Are you on the best phone tariff?

It wasn't that long ago that not everyone had a mobile phone. If a friend was running late to meet up, you had no option to stay put and wait exactly where you'd agreed to. But with the explosion in mobile technology over the past decade, usage has gone through the roof.

Today's smartphones act more like mini-computers than the glorified walkie-talkies of the early Noughties. We've become so dependent on them that some 71% of UK consumers have one, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

But while smartphone addiction has become recognised as an official addiction in some medical circles, it seems smartphone users aren't as hot on prices and getting a good deal as they could be.

For example, last year, about 57% of mobile phone users were on contracts rather than pay as you go (PAYG), according to regulator Ofcom. Yet more than nine million of them could be paying more than they need to every month, says comparison website uSwitch.

Nearly three-quarters of people on pay-monthly contracts opt for a deal that comes with a "free handset", which means they pay an inflated tariff to cover the cost of the phone. However, a third of them don't bother to switch to a new deal when their contracts are up for renewal, meaning they continue to pay for the cost of the phone even though they've already completed the repayments.

If they switched to a SIM-only or a new pay-monthly contract at the end of their tariff instead, they could save £104.40 over 12 months, says uSwitch.

With such a bewildering array of handsets and tariffs, how do you know what's the best deal for you?

Know how much you use

When considering which mobile package to go for, there's no point in paying for anything you won't use, so don't plump for a package that includes a generous data allowance and unlimited text messages if you don't use your phone for browsing the web and mainly use it for calls.

If you are unsure about your normal usage, your bill should outline this for you in terms of how many minutes you use a month, how many texts you send and how much data you use. If you can't find this information on your bill, your operator will be able to tell you.

If you are happy with your phone, you could consider going for a SIM-only deal. These deals are a great way to cut your bill. You'll get a SIM card you can pop into your current phone and carry on using it at a fraction of the cost and your contract will be as little as a month at a time – much shorter than the normal phone contract, the majority of which are now 24 months.

They're much cheaper than standard tariffs that come with a phone contract where your monthly payments include a charge for the handset.

To give you an idea of what deals are out there, Moneywise has identified three types of phone customer and looked to find the most appropriate bundle for them.

The 20-something graduate

Having grown-up with a mobile stuck in their hand, this 20-something is utterly comfortable navigating his way round the latest smartphone. Most important to him is the data allowance so he can browse the web on the commute to work, and keep a cheeky eye on the cricket score in the office. While Whatsapp has removed his need for loads of text messages, he still needs a decent cross-network minutes' allowance to keep in touch with everyone else. A high-end smartphone is also a priority.

Looking at uSwitch's comparison table, we found Samsung's S4 16GB on T-Mobile (24-month contract) is available from for just £27.99 a month. For this, he'll get unlimited data, meaning he can browse the internet as much as he wants.

The deal comes with 500 cross-network minutes too, perfect for staying in touch with friends when organising that all-important night out. It comes with unlimited texts, too. And while he doesn't need them, there's no saving to be made by reducing them.

However, if our graduate is more of an Apple fan, the iPhone 5C 16GB deal from T-Mobile comes with the same data allowances for £32.99 a month across a range of websites. If you were to go with EE for the same phone, you would get just 2GB of data for £34.99 a month and you'd have to pay £9.99 for the handset, too.

Family of four

Mum and dad are increasingly pestered by their children to buy them their first smartphone so they can talk to the friends they're constantly Facebooking. Both kids already spend vast amounts of time on the internet on the home PC and their parents, who themselves need a generous data allowance for their own smartphones and iPads, are worried their combined bills will go through the roof.

For this well-connected family, they need a generous bundle deal. Tesco Mobile has a capped contract deal, allowing customers – and parents – to make sure they don't go over their agreed limit. You can pay for an extra safety buffer so if you do reach the cap, you can still make calls or send or receive any messages that are included in your allowance.

It also gives you "family perks". Each member of the family can choose between an extra 150 minutes to any network, 500 minutes to the Tesco network or 250MB of data for free, too.

EE's Shared 4GEE lets you add up to five separate devices to one inclusive payment plan. All deals include unlimited minutes and texts and a data allowance of up to 20GB, which is shared between users.

You don't have to add the additional phone at the start of the contract either but bear in mind that you will pay upfront costs for a handset and you'll be paying for access to the super-fast EE mobile internet too – it may work out more expensive than if you kept your handsets on separate payment plans.

The cost depends on what phones you add to the package, as well as the data allowance you choose.

For example, if you were to order a high-end package which includes two iPhones, 20GB of data, and then add two EE Kestrel handsets for your children you would pay £108.99 a month, plus an upfront cost of £69.99 for the first phone – a deal worth considering if you and your family are always connected to the web.

The retired couple

While grans and granddads are becoming increasingly web-savvy, many still prefer to use their mobiles for calling and texting to stay in touch with family rather than Skyping and Face-timing them.

Our fictional couple still make the majority of their calls from their landlines so mainly use their mobiles when they're out and about. They don't require a high data allowance as they mostly use the web browser on their smartphone to log in to Facebook to check what their grandkids are up to.

For this type of customer, a pay as you go or SIM-only deal is likely to be their best bet, so they don't have to pay for a service they're not regularly using.

If you are thinking of going down the PAYG route, then remember to check out the payment plans available to you. Orange, for example, offers three separate packages that gives you free calls and texts on evenings or weekends or flat-rate calls at 14p per minute – helping you save your credit and making your money go further.

For customers wanting to avoid the hassle of topping up their PAYG phone, Virgin Media offers a range of SIM-only monthly tariffs, beginning at just £7 a month for 150 minutes, unlimited texts and 500MB of data. Its most expensive SIM-only tariff is still a reasonable £15 and will get you unlimited minutes, texts and 2GB of data.

Vodafone's range of tariffs are also competitive. For £11 a month, you'll get 300 minutes, 500 texts and 250MB of data.

But if that's all way too much for your needs, take a look at Giffgaff's "goodybags" bundles, which range from £5 to £20. Its £7.50 monthly deal will get you 200 minutes, unlimited texts plus 250MB of data – a very reasonable cost for those who don't use their phone very much.

The deal for you

The explosion in the mobile market over the past few years has given consumers a huge variety of deals to get their heads around.

But whatever your needs, there is a deal out there for you. Don't get sucked into paying for benefits you don't use and you'll be able to find a phone contract that is most suitable – and doesn't cost a fortune.

As Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at uSwitch, says: "Price isn't everything when it comes to choosing a mobile deal. "Other factors to consider are value for money, reception in your area and customer service – especially as most mobile deals now last two years, which is quite a commitment. "Getting a below-par experience is not good enough, and consumers are right to feel hard done by.

Anyone unhappy with the service they are receiving can make their feelings known by voting with their feet and switching to a new provider the moment their contract is up for renewal."

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