GSM vs. CDMA: What's The Difference and Which is Better?

GSM and CDMA are two radio technologies used by operators around the world. They are the most prominent technology in the 2G and 3G eras. Different phones support one or both, but it’s important to know how they differ from each other.

If you are wondering about the difference between GSM and CDMA technology and whether GSM is better than CDMA or vice versa, you have come to the right place. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

GSM vs. CDMA: The Basics

Most cell phone owners around the world only have to worry about single carrier technology. This is called the Global System for Cellular Communications, or GSM for short. True to its name, this standard was developed for and has been adopted by most of the world for communicating via cellular calls.

But not everyone has jumped on the GSM train. An alternative cellular standard known as Code Division Multiple Access, or CDMA, is used by several carriers around the world. It is most popular in the United States. However, it is also used in some Asian and African countries, often in conjunction with competing GSM operators.

Here’s what cell phone users should know before buying a cell phone.

GSM vs. CDMA: What’s Better?

This is the first question many would-be owners ask, and it makes sense, but in this case, there is no easy answer to the question.

GSM and CDMA are different ways to achieve the same goal. The fact that such a popular network is built on every network proves that it is the quality of the network, not the standard, that matters. For example, in the United States, two of the four major carriers (Verizon and Sprint) use CDMA while the other two (AT&T and T-Mobile) use GSM.

Technically, none of them are better in terms of quality, but there are a few things here for your consideration. GSM phones can be unlocked and transferred between carriers, but CDMA phones are often locked to one carrier and cannot be transferred.

Also, depending on where you bought your phone, it could come in GSM or CDMA models, or both. It all depends on which carrier is available to you in your area. A GSM provider may have better coverage in some areas, while a CDMA provider will have better coverage in others.

Which Phones Support Which?

In the early days, many phones were compatible with either GSM or CDMA, but not both. That has changed, however. For CDMA phones, you will need to purchase a phone made for your particular carrier. The easiest way to do this is to purchase directly from your carrier.

For example, if you want an iPhone on Verizon, you need to buy a Verizon-branded iPhone—not a Sprint or AT&T-branded iPhone—because it has certain bands and compatibility with Verizon. However, if you want to leave Verizon, you won’t be able to take your phone with you; it’s locked for that operator.

However, if you don’t want to be stuck with one carrier, you can also look for an unlocked GSM phone from a third-party retailer. This phone will work with any GSM carrier just by inserting your SIM card.

For example, Amazon sells a lot of unlocked GSM phones. Buying directly from smartphone makers like Google, Samsung, and Apple can also guarantee an unlocked device that supports both CDMA and GSM technologies. Any retail or online store that deals with cell phones must provide information about the network that the phone works with.

Check GSM and CDMA Network Compatibility

You should be careful when checking phone network compatibility. Phones sold in markets that cater to both standards often come in a GSM version or a CDMA version, but most are compatible with both.

If you purchased a CDMA phone from a third-party retailer, you must contact your carrier to activate it. If you buy a GSM phone, you will need to purchase a SIM card to insert into your phone which will activate the network capabilities of your phone.

Owners of CDMA phones don’t have to worry about SIM cards, but it’s more of a curse than a blessing. CDMA phones have compatibility limitations that are difficult to overcome, while GSM owners simply remove their SIM and replace it with another from another carrier.

Most CDMA networks do not allow the use of a phone originally purchased from another carrier, even if the phone is technically compatible. This is an important limitation to keep in mind when using a CDMA network. If you decide to switch networks later, you may need to buy a new phone even if the network you are switching to also uses CDMA. This is one of the reasons why you should get an unlocked phone.

Even though GSM is more open, the frequency bands supported by the phone can still restrict access. Some frequency bands are from 380 MHz to 1900 MHz, and the bands used may vary from market to market.

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