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How to Switch Cell Phone Carriers
There’s one thing we know about switching cell phone carriers: they don’t make it easy to leave. [Insert joke here about how switching cell phones carriers is a lot like your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.] It’s not you, it’s them. It’s definitely them.
But you can make the jump—and before you ask, yes, you can keep your phone number if you switch carriers. Here’s how.
1. Research what provider you want to use.
Before you make the jump, it’s time to do some investigative work. Slap on your Sherlock hat and grab your magnifying glass to get up close and personal with your new carrier’s pricing, plans, data caps—and, most importantly, coverage.
It’s elementary, Watson: no one wants to swap to a new wireless provider only to lose their signal.
Here’s a peek at the basic unlimited plans for the big three wireless providers stacks up here in the US.
2. Gather all of your information.
Before you can switch providers, you’ll need to gather some information to make the change. Here’s everything you need to know before switching cell phone carriers:
- Your name and address
- The account number on your bill
- Password or PIN
- Your phone’s ESN/IMEI number (usually located on the back or under the battery)
- Bonus: Don’t forget to back up data on your old phone—and remember, voicemails normally don’t transfer.
Armed with all of that information, you should have no problem switching your provider. If only splitting up with your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend came down to stating the facts. (I couldn’t resist.)
3. Contact your new service provider.
Now that you’ve got all your information organized and you’ve decided on a new provider, it’s time to make the switch officially. You can make the switch online or in person, but sometimes having someone there to talk you through the process is best, as Vilja, one of our team members, found out when she switched from AT&T to Verizon.
Porting refers to the transferring of a phone number from one cell phone company to another.
Once you’ve activated your new service, your old account and service should automatically cancel. But it never hurts to call your old wireless provider to make sure it’s cancelled—and possibly work some negotiation magic on those early termination fees.
4. Ask about keeping your old number.
If you’re worried about how to switch phone carriers and keep your number, there’s good news. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is on your side, and it actually prevents your current cell phone company from refusing to let you keep your number.
You won't be able to keep your old number if it has been deactivated with your current carrier service. Make sure you don't cancel with your current carrier until you have contacted your new service provider.
However, your new cell phone carrier isn’t required to accept your old number, so it’s best to check with them first.
For example, if you wanted to switch from Verizon to T-Mobile, ask the customer service representative if T-Mobile will let you keep your number. They’ll run it through the system and (hopefully) say you can keep it. If you’re switching to a family plan, the primary account holder will just need to approve the new line with the old number.
5. Decide if you want to keep your old phone or trade it in.
If you’re squinting to read this on your old iPhone 4, you might want to consider upgrading your phone with your new provider. But if you recently upgraded your phone and just want to keep it, you can do that too.
Should I trade in my phone?
If you’re not attached to your phone emotionally (or physically), trading it in may be worthwhile. Trade-ins are an easy way to get credit toward your next new phone or to cover any taxes and fees you might be charged for switching carriers.
Check how much money you’ll get back if you trade in your phone to your new cell phone provider versus how much the maker of the phone would give you.
Chances are you may get more for trading in your old phone to one compared to the other. But you should also consider which trade-in refund works best—some stores will give you a credit to your bill while others will give you a store gift card.
Here’s where you can check cell phone trade-in values by maker:
And here’s where you can check trade-in values by carrier:
How to switch cell phone providers and keep your old phone
If you can’t imagine giving up your phone for the newest model, good news: all four of the major wireless carriers offer Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs.
Of course, things aren’t so simple. Your phone needs to be compatible with your new carrier, and it needs to be unlocked. Unlocking can be a somewhat technical process, so we recommend checking a guide—or, if possible, having a representative from your current carrier help you.
This policy may change based on which carrier you’re with, but we think calling ahead is a great idea no matter what.
If you want to try your hand at unlocking your phone, here are some walkthroughs:
You are about to enter a very technical area. Be prepared for techy acronyms and cell phone jargon. You can do this.
Your phone also needs to be compatible with your new carrier’s bands and frequencies. Compatibility gets a little technical, but to sum it up short and sweet, bands refer to 4G LTE compatibility and frequencies refer to 3G compatibility.
Now that 5G phones are on the rise, you’ll need to make sure your new provider supports your 5G device—if you have one.
Your phone’s 3G compatibility also needs to take into account whether your phone uses the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) or Global System for Mobiles (GSM) network. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Verizon uses CDMA.
That means it’s easier to switch with AT&T and T-Mobile than it is with Verizon.
But as we mentioned, GSM and CDMA mostly affect 3G compatibility, so even if your phone uses a different network, you’ll likely be OK as long as you can get a 4G or 5G LTE signal. (But beware, if you can’t grab onto that signal, you’ll have no reception at all. Risky business.)
The easiest way to check your phone’s compatibility is to go to your new carrier’s website and enter your IMEI or ESN number. You can find each carrier’s compatibility check below.
How to switch to AT&T
How to switch to T-Mobile
How to switch to Verizon
Still looking? Check out our top recommended providers.
Want unlimited data? Here are our top recommended unlimited plans.