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Why is switching carriers still such a pain?

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T-Mobile logo (Image credit: Android Central)

A few weeks ago, I finally made the switch from T-Mobile to AT&T. Nothing against old Magenta — it paid my bills for years when I worked as a sales rep! — but with spotty coverage in some of the areas I travel to for work, it was time to move on.

I walked into my nearest AT&T store and activated four new lines for the family and myself, transferring our phone numbers over and getting a couple of new handsets on BOGO promotion. My sales rep was helpful, and it turns out I was even well-qualified, giving me the lowest upfront prices! So everything went smoothly ... right? If only.

Even after working for a carrier for four years, switching was still a tedious and expensive process for me.

One of the biggest pain points of switching carriers has always been figuring out what to do with the phones on your account. Most people in the U.S. finance their devices to avoid paying full price upfront, and some even finance accessories if their carrier allows it, but that can cause some problems later on down the road. If you decide to move to another service midway through your financing period, you'll need to find a way to pay off the full balance of everything at once — otherwise, it'll all get sent to collections and tank your credit.

Thankfully, these days a lot of carriers are willing to reimburse you for the remaining balance on your devices, with a few caveats of course. In the case of AT&T and T-Mobile, you need to trade in the financed phone, finance a new one, and port in your number. That's not too bad — they're all things you'd probably be doing anyway while switching — but you also have to send in the final bill from your original carrier with the remaining balances of each device, which can take weeks to receive, then wait three to four weeks for processing before you're sent your reimbursement.

Speaking of porting numbers, that can be a little tedious, too. You'll need to present the new carrier with your account number and PIN or password from your existing carrier. In most cases, the account number is easy enough to find — just look at the top of any bill or document they've sent you — but the PIN is never displayed for obvious security reasons, which means if you don't already know it you'll need to call in. And carriers just love to hear that you're switching. They'll want to talk your ear off with retention offers and reasons why they're better than your new carrier.

If you're like me and porting your number from Google Voice, there are a few other things you'll need to know. You'll have to unlock your number at least 24 hours before starting the porting process, which costs $3 unless you originally ported that number into Google Voice from another carrier. Also keep in mind that your account number is simply your phone number, and your PIN is the same one you use to access your voicemail.

Be cautious; it isn't always over when you walk out of the store.

Once all of this is squared away, and you finally have new phones and your numbers are taken care of, you're all set! Everything should be up and running with your new service, and you'll hopefully be enjoying better coverage, faster speeds, and — fingers crossed — a lower bill. Except, it might not be over just yet.

If you're bringing your own phone for any line on the account, make sure you bring it in and have the sales representative enter the IMEI and proper data plan. I didn't do this with my SIM-only line (the rep just entered all 1s into the system for the IMEI, which seems to be standard practice with BYOD lines), and that line ended up not being able to connect to the data network until I called in to have them attach the correct data plan.

You should also be aware of prorated charges — your first bill will never be as low as what you signed up for, and mine was almost double my regular bill. This is due to a combination of factors; activation fees, equipment charges, and so on. Most carriers have a page explaining your first wireless bill — you can read AT&T's here.

At the end of the day, your mileage may vary, and you'll hopefully run into less trouble than I did. But some of these problems are unavoidable, like the unreasonably high first bill and the waiting game of getting reimbursed for financed phones (unless, of course, you were smart and financially stable enough not to finance them through your carrier in the first place). Maybe we should all just buy Pixel 2s and switch to Google Fi for simplicity's sake. I'm sure Google wouldn't mind.

What's been your experience with switching carriers? Did you run into as many problems as I did, or was your transition a bit easier? And why did you switch in the first place? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

