How much are you paying for your cell phone bill every month?
$30? $50? $100?
For the average American, the answer is about $60 a month.
That's a lot of money.
Especially when you add on the phones of family members.
The good news?
Prices are actually dropping.
Increased competition, a lack of unique new features, and market saturation have made it harder for carriers to justify price increases.
Also, laws are making it easier to switch providers while keeping your phone and number.
This means there’s never been a better time to switch providers and save some dough.
Even if you only trim $10 off your bill, you’re looking at savings of $120 per year, per line.
For a family of four, that’s $480—a sum that’s hard to overlook.
If you’re on an older plan, there’s a good chance you’ll save even more.
But how do you make the switch?
While it might seem like a daunting task, it’s pretty simple as long as you know the pitfalls to avoid.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know and ensure there are no nasty surprises...
Some Reasons to Consider Switching
Unless you want a fresh start with a new phone and a new number, switching will take some time and effort.
There’s the possibility of fees due to contracts or device financing, delays to bring over your number, and time required to research and find the best deals.
It’s not something you want to charge into blindly.
You’ve got to have a good reason to go through the effort.
Here’s a few reasons switch:
Your Existing Service is Too Expensive
New prepaid options
and smaller carriers are making big changes in the mobile market—especially if you’re often within range of an open Wi-Fi network or don’t use your phone heavily.
Options like Ting
or Republic Wireless
offer plans that run around $20 per line before data charges. Even then, a gigabyte or two will only run you another $20 to $30. If you’re paying $60+ per line for your phones, the savings will pile up fast.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many carriers now offer unlimited data plans.
If you’re using an older plan with a large pool of metered data, you might find the unlimited plans save you both money and the hassle of tracking your data usage every month.
Poor Coverage or Other Service Issues
Things like slow mobile data speeds, poor coverage, bad call quality or frustrating customer service.
If you feel that your carrier
no longer offers the same value or service they offered at the start of your contract, it may pay to shop around.
Unbeatable Promotions Elsewhere
Monthly plans, phone selection, and coverage look similar for most carriers these days. As such, promotions are one of the few remaining ways that carriers can stand out from the crowd.
If you see a deal that is too good to resist from another carrier, it might be time to make the switch from your current provider.
Especially considering that most promotions are only available for a few weeks or months.
But read all terms and conditions before signing up.
Most promotions require two-year contracts or purchasing phones before you qualify. Should you find that service isn’t what you expected, you might be left dealing with a new set of problems.
Better Bonus Perks Elsewhere
Many service providers include a few perks with your monthly contract.
Common options include:
- Discounts on event tickets
- Free Wi-Fi hotspot access
- Free subscriptions to streaming services
- Free in-network calling
- Phone upgrade deals
If the perks are something you’ll use often, it’s a simple way to add value to your mobile plan and make life a little more enjoyable.
Plans that include free media streaming are especially popular as you can cancel your existing subscription to a service offered as a perk and save even more after switching.
However, while they market these perks as free, there’s a good chance you’re paying something toward them each month through a hidden increase in your bill.
So if you don’t use the perks with your existing carrier (or you don’t use the perks on the carrier you switch to) you’re probably wasting money.
Better Roaming Support
Roaming is one of the few areas in which billing can differ drastically between carriers.
If you’re a frequent traveler, switching to a carrier with affordable and flexible roaming features can both eliminate the hassle of swapping out SIMs everywhere you go and save you some serious money.
Better Phone Model Options
Although the number of carrier-exclusive phones seems to dwindle as new generations are released, some carriers still get big releases before others.
If you can’t wait for the latest new phone
or you’re eyeing a specific color or variant, switching carriers might be a way to get that shiny new upgrade you’ve been eyeing.
You Can Save By Bundling Services Elsewhere
While it wasn’t always the case, these days, most cell phone providers
are also your internet or cable provider.
In most cases, having all three services with the same provider will translate to savings on each service. Sometimes, this is enough to switch.
Just be sure to check any fine print on bundle deals to see what costs will be after the promotion expires or you might find yourself in for a real shock in 12 months.
If there’s one thing you can count on in life, it’s the unexpected.
Major life events, such as moving, getting married, or the kids growing up, are great times to step back and assess your various monthly expenses—including your wireless bills.
Preparing to Make the Switch
Regardless of your reason for switching, the best way to set yourself up for savings and success is to do a bit of research first.
This will ensure that you have the information you need and avoid surprises during the switching process.
