How to Switch Cell Phone Carriers

How to make the switch—without wanting to throw your phone at the wall.

There’s one thing we know about switching cell phone carriers: they don’t make it easy to leave. Can we just say old cell phone carriers are like jealous exes? (Yeah, we took it there.)

But you can make the jump—and before you ask, yes, you can keep your phone number if you switch carriers. Here’s how.

Before you switch

Do your homework—check prices and coverage first.

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 how each of the top four wireless providers stacks up here in the US.

CarrierUnlimited plan range*Our ratingLearn more
Verizon$75–$300/mo.4.5 starsRead review
AT&T$70–$225/mo.4 starsRead review
T-Mobile$70–$305/mo.4 starsRead review
Sprint$60–$210/mo.3 starsRead review

* Prices include autopay, paperless billing, and multi-line discounts where applicable. Taxes and fees not included (except for T-Mobile plans).

Once you’ve decided who your new cell phone company will be and picked out a plan, it’s time to get started moving on over (and hopefully moving on up).

What you’ll need to switch cell phone carriers:

  • Your name and address
  • 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, voice mails normally don’t transfer.

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.

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Don't press cancel!

Don’t cancel your current service before you switch over to your new cell phone carrier. You want to keep it active so your new company can port, or transfer, your phone number and any other critical information to your new account.

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.

“I tried switching online, but after getting the runaround on the Verizon website to the point where I was shouting ‘I don’t want to put a phone in my cart!’ at the computer, I decided to overcome my intense fear of people and just go to the store,” she says. “. . . Once I got into a [Verizon] store, it was incredibly easy.”

How to switch cell phone carriers and keep your phone number

Finally, the FCC is on your side—your current carrier can’t take your number from you.

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.1

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What is porting?

Porting is the transfer of a phone number from one cell phone company to another.

However, your new cell phone carrier isn’t required to accept your old number, so it’s best to check with them first.

When I switched from Verizon to T-Mobile, I asked the customer service representative if T-Mobile would let me keep my number. He ran it through his system and said I wouldn’t need to change it. But because I was hopping onto my in-laws’ phone plan, my father-in-law had to approve the port since he was the primary account holder.

How long does porting take?

Typically, porting your cell phone number to a new provider will take one business day, max. You may even get lucky and have it finish within a few hours—it took Vilja 20 minutes to get everything transferred and start getting calls.

Pay attention to the timeline, though, since while your number is being ported, your old phone can make only outgoing calls. That’s right—you won’t be able to receive calls—those will go to your new phone.

How to avoid early termination fees

The best way to avoid fees is with a contract buyout from your new carrier.

All four of the major cell phone providers have given the boot to service contracts, but if you happen to still be stuck in one when you cancel your service, you’ll likely get charged an early termination fee (ETF). (And we should mention that device payment plans, a.k.a. contracts in disguise, are still very much a thing.)

That’s right, you may still owe your carrier some moolah if you’re on a payment plan for your phone. How much your fees are depends on a lot of factors and depends on which carrier you’re leaving, so we recommend reading through the fine print before you wave goodbye.

Here’s where you can find ETF details for each major carrier:

It’s also good to know that these same carriers will likely pay off your ETF or what you owe on your phone if you switch to them. Or completely waive them, if you’re lucky like Vilja.

“If there were fees, the store worker must have waived them. I expected to pay for the new Verizon SIM card at least, but all I paid was the cost of the new plan,” says Vilja. Sweet deal.

Are contract buyouts worth it?

Well, technically, it’s free money. And if you look at it that way, why wouldn’t you take this deal?

But “free money” is rarely so simple, and contract buyouts are no exception. Typically your buyout payment comes in the form of a prepaid VISA card, so you can’t swap it for cold, hard cash. It’ll probably take a few weeks to make it to your mailbox, too, so you’ll still be stuck footing those fees—at least until it arrives.

There may be other restrictions too. T-Mobile won’t let you bring your own phone if they give you credit for switching, for example. Other carriers seem to offer deals for switching only a few times a year. So if you’re intent on having that ETF paid for you, be patient, be on the lookout for deals, and read the fine print.

Is trading in your phone worth it?

Trade-ins get you credit toward a new phone, so shop around to find the best deal.

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.

One word of advice: check how much money you’ll get back if you trade your phone in 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 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 carriers and keep your phone

1. Unlock it; 2. Check compatibility; 3. Use a Bring Your Own Device program.

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.

Vilja got lucky since her phone was already unlocked, but she says that “if you bought your phone through AT&T or have a locked phone, you have to call AT&T 24 hours before going into the store and ask them to unlock your phone.”

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:

Your phone will also need 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.

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 LTE signal.

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 and Sprint use CDMA. That means it’s easier to switch from Sprint to Verizon, Verizon to Sprint, T-Mobile to AT&T, or AT&T to T-Mobile.

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 LTE signal. (But beware, if you can’t grab onto that 4G signal, you’ll have no reception at all. Talk about risky business.)2

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.

Recap

How to switch to AT&T

How to switch to Sprint

How to switch to T-Mobile

How to switch to Verizon