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Let’s talk about phone technology…in plain English!

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

At a wild and crazy party, your phone falls in the toilet. Oh no! It’s ruined! You need a new phone!


We feel your pain.

So you walk to Bob’s Friendly Neighborhood Phone Shoppe. A saleswoman greets you.

  • “Hello,” she says, “Want to buy a new phone?”
  • “Yes, please,” you say.
  • “A smartphone?” she says, pointing at a table full of phones.
  • “Of course!” All the hip people have smartphones these days.
  • “Silver or gold?” she asks.
  • “Silver,” you say, feeling pleased. You start daydreaming about bejeweled cases.
  • “How many gigs?”
  • “The most you’ve got!” Yes, you certainly know what a “gig” is. Choosing a new phone is easier than you thought!
  • GSM or CDMA?” says the saleswoman.
  • “Uh…” You have no idea what she’s talking about.
  • “GSM or CDMA?” She sounds a little annoyed.
  • “Um…” You glance nervously around the room.
  • “GSM or CDMA?” Her face is turning red.
  • “Err…” You start backing toward the door.
  • “GSM or CDMA?!?!?!?!” she screams, flipping over the table full of phones.

You scurry outside and run home, sad and phoneless.

angry lady


GSM vs. CDMA: A Survival Guide

We hope this never happens to you. You seem nice. We like you. You don’t deserve the scorn of salespeople and tech geeks. So here’s what you need to know about GSM and CDMA.

What’s GSM?

It’s a technology used to build cellular networks.

Think of it like a spider’s silk. The spider (i.e. your carrier) uses its silk to build its web (i.e. your carrier’s network).

spider web

So THAT’s what the “www” stuff is all about…

What’s CDMA?

A different kind of silk.

So they’re basically the same thing?

In a sense — yes. But in a different, more important sense — not at all.


GSM in a nutshell:

  • Uses SIM cards to store your phone number, contacts, and more.
    • Your SIM can be removed and transferred to a different phone (making it “your phone”). You can also put a new SIM in your phone…which we’ll cover in a second.
  • Can be unlocked
    • You can use your GSM phone on any GSM network. For example — you join Carrier A. Then you discover that it has terrible coverage. Carrier B has much better coverage. So you decide to switch carriers. This is easy with GSM phones.
  • Offers flexibility.
    • Consider the example above: to switch carriers, you remove the SIM for Carrier A, and replace it with a SIM from Carrier B. That’s it. You don’t need to buy a new phone, and you don’t need to pay an early termination fee (ETF).

CDMA in a nutshell:

  • Stores your phone number, contacts, etc. on the phone itself.
    • CDMA phones don’t use SIM cards (with a few exceptions you don’t need to worry about here).
  • Can’t be unlocked.
    • CDMA phones are tied to one carrier — you can’t use a phone from Carrier Y on the network of Carrier Z.
  • Is less flexible.
    • Consider the example above: if you want to leave Carrier Y, you’ll be required to pay an ETF (up to $350). You’ll also need to buy a new phone when you join Carrier Z. Most carriers offer monthly installment plans, so you don’t need to pay all at once.

So what’s better — GSM or CDMA?

Ah, we knew you’d ask that! The answer is: it depends.

Most of the world uses GSM networks— between 80% – 90%, depending on who you ask. If you’re traveling a lot, it makes sense to get a GSM phone. And you might want a GSM phone if you’ve had bad luck with spotty coverage in the past. GSM is also a good choice for people who don’t like lengthy contracts.

On the other hand, while CDMA is only common in two countries, here’s the good news: the United States is one of those countries!* Many parts of the U.S. have solid CDMA coverage. If you’re confident that a specific CDMA network works well in your area, you’ll be fine with a CDMA phone.

*The other is Russia.


GSM = more travel-friendly

No, really…which one is better?

Stop yelling at us! We told you: it depends.

Remember the analogy about the spider webs? Your carrier is the spider, GSM/CDMA is the silk, and the network is the web? Let’s go back to that.

A web of either silk can catch flies (i.e. do important phone-stuff). They both work equally well. Big webs catch more flies than small webs, obviously, but the type of silk doesn’t matter too much.

Basically — both GSM and CDMA work fine.

Globally, there are more GSM networks than CDMA ones. And it’s much easier to switch networks and/or phones with GSM. But if you really love your phone and your carrier, CDMA could be OK for you.

Well, what would you pick?

Call us biased (we are), but we’d go with GSM. Specifically, we’d go with a factory unlocked GSM smartphone. These are phones that work with any GSM carrier on any GSM network. They cost less than carrier-specific phones, and they’re free of bloatware (malignant apps that drain battery, impair performance, and harvest personal data).

Where can I find a factory unlocked GSM smartphone?

NUU Mobile — hey, we work for them! — would be a good place to start. NUU Mobile carries a wide variety of unlocked Android smartphones. All NUU Mobile phones come with a 2-year warranty, sparkly features, and super awesome customer service. They’re mega-affordable, too. You can get a new one for as little as $99. Free shipping, too…it’s worth a look.

Buy stuff at and instantly feel like a better, happier person!

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