Step 1: Check your contract status
If you’re using a prepaid phone, there’s a good chance you have little to worry about here.
However, if you’re paying monthly and still on a contract, leaving early likely means dealing with early termination fees. These can add hundreds of dollars to the costs of switching.
If you’ve met the terms of your contract, there’s a good chance you can leave for a new provider with little worry of additional fees. However, if you also leased or financed your phone, be sure to check any terms there too.
Some carriers finance phones through a third-party lender. If so, you can probably continue to make payments on your phones. If you were financed through your carrier, you must probably pay any remaining balances before leaving—some even automatically draft it from your account!
[RELATED RESOURCE: GET OUT OF CONTRACT GUIDE]
Step 2: Determine if you want to keep your phone
If you plan on getting a new phone with your new carrier, you’re already done with step two. However, if you plan to bring it with you, you must check a couple things:
Is your phone locked?
If so, you’ll need to contact your carrier or a third-party provider to unlock your phone. The process is quick—and most times free—but your phone may not work on a new carrier without unlocking it first.
Which networks does your phone support?
Unlocking is only half of the picture. Your phone must also support the network used by your new carrier.
The simplest way to check is to enter your phone model in Will My Phone Work or Frequency Check.
For more information, check our guide to using your phone overseas. While it’s geared toward travellers, the information works equally well when checking networks within the same country.
Step 3: Backup your important data
If you have a smartphone, there’s a good chance that most of your important data—be it pictures, videos of the kids, contacts, or emails—are all stored in the cloud somewhere.
Both Android and Apple provide features that do so both natively and within some of the most popular apps.
However, it’s better to double-check and be sure you’ve got everything to be safe.
If you’re looking to automate the backup process, our best Android backup app round-up provides dependable options.
Looking for an iPhone solution? Your best bet is a solid iTunes backup—just connect and let it run.
NOTE: If your data is super critical—such as work documents or the like—you might reload your backup after making it to be sure it works. Of course, this risks losing data on your phone if the backup wasn’t successful. However, it’s better to know you might have a problem before switching as your carrier might have ways to help you sort things out.
Step 4: Decide if you want to keep your number
Keeping your number is easy, but recovering your number after it is lost is next to impossible.
Be sure to decide in advance and mention it to your new carrier at the start of signing up for service to avoid any complications.
In most cases, keeping your number is free and only adds a brief delay to getting started with your new service provider.
Keep in mind that changing your number once you’ve started service is often a paid feature.
So if you’ve considered changing your number in the past due to excessive marketing calls or wanting a fresh start, now is the time to time to consider what you’d really like to do.
Step 5: Check carrier coverage in your area
Unless you’re on Wi-Fi all the time, your phone experience will only be as good as your coverage.
But carrier coverage maps are only an estimation of what you’ll get. Everything from the thickness of the walls in your home to the model of phone you use can impact coverage.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check the carrier’s coverage map. While they won’t be perfectly accurate, they will at least give you a basic idea of what coverage is like in your area. We have the links to coverage maps for every carrier to save you the hassle of digging through different sites.
So how can you find out more about coverage without signing up for service?
You have a couple options available:
Talk to friends and family: If you know someone who uses the carrier you plan to use, ask them how they like their service and if they have coverage in areas you visit often. Better yet, see if they’d let you borrow their phone for a day or want to hang out. Then you can see how coverage looks for yourself.
Check a crowd-sourced coverage site: The next best thing to information that you source yourself is crowd-sourced sites that compile coverage data from other people’s phones.
Both RootMetrics and OpenSignal provide maps with far greater detail than carrier coverage maps. You can even find advanced metrics, such as average transfer speeds, depending on how you plan to use your phone.
Step 6: Check Your Billing Cycle
Lastly, before you commit to anything, be sure to check your billing cycle dates. While some carriers will prorate your bill based on when you cancel service, others cut off your line and keep the remaining money.
For the best savings, we recommend starting the switch around 4 days before your payment is due.
Start the switch around 4 days before your payment is due
This gives plenty of time for the number porting process to complete if you’re switching your number while minimizing any losses should your old carrier not credit you for unused time.
Shopping Around for the Best Deal
With the information about your existing plan gathered, it’s time to look into your options for switching.
As there’s no perfect plan for everyone—and promotions change often—we won’t list exact details here. But by keeping these considerations in mind, you can be sure that you’ve covered the important aspects of choosing a new plan and provider.
