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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 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.

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But how do you actually swap cell phone carriers? How do you take advantage of the 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.

Note: Before you do anything, we recommend backing up your important data. Phone carriers can “port in” some of your data to new providers, but it’s always a good idea to back up yourself. 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 charges $15 per 1GB exceeded. AT&T used to as well, but recently introduced a plan known as Mobile Share Advantage that doesn’t include such charges (though your data speeds will take a hit). T-Mobile is the cheapest of the major carriers and doesn’t have overage charges. Instead, the Un-carrier reduces your speed after you’ve exceeded your limit. Sprint doesn’t charge overages, either. 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 very difficult 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 you need the latest operating system? Decide beforehand 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 or part of your remianing phone payment balance 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 all yours. For example, the iPhone 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 get a new plan.

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 other 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.

Money-saving tips

Current carrier deals

T-Mobile has long-offered enticing reasons to switch to the Un-carrier. The company will pay off your outstanding phone payment plan balances with your current carrier, as well as early-termination fees based on your final bill before you switch. T-Mobile even gives you the option of getting a Visa prepaid card in the amount of your current carrier’s ETF or remaining device balance. You can get bill credit based on the market value of your eligible trade-in device, too.

Verizon recently began offering to pay up to $650 to get you to switch over to Big Red. The deal works by Verizon giving you a trade-in amount for your current phone, and that amount will go towards paying your early-termination fee associated with that line or phone. If the trade-in doesn’t fully cover the cost of switching, Big Red will cover the difference.

Sprint is similar, in that if you switch to Sprint Easy Pay or Sprint Lease, the carrier will pay off your contract or your old phone balance with an American Express Reward Card, but you have to register and trade in your phone first. Sprint will also halve your bill if you’re coming from Verizon, T-Mobile, or AT&T — so if you have a 6GB plan costing you $60 on Verizon, you’ll only have to pay $30 for the same amount of data on Sprint.

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All this may sound good, but don’t think the wireless carriers will just hand you a bundle of cash. The carriers will typically pay the cost of your early termination fee up to a maximum of $350, and then up to $300 for trading in your old phone.

Buy a phone and trade in your old one

Most trade-in plans have a few catches. Often, you have to trade in your old phone – and buy a new one from your new carrier. If you’d like to keep your old phone, consider unlocking it. To incentivize this trade-in, most companies are making the most of the newest phones. Most of the flagships are priced at $0 down, and will offer that credit of up to $300, depending on the phone you’re trading in. You’ll also have to port your number and start a new plan.

Keep your old account active

In most cases, your account must be active to switch your number over to the new carrier. Carriers call this process “port-in” and it means that your number, as well as your contact information will transfer from your old provider to your new provider, and assuming all goes well, from your old phone to your new phone.

Get out of that old plan

Once you’ve activated your new phone, cancel your existing plan. The cancellation process begins when you bring your old phone into the wireless carrier’s store and terminate your contract. You’ll receive a final bill and (in every two-year service agreement) you’re liable to pay the early termination fee. In some cases, you’ll also pay a “restocking fee” for the phone, which ranges from $25-75. It’s a crappy charge that makes no sense.

Dodge the early termination fees

There are ways to get out of your early termination fee. It’s not easy, but you might be surprised how far a good reason can go. For example, if you’re moving to a place that isn’t covered by the carrier, you stand a fighting chance of having the early termination fee waved. Of course, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon will pay up to $350 of your termination fee when you trade in your device. Simply port your number, then, when you receive your final bill from your former carrier, submit it online to Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon. Make sure you submit your ETF to your new carrier within a reasonable amount of time. In some cases, your ETF is only refundable 60 days after you activate your new phone. And voila! You’ve avoided paying an ETF and you’ve got a new phone from a different carrier.