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CDMA vs GSM: What's the Difference?

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Ever noticed how mysterious cell phone terminology is?

We have! Understanding the language of mobile phone carriers can be downright confusing. Learning how to make sense of all the acronyms and terms, however, helps in the shopping process. It's necessary, in fact, for knowing things like whether your device uses a SIM card, and what kinds of cell phones you can bring to another carrier.

Two of the most common acronyms you'll come across while shopping for mobile phones are GSM and CDMA. I'm going to give you the lowdown on CDMA vs GSM and what each acronym means.

What Is GSM?

GSM stands for Global System for Mobiles and is a radio system used in mobile devices. TechTarget states that of the three major wireless technologies available, GSM technology is the most widely-used especially in areas like Europe, though you'll find several GSM carriers in the United States too.

The appeal in GSM rests in its capability. Since its network expands around the world, its roaming capabilities are bfetter, resulting in your GSM phone having better access for international calls. CDMA and GSM both have extensive nationwide networks in the U.S., so GSM service is also a great option in rural areas.

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Another benefit of GSM technology is its versatility. In the United States, GSM phones use SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards. You can think of your SIM card as your phone's driver's license in that it represents your digital identity. The appeal of SIM cards is you can transition easily between GSM phones, especially when you're interested in an enticing bring your own phone plan. All you have to do is to take out the SIM card and insert it into the slot of your new GSM model phone. Your new cell phone recognizes your number, contacts, and other information stored on the card.

Pro Tip: If you're a frequent traveler trying to decide whether to go with CDMA or GSM, one thing you should know is that even though GSM networks are more common around the world, CDMA carriers now offer international phones for use abroad.

What Is CDMA?

CDMA stands for Code Division Multiple Access. CDMA represents multiplexing between numerous signals for optimal bandwidth availability. Along with this, CDMA networks employ a soft handoff scheme that keeps signal breakup during transfer from one headset to another to a minimum.

CDMA handsets don't offer quite the versatility of those using Global System for Mobiles. The reason for this is CDMA carriers verify their customers through network-based white lists, according to PC Mag. This means if you have a CDMA phone, you cannot switch to a new phone without approval from your carrier. This can be problematic if you want to transfer service from one provider to another and want to keep your CDMA phone.

what is CDMA?

What's the Difference Between CDMA and GSM?

Here's the scoop on CDMA vs GSM:

Along with the difference in the ability to transfer service between phones, there are inherent differences in the technologies of the two systems. With 3G GSM networks, your phone has the ability to make calls and transmit data concurrently. Meanwhile, 3G CDMA networks don't have the capability of doing multiple tasks such as transmitting data while making calls at once.

Another difference between CDMA and GSM pertains to how each process calls. GSM networks use a time division system. How this works is when you place a call, the network assigns a time slot and channel to your data.

Conversely, CDMA networks use code division (hence the term Code Division Multiple Access). With this method, data from a call comes with a specific key and transmits together, making this method more versatile.

Just a couple of years ago CDMA lagged behind GSM service in terms of speed. Now, though, GSM and CDMA are comparable in this regard, operating at average speeds between 8Mbps and 17Mbps.

SIM Cards

Because GSM and CDMA are two different kinds of methods to deliver service, there are different sorts of SIM cards as well. Check out our guides on GSM SIM cards and CDMA SIM cards to determine which is compatible with your device and carrier.

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The Future Is 4G LTE...For Now

As you might have noticed when shopping around, all of the major carriers - whether CDMA or GSM - offer 4G LTE fast networks. You're probably wondering: are 4G and LTE the same things? Read more about the differences between the two here. Essentially, 4G is the fourth generation of wireless technology built into GSM and CDMA handsets. LTE - which stand for Long-Term Evolution - is a term used to refer to the technology which creates the path for faster and faster wireless speeds.

Just because CDMA and GSM carriers work on this technology, that doesn't mean you can use the same device to transfer service providers easily. The reason for this is each cell phone company uses different frequency bands. Therefore, the limitations of switching services found on CDMA networks still exists in the land of 4G LTE.

For instance: you could have a CDMA iPhone model, yet be restricted from taking it to another CDMA carrier. Mobile providers identify compatible devices via model number. Most carriers provide a list of compatible model numbers on their websites so if you need to find out if you can take your Android or iPhone model smartphone to another provider, you can easily check.


Here's the crazy part: 5G is coming, likely in the next few years. You thought cell phones were fast now, just wait. We've come a long way since the original days of 2G digital cellular.

What's the bottom line? Whether you choose a GSM or CDMA carrier, we've made it simple to research the best cell phone plans to find the most appropriate service for you.

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CDMA vs GSM: What's the Difference? FAQs

QIs Verizon GSM or CDMA?


Verizon uses CDMA.



AT&T uses GSM.

QIs T-Mobile GSM or CDMA?


T-Mobile uses GSM.

QIs Sprint GSM or CDMA?


Sprint uses CDMA.

QWhat does it mean when a phone is GSM?


Simply, it means the phone uses the GSM network. Providers like T-Mobile and AT&T use this network. Moreover, with GSM networks, you receive greater flexibility with your device. With GSM phones, you receive a SIM card that represents your digital identity. To transfer service from one GSM phone to the next, simply take out the SIM card and insert it into the new phone.

QWhat is the CDMA network?


A CDMA network is one of three major networks found worldwide carriers use. In the United States, carriers like Sprint and Verizon use the CDMA network. This network transmits data through code division, making it the most powerful and flexible offering available. The results of this include less signal interruption during a call.

There are limitations to using this network, though. For one, because advancements haven't been as pronounced as GSM has been, the CDMA network is slower than GSM. Furthermore, CDMA uses white lists to verify their customers' information. This means if you want to switch service providers or use your CDMA model phone on a specific network, you must receive permission from your carrier before doing so.

QWhat is a GSM phone carrier?


It is a carrier that uses the GSM network. Examples of this include companies like AT&T and T-Mobile. Since GSM service is the most commonly used network worldwide, it translates into better reliability in remote areas. Along with network capabilities, a phone carrier's plan offerings are important to consider.

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