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How to avoid early termination fees and switch phone carriers like a pro

Early termination fees for smartphones will soon be a thing of the past, once those on two-year contracts give up the ghost and move over to new phone installment plans. With AT&T being the last of the four major carriers to end two-year contracts for smartphones, you’ll only face early-termination fees if you are still stuck in a two-year contract. However, you’ll still have to pay off the rest of your device before you switch or turn it back in.

But how do you actually swap cell-phone carriers? How do you take advantage of these current cash incentives? And is it possible for new customers to stick with their old phone? We’ve put together a how-to guide to switch your cell phone carrier. Including how to get out of cell phone contracts without paying the early termination fee.

Related: Sprint vs. AT&T vs. Verizon vs. T-Mobile: Who has the best family plan?

Note: Before you do anything, we recommend backing up your important data. Phone carriers can “port in” your data to new providers. For whatever reason, when you switch phone carriers, you’re at risk to lose data. Furthermore, when you switch wireless carriers, beware, you’ll most likely have to trade in your current phone. Here are a few steps to take on the path to liberation from your current carrier.

The first steps

Compare wireless providers

Before you make any drastic decisions, you should first compare all the major carriers’ plans. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Cost: How much will your service plan cost each month? This includes minutes, messages, and data. Most carriers have overage charges. For example, Verizon and AT&T charge $15 per 1GB exceeded. T-Mobile is the cheapest of the major carriers and doesn’t have overage charges. Instead, the Uncarrier reduces your speed after you’ve exceeded your limit. Don’t worry, though, because we’ve crunched all the numbers. Check out our best family plan guide.
  • Network: It’s also important to consider what kind of coverage can you expect from the each carrier. Verizon and AT&T have the best coverage, though T-Mobile and Sprint aren’t far behind. T-Mobile and Sprint are known for shortcomings in rural areas, but excel in cities.
  • Phone selection: It’s nearly impossible to buy a phone from one carrier and take it to another (unless it’s an iPhone). AT&T has the largest selection of phones, though all four have the big-name devices from Samsung, Apple, LG, HTC, and others.

Available from:

AT&T    Sprint   T-Mobile   Verizon

Research phones and plans

Do you need a large screen and a high-end camera? Do need the latest operating system? Decide what matters most. Then, reference our best smartphones list to find which phone and carrier is best for you. Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are now willing to pay your early-termination fee when you switch networks (check each provider’s website for details). Before switching, it’s always good to reread your current phone plan and compare it to your desired new plan.

Now that two-year contract plans are dead, you’ll have to pick a monthly phone installment plan. Previously, when you had a two-year contract plan, you’d pay a one-time subsidized fee, and then the phone would be yours yours. For example, the iPhone 6S used to cost you a $200 down-payment on 2-year plans with AT&T and Verizon before contracts were fazed out. That’s $450 less than the non-contract price. Now, you don’t have that option if you switch.

Here’s how your new monthly payment plan will work:

  • No contract monthly payments: All the major carriers offer plans that require little or no up-front payment. Instead, you’ll pay off the full price of your phone over 24 months.
    • Pros: Nearly $0 due upfront (you’ll still have to pay the taxes when you sign), no 2-year contract, no additional cost to upgrade, smaller device fee.
    • Cons: You have to pay the full price of your phone.

Some carriers, like Sprint, also offer leasing programs, where you pay less than the whole amount of the phone you’re leasing over the course of 12 months and get an immediate upgrade to a new phone when it comes out.  The leasing program is for iPhone lovers who need the latest and greatest iPhone each year, but Sprint also offers the same plan for other smartphones from Samsung and big-name devices. You can read more about leasing here and see how it works here.

Get a quote from service provider

Receiving a quote takes minutes. You can get quoted on each carrier’s webpage by simply shopping for a phone. When you select a phone a menu will appear outlining the prices of different service plans. They’ll give you a monthly estimate, but be sure to read the fine print about overage charges and other hidden fees.

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