By Ernest Doku
Mobiles offer plenty of features but choosing the right one is still tricky
Over the past 10 years the mobile phones market has morphed from a few major providers that dominated the market to a multiplicity of smaller operators, bringing with them a bewildering array of deals.
Because of the sheer product choice now available, and the extreme price competition between providers, more and more people are actively switching between networks to secure the best handset and tariff.
But this process has not always been easy and is far from transparent.
For obvious reasons, the networks are not exactly shouting about it from the rooftops.
Reflecting this, a recent study by Uswitch found that 2.4 million UK mobile users have been put off from "porting" their number, that is, taking it with them to a new network.
The same survey discovered that the average consumer could save as much as £81 by moving to a cheaper network, so switching is an effective way for people to make significant savings on their monthly bill.
Contrary to popular belief, you can take your number to a new provider quickly and painlessly - more importantly it is your right.
Getting your PAC
To keep your number when switching providers, a PAC (porting authorization code) is required.
This code enables the respective networks to move your details between their respective systems.
Presuming you are out of contract, simply call your current network to get the PAC, but be prepared for them to offer you an appealing alternative to deter you from leaving.
If this deal is great, then by all means take it. However, if you still want to switch, insist on being sent your PAC straight away and take it to your new network.
Be aware that each PAC lasts only for 30 days, meaning that if you do not find another deal and port your number within that time, the code expires and a new one is required.
Beware, too, that porting your existing mobile number often cannot be done after having bought a new contract, so make sure that you have already have your PAC to hand when searching for new deals, whether on the high street or online.
Getting a new mobile contract
So you have decided you want to switch networks, you have your PAC code - what next?
Being careful which tariff you chose can save you money says Ernest Doku
Firstly, be clear what your basic requirements are from a phone and contract.
If you only need a brick to make the occasional call to your grandchildren, you will not pay too much, but if you want an all-singing, all-dancing device to act as a mobile office the handset, tariff and cost will rise dramatically.
Start by looking at a recent bill and seeing exactly how many minutes and texts you are using.
Millions of pounds are wasted each year by customers on the wrong tariffs, and you could be grossly overspending.
In fact, most people are paying more than they need to be.
You then need to work out whether you are best suited to a pay monthly, prepay or SIM-only deal.
Pay monthly or pre-pay?
Pay monthly is the stock choice, offering plenty of free minutes, the newest handsets for free and removing the threat of running out of credit.
However, downsides include the cost of recurring monthly fees and the constraint of being tied into a long-term contract.
Networks and retailers do offer early upgrades to the latest phones to induce consumer loyalty, but be aware that this will extend a contract for another 18 to 24 months, which can be a long commitment.
Prepay is an affordable option for those not looking to make as many calls or constantly surfing the net on the move, so choosing a pay-as-you-go deal is certainly worth considering if cost is a big factor.
Although the price of prepay handsets is much higher than pay monthly - as they are no longer subsidized by line rental - the absence of a contract, low per-minute billing and free gift incentives mean pay-as-you-go is far from the poor relation it once was.
If you are using an average of over 100 minutes and texts in a month, then a prepay deal can work out more expensive than its contract counterpart.
Pay close attention to your usage to figure out which deal is more cost-effective for you.
SIM-only deals are the most open and flexible, combining the perks of a pay monthly tariff with the freedom of prepay.
There are now tens of thousands of different mobile phone deals on offer
A SIM-only tariff is a short-term phone contract offering the deal alone, neither offering a handset nor the extra costs incurred with pay monthly or prepay.
These savings are then passed onto the consumer in the form of lower line rental and generous minute and text bundles.
One-month rolling contracts also provide great flexibility.
If you are happy with your current handset, but are looking for a cheaper deal and intend to keep your mobile number, SIM-only deals are definitely the right option.
High Street or online?
If you are looking for a new phone, it is a good idea to get online and look at expert reviews, while comparing specifications.
You can then go into a retail outlet to see what the phone feels like to hold and to use.
A study of our own revealed recently that as much as 40% of the cost could be saved by buying a phone online as opposed to on the high street.
Saying that, retailers on the high street will sometimes go out of their way to offer extra minutes, texts and additional freebies, and it may be worth listening - provided that you stick to your guns about the deal and handset required.
But do not stray from your price bracket or the type of phone you want and leave the shop with a phone that has a bunch of features you will never use and a two-year contract you cannot afford.
Read the smallprint
When comparing deals online, cash-back and half price line rental offers may seem enticing, but be sure to read the small print regarding the actual redemption process.
Often, getting your money out of the retailer can be difficult.
It can require all manner of documentation to be submitted before the cash-back is paid out in full, which may mean you never see those savings that made it such an attractive deal in the first place.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Links to external sites are for information only and do not constitute endorsement. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.