Step 1: Determine Your Needs
There are two aspects to determining the best fit: what phones you’ll need and what you’re looking for in a plan.
If it appears you’ll need a new phone—or you’re looking to upgrade your gear when you switch—be sure to check carrier phone deals to see if your desired phone is available.
Can’t find the phone you’re looking for? You can also check third-party sites such as Amazon or head to the local electronics store. Just be sure to check that the phones you’re looking at are compatible with the new service you intend to use.
With the phone decision made, it’s time to move on to plans.
The most straight-forward option for assessing plan needs is to dig up your last two or three phone bills from your existing carrier.
Check your average usage for minutes, messages and data.
If you use any of your account perks, be sure to note those as well and see how losing them might impact how you use your phone.
Knowing how you use your phone and what perks offer value to you, you’ll have a good baseline estimate of what you need in a new plan.
From there, you can compare plans and match your needs to the prices of each service provider and see who is offers the best value.
Step 2: Choosing Between Prepaid (PAYG), Monthly, or SIM-Only Plans
Even a few years ago, choosing prepaid service for a phone you plan to use regularly was cringe-worthy.
Prices didn’t compete with monthly plans if you had a good enough credit score to get one.
These days, with the rise in prepaid bundles, prepaid plans compete with monthly plans in terms of value and features.
These days, with the rise in prepaid bundles, prepaid plans compete with monthly plans in terms of value and features.
One of the biggest differences remaining between the two is phone selection.
If you’re looking for financing on a high-end phone or a nice discount on your device, you’re likely stuck with a monthly plan and contract.
If you’ve bought your phone upfront, or don’t mind a cheaper model, then prepaid can offer the same service with less hassle—and legal obligations.
Many monthly plans are also available as SIM-only plans.
These plans ditch the phone financing fees and contract requirements while offering lower rates than standard plans if you bring your own phone.
For many, this is the best balance of cost and convenience.
There is no need to worry about topping off your account or tracking balances and you’ll get full access to features while still using your favorite phone.
In many ways, it is like blending the perks of both monthly and prepaid service plans.
Not sure where to start? We’ve already compared some of the best prepaid plans and monthly plans on the market to give you a head start.
Still don’t see something you like? Our plan comparison tool makes it easy to choose the features you need and get an easy-to-compare list of options from leading carriers.
Step 3: Check for Sign-On Bonuses or Switching Incentives
Many carriers offer nice deals for people signing up for service—especially if they’re coming from one of their major competitors.
Common promotions include:
- Paying any early termination fees you might have
- Free phones
- Doubled data allotments
- Discounts for the first 6 to 12 months of service
- Prepaid gift cards
But before you get excited about free stuff, be sure to check the fine print and compare it to other deals available elsewhere.
For example, while some carriers will pay your early termination fees, this is often done using a prepaid gift card. And to claim your card, you must first pay the fee out of your own pocket and then submit the bill to your new carrier for reimbursement.
If you have multiple lines or a newer contract, this could mean fronting hundreds of dollars for four to six weeks while you wait for the card to arrive.
For discounts on the certain number of months, be sure to confirm the rates after the promotion is over. Last thing you want is to save a little upfront to spend more later when you’re locked into a contract.
Finally, free phones are never free. Free phone promotions almost always require a contract commitment, purchasing a certain plan, or buying other phones at full price to get the free ones.
Free phones are never free
While they might look great upfront, they almost always limit your options regarding billing or switching again soon.
Also, when looking at phone discounts, check whether the phone is new or refurbished. While refurbished phones aren’t necessarily bad, they come with their own tradeoffs and concerns.
Step 4: Consider One-Time Fees
While many promotions want to make it seem like you’ll pay exactly what’s listed on the site there is almost always some added fees when you sign up.
- Applicable taxes on any phones
- Activation fees
- SIM card fees
These all vary both in cost and how they’re applied. Activation fees may be per line or per account. SIM card fees
are almost always per device.
By the time everything adds up, your initial cost could be $100+ more than what you see on the promotion page. So plan for this and allow a little wiggle room in your budget.
The Main Event: Making the Switch
At this point, you should know which carrier and plan you want as well as any phones or features you might need.
From here, it’s a matter of getting in touch with the carrier you plan to use to establish service or stopping by your nearest carrier location.
Before you do so, you’ll want to organize the information needed for the switch.
