"Deciphering one plan is hard enough, but comparing plans from various carriers is nearly impossible," said Jim Guest, president of Yonkers-based Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine.
In addition, he said during a telephone new conference Monday, companies make it difficult to switch by refusing to let customers keep their phones or phone numbers when they move to another company - and by charging early termination penalties of up to $175.
A Federal Communications Commission regulation that would let customers keep their phone numbers when they switch is scheduled to go into effect in November. Sprint PCS spokesman Dan Wilinsky said his company was ready to meet that deadline.
But Chris Murray, Consumers Union's telecommunications policy analyst, said the companies had twice persuaded the FCC to postpone it and were trying to do so again.
Guest said cell phone companies were consistently unclear about startup fees, roaming charges, early termination penalties and even when night and weekends begin and what "nationwide" means, all of which can drastically affect a customer's bill.
Howard Waterman, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said every new customer is sent a detailed explanation of the calling plan, with all terms defined carefully.
But Guest described the current state of the industry as a "cell hell" for consumers.
"The cell phone industry has made great strides in offering consumers sleek cell phones with the latest gee-whiz gadgets and gizmos, color screens, games, individualized rings and Internet access," he said. "But the cell phone industry is not providing the nuts and bolts - the basic services consumers depend on."
The most essential of those basic services, he said, is the ability to make a 911 call. But the magazine found that emergency cell phone calls often failed because they were limited to one company's signal, even if a rival's signal was stronger in the area.
Waterman took issue with that claim, saying, "We treat 911 calls with the utmost priority. ... Our policy is 'find a signal, period,' even if it's a competitor's signal."
The magazine said a survey of 21,944 subscribers found numerous complaints of dead zones, busy signals and dropped calls. It compared service in six cities - New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco - and found that Verizon Wireless led the ratings in each.
Wilinsky, of Sprint, which finished last in four of the cities, said the results are "old news," especially for Sprint.
Consumer Reports suggested that customers do some homework before signing on with any carrier, including:
Consumers Union is an independent nonprofit organization whose mission since 1936 has been to test products, inform the public and protect consumers, according to its Web site. Its income comes from sales of Consumer Reports and other services and noncommercial contributions and grants.