Should You Buy Someone a Phone for the Holidays?

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Every store and phone carrier offers holiday deals on their smartphones. It’s a good time to buy yourself a phone, but should you buy one for someone else? Like buying someone a puppy, that’s a complicated question.

Big ticket electronics are popular holiday gifts because stores tend to drop prices by a lot for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and prices stay low through the holiday season. If someone on your list is in the market for a game console, laptop, tablet, or e-reader, this is the perfect time of year to save on them.

Smartphones, however, are a different story. Stores love to advertise phones as a great gift idea, and offer buy-one-get-one-free deals or discounts when you sign up a new line. However, our phones are deeply personal devices. Someone might dislike a particular phone because it doesn’t fit in their pocket, because it doesn’t work on the right carrier, or even because it’s not the right color. Buying the right phone for someone else can become complicated very fast. Here are some of the big stumbling blocks to watch out for when phone shopping for a loved one, if you want to do it at all.

A new phone without a cellular network to support it is just a tiny Wi-Fi tablet. Before you buy a phone for your friend or family member, you need to know what carrier they use, then find out whether or not the phone you’re buying works on that carrier. Cameron Summerson, news editor for tech website How-To Geek, has covered and reviewed smartphones for years and he said that getting the carrier right should be your top concern.

“Depending on what carrier the recipient is on, you’ll need to make sure that the phone is compatible with that particular network,” he explained in an email. “This is most true for Verizon and Sprint, which tend to be more strict with bring-your-own-device policies. While most phones these days are quad-band” — meaning they should work on all major carriers — “there are definitely still some outliers that don’t offer the compatible bands for all networks. This is most true for new iPhones, which should be purchased for the specific network they will be used on.”

This can be easier said than done. As Mr. Summerson points out, the iPhone faces a unique problem. If you buy one from Apple directly, or buy a phone from Verizon or Sprint, it will include both the radios required to work on Verizon and Sprint as well as the radio most of the rest of the world uses. Once unlocked, that phone will work on just about any carrier.

However, if you buy an iPhone from AT&T or T-Mobile, it will only include the radio that those carriers support, which means you won’t be able to take it to Verizon or Sprint. See the problem?

You can use a site like FrequencyCheck.com to look up specific phones by model number to make sure they work on the carrier your recipient uses. However, the most surefire way to make sure you’re getting a phone that works on a certain carrier is to buy it from that carrier (or an authorized reseller like Best Buy). If you’re stepping out into used phones or buying directly from the phone manufacturer, that’s when you need to be careful.

It’s also worth checking with your gift recipient about their upgrade status. Most carriers have switched to a phone financing model, where you add a monthly fee to your plan until you’ve paid off your phone. However, some customers may still have the old two-year contract model, where you get a discount on a new phone in exchange for committing to another two-year contract. It might ruin the surprise a little, but if your recipient has an upgrade available and doesn’t plan to change carriers, paying for an upgrade to a phone of their choosing might be cheaper (and better for them) than buying a new phone outright.

Picking a phone for someone else is like buying them clothes. If you know what they like and have a good feel for their tastes, you can find a great present. If you’re taking a wild guess without much information, you’ll probably get something they’ll want to exchange for something better.

When in doubt, Mr. Summerson recommends making as few changes to what they have now as possible. “Pay attention to what they currently have and any complaints they have about that specific handset,” he said. “Unless you specifically know that the person wants to change platforms, it’s usually easiest (and best) to stick with what’s familiar — so, a new iPhone for an iPhone user, and a new Android phone for an Android user.”

Even then, you can run into too many options, Mr. Summerson said. “There are a lot of choices in the Android space, however, so that can be a bit more challenging,” he said. “At that point, a bit of tact and dropping phone talk into general conversation may be necessary to get a better feel for what they like and don’t like about their current handset.”

If your recipient has a large phone, stick with something big. If it has a fingerprint sensor on the back, try to find a new phone with those same features. Some features that seem minor to you might require bigger changes for them. For example, if they have a headphone jack on their current phone, but you buy a new phone without it, then they might have to buy wireless headphones or adapters just to use their phone the same way they used to.

An exception to this rule is if you know that your gift recipient has a complaint about their phone. Are they complaining that their phone is too big? That’s a good time to look for a smaller phone. Does their camera suck? Picking a phone that takes fantastic pictures can be a big improvement in their life. This might require you to talk to your loved one before buying, but it’s safer than buying blind.

Gift-givers often have an understandable reticence to just ask what their recipients want. Buying the right gift blindly shows you really understand your recipient. However, this is one area where you might want to ask anyway.

“Some people love a good surprise, while others are incredibly picky about something as personal as their smartphone,” Mr. Summerson said. Unless you know for sure that the person you’re buying for wants a new phone, likes the phone you’ve picked out, and likes surprises, it’s a safe idea to talk it out with them.

If you decide to take the chance on buying a phone without asking the recipient first, be sure to check with the carrier or retailer that you’re buying about their return policy. “Many places offer extended return policies over the holidays too, which is a nice fail-safe if you end up in a situation that may require a quick handset swap,” Mr. Summerson noted. If you buy a phone that your recipient doesn’t like, a generous return window can be a lifesaver.

The only surefire way to make sure that your loved one likes the phone you’re buying, though, is to ask them. You can even turn it into a shared experience. Tell them that you’ll go phone shopping with them and buy the phone they like most. That way you don’t just buy a present for them, but you get to spend some quality time together.

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