outright from their selection...only specific phones can be used. In that way you're really limited.
* No contracts, credit checks, etc are required.
* You can purchase phone cards from local stores or online as you need them, usually in $10 or $20 increments.
* Scratch off the label, enter the code into the phone, and you're good to go.
* Some companies, such as Virgin Mobile, require you to add another $20 every 3 months or the phone will stop working, regardless of the number of minutes remaining.
* Cingular offers a half-and-half GoPhone, where you pay $1 per day you use the phone and in exchange you get unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling.
Cingular also offers GoPhone Pick Your Plan, where you pay a monthly fee like with a contractual service, but you can terminate the service whenever you want. This may be your best option since it's the half-way point between 'traditional' service and pre-paid when it comes to cost and compromises.
Aside form that, remember that you pay for outgoing and incoming calls, as well as checking your voicemail. (I know some countries only charge you for calls you make.) In addition, text messaging is extra, as is wireless internet access. You can pay per minute/per message or agree to a monthly fee for a specific amount of usage.
That should about cover it, but if you have any other questions just ask.
Hope this helps,