While exact requirements vary, you’ll likely need:
- Identifying information—such as a government-issued ID card or driver’s license
- Proof of address—such as a bill from one of your utility providers or credit cards
- A copy of your bill from your current provider
- A way to pay any costs associated with your new service
Bringing your bill is especially important if you plan to keep your number. It provides the new carrier with most of the information needed to start the process of bringing your number over.
WARNING: DO NOT CANCEL your old service before switching if you plan to keep your number. The line must be active to port the number between providers. If you cancel your old service prior to completing the number porting process, you cannot get the number back. Once the number is ported, the old account should automatically close.
With your information gathered, get in touch with the new service provider, pick your plans and phones, and let them know if you want to keep your number.
If you do this in a store, you’ll likely get a SIM
for your new service immediately.
Switching online or over the phone? You’ll probably need to wait a few days for a SIM to arrive in the mail.
However, you can often combine both methods by calling or chatting in to switch and then popping by a nearby carrier location to pick up your SIM.
Once you have your SIM, insert it into your phone and follow any activation instructions listed. In most cases, this includes calling customer service to confirm the SIM arrived and adjusting any settings on your phone the carrier requires.
NOTE: If your new carrier uses a CDMA network (such as Verizon or Sprint) you won’t always receive a SIM since the identifying information is stored on the phone itself. However, activation is still a similar process. Simply call customer service to get started.
If you’re switching to a prepaid provider, you also must ensure that there is credit on the account before you can use your new service.
Once you’re up and running, be sure to check in with your old provider to tie up any loose ends, such as early termination fees or device financing agreements.
If your switch involved upgrading phones or purchasing a new one, be sure to restore your backup and head to the nearest secure Wi-Fi connection to update your apps and get things back to how you like them.
Congratulations! You’ve made the switch and are on your way to saving more money on your cell phone service!
Q. How long does it take for my number to switch networks?
Local regulations differ as to the maximum time it can take. But in most cases, the process takes anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days. Be careful with weekends though as they might add delays.
Q. Will I lose service while my number is switching from one network to another?
If you are expecting important calls during the switch, be sure to make people aware that you’re swapping carriers. You can also set up a service such as Google Voice or Skype to help route calls until things are finalized.
You’ll most likely be able to make calls while the number switch is in progress. However, calls coming in will be routed to your new line of service once the switch is made.
The best way to tell when the process is complete is to keep an eye on your service through your old provider. If it suddenly stops working, it’s probably time to pop in your new SIM.
Q. Can you keep your phone?
This depends on the network you’re switching to. Some networks use different frequencies and some phones only support certain frequencies. Then there’s the problem of locked phones.
While our guide to using your phone overseas focuses on international travel, the same steps apply to checking if your phone will work with another carrier. Not sure if your phone is locked? We’ve got a how-to for that as well!
If it’s unlocked and supports the frequencies of your new network, you should be good to go.
If not, our phone reviews can help you find a perfect replacement for your budget and intended usage. But don’t just toss your old phone in a drawer and forget about it. You might be able to sell your used phone or trade it in with your new network and offset the cost of switching.
Q. Do I have to notify my current network I am switching?
If you’re keeping your old number, your new network will contact your old one.
But it’s not a bad idea to get in touch and find out about any fees you might face from your old network once the line is canceled.
Q. What about fees? Are there any ways to avoid them?
The most common fee encountered when switching networks is an Early Termination Fee.
As these apply to each line you plan to switch, they can add up shockingly fast.
Fortunately, if you’re wondering how to switch phone carriers without paying, there are a few things you can try to avoid paying the ETF.
If those don’t work, and you own a flagship phone, you might be able to sell your used phone to recoup a portion of the fees. Then, you can further offset costs by picking up a phone at a discount with your new carrier.
Q. Will my voicemails transfer too? What about other features, such as call forwarding?
No. Unless you’re using a third-party voicemail service, you won’t be able to retrieve past voicemails. If you had call forwarding set up, you’ll likely need to configure that again too.
A Quick Recap
- Planning is the best way to avoid any pitfalls and streamline the switching process
- Always use iTunes or an app to backup your data before switching phones
- Check coverage to limit options
- Be sure to consider whether you need or want a new phone
- If so, be sure to research phone compatibility before limiting options further
- Shop around to find the best deal—promotions change often
- Read the promotional fine print
- Don’t forget about added fees
- If you’re bringing your number with you, beware of possible downtime
- Check in with your old network after the switch to ensure there are no financial surprises
While switching carriers might seem like a daunting process, with the right approach, it can be painless and even result in some savings.