I’ve had it! you think to yourself. I’m done with my carrier! I’m not working with X company ever again! I’m sick of the awful customer service! I’m tired of the hidden fees! I can’t even get decent reception in my own living room! I’m done!
You may have gone through this very same internal monologue. You may have even spoken it aloud. You may even have blustered about your service on the very network you’re complaining about.
But then you look at your trusty Galaxy/Motorola/iPhone, lying there on the counter, and you think, It’s not you. You’re great. It’s just your network!
Well, what if it were possible to switch to another carrier but keep the same phone? American phone companies have a long history of imprisoning their customers in draconian contracts, but that is starting to change. The process can still feel like a bureaucratic obstacle course, but once you’ve found a new provider, you’ll likely thank yourself for your perseverance – and so will your phone.
Here’s how switching providers usually works:
Review your contract
Most people sign their first cellphone contact without even thinking about it, and there are lots of reasons why they may regret getting locked in. Then, when you decide to switch, leaving your carrier is like filing for divorce.
It can be costly and labor-intensive, and companies will keep their hooks in you for as long as they can. But contracts do eventually end, and you can decide to terminate your relationship.
Figure out whether your phone is GSM or CDMA
These days, many Americans are familiar with “SIM cards.” A “GSM” phone uses these tiny little cards to store customer information and make the phone function. You can swap them out whenever you like, a very popular practice among international travelers.
Just arrived in Greece? Well, just buy yourself a prepaid SIM card at the Athens airport, stick it into your phone, and you’re good to go.
CDMA doesn’t have a card you can simply remove, and it’s much more familiar to American users. In order to use a CDMA phone on a different network, you’ll have to ask your current carrier for permission. Don’t be surprised if they decline.
Unlock your phone
The most essential step is to “unlock” your phone. This process can seem tricky because carriers don’t want you running to other companies. But there is usually a series of standardized steps for unlocking your phone, no matter what its brand.
You can usually find instructions on the carrier’s website, such as this one for AT&T. Usually, once you put in a request, the carrier will send you a code, which you’ll have to enter into your phone. Once the phone is unlocked, it’s ready to switch to another network.
Note: You may have heard the term “jailbreaking” your phone. Many people say “jailbreak” when they mean “unlock.” If you’re just trying switch carriers, unlocking is the term to use.
Find a compatible carrier
Even unlocked phones aren’t universal. For example, if you bought a Samsung Galaxy S5 from Sprint, you probably can’t use this with any other carrier.
The phone simply can’t change over. Most iPhones and Nexus phones can technically migrate from one big carrier to another without a problem, but definitely confirm this with your current carrier before you get stuck in between.
Before you dive into another strangulating contract, make sure you’re getting the best bargain you can. Which carrier has the best coverage in your hometown? How much data do you usually use in a month, and would a shared plan benefit you and someone close to you?
If you’ve spent a lot of time with one contract, you may feel like you’re lost in the telecommuting wilderness. Or you may think that anything could be better than the contract you were bound to for so long. But take a breath and do some research. You might really win out in the end.
These days, a lot of customers are switching carriers because they want unlimited service. This is convenient because you never have to worry about running out of data, and as more people opt out of contracts altogether, many of these plans are becoming decent bargains. You could theoretically stream video all day while driving in your car and you’d never have to buy more data.