Every month 6.5 million people switch phone carriers in the United States according to a 2017 report by the FCC. Verizon loses about 1.3% of their customers (1,885,000 people) every month, AT&T loses 1.7% (2,278,000 people), T-mobile is 1.7% too (1,207,000), and Sprint’s losses are 2.2% (1,298,000 subscribers). This doesn’t include all the small virtual or regional carriers out there (Community Phone has had 0 subscribers leave as of this writing). With millions moving every month one would think that these companies would make it as easy as possible to change cellular plans. Why then does it seem like such a hassle to switch cell phone carriers?
It’s not surprising why people switch carriers. Cell phone companies are constantly offering new shiny deals luring people to their services. These large companies are incessantly focused on acquiring new customers because they are losing customers by the millions each month. The irony is that since cellular companies are so focused on getting new customers, via gimmicks and marketing “deals”, the big carriers end up focusing very little on providing amazing service to the current customers. This leads to an endless loop of constantly hunting for new customers because their neglect of current customers leads to such high monthly losses.
With such large numbers of consumers finding new cellular plans every month, you would think the “Big Four” carriers would streamline the switching processes so as to not waste their own time. Yet, they definitely do NOT make it easy to switch to a new provider. They put up every possible roadblock to prevent you from leaving (when it was their own neglect that caused the switch in the first place). See our blog post about one of Community Phone’s members having to take $4050 in cash to a local AT&T store as the only way to get away from the company. That’s why Community Phone has provided a comprehensive guide on all the necessary steps, issues, and questions you may encounter while beginning your search for a new cell phone carrier.
The first thing you should take into consideration is whether you are currently under contract. You don’t want to go hunting for a new provider just to find out that you still owe your old carrier thousands.
Fortunately, none of the four major carriers offer outright wireless contracts anymore. So it’s very unlikely that you are under a contract if you only have wireless service through the provider. Yet, if you currently have a “bundle” package (wireless, TV, home phone) then you may have a special pricing or contract that would be affected if you change the wireless service. While this is an unlikely scenario you want to always be sure to call your provider to check what your current terms are with them before switching. Pro Tip: whenever I call a service provider I record the conversations (whether over a phone call or an online chat) in case there are any discrepancies after making the change, but make sure you inform the representative that her or she is being recorded.
On the other hand, even though you may not have an outright contract, if you’re like most Americans then you probably do have a phone payment plan. Phone Payment plans are phone carriers new way of enacting “contracts.” Usually you are locked into a 24 month payment timeline. If you try to switch cellular networks before the 24 months are complete you may encounter extra fees or you will have to pay the rest of the balance on the phone plan. That being said, you can always “port-out” your number at ANY time. Porting out a number means you are switching your personal phone number from one carrier to another. “Port” is an industry term used when your new carrier makes a specific request to your old carrier to release your phone number. It’s actually mandated by the FCC that you can always port your number out whether or not you still owe money to the company. Of course, just because your number has been switched doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay the old carrier. If you never pay the outstanding balance it will end up hurting your credit score in a big way.
Note: in an effort to scoop up their competitors losses, some phone companies will cover early termination fees or pay off the rest of your phone plan if you switch to their service. If you have a specific cellular network to which you would like to switch, call the company and see if they will cover the cost of switching.
Most carriers, prepaid or postpaid, have some sort of device locking policy, which means your phone may be locked to your current carrier’s network. You always want to check if your device is unlocked or eligible to be unlocked before you assume you can take it with you to a new carrier. It’s also important to note that there are TWO TYPES OF DEVICE LOCKS. The first type is a SIM lock. This means your phone will only work with SIMs from your current carrier, but it also means that it is possible to “unlock” the phone - if it is eligible according to your current network’s policies. Call your provider or search their “unlocking policies” online to see if your device is eligible to be unlocked and how to go about unlocking it. The other type of lock is called a manufacturer lock. This means that your cell phone will only ever work on the carrier you purchased it from because it is locked at a hardware level. This means that the phone was manufactured to work specifically on your current carrier’s radio bands and cannot be unlocked.
The process for unlocking your phone will vary depending on your phone company. AT&T always locks their devices, but they also offer an online unlocking portal to unlock your device yourself. T-mobile’s unlock policy can be found here, and Sprint’s policy is here. If you are on a prepaid service like Simple or Boost mobile then your device will likely have to have been active for at least 12 months on their service before you could unlock it and use it elsewhere. Verizon does not SIM-lock any of their 4G phones, so you shouldn’t have to do anything if you have had their service for more than 30 days.
Also, if you do still owe money on a phone then you most likely will not be able to unlock it (unless you are on Verizon because they never lock their phones).
Finally, even if you have an unlocked device it still may not work on all cellular networks. This is largely due to the difference in radio technology between carriers. For example, Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology while AT&T and T-mobile use GSM technology. That means that if you have a Verizon phone it is more likely to work on Sprint than on T-mobile or AT&T (and vice versa). But, there are still differences within Sprint’s and Verizon’s CDMA and also AT&T’s and T-mobile’s GSM. That being said, most new, unlocked, iPhones and new Android phones will be compatible with all carriers (use this tool to check your compatibility). Always be sure to double check that your phone model will work on your new network!
Ok so you found out your phone won’t work on the new carrier for whatever reason - maybe it’s locked or simply not compatible with the network. What do you do next?
The least expensive option is definitely to buy a refurbished phone online. There are sites like Swappa that are specifically for buying/selling phones and it is easy to see if the phone will be compatible with your new carrier. You can always search on Amazon, eBay, and any of your other favorite ecommerce sites too.
