How to switch cell phone providers and avoid an early termination fee

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Locked in a cell phone contract? Here's how to switch carriers without paying a fee
Image Credit: Dreamstime

A big reason why you can walk in to a cell phone store and walk out with a new device that you’ve paid little or zero money for with a contract is because of early termination fees. The mobile phone providers hope the threat of having to pay big money to leave will keep you under contract for one or two years.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, you want or need to make a change to your cell phone carrier. So how do you get out of your cell phone contract without paying big bucks?

In this article we’re going to show you how to switch cell phone carriers without being charged an early termination fee for your phone or service contract.

How to switch cell phone carriers without paying a fee: Table of contents

How much does it cost to break a cell phone contract?

Cell phone companies typically charge upwards of $350 to free you from your contract. That’s the early termination fee (ETF). You agree to it in your terms of service when you sign a service contract.

At AT&T, for example, if you want to get out of your contract for a smartphone and data plan, you’re looking at $325 minus $10 for each full month of completed service.

At Sprint, your ETF is up to $350/line for smartphones and up to $200/line for other devices. Similar with Verizon. You get the point.

Here’s what to do if you want to get out of your contract.

The direct approach: Ask to be let out of your wireless contract

First, you should try contacting your cell phone carrier. Ask them if there’s a way you can get out of your contract without being charged.

Remember, all it takes is one yes — you have nothing to lose and lots to gain. Here are the customer service numbers to the major cell phone providers:

  • Verizon — 1 (800) 922-0204
  • T-Mobile — 1 (877) 453-1304
  • Sprint — 1 (888) 211-4727
  • AT&T —1 (800) 331-0500
If their answers are unsatisfactory, you’ve still got some options.

3 cell providers that will pay your early termination fee

Next, you should check with other carriers. Some advertise that they will pay your ETF. Most of them will do so in creative ways and never upfront. Before you go this route, know how much of the ETF they’ll pay before you switch.

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One thing to note is that none of these buyout plans will cover taxes or plan charges. Here’s a look at the big providers and the deals they have for paying your ETF if you switch:

1. T-Mobile

Locked in a cell phone contract? Here's how to switch carriers without paying a fee
Photo credit: t-mobile.com

T-Mobile says that it will pay off up to $650 of your contract with a rival carrier if you switch. Here are the details:

  • Find out your phone’s trade-in value with T-Mobile.
  • The fine print: With T-Mobile’s buyout deal, your old contract will be paid via trade-in credit and up to two virtual prepaid Mastercards. The process could take up to eight weeks.

2. AT&T

Locked in a cell phone contract? Here's how to switch carriers without paying a fee
Photo credit: att.com
AT&T says it will pay your ETF, offering up to $650 in credits if you switch over to their service.
  • Find out your phone’s trade-in value with AT&T
  • The fine print: AT&T’s terms let you know that “Credits received may not equal all costs of switching.” Any pre-paid credit card they give you will come within four weeks. It will only be valid for five months from the date of purchase. Restrictions apply for select ZIP codes in L.A., New York and Chicago.

3. Sprint

Locked in a cell phone contract? Here's how to switch carriers without paying a fee
Photo credit: sprint.com
Sprint’s Clean Slate program pays early termination fees of up to $650 for new cell phone customers.
  • Find out your phone’s trade-in value with Sprint.
  • Fine print: Sprint lets you know that the buyout will be in stages — at the time you trade in your old device and the remainder via a virtual reward or prepaid card.

As for Verizon…

Unfortunately, Verizon is the only major carrier that doesn’t have a buyout plan for new cell phone customers. It does, however, offer one for its home internet service.

5 other ways to get out of your cell phone contract early without paying a fee

There are some other ways to escape your cell phone contract without being hit with an ETF. Here are the best ways to go about it:

1. Sell your cell phone service

TradeMyCellular.com is an online marketplace that allows you to sell your cell phone plan to someone else. You can even use a site like this to test out whether another carrier is better for you.

2. Transfer your contract

There are provisions that wireless providers have that let you transfer your contract to another customer. AT&T calls it a Transfer of Billing Responsibility. Verizon labels this an Assumption of Liability.

3. Join the military

While you obviously shouldn’t enlist just to avoid an ETF, military members are entitled to terminate their cell phone contracts if they’re deployed. That’s according to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

4. Your wireless provider changes your terms without advance notice

As a technicality, you can get out of your contract for free if the wireless provider changes your contract in significant ways — extending the length of the agreement or price hikes — without telling you first. But there are limits.

For example, Verizon’s terms of service says this: “If you’re a Postpay customer and a change to your Plan or this Agreement has a material adverse effect on you, you can cancel the line of Service that has been affected within 60 days of receiving the notice with no early termination fee if we fail to negate the change after you notify us of your objection to it.”

5. You complain enough

Some wireless providers will terminate your contract if you legitimately can prove that your cell phone service has deteriorated for some time. Again, this will require documentation and several instances of logging complaints.

If you move to an area where there is no cell phone service or it’s spotty, the company may send you a mini tower or antennae for better reception, but they may let you out of your contract just the same.

Final thought

Here’s the bottom line: Avoiding an early termination fee is possible if you do it right.

Another way cell phone customers lose money is by switching providers at the wrong time. Here’s when to make the switch.

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