37 Comments
  • I would tell from someone who has switched carriers frequently suggestion switch to unlocked phones makes switching carriers easier because all you have to activate is get new Sim cards. You can still transfer your number carrier to carrier
  • This is exactly what I have done when I did the same switch last year. The wait for the final bill was annoying and I ended up paying 2 times (for 2 different things) but the phone itself was no problem.
    It worked out though because the carrier I switched to had a promo of a bill credit enough to pay my bill entirely for a month and some.
  • My wife and I have been using unlocked phones for the past 3 years and will never go back to carrier models. With many major manufacturers offering their own financing, there's absolutely no reason to get involved with carriers for anything other than service.
  • Seriously? In US carriers require account number and PIN, rather than just working on the basis of your phone number? And, even better, you have to physically bring your phone to make it work? Geez, why?
    When I was switching carriers (NL), all I needed to do was to give them my phone number, and within a couple days my SIM switched from the temporary number to my original one. No account number, PIN, IMEI, nothing required.
  • Wow, I can totally see how NL's method totally eliminates any opportunity for fraud! Wew lad.
  • Obviously, I signed a new contract with the new carrier. I assume if my personal data in the contract did not match the data in the old carrier's database, I would have to prove more.
    Besides, how is PIN and IMEI eliminating opportunities for fraud? Not at all.
  • Considering there are alerts for industry wide port fraud, I'll take the pin. Not that difficult to provide a pin if asked.
  • Why does everyone at AC have Google's teet so far down their gullet? "We should all switch to Fi." Yeah boss, because a large portion of the population that doesn't even know "how an email does" will absolutely thrive under those conditions. Also, how dope would it be if you were having a miocardial infarction and the first responder was some chode with Fi on his rooted and ROMed Nexus 5 with "ZOMGBeta" mods cooked by a 12 year script kiddo on XDA? It's like you guys never zoom out of AC land and say "ya know, theres a lot of dank **** to talk about when it comes to connecting people, but were going to stick to this contrarian viewpoint were everything is about the man keeping you down." I get it, you need clicks. Maybe we should just all switch to print and be done with it.
  • What the hell are you talking about? The article above talks of how difficult it is to switch and assumes someone is already financing a device. In such circumstances switching to Fi is even more difficult. If you're going to be critical at least try to make sense. I use Fi, for good reasons. Up until recently it wasn't for everyone, now it is very competitive with the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. I been on all of the major US carriers except Sprint over the years and never been as satisfied as I have been since switching to Fi a couple of years ago.
  • The information I shared doesn't make sense to you because the scope of your experience involves providing connectivity for you alone. When you consider the implications of connecting thousands and millions of people in thousands of ways the dynamic changes just a bit. As I'm sure you understand. Hope this helps.
  • The article is about the pain of people, singular, or maybe families, switching carriers. You're ranting about AC being in cahoots with Google and needing to get clicks. Direct your ranting elsewhere, it doesn't belong under this article. I hope this helps.
  • If I had to finance a phone , I couldn't afford a plan...Get a cheaper phone! I would like to think most smart folks don't do this....(as mentioned)
  • Prepaid for me I switch all the time with very few issues.
  • I never had any problems with carrier switching. A few years ago an AT&T rep even let me use their computers in the store to log into my verizon account and request a new number as they were porting out my old number so I could keep my Verizon unlimited data account active to sell it.
  • Just switched to T-Mobile from VZW. The price was right and spending most of times in major metro areas I should not have any issues with service.
    Bringing over my S7 was a pain, it did not mesh well with the new sim card and I could not get MMS messages and phone service was horrible. My wife and her iPhone had a seamless transition. I now have a t mobile branded S9 and I am very pleased.
    They said I will be reimbursed for my wife's phone once the final bill comes and I'm saving $80 a month.
  • Yeah, Google and Apple are the only ones who sell phones on Verizon that can be used with another carrier. Didn't the T-Mobile salesman try to stop you from using the VZW S7? We switched to T-Mobile from VZW last year, and I had an S7 at the time, and the guy told me they'd pay it off, but I had to get a TM phone. We've since switched back because service was too spotty when we went out to my parents', which we do frequently.
  • Last year I switched from a Big Three Canadian carrier to a MVNO, in person at one of their dealerships. It went smoothly because the sales rep was knowledgeable and had done plenty of carrier switches already. It also helped that I was not in contract, with no balance to pay off, and I'd done my research so I knew which new plan and phones I wanted.
  • Easy as pie if you have unlocked phones that you own outright and know your account number and pin. You don't even need to walk into a store. Just buy a SIM only plan and port your number to it. Drop the newly activated SIM into your unlocked phone and it sets up all the necessary carrier settings automatically. The last bill from your old carrier will usually have a credit.
  • Been on all 4. No issues swapping to be honest. Walk in, port over, and life is well.
  • The switch from Verizon to T-Mobile wasn't TOO bad for my family. The only pain points were that first bill, YEA ours was also a doosy! And then waiting on the T-Mobile reimbursement of the charges from Verizon for the old phones. We were out of pocket almost 500 for a couple months while we jumped through the hoops. It was also a LITTLE disappointing that we got a prepaid VISA and not a check or direct bill credit. In the end we just paid a couple phone bills with it.
  • YOu know they tell you how they'll reimburse you, right?
  • He said disappointing, not surprising.
  • It's not hard at all when you pay for your stuff
  • It's only a pain if you're an average Joe idiot and keep your phone number with a carrier. My phone number has been with Google Voice since 2012 and I can switch carriers or smartphones in the blink of an eye with zero pain. Plus all I pay for is data, I save thousands. Treat carriers like dumb pipes, that's all they deserve. Another benefit: I have 6 years of text, call and voicemail history, no effort.
  • So if you use google voice (which I have an extra number through), then you only need to pay for data with a network?
  • Exactly, for instance, 2GB high-speed on T-mo is only $20 including taxes, then unlimited after that. 6GB is only $35. With T-mo you just order a tablet SIM and set it up like tablet pre-paid. Sometimes with other carriers you just claim that the user is deaf and only needs data. Simple.
  • So easy in the uk to change over, you ask your old carrier for a PAC (porting authorisation code) Give it to your new supplier and job done. Once they connect you your number is then changed over.
    It don't always go smoothly, but most of the time it does.
  • Yeah uh it ain't that hard. lol
  • Had 2 lines on Google's Project Fi. Switched them to T-Mobile's One Unlimited 55+ ($60) for simplicity sake. Google "lost" one of the 2 numbers.
  • Be careful criticizing Guegle around here. People get emo about it.
  • Well, this was informative. I've been trying out T-Mobile for a few days, but I haven't decided to port my number and cancel Sprint yet. I'll probably decide to switch or not after the road trip I'm taking next week.
  • First World Problems, man. If the reimbursement is that big a deal then wait until all of your devices are paid off or almost paid off.
  • So, with T-Mobile you actually don’t have to trade in your current phone with them when you switch over. They pay off Verizon or whoever else for you and then you get to keep your phone. You aren’t even stuck in a new contract or anything! Just made the switch to t-mobile from Verizon and it’s been incredible. Way cheaper and much noticeably faster service.
  • Go prepaid, get unlock phone and move anytime you want.
  • Exactly, I've left carriers a while ago. I can buy any phone I wish as I just have to find a good MVNO network for it. Lately I've been sticking with Moto and google as there phones are networked unlocked.
  • Duh. It's hard to switch carriers because they don't want you to switch. While the law (in the US) says you can switch carriers, it does say that the carriers have to make it easy for you to do so.
  • Switched from VZW to T-Mobile a while back and ported my phone number and that was it. T-Mobile paid off my bill and I never looked back. Funny, since I've switched to T-Mobile, I've found more people with dead spots on VZW when I have lightening fast LTE.