Shopping for a smartphone as a gift takes more work than you might expect. CNET guides you through the process.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Smartphones can make excellent holiday gifts, but purchasing one for someone other than yourself is more complicated than shopping for other gadgets. Unlike a tablet or a new camera, a smartphone requires a service plan to use any voice or data features -- otherwise you wind up with a very expensive paperweight. In some cases, you won't even be able to leave the store or complete your online order until you get that angle set up. And beyond just being an additional expense, that service may require a long-term commitment.
There's no reason to stress, though, because CNET is here to help. As long as you keep the following tips in mind, it's very possible to buy the hottest handset as the perfect gift.
In general, I don't recommend buying a cell phone without checking if your recipient even wants one. From the type of phone to the choice of carrier, there are just too many variables here. What's more, unless you're willing to open service under your name (and be responsible for the payments), you can't activate or set up a phone for someone else if that person is not present.
Know the carrier
Complaining about your cell phone carrier is a popular pastime, but that doesn't mean everyone would switch if they had the chance. If Uncle Kyle, for example, has an affordable service plan, loves a particular phone that's a carrier exclusive, or gets great reception where he needs it, he's likely to stick with his provider, even if its customer service is awful.
That's why it's important that you find out if he's willing to switch and which carrier he'd like to use. Verizon may be great for you, but if its network doesn't cover Kyle's house, then even the fanciest phone will be useless. Also, if he's still under contract, he may not be able to jump ship without paying an early-termination fee. Since that could be well over $150, ensure that your kindness won't result in a bite out of his wallet.
Know the upgrade situation
While we're on the subject, find out how long ago your recipient bought his or her current phone. Some carriers limit how often customers can upgrade to a new device at a subsidized price. That's beginning to change as carriers like Verizon loosen rules, but you'll typically pay a lot more to upgrade often. So if Cousin Caroline just bought a phone three months ago, upgrading now may be impossible or exorbitantly expensive. Also, some people may not want to change their service at all. They may enjoy the freedom of month-to-month service (see below) or they may have a really good grandfathered plan -- like one with unlimited data, for instance -- that they don't want to give up.
Know what they want
A smartphone can be a deeply personal gadget. Unlike a TV or a printer, you carry it with you at all times and there's a good chance that you're interacting with it constantly throughout the day. If a handset isn't intuitive or it just doesn't work, the person you've given it to is going to get irritated pretty quickly.
Consider also that some people see their phone as an extension of their personality. So before you buy, do your research on what kind of phone your recipient wants. Sure, the iPhone 6S may be latest and greatest Apple device, but not everyone wants one. Or to put it another way, you may love the Samsung Galaxy S6, but your spouse may hate it.
To boil it down, don't buy more phone than your recipients needs. Fancy smartphones deliver a certain "wow" factor, but your brother Tyler may just want a cheap, easy-to-use handset that makes calls and has only minimal features. Do your homework on which kind of features your recipient will want.
Buy as a promise
This takes some of the fun out of the gift-giving process, but the promise of a new smartphone can make an awesome gift. That way, your recipient can pick out the phone he or she wants and arrange for service while you just hand over your credit card. If you want that person to be able to unwrap something by the Christmas tree, you can use a toy phone as a stand-in, or purchase gift cards from a specific retailer. Another option is to buy an accessory like a phone case with a gift card inside. Just make sure the case is one that your giftee will like.
A shared plan
A great surprise gifting option, particularly for parents shopping for a handset for their kids, is adding a new line to a shared plan. Though not all carriers have them, these plans typically let you share unlimited phone calls and text messages, and a bucket of data between up to 10 phone lines. Even better, you should be able to add a new line without having your recipient present. If you're a parent buying for your kids, make sure you educate them on how many messages they can send per month and how much data and how many voice minutes they can use.
Unlocked, non-contract, or full price
Another way to keep your gift a surprise is to buy an unlocked phone or one with no contract attached. It's then up to your recipient to activate the phone, giving them more freedom to choose the service plan that best fits their needs.
Up until 2013, you could only pursue these options with smaller carriers that sold only entry-level devices. That changed when T-Mobile announced that it was ditching contracts completely and moving exclusively to month-to-month service. As part of the switch, customers can either buy a phone outright at full price, or pay it off in monthly installments. Other major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have responded in varying ways. Check with each carrier first.
The grace period
Sometimes, even a gift bought with the best intentions may not work out. If that happens, know that most contract carriers will let you return a phone within a specific time frame. This grace period may vary, but usually lasts 14 to 30 days. If you take advantage of it, you can return the phone and (if applicable) end a contract without paying an early-termination fee. You will, however, have to pay for any voice or data service you've used, and you may incur a restocking fee, as well.
Good luck and may the shopping gods smile upon you!
Do you have any other tips for buying a cell phone as a gift? If so, tell me below.