As a gift, smartphones check a lot of boxes: they’re exciting, highly useful (in fact a necessity for many people), and expensive (which is good as long as you can swing the price).
On the other hand, choosing a smartphone comes with a lot of hidden dangers and potential mistakes that can make this gift end up feeling like a burden for the recipient. Choose carelessly, and you might cause some feelings of resentment for sticking them with something they don’t want.
So in order to ensure that your smartphone gift is well received and to keep your gift recipient happy for the long haul, make sure to avoid the following smartphone gift gaffes.
1. Not double-checking to make sure it’s a good idea
This is the most obvious mistake, and also one of the trickiest. There are many reasons that buying a cell phone for someone else might be the wrong move altogether.
For one thing, smartphones are very personal devices. After all, virtually everyone who owns a smartphone uses it every day — and most people spend hours using it every single day. It’s not just a tool — it’s something people identify with. Buying someone a smartphone without knowing what they like, or if they’re ready for a new one, has the potential to be a major misstep (not to mention an expensive one).
Often times this means asking them about the idea outright. Yes, this ruins the surprise, but the alternative could be far worse.
2. Not taking upgrade plans into account
This one may be trickier than you think.
Phone upgrades are one of the most common ploys that service providers use to both lure customers in and keep them coming back to spend more. And there are some very good reasons to resist the temptation to upgrade as soon as you can.
However, the thinking here changes if you’re buying a smartphone as a gift for someone else. If you’ve decided that gifting them a smartphone is indeed a good idea, it only makes sense to take advantage of whatever upgrade discounts may be available.
However, bear the following in mind. If you’re upgrading through the carrier (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.), and your recipient decides they want to switch carriers at some point, they won’t be able to take their phone with them if it hasn’t been paid off. This is one of the ways that cell phone carriers keep people from switching now that two-year contracts are gone. Upgrade plans typically involve leasing the phone and paying a monthly fee for 12, 18, 24, or even 30 months — during which time you’re basically stuck unless you want to jump ship and buy a new phone.
Samsung and Apple both offer upgrade programs as well. The advantage with these, of course, is that you’re not tied to a carrier. This makes a viable option for people who know they want to stick with the same brand of phone — and upgrade regularly — while retaining the freedom to move from carrier to carrier if they so choose.
Upgrades can be confusing. Long story short, find out if the person you’re buying for belongs to an upgrade program before throwing your money down.
3. Activating the phone right away
Unless the person you’re buying for is coming to the store with you to buy the phone — or if you plan on giving them the phone later that same day — it makes no sense to activate it on the spot.
Doing so only guarantees that you’ll be charged for service while the phone sits wrapped up underneath the tree (or hidden in your closet). Additionally, if it’s an upgrade, then activating the new phone will automatically deactivate the one they’re currently using (oops).
Instead, ask the salesperson to future-date the activation, so that service doesn’t start until the day of your choice. Make sure and check with specific carriers about their future-date policies, however, since they typically have limits on how far ahead you can set the date.
The other option, of course, is to buy an unlocked phone outright and let the recipient choose their carrier and/or activate the phone themselves.
4. Getting them a monthly service package that’s too expensive
Trying to compare the value of one cell phone carrier’s plans to another can be extremely confusing. Popular wisdom will tell you they do this on purpose, so that it’s harder to tell whether you’d be better off switching to someone else.
Most of the major carriers offer monthly plans that are fairly similar in total price. But if you’re going to choose the carrier for the phone you’re buying, it’s worth spending some time deciphering the differences. If you happen to choose a plan that doesn’t meet the needs of the person you’re buying for (for instance, it doesn’t include enough monthly data), they might end up having to bump up to the next level and spend more than they want to.
Here’s one option that many people still aren’t aware of: Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). These are smaller carriers that lease excess wireless capacity from the larger carriers and sell it in the form of monthly plans that are a fraction of the cost of typical wireless plans.
There are a couple of potential downsides to MVNOs: you may have to pay upfront for your phone (some MVNOs don’t offer a monthly installment plan), and you may be more likely to experience service slowdowns at times of peak use or network congestion. Still, given the crazy low price, they’re worth taking a look at. You can find more info about MVNOs here.
5. Buying something that doesn’t integrate with their other tech
This one mostly applies to Apple. One of the ways they’ve solidified brand loyalty is to make their individual devices so interconnected that there’s a major convenience advantage in making sure your computer, tablet, phone, and maybe even TV are all Apple products. Buy an Apple devotee an Android phone, and you may never hear from them again.
Google is also attempting to build their own compelling “ecosystem” this way. If you’re buying for someone who already uses the Google Home smart speaker and/or Google Chromecast, it may be worth considering a Google Pixel phone.
6. Buying a phone that’s the wrong size
This one’s pretty simple. Some people want a big ol’ “phablet” to play games and watch movies on; some people want a phone small enough that they won’t notice it when it’s in their pocket. Make sure you know which one you’re buying for.
7. Not including a case
Not everyone considers a case a necessary accessory for a smartphone. Whether that’s because smartphones are more rugged than they were a few years ago, or because people have gotten better at handling them conscientiously (i.e., not throwing the around), broken smartphones don’t seem to be as big of a scourge as they once were.
However, we recommend you don’t leave this up to chance. If you don’t want to pick out the case, include a gift card so they can pick one out themselves. That way, it’s totally on them if disaster strikes.