How to switch phone carriers

Early termination fees for smartphones are a thing of the past with installment phone payment plans. AT&T was the last of the four major carriers to end two-year smartphone contracts, and you’ll face early termination fees if you remain on a two-year contract. However, you will still need to pay off the balance of your device before you can exchange or return it.

But how do you actually switch mobile phone operators? How are you taking advantage of the current cash incentives? And is it possible for new customers to keep their old phone? We’ve put together a guide on how to switch mobile operators, including how to get out of a mobile phone contract without paying an early termination fee.

Note: Before doing anything, we recommend that you back up your important data. Phone carriers may “port” some of your data to new providers, but it’s always a good idea to back it up yourself. Here’s how to back up your iPhone or Android phone. Also, when switching wireless carriers, be careful — you’ll most likely need to replace your current phone. Here are some steps to take on your way to breaking free from your current career.

First steps

Compare wireless providers

Before making any drastic decisions, you should first compare the plans of all the major carriers. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Cost: How much will your service plan cost each month? This includes talk, text and data. Most major carriers these days offer unlimited data packages that become more affordable the more lines you have on your plan. Verizon offers unlimited plans starting at $70 for one line and all the way up to $30 per line for five or more lines. AT&T is structured much the same. Check out our best mobile phone rates guide to see our top picks.
  • Network: It’s also important to consider what kind of coverage you can expect from each carrier. Verizon and AT&T have the best coverage, though T-Mobile (which was bought and absorbed by Sprint in April 2020) isn’t far behind. T-Mobile is notorious for lacking in rural areas, but tends to excel in cities.
  • Choosing a phone: Sometimes it can be difficult to buy a phone from one carrier and take it to another (unless it’s an iPhone). AT&T often has the largest selection of phones, although all four have devices from well-known companies like Samsung, Apple, LG, HTC and others.
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AT&T T-Mobile Verizon

Explore phones and plans

Do you need a big screen and a top camera? Do you need the latest operating system? Decide in advance what is most important. Then check out our list of the best smartphones to find out which phone and carrier is best for you. T-Mobile and Verizon are now willing to pay your early termination fee or a portion of your remaining phone balance when you switch networks (check each provider’s website for details). Before switching, it’s always a good idea to re-read your current phone plan and compare it to your desired new plan.

Now that the two-year contracts are dead, you’ll need to choose a monthly phone installment plan. Previously, when you had a two-year contract plan, you would pay a one-off subsidized fee and then the phone was yours. For example, the iPhone used to cost you $200 upfront for two-year plans with AT&T and Verizon before the contracts were phased out. That’s more than $500 less than the no-contract price. Now you don’t have that option if you get a new plan.

Here’s how your new monthly payment plan will work:

  • No contract monthly payments: All major carriers offer plans that require little or no upfront payments. Instead, you’ll pay the full price of your phone over 24 months.
    • Advantages: Almost $0 upfront (you’ll still have to pay tax when you sign), no two-year contract, no additional upgrade costs, less device fees.
    • Cons: You have to pay full price for your phone.

Some carriers, like T-Mobile, also offer leasing programs, where you pay less than the full amount of the phone you lease over 12 months and get an instant upgrade to a new phone when it arrives. The leasing program is intended for iPhone lovers who need the latest and greatest iPhone or Samsung every year. Learn more about the different leasing programs offered by T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T by following the links.

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Request a quote from the service provider

Receiving an offer takes a few minutes. You can get a quote on each operator’s website by simply buying a phone. When you select a phone, a menu will appear with the prices of different service packages. They will give you a monthly estimate, but be sure to read the fine print about overage fees and other hidden fees.

If you’re not sure which package is right for you, check out our picks for the best cheap cell phone plans available.

Money saving tips

Current carrier offers

T-Mobile has long offered enticing reasons to switch to the Un-carrier. The company will pay a certain amount of your outstanding phone payment plan balance with your current carrier (or in full, if you have Verizon), as well as early termination fees based on your final bill before you switch. You can also receive a bill credit based on the market value of your eligible trade-in device.

Verizon offers a number of trade-in options to switch to Big Red. The deal works by having Verizon give you an amount in exchange for your current phone, and that amount will go toward paying your early termination fee associated with that line or phone. If the exchange does not fully cover the cost of the change, Big Red will cover the difference.

AT&T does not currently pay all or part of the termination fee, but will give you a $250 credit per device you bring to your plan. This could go towards any cancellation fees or device payment plans you had with your previous service provider.

All of this may sound good, but don’t think that wireless carriers are just going to give you a bunch of money. Carriers will usually pay the cost of your early termination fee up to a certain amount, and then up to a few hundred dollars extra to trade in your old phone.

Buy a phone and replace your old one

Most exchange plans have a few catches. Often, you have replace your old phone – and buy a new one from your new operator. If you want to keep your old phone, consider unlocking it. To drive this switch, most companies are making the most of the latest phones. Most flagships are priced under $0 and will offer up to $300 in credit, depending on the phone you’re trading in. You will also need to port your number and start a new plan.

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Keep your old account active

In most cases, you need an active account to change your number to a new mobile operator. Carriers call this practice “port-in,” which means that your cell phone number and all of your contact information will be moved from your old provider to your new provider. This usually involves switching phones, and if the port is successful, you should also have no problem accessing all the newly moved information on the new phone.

Get out of that old plan

As soon as you activate your new phone, you’ll want to cancel your current plan. The first step in this process is to take your old phone to your service provider’s store and talk to an employee about canceling your existing contract. You will receive a final invoice (with each two-year service contract) and will be responsible for paying an early cancellation fee. Sometimes you’ll also have to pay a “restocking fee” for the phone, which can be between $25 and $75 (depending on the carrier). We can tell you that Verizon’s current restocking fee is $50. We’re sure this fee is as inexplicable to you as it is to us, but it’s part of the policy of most phone companies, so you’re stuck paying the bill.

Avoid early termination fees

Fortunately, there are several ways to avoid the early termination fee. It’s not the easiest process, but you might be shocked at how far a good cause can go. For example, if you’re moving to a location not covered by your current carrier, you may be able to waive the early termination fee. When you offer a trade-in, T-Mobile and Verizon will pay up to a certain amount of your fee. AT&T, on the other hand, gives you a bill credit that could indirectly reimburse you for outage costs. All you have to do is port your number, and when you get your final bill in the mail from your former carrier, send it online to T-Mobile or Verizon. It is important that you hand over your ETF to the new carrier as soon as possible. Sometimes your ETF can only be redeemed 60 days after activation. When it’s all said and done, you’ll end up avoiding a hefty ETF and can get on with your new plan and phone without worry.

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