How to switch cell phone providers (and keep your phone number)

Summary: Hate your cell service, but still love your number? Here's how to switch without losing your digits.

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One thing which stops many people switching cell phone carriers is the belief that they will lose their existing phone number. But the good news is, it’s a relatively simple process to switch your allegiance whilst keeping your number.

This is due to Wireless Local Number Portability (LNP), a facility that has been available across the US since May 2004. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent US government agency responsible for regulating interstate and international communications, has stipulated that all wireless carriers must allow Wireless LNP. There are, however, certain conditions which must be met.

The main proviso is alluded to by the word LOCAL - you can only keep your number if you are moving to a carrier within the same local area. For instance, you cannot port your number if you relocate from New York to San Francisco.

The rules of porting

  • A carrier cannot stop you taking your number with you, but a new carrier is under no obligation to accept it. Obviously, most carriers are more than happy to accept a new customer, and this will not be a problem. However, there are cases where some pre-pay carriers will not accept ported numbers.
  • Only the primary account holder can fill out a port request. If you are an authorized user on a family/share plan, you must establish a separate service with your current carrier before you can initiate a port request. If you have a company phone, you may not be able to port your number if the service is in your company’s name.
  • Even if you are in debt to your current provider, you can still port your number elsewhere. You will, however, be liable for any debts, and may have to pay an early termination fee if you are under contract (although some carriers will pro-rate this, so it may still be financially viable if you are some way into your contract).

Which numbers can I port?

  • You can port your cell phone number, wireline number or fax number. Pre-pay numbers can be ported, but must be active at the time you wish to transfer the service.
  • You cannot port 800 or pager numbers.
  • You cannot port a number to an existing account – porting only works when you are opening a new account with a carrier.

What is the process?

It really is very simple.

  1. Most importantly – do not cancel your service with your current carrier before contacting your new provider. You won’t be able to port your number if it has been deactivated by a carrier.
  2. Once you have decided which carrier, plan and cell phone you want to go for, contact your new provider. They will ask for your name, address and 10-digit customer account number as they appear on your bill. They may also ask for your account password if you have one.
  3. If you want to keep your device, you may also need to provide your phone’s ESN/IMEI number, which is usually located on the back of your phone or under the battery.
  4. Your new provider will then contact your current company and start the porting process. You do not need to do anything else, just wait for your new service to start.
  5. Once your new service is activated, your existing service should be automatically cancelled – however, we recommend giving the company a call to finalize the transfer (and perhaps negotiate any termination fees or other charges). You will usually receive a bill for any outstanding debt within a month.

Can I use my phone during the porting process?

During the porting process you can make outgoing calls on your old cell phone, but incoming calls will only go to your new phone. Take care with 911 calls – operators will not be able to call you back or trace you when using your old phone during porting, so ensure you give them your exact location.

How long will it take?

Simple ports should now take just 1 business day at the most. In fact, the wireless industry and FCC have agreed a goal of 2.5 hours or less to port, so it may be much quicker than this. Wireline to wireless portability may take a few days.

Does it cost anything to port my number?

In theory, providers can charge a small amount to process porting. In practice, however, this does not tend to happen due to competition between carriers. But you should always double check when asking to port – you may be able to get any fees waived.

Tips for a smooth transition

  • Make sure you do your homework – research which is the best plan for you, and (if you’re planning on getting a new device) which phone you’d like to upgrade to. Check that the carrier you wish to use is licensed in your area.
  • Look at the coverage provided by your chosen company – a great plan is rendered useless if you can’t get reception when you need it.
  • Check if your current handset is compatible with the new network – many are not, and you may need to get a new phone.
  • Remember, you are still liable for any remaining debt and/or termination charges with your old provider - porting your number does not mean you can break your contract.
  • You cannot transfer pre-pay airtime to your new network, so make sure you use up any credit before you move.
  • Voicemail messages won’t transfer to your new phone, so make sure you listen to them before changing carriers. Same goes for other features, such as call forwarding and caller ID – you will need to set these up again with your new provider.

Cat with phone image via Shutterstock.


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