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How can you be sure you'll get good coverage in your neighborhood? 

Arguably, the most important factor in choosing a cell-phone carrier is whether you'll get good reception in the places you spend the most time: home and work. Sure, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint publish general coverage maps, but can they tell you if you'll be able to make calls from YOUR house, street or office? 

Carrier coverage maps can determine the signal strength in your region, city and zip code, but can't get much more specific than that. You're also depending on the carrier, not actual users of the service, to give you this information. So how can you get more granular than that?

Tips on predicting if you'll get coverage in the place you live/work/hang out:

Ask friends and neighbors. Do your own informal poll of people in your area. Those who live and work in your neighborhood can tell you how frequently they experience outages, busy networks or dropped calls on a particular carrier. Ask your co-workers the same questions.  

Use some online tools. Carriers have coverage maps on their websites, but some carriers are better distributed than others in more rural or remote states such as Wyoming or West Virginia. That may further limit your choice of carrier.  DeadCellZones.com, offers coverage maps for major carriers in areas not covered on carrier coverage maps and solicits user comments about reception quality at actual addresses - both indoors and out. Larger cities have more comments from users, but it's worth checking even for other areas to see if users have reported lousy reception. Smaller cities and rural areas also have many comments and should be reviewed because this is arguably the weakness of most carriers.  Simply type your zip code, address, or city name into the search box see what other customers are saying.  Click the images on the right to their carrier-specific maps:

CellReception.com and GotReception.com help you locate cell towers in your neighborhood, a way to potentially predict signal strength.  However, locating cell phone towers is becoming less important as new technology is rolled out like femtocells and UMA / SIP phones that enhance signals over broadband. Navigating and understanding what to interpret from the data on these maps is also somewhat confusing. 

Take advantage of return policies. None of the online tools are likely to help you if they don't display any information for your area. In that case, the best way to determine cell coverage is to actually try out a cell phone in a variety of locations. Granted, this type of trial-and-error approach is time consuming, but it's the only way to definitively tell what kind of reception you can get in your living room.

All major carriers have grace periods so you can try out the service, but policies are not all the same, and if you don't act quickly, you may be stuck for the activation fee. If you miss the grace periods specified in the table, early termination fees will apply, and can be very high ($150 to $200).

Here is a breakdown of the four largest national carriers. 

Carrier
Grace period for returning phone and canceling service
Grace period for activation fee
AT&T
30 days
30 days
T-Mobile
14 days for in-store purchases; 20 days for online, except in California, where it's 30 days in either case
same as general grace period for returns
Sprint
30 days
3 days
Verizon Wireless
30 days
3 days

Is it the phone or the service? There's no way of knowing if one cell phone model will give you better reception than another. If you're getting poor or no reception in your backyard, it's more likely to be a service issue. In addition, carriers typically charge a restocking fee (about $35) for exchanges, even within the grace period.

ConsumerSearch.com: Pinpointing cell phone coverage

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