Are you fed up with your current carrier? No doubt the first question on your mind is how to switch cell phone carriers. Switching cell phone providers is an easy process. However, before going through with switching cellular carriers, there are some factors you'll want to account for, as they can affect your finances now and well into the future.
It used to be many wireless carriers would place you under a two-year cell phone contract. If you switched providers before the term ended, you would pay an early termination fee, which varied depending on the device you had and how far you were into the two-year plan.
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However, there are ways of avoiding the early termination fee if you are still under contract. If you move, and the place you move to doesn't have service by the carrier then you might be able to have them waive the fee.
For many people, it's a different story now. Cell phone companies have done away with two-year cell phone contracts. In lieu of them, you can finance phones for the full purchase price, or in the case of Sprint, lease Apple iPhones with an upgrade option every year.
In This Guide
Fees to Switch Providers
According to Statista, the number of people who planned to switch wireless providers within 12 months has increased in recent years. In the spring of 2008, the number of people who planned to switch wireless carriers sat at 17.72 million. However, in the spring of 2016, the number grew to 25.24 million. There are a couple of reasons for this: customers are becoming increasingly unhappy with their cell phone service and/or major carriers are distributing contract buyouts to entice customers.
With this in mind, you can still incur hefty expenses if you switch providers. To demonstrate, if you have one or multiple mobile phones that you owe balances on, you must pay those off before switching to another cellular carrier. This can equate to a forced payment of hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front.
While all four major carriers do offer to buy out old contracts or phones when you switch to them--up to a certain amount, it can often take as long as two to three billing cycles to receive this credit. Therefore, if money is tight, it's important to keep these upfront costs in mind before switching.
When you switch from your current provider to a new one, chances are costs are going to be a primary motivator for doing so. Cell phone companies offer enticing incentives to new buyers where you can receive a discounted phone, more data in a plan, or even waived activation fees to join. You can compare cell phone plans using our handy tool here.
Before committing to a plan, it's important first to understand how much data you need. You can go through your last three months of statements to find the average you use per month--for many users, this is between 2 to 3 GB. You can always rely on our data usage calculator to compute the amount of data you require for your activities.
Next, select a data plan that aligns well with your current needs. This can help you avoid overpaying for a plan that has much more data than you need; it can also ensure you receive enough data per month so you don't have to pay excessive usage charges. The only exception is if you're making a switch to T-Mobile - this carrier only offers unlimited plans now. One advantage, however, is that the T-Mobile network offers one of the most affordable unlimited plans on the market.
Using this as the basis, compare each provider's packages - which you can do with our review of the best cell phone plans - to see which is the most affordable. Along with this approach, if you can find a trusted friend or relative, hop on any of these family plans.
Join a Family Plan
Individual plans tend to be much more expensive compared to family cell phone plans. Therefore, if you have a friend(s) who you trust to pay their portion of the bill on time, then family plans represent significant savings to each person.
The reason for this is cell providers charge access per phone line. For this reason, two or three people combined will result in less expensive access charges per line--outside of the primary account holder. This means you'll pay less for the same service and if you use more data, you can pool your resources to receive a better plan.
Keeping Your Current Phone
Financing a new phone can be enticing. Providers don't require a down payment if your credit is good and you can finance the phone for zero percent interest. At the same time, it adds more to your monthly payment.
With this in mind, a good alternative would be to bring your current phone with you. Before switching providers, do some research on the available bring your own phone plans, as many companies offer significant discounts on their plans when you don't purchase one of their newest phones.
Then, either 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 who you go with, you might need a new SIM card to activate service.
GSM and CMDA
The practice of bringing devices to other networks is ever-evolving. There are two types of device technology used in the United States - GSM and CDMA. Sprint and Verizon Wireless use CMDA phones, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM phones. 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:
- If you have an AT&T phone, you can keep it if you switch to T-Mobile. Simply get a new SIM card from your local T-Mobile store. Your device is also likely compatible with some of AT&T's MVNOs (smaller carriers like Cricket Wireless and Consumer Cellular). You may also be able to bring your AT&T phone to MVNOs on the T-Mobile network.
- If you have a T-Mobile phone, you'll likely be able to bring it to AT&T, or again, another MVNO that operates on the GSM network, like Consumer Cellular or Walmart Family Mobile.
- If you have a Verizon Wireless phone, you may be able to bring it to Sprint, however you'll need to check with customer service first to make sure it's compatible.
- Sprint phones can be used on any Sprint MVNO, like Republic Wireless or Boost Mobile. It may be possible to bring a Sprint phone to Verizon Wireless, however you'll want to talk to Verizon 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.
To make matters even more confusing, some MVNOs, like Straight Talk, use both the CDMA and GSM networks. It's always best to talk to a service rep before making any moves.
I know what you're thinking: it's complicated. And you're right, it can be. With technology advancing at the speed of light, mobile phone compatibility is changing right along with it.
If you ask your new provider and they won't let you transfer your phone over, then you have several options. You can trade in the device with the new provider, who can 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. We have more information regarding selling your phone if you'd like to know more.
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. Unless you're in a metro area with constant 4G access, this could present issues.
Keeping Future Costs in Mind with 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.
When receiving these promotions, it's important to find out when they will end and what they will cost you after they expire. This can help you determine if the deal is good enough to warrant the future expense. If you're trying to save some extra money on your monthly phone bill, now is also a good time to switch to a cheap cell phone plan, like any of these we have listed.
Keeping Your Current Phone Number
One of the biggest concerns with switching to a new cell phone company is keeping your current phone number. Here's the good news: providers make this easy by allowing number portability. There are some guidelines you must follow, though:
- First, to make the port successful, 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 of 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 choose to switch to a prepaid cell phone plan and carrier, like Straight Talk, you may not be able to port your number. Therefore, it's important to 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.
- To port a number, you need relevant information from your current carrier, including the phone number you want to port, the account number, and any access code you set up with them.
If you follow these steps, then transferring your number is easy. Often, if you lease or buy a new phone with the provider, it will issue directions on how to do this during service activation. Normally, this process takes only a few minutes to do. Of course, you can always visit one of the provider's store to complete this as well.
Related: Who is the Best Cell Phone Carrier?
Now that you know how to switch cell phone carriers, you can move on to the business of making the big move. You want a reliable cell phone signal, ample data and other features, a good device selection, and great customer service. Oh, let's not forget: an attractive price.
Before you commit to switching, be sure to backup your data to a safe location for easy transfer. You might not be able to keep your old phone, so it's a smart idea to keep track of photos, contacts, and important documents you might want to access on your new device. You can read our guide on how to backup your phone to learn more.
Keeping these factors in mind will help you prepare for the switch financially. It will also aid you in finding the perfect cell phone service, like these available cell phone plans, that suits your needs.