How to Switch Cell Phone Carriers (and Keep Your Phone & Number)

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Are you fed up with your current carrier? You're not alone.

Statistics show that the number of people who planned to switch wireless providers within 12 months increased from 17.72 million in 2008 to 25.24 million in 2016.

Why? Because customers are increasingly unhappy with their cell phone service and high prices, and alternative carriers are moving to the forefront as a way to save up to 50% for the same great coverage.

Happy With Your Carrier's Coverage but Not Their Prices?

The good news is that you can now enjoy the same nationwide coverage as you get with one of the big four carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) without paying their big prices. How? By switching to one of the alternative carriers called MVNOs (Mobile Variable Network Operators).

The big four have their own towers; the little guys rent their coverage in bulk from them and pass it on to you at lower rates because their costs are so much lower without massive advertising budgets.

So, for example, if you love Verizon's coverage but don't like their high prices, you could switch to an MVNO which uses the Verizon network, like US Mobile or Twigby, and cut your bill in half!

Compare Cell Phone Plans

Time for a cheaper cell phone plan?

Step-by-Step Guide to Switching Carriers

Here's a quick overview of the steps involved in changing mobile service providers:

  1. Compare cell phone plans and choose a new carrier with features and plans that match your usage.
  2. Check out the coverage map to be sure they have 4G LTE service in your home location and anywhere to which you travel frequently.
  3. Check phone compatibility using an IMEI checker.
  4. Make sure your old bills are paid up and your phone is unlocked.
  5. Back up your phone so you don't lose photos, contacts, and other important info if you're changing devices.
  6. Wait to cancel your old account until your phone number is ported over.

Can I Keep My Phone?

Yes - absolutely. There are plenty of bring your own phone plans to choose from. In fact, using your device for longer than a year or two is one of the best money-saving strategies when it comes to cell service.

Your phone will have to be unlocked in order to take it to another carrier. Consult our guide on how to unlock phones or ask your current cell phone company to do it for you. They will do so as long as your account is in good standing. Then, depending on whom you go with, you might need a new SIM card to activate service.

Next, we'll delve into how to determine whether your phone will work on your new plan.

Using your device for longer than a year or two is, by far, one of the best money-saving strategies when it comes to cell service.

GSM and CMDA

There are two types of device technology used in the United States:

  • CMDA - Sprint and Verizon Wireless
  • GSM - AT&T and T-Mobile

It used to be that you could not use any device from one of these networks on the other. That's changing.

Newer CDMA phones now include a SIM card which allows them to operate on the LTE network. GSM phones, on the other hand, have LTE network technology built into them, and their SIM cards contain the user's information.

Here's the scoop according to which carrier you have:

  • AT&T phone: you can likely keep it if you switch to a T-Mobile or AT&T MVNO, such as ROK Mobile. Simply get a new SIM card from your new carrier.
  • T-Mobile phone: you'll likely be able to bring it to an AT&T or T-Mobile MVNO that operates on the GSM network, such as TPO Mobile.
  • Verizon Wireless phone: you'll be able to bring it to a Verizon MVNO, such as US Mobile. You may also be able to bring it to a Sprint MVNO, however, you'll need to check with customer service first to make sure it's compatible.
  • Sprint phone: you should be able to use it with a Sprint MVNO, like Twigby or TPO Mobile. It may be possible to bring a Sprint phone to a provider on the Verizon network, however, you'll want to talk to customer service to be sure. The most commonly compatible devices are Apple iPhones. Furthermore, you'll need to have Sprint unlock phones you want to switch over.

Some MVNOs, like US Mobile and ROK Mobile, use both the CDMA and GSM networks. It's always best to check compatibility before making any moves. Most carriers also feature a tool on their website - simply put in your phone model and they'll tell you whether it will work.

If your phone is not compatible with your chosen provider you have several options. You may be able to trade in the device with the new provider, who will offer you credit depending on the type and condition of the phone. You can also sell it online via eBay, Craigslist, or use a service like Gazelle.

Pro Tip: Find out more about selling your old phone.

Can I Keep My Phone Number?

The law allows you to keep your cell phone number when changing carriers, as long as a few conditions are met:

  • You must be the primary account owner making the request. If you are on a family plan, you must have your current provider transfer responsibility for billing to you before you can make the request. In all instances, keep the account with the current provider open until the port is successful.
  • If you're switching to a prepaid cell phone plan you may not be able to port your number. Call and ask the new provider if your mobile phone qualifies for number portability before committing to them.
  • You can only port numbers to new accounts.
  • You'll want to have your account info handy - the phone number you want to port, the account number, your phone's ESN/IMEI number (usually located on the back of your phone or under the battery), and your port out PIN or passcode (usually the one your current carrier uses to verify the account holder's identity when you call to get account information).

Some providers complete the porting process for you. With alternative carriers, you will typically just follow the instructions that come with your SIM card in order to port your number. Either way, the process is normally completed in less than a day.

Other Considerations

Termination Fees

Contracts are a thing of the past, by and large, but if you happen to be stuck in one - or you owe for device payments - you'll need to take care of any remaining obligations before changing carriers.

Package Options

If you're switching cell phone providers, chances are cost is one of your primary motivators for doing so. One of the best ways to control costs is to choose a phone plan that fits your needs so that you only pay for what you use.

Go through your last three months of statements to find your average data use per month. For many users, this is just 2 to 3 GB. You can also check our data usage calculator to compute the amount of data you require for your activities. Then compare cell phone plans using our comparison tool.

What About Promotions?

Cell phone providers might try to lure you by offering temporary incentives. These can include more data per month for the same price or a discount off your service for a specified time.

It's important to analyze these offers - when will they end and what will they cost you after they expire? This can help you determine if the deal is good enough to warrant the future expense.

Make the Switch

Once you've chosen the carrier that meets your needs for features and price-point, it's time to make the big change. In most cases, you will order a SIM card from your new provider and then follow their instructions for activating service on your phone. If you're ordering a new phone, everything should come all set up for you.

Now - that sounds simple, right? And it is, for the most part. You probably still have a few crucial questions depending on whether you're keeping your phone, buying a used device, or getting a brand new one.

Pro Tip: It pays to do plenty of research when it comes to bringing your device to another carrier. Particularly with CDMA phones, they may work on a GSM provider's 4G LTE network but experience problems with the 3G cell phone signal.

how to keep your current phone number

Related: Who is the Best Cell Phone Carrier?

Recap

Don't be afraid to choose a discount cell carrier - they all run on one or more of the big four networks, giving you the same great service at a better price. With the smorgasbord of choices available now, it's really all about finding the plan that fits your usage so that you're not paying for more than you actually use.

Once you're finished with the above steps, all that's left to do is enjoy your lower cell phone bill!

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