If you don’t want refurbished or don’t have the capital to pay for the phone upfront then your new carrier most likely offers a variety of phone leasing options that will allow you to pay off a phone as you go (Community Phone offers phones starting at $5/month!).
For security purposes all cell phone carriers require you to provide your current account number, your current account PIN/Passcode (this is not necessarily the same as the password you use to login to your account online), and your current phone number when trying to “port” or transfer your number to a new carrier. MVNO’s and smaller carriers may also ask for the account holder’s name and billing address on the current cell phone account before you can port your number to their service. This information is used to ensure that no one can “steal” your phone number from you.
Where to find that stuff…
Account Number: The account number can usually found on your most recent bill or you can call your service provider and ask them directly as long as you know your PIN (See directions below if you don’t know it).
Account PIN: If you do not know what your PIN is then you will have to reset the PIN/Passcode. The best way to do so will be to call your current provider and tell them you would like to reset your PIN. You usually have a couple tries at guessing the PIN or you can go straight to resetting it. The company will have to verify your identity. Usually they will send you a verification code to your phone/email and/or ask for the last 4 digits of your social security to verify your identity.
If you’re bringing a phone to your new provider then you might need some information about the phone too. The most important information about the cell phone is the IMEI number. The simplest way to find the phone’s IMEI is to go to the dial pad as if you were about to dial a phone number to call. Enter in the code *#06# and press dial/call. Your IMEI should appear on the screen. You can also find the IMEI in your Settings, under General and then About Phone.
Write down the account number, PIN, and IMEI and keep them someplace safe.
Now you can shop around! There are pros and cons to all cell phone providers. You have to ask yourself what you value most in a cellular network. Is it the lowest price, best coverage, best customer service, best new user deal, best variety of phones, the one that will be the least hassle, a company that has a social mission, or something entirely different? Each characteristic has a unique provider that will excel in that area. Virtual MVNO’s will usually have the lowest prices. Large carriers or MVNO’s that use multiple carriers (like Project Fi) will have the best coverage. The best customer service would come from a local, community based, phone company (not that I am biased or anything). The company with the least hassle would probably come right to your home to do the switch for you (sounds a lot like Community Phone).
Clearly, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options when you’re searching for a new carrier so be sure to select 1 or 2 traits that you really care about and search for companies that align with those traits. Feel free to call 617-963-0004 or chat with Community Phone online to discuss the many different options. Even if you’re not interested in switching to Community Phone they are always willing to help people find a provider that is a good fit.
So you’ve got your account information, a compatible phone, and a new provider all selected, now what? Don’t deactivate your current account before switching! If you deactivate your current service you will most likely lose your number! Otherwise, you’ll most likely need to get a new SIM card, which the company should provide for free. If you are going for a virtual provider (no stores) then they will most likely ship you a sim card and have you call them to complete activation. If you are going with a retail store based cellular provider then you can get a SIM shipped to you or also just go to a store and they will provide the SIM and go through the whole activation for you. Better yet, if you go with Community Phone they will come right to your home with the SIM and do the activation at your convenience while you relax in your home. Whichever route you chose, the process for switching the number over and getting the phone set-up/activated will most likely take about an hour. If you’re bringing your own compatible phone then the process can take as little as 20 minutes though. Either way, block out sometime for yourself and make the switch!
See if you can afford to switch off your current provider
Get your account number and PIN ready
Make sure the device is unlocked or be prepared to buy a new one
Make sure your device is compatible with the new network or be prepared to buy a new one
Get the phone’s IMEI number
Find the right cellular network for you and get a SIM card
Make the Switch!
Will I lose all my stuff on my phone?
No (except you will lose your voicemails)! If you are keeping your phone (or getting a new one) you should be able to move all your important things over easily. The one thing that you will certainly lose are your voicemails. Your voicemail box is set up by your current provider and gets wiped when you switch off of their service. If you have an iPhone and are keeping it or going to a new iPhone, make sure you Back-Up your phone’s data on iCloud. Here are the 5 steps to do so (even though your phone should automatically back-up)
Connect your device to a Wi-Fi network.
Tap Settings > iCloud > Backup.
Turn on iCloud Backup, if it isn’t already turned on.
Make sure you are on a Wi-Fi connection and tap Back Up Now.
Check your backup by tapping Settings > iCloud > Storage > Manage Storage, and then select your device.
If you use Android, then you can use Google Drive to backup your phone too (this won’t save everything though). To find your most recent backup on Google Drive go to the Drive app, then Menu, then Backups. If you don’t see any then go to your phone’s settings and make sure Back ups are turned on.
If you’re moving everything to a new phone then you can easily move stuff from the old phone to the new one. If it is an iPhone just restore the old phone’s backup onto the new phone. If you are going from a Samsung to another Samsung then you can use Samsung Smart Switch to move all your stuff over. If you are going from an LG to another LG phone there is a similar switching tool in your phone’s settings. You can also use the app “Copy My Data” found in the App Store or the Google Play Store to transfer contacts, pictures, and videos between any two phones. regardless of OS
Can I keep my phone number?
Yes! You will be able to keep your number, there are some exceptions if you are coming from an international carrier.
Will there be hidden fees?
Sometimes there will be, it depends on the carrier. Some providers charge you for SIM cards, an activation fee, and all other sorts of things. So make sure you understand the full cost of switching before it’s too late by talking with the new provider (and make sure you get what they say in writing or recorded in case they change anything on you at the last minute).
THAT'S IT! Feel free to reach out to us if you have any more questions about switching to a new provider!