Seven questions to ask before switching cell-phone carriers

Your current cell phone carrier isn’t cutting it anymore, and you’re ready for a change. Pause before you pull the trigger.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/File
iPhones sit on display during a preview event at the new Apple Store Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York.

Your current cell phone carrier isn’t cutting it anymore, and you’re ready for a change. But pause before you pull the trigger. You don’t want to be surprised by hidden costs or merely trade one shoddy carrier for another.

To make sure you end up with a better deal, ask yourself these seven questions before you switch.

1. Am I under contract, and do I need to pay off my phone before switching?

If you’re on a two-year contract and you want to switch before it’s over, look into your carrier’s policy on early termination fees. You’ll usually have to pay several hundred dollars to escape. Keep an eye out, though: Sometimes your new carrier will pay your early termination fee when you switch.

If you’re not under contract but are paying for your phone on an installment plan from your carrier, you’ll need to buy it outright before you can switch.

2. Am I actually using all my data?

Before you pick a new carrier, evaluate your plan structure. How much data do you really use? Average users go through 2 to 3 gigabytes per month.

Make sure your plan fits your usage, but be careful when downsizing. Some companies, including Verizon and U.S. Cellular, still charge for data overages, which might wipe out any savings you get from having a smaller plan.

3. Can I jump on a family plan?

You can start a family plan with anyone you trust to pay their portion of the bill on time, even people who aren’t related to you. These plans can mean significant monthly savings as long as you don’t mind managing the logistics.

Set clear expectations upfront: Who will pay the bill? When is the money due? If you’re handling the bill every month, you’re on the hook for it, whether everyone’s gotten their money to you or not.

4. Would a nontraditional carrier save me money?

Some carriers, such as Project Fi and Republic Wireless, route their customers’ cell usage through Wi-Fi as much as possible and fall back on cellular networks only when necessary. They also have attractive rates for people who don’t use much data. Together, those factors can add up to great savings.

These “Wi-Fi first” carriers do have some drawbacks, though. Traditional carriers are often cheaper if you’re a heavy data user, and Wi-Fi first carriers have more limited phone selections. Still, if a Wi-Fi carrier is a good fit for you, you could be looking at dirt cheap wireless service.

5. Will I get good reception?

Once you know what you want in a plan and have a carrier in mind, start considering specifics. Cost is important, but your new carrier’s prices don’t matter if you can’t make calls or surf the web in your own home. Ask around to find out which one has the best local service. Maybe even invite a friend who uses the carrier over to see if her cell phone works at your place.

6. Can I bring my own phone?

If you currently use a GSM carrier — those are AT&TT-Mobile and the mobile virtual network operators that use their networks — your phone is probably compatible with any other GSM network. Some of Verizon’s and Sprint‘s newer phones are also GSM compatible. If you have a compatible phone, make sure it’s unlocked before switching.

If you can’t bring your own phone, ask your new carrier if you can trade it in for a credit toward another handset. Or sell it online, either through eBay or a phone reseller service. You’ll likely get more money for your phone on eBay, although eBay takes a cut and you’ll have to manage the buyer relationship and shipping. Reseller services like Gazelle and Orchard offer lower prices, but they’ll send you a box for shipping and make selling a breeze.

7. If I’m switching for a promotion, what will happen when it ends?

Always play the long game. Sure, you’re getting a wicked deal with that promotional price now, but what will happen to your bill when it expires? Make sure that you can live with the increased price or that you’re prepared to switch carriers again when the time comes. Don’t lock yourself into a long-term agreement if you’re planning to bounce in a year.

Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: slayton@nerdwallet.com.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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