Giving a phone as a holiday gift? Follow these 7 tips

giving a phone as a holiday gift
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Phones can be a thoughtful gift around the holidays, whether you’re wrapping up a present for a relative who’s a few generations behind the latest smartphone or one of your kids champing at the bit for the latest and greatest technology. For many, a phone will be an exciting and welcome present. At the same time, it’s also a highly personal item that comes with a lot of personal preferences.

If you’re trying to track down a phone as a present, you’ve got to contend with more than just finding the best cell phone deals. There are other considerations, both when you’re shopping for that phone and as you’re getting ready to give that gift.

Here are the seven things to consider when giving a phone as a holiday gift.

Figure out what your phone will cost

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The first thing to ask yourself is how much you want to spend on a gifted phone and how you want to pay for that purchase — and how both those considerations balance with the needs of your gift recipient. You probably know that there are plenty of handsets to choose from at a wide range of prices. But you’re also going to need to consider whether to pay for the phone up front or through monthly installments.

The latter is almost always an option when buying a phone from wireless carriers, and a few retailers offer payment plans, too. But be sure to be clear on who’s going to be be paying off that phone. “What the gift giver should absolutely not do is saddle their giftee with monthly phone payments that they did not ask for and may not be prepared to handle,” said Lauren Hannula, a tech expert with wireless comparison site WhistleOut. “If you can't buy the phone outright or cover any installment payments yourself, find a different yet equally thoughtful gift.”

(Note: a practical alternative to buying a brand-new phone, especially for your kid or teen, is gifting your current device as a hand-me-down and upgrading your own handset.)

Don’t just pick a phone — pick a carrier, too

One factor that may help you with budgeting for your smartphone gift is knowing which phone carrier your recipient uses. If you’re on a family cell phone plan — purchasing that gift phone for a partner or child, for example — this is an easy decision, and you may be able to get a better deal if you trade in an old device or buy multiple new phones at once. 

Other considerations including pricing at the phone carrier — both for the phone and the cell phone plan — as well as whether the recipient has other wireless devices, such as an Apple Watch, on their current plan.

If you aren’t sure, or if you want maximum flexibility, you can buy the device unlocked. Be sure to check the return and exchange policies before buying a phone as a gift, just in case the recipient changes their mind. 

Android or iOS — what does your recipient prefer?

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Your recipient most likely already has a phone and is comfortable with a specific operating system — Android or iOS are the two most common options these days. You really shouldn’t choose a device that’s different than what they have, unless they’ve explicitly stated a desire to switch platforms. 

“​Stick with what they already have, but just upgrade them,” Hannula said.

Do you need insurance?

When considering your budget for a gift phone, you should also take into account an insurance or device protection plan, which may be offered by the carrier, manufacturer or both. These plans allow for free or discounted phone repair or replacement in the event of a lost or damaged device. (Be aware that there are restrictions, so you should read any terms and conditions ahead of time.)

If your gift recipient has a tendency to drop their phone or leave it behind, insurance may be well worth the extra expense for a device that can cost as much as $1,000 for some of the leading flagship hones. 

Note that some protection plans are billed monthly, while others can be paid in full up front depending on how you buy the device. If you’re gifting a phone, make sure you’re not transferring this expense to the recipient without their knowledge. Some carriers and manufacturers also allow you to enroll in a protection plan after purchase within a certain timeframe if that’s a decision you want to leave up to your gift recipient.

Consider form, function and features

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Knowing how the recipient uses their phone will help you determine what features your gifted device should come with. 

For example, if they love mobile gaming, look for a large, bright display with a high refresh rate and extended battery life like you’d find on the best gaming phones. Photographers and videographers will appreciate one of the best camera phones along with plenty of storage for storing all those images and video files. Users who are very active—runners, for example—and minimalists who carry their phones in their pockets may appreciate a smaller, low-profile device they can take on the go. 

You should also consider accessibility, such as display size, speech-to-text, screen reading and accessory compatibility, for users who need these features. 

Should you set up the phone ahead of time?

You could set up a gifted phone in advance so it’s ready to use the moment it’s opened, though many recipients will prefer to do this themselves. This allows them to transfer their contacts, apps and other information from their old phone, which you likely cannot do without their knowledge. 

“Plus, it's nice to unwrap a brand-new phone that hasn't yet been meddled with,” Hannula added.

A good compromise is to offer to help the recipient with setup as needed once they’ve opened their gift. 

Don’t forget about accessories

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Phone accessories can make great low-stakes gifts — with or without a new device. If you know the recipient’s style and habits, you could include a case — we’ve got our picks for a variety of current models, including the best Google Pixel 8 cases and the best iPhone 15 cases, just to name a few. 

Screen protectors, wireless chargers, car mounts and desk stands are also useful add-ons for new phones. Just be sure to get a gift receipt in case the recipient wants to exchange your selection. 

Giving a phone as a gift — final thoughts

A brand-new phone can be a welcome and exciting holiday gift for someone you love as long as you take their needs and preferences into account, since they’ll be the ones using the device for years to come. 

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Emily Long

Emily Long is a Utah-based freelance writer who covers consumer technology, privacy and personal finance for Tom's Guide. She has been reporting and writing for nearly 10 years, and her work has appeared in Wirecutter, Lifehacker, NBC BETTER and CN Traveler, among others. When she's not working, you can find her trail running, teaching and practicing yoga, or studying for grad school — all fueled by coffee, obviously.