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How to switch cellphone providers

Samantha Cossick

Dec 6, 2019 — 7 min read

Whether it’s a cheaper phone plan or better features, if you’re ready to make a change, here’s how to get started.

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Choosing the right cellphone plan can be tough. Add in all the different cellphone providers and options — just you or a family plan, unlimited data, free Disney+ streaming for a year, multiple different phones — and things can get, well, challenging.

You may find that your current cellphone provider is no longer your best option. If you’re thinking of switching cellphone carriers, here’s your guide on how to do it.

How to switch phone carriers

While some of the steps of switching phone carriers may vary by provider, in general, no matter which carrier you choose, you’ll want to:

  • Research your options: Start by comparing your choices and making notes of what you like and don’t like about your current service. You’ll want to consider everything from serviceability and plan options to whether you can keep your phone and bonus features. Additionally, make sure you’re not locked into a contract with your current carrier, otherwise, you may be hit with some early termination fees.
  • Gather your information: Once you’ve decided on a new carrier, you’ll need to collect all of your information, including:
    • Name and address
    • Account number
    • Account password or PIN
    • Phone’s ESN/IMEI number (if keeping phone)
    • Phone number (if keeping number)
  • Contact your new cellphone provider: To make the switch, simply contact your new cellphone carrier online, over the phone or in-person at a store. They’ll take all of your information and switch your service to your selected plan. Once you activate your new plan with your new carrier, your old service should automatically terminate. If there are any issues, contact your old carrier.

Now, as anyone who’s switched a cellphone carrier before will tell you, it’s not necessarily as simple as three easy steps. There are some decisions you’ll need to work out with your new carrier — mainly, whether or not you want to and can keep your existing phone and phone number.

To port, or not to port?

Transferring your existing cellphone number from one phone carrier to another is a process known as porting. Porting your number is considered a semi-permanent move and involves closing out your old account. Depending on your new carrier, you may be charged a fee to transfer your cellphone number, but this is sometimes negotiable.

Important note: Do not cancel your old cellphone service before activating your new one. Doing so may cause you to lose your existing cellphone number. Once you’ve requested a transfer of your existing number via your new cellphone carrier, though, your old carrier cannot refuse to port your number, even if you have an outstanding balance or need to pay an early termination fee.

Another thing to keep in mind is you may not be able to keep your phone number if you’re switching carriers because you’re moving to a new geographic location. Ask your new carrier before you commit to switching service.

Check out the requirements for transferring your number from some of the major carriers:

How to switch phone carriers and keep your number

  1. Choose your new cellphone provider and plan. Keep your existing service active. This is important — do not cancel your existing service before transferring your number.
  2. Gather all of your information, including name, address, account number, account password or PIN, phone ESN/IMEI (if you want to keep your device) and phone number.
  3. Contact your new cellphone provider and request a transfer or port of your existing number. Your new provider will work with your old provider to set up the transfer.
  4. Wait for the transfer to be completed. It can take anywhere from a few hours to one business day. If you’re transferring multiple numbers at once, it can take an average of 7-10 business days (or sometimes longer).
  5. Confirm cancellation of service with your old provider once porting is complete.

Buy a new phone or BYOP?

With new phones being released each year, it can be tempting to buy a brand new phone when switching cellphone carriers instead of bringing your own phone. In general, people are keeping their phones for an average of 32 months (or a little over two-and-a-half years) before upgrading, regardless of if they switch carriers or not.

You have a few options when it comes to your actual device:

  • Buy a brand new device: Many carriers offer incentives on brand new devices, such as money off a new phone, upgraded features, unlimited data, a discount on accessories or free perks (such as a free year of a Disney+ or HBO subscription). Additionally, many retailers will allow you to pay a new phone off over time with an installment plan. Be sure to repurpose or recycle your old cellphone if you get a new one.
  • Trade in your device: Trading in your old phone for a new one not only helps you get rid of clutter in your house, but you may get a few hundred dollars towards your new device. You can trade in your phone either with the maker or the carrier.

Trade-in with major makers:

Trade-in with major carriers:

  • Bring your own phone: Your other option is to bring your own phone. Similar to trading in your phone, many carriers offer money-saving incentives for bringing your own phone when you switch carriers. Just make sure it’s compatible and you have your old wireless carrier unlock the phone, if needed. You can check if your current device is compatible and find out any requirements with some of the major carriers:

How to switch phone carriers and keep your phone

  1. Choose your new cellphone provider and plan.
  2. Gather all of your information, including name, address, account number, account password or PIN, phone ESN/IMEI and phone number.
  3. Check to see if your phone is compatible with the new provider and whether or not your existing provider will need to unlock it.
  4. Contact your new cellphone provider and request a set up of new service with your existing phone.
  5. Confirm cancellation of service with your old provider once setup is complete.

Switching cellphone carriers frequently asked questions

Still have some questions about how to switch cellphone providers? No problem. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions!

Can I keep my cellphone number?

In most cases, yes, you’ll be able to transfer, or port, your existing cellphone number from one provider to another. There are some exceptions, though — such as moving to a new geographical area — so always check with your new cellphone provider before setting up service.

Do I have to buy a new cellphone?

You can, if you want to, but most providers now have options to bring your own when switching service. Just make sure it’s compatible with the new cellphone carrier and doesn’t need to be unlocked. If it does need unlocked, contact your existing cellphone provider before switching service. Additionally, all of the major cellphone providers have options to trade in your existing phone for a new one.

Should I cancel my existing service before switching cellphone carriers?

No. If you want to transfer, or port, your existing cellphone number to your new service provider, you must have active service for the transfer to be completed. Porting your number from one provider to another should effectively cancel your old service.

Can I still use my phone while my number is being ported?

Yes. Your cellphone will continue to work as normal during the porting process. If you’ve opted to get a new phone with your new carrier, you’ll be able to make calls from the new phone but not receive them until the transfer is finished. Your new provider will contact you once everything is complete.

Can I still port my number if I owe money to my old provider?

Yes. Regulations by the Federal Communications Commission outline that providers cannot deny a request to port a number to a new provider even if you have an outstanding balance or need to pay an early termination fee. That being said, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for your bill with your old provider. Also, your new provider may choose not to take you on as a customer if you have unpaid balances.

What happens to my data, photos and contacts if I switch providers?

In theory, nothing, if you’re keeping your existing phone and just switching providers. However, it’s always a good idea to back up your phone before making any big changes or upgrades. If you’re getting a new phone, you’ll need to transfer your data to your new phone.

What if I’m in a contract with my current cellphone carrier?

If you’re in a contract with your current cellphone provider, you’ll want to contact them to see if there are any penalties for ending your contract early. Some providers may require you to pay an early termination fee or you may need to wait until the end of your term. If you’re set on switching before your contract ends, see if your new service provider will cover your early termination fee. Some providers, like T-Mobile, offer reimbursement as an incentive to switch.

Now that you know the ins and outs of switching cellphone carriers, stay in touch with the experts on our Resource Center for all wireless, wi-fi and broadband matters.