6 things you must know before you switch carriers

09 December 2016

Sick of your current cell phone plan and ready to head to greener pastures? Even you've found a great plan with a new carrier, you may end up hit with surprise fees, spotty coverage or unusable phones if you don't ask the right questions before you switch.

Avoid carrier regret by making sure the following areas are covered, before you sign up somewhere new. 

Will I pay to leave my old carrier?

If you’re not on a contract for your cell phone service, because your two-year plan term has ended (or you didn’t buy a subsidized device on-contract to begin with), congratulations: leaving your current carrier shouldn’t leave you out of pocket. The same applies for customers who own their own smartphones, and don’t owe any device payments (such as leasing, early upgrade, or regular installment payments).

If you’re looking to leave but you’re currently still on a two-year plan, or have more device payments to make before you can keep your phone, upgrade it or hand it back, things get complicated. Yes, you can break contract and bail out early, but your carrier will charge you either an Early Termination Fee (for exiting your plan early), or make you pay off the remaining device payments owing all in one hit.

The exact amount of your ETF will vary depending on your carrier and how long you have left in your contract. Usually, a carrier will have a set ETF amount, which decreases for every full month of service you complete before canceling.

If you’re paying off a device and want to go elsewhere, you’ll need to pay the remaining balance of your smartphone immediately. This is the amount you would normally pay each month for your device, multiplied by how many months you have remaining on your installment agreement.

Will my new carrier reimburse my switching costs?

There is good news: many of the major carriers (currently, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T) offer switching deals to help reimburse whatever charges you’ve paid to your previous provider in order to leave early. These offers usually mean you can claim up to $650 per line you switch over, as long as you provide proof of either the ETF or final device payments incurred.

The downside? You’ll usually have to trade-in your old device to your new carrier in order to qualify for these offers – so it’s not exactly a complete reimbursement of what you’ve paid to switch, as you’re sacrificing your smartphone in order to be eligible. 

You’ll also still have to fork out those fees and payments first to leave your old carrier, and you won’t see that money being paid back by your new wireless provider straight away: it can take several bill cycles for ETF/payment refunds to be processed and applied to your account. You’ll also rarely receive cash reimbursements, as most carriers prefer to offer bill credit or prepaid cards to cover ETFs and device charges.

Can I get a family plan?

If you're relocating the whole family, or have multiple lines, you may be better off going with a carrier that offers 'family' plans - the ability to connect all your phones and lines on a single account, with a single monthly bill. 

Most of these plans are structured with unlimited talk and text for each line, but data allocation varies: some carriers, like T-Mobile, allow you to select specific data amounts for each line, while others (for example, Verizon) require customers to choose a single pool of monthly data that is to be shared between family members. 

For customers that require multiple lines, this is a cost-effective way to organize your cell plan, usually significantly cheaper than activating completely separate lines with individual bills. If you're looking to jump ship and bring the family with you (or even just have multiple devices that you'd prefer to connect to a single plan), check that your new carrier can offer you a family plan or multi-line deal, rather than just individual lines. 

And if you're looking to get the best deal possible on a family plan, look to Sprint and T-Mobile: both carriers frequently launch competing multi-line promotions for switching and current customers, offering plenty of data per line for lower-than-usual monthly prices. Click the search results below to start comparing.

Click on the widget below to compare multi-line and family options.

Can I keep my phone? 

If you already have a phone that you want to keep using, you’ll need to figure out if your device is compatible with the network used by your intended new carrier. 

Cell phone companies operate under one of two types of networks; either CDMA or GSM. AT&T and T-Mobile run on GSM networks, while Sprint and Verizon Wireless use CDMA. 

If your handset comes from AT&T or T-Mobile, you can generally switch between those two carriers (and smaller providers operating on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks) without a problem. Taking these phones to Verizon or Sprint’s CDMA networks, however, is far more difficult, unless you have a device specifically designed to work with both GSM and CDMA (these are usually marketed as ‘global’ phones). 

For a much more detailed look at GSM vs. CDMA, and carrier-specific information on taking your phone to a new network, please read our BYO Phones guide here. 

If you’re sold on a particular carrier, but your current phone is incompatible with its service, you need to be prepared to buy a new device. Most carriers offer several options for new handsets, so you won’t necessarily need to shell out hundreds of dollars upfront – installment plans are available through all the major carriers, as well as alternatives such as early upgrade plans and leasing. 

You may also be able to get a subsidized phone on a two-year service contract, but be aware that both two-year plans and payment options mean you’ll be locked into your new carrier for the term of your agreement. If you decide to switch again, you’ll be subject to ETFs or bulk device payments as outlined above.

Is there coverage where I need it?

It’s one thing to ditch your carrier in favor of a cheaper deal elsewhere, but if the coverage isn’t up to scratch, you may regret putting pricing before service. Not all networks are made equal, and before you make a final switch it’s important to determine if you can actually get a strong enough signal (and fast enough data) in the places where you live, work and use your phone the most.

Carrier coverage maps are helpful, but you’ll probably get the most accurate idea of how your intended provider performs in your area by talking to its customers. You can survey friends and family on their network coverage, and check out online forums for reviews by customers in your area.

Some carriers also offer obligation-free trials for new subscribers. Sprint is currently running a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, offering to refund device and service charges to new customers unhappy with any aspect of their Sprint plan.

T-Mobile also has a similar 30-day guarantee for new users that has replaced last year’s T-Mobile Test Drive. Again, customers can return their device within the first month, and receive a full refund for their smartphone and plan costs.

If you’re going with U.S. Cellular, you’ll have up to 15 days after purchase in which to return your new phone for a full refund. Customers will still be required to pay for any calls, texts and data they’ve used, however, and there’s a $35 ‘restocking fee’ for returned devices.

Are there surprise fees I should know about?

While not necessary a surprise, many customers are less than happy with the initial activation fees charged by carriers. Basically, if you buy a new device, you'll be asked to pay a one-time charge of up to $40 to cover activation costs - more info on what you'll pay can be found here and here

You may also be charged for your SIM card (T-Mobile customers pay $20 for the carrier's SIM Starter Kit) or to upgrade your phone in the future, and if you return a device, you may be hit with a 'restocking fee'. 

Unless you're with a carrier such as T-Mobile, which has abolished most of the common overages (such as excess data, calls and texts), you may also be charged extra at the end of your billing cycle for exceeding your plan inclusions, or using additional services that weren't covered by your service plan. 

This can include international services and dialing premium numbers, or anything else that isn't included in your monthly plan price. There are also extra fees that vary from state to state, such as universal service charges, administrative fees and state and local taxes - your new carrier can give you more information on what to expect.

Original iPhone and coffee image: Denys Prykhodov / Shutterstock.com  


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