Changing mobile phone operator in 2022: what you need to know before changing operator

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Switching wireless service providers is not easy. Although there are three major networks in the United States, the actual number of carriers and wireless plans is significantly higher. Sifting through this confusing mess can overwhelm the best of us. We want to help make this process a little easier. Here is a guide on how to choose a cell phone plan in 2022.

Read more: Best Unlimited Phone Plans in 2022

Which network suits you best?

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Sarah Tew/CNET

In the United States, there are three major networks: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. All three offer services directly and have robust nationwide networks that offer 4G LTE and 5G.

The most important aspect of choosing a network is finding one that works in your area. It is therefore very difficult for us to give an overall recommendation to a particular carrier. For example, T-Mobile’s service in New York may be excellent, but if you’re in rural Iowa, Verizon is more reliable.

While your mileage may vary, the good news is that these networks are growing and improving all the time, especially as the top three players race to cover the United States with 5G. It’s entirely possible that ten years ago you let a network complain about its sparse service, but now it’s gotten stronger because of this arms race to acquire customers.

Read more: Best Unlimited Data Plans in 2022

If you know of friends or family in your area who already use the carrier you’re considering, ask about their experience. You can also visit a carrier’s store and see if they offer any free ways to try out the service before switching, such as T-Mobile test drive. Those interested in testing Verizon’s service can do so via Similar program from Visible (as long as you have an unlocked iPhone).

Know the smaller and prepaid players

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Visible, Google Fi, and Mint Mobile are just a few of the many MVNOs that rely on larger networks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon operate the major networks, there are a number of smaller wireless service providers that offer service over their airwaves. First, there are the prepaid brands that each carrier has. Verizon has Visible, AT&T has Cricket, and T-Mobile has Metro. All of them use their parents’ respective networks for the service.

As for the smaller players, they also rely on the large networks for service. Mint Mobile and Google Fi, for example, use T-Mobile’s network, while cable companies Comcast and Spectrum rely on Verizon for their respective Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile brands.

Boost Mobile, now owned by Dishuses a combination of T-Mobile and AT&T while Dish is building its own 5G network.

The advantage of these smaller carriers – many of which are known as MVNOs (or Mobile Virtual Network Operators) – is that you can access the service of the larger provider at a more affordable rate. If you’ve found Verizon works better where you live but its service is too expensive, switching to Visible, Spectrum Mobile, or Xfinity Mobile could potentially allow you to keep similar coverage but pay a little less (although you could lose some other perks like free streaming services).

We have broken down a few of these vendorsincluding who’s using which network and some of the trade-offs you’ll want to keep in mind.

Know how much you owe on your installment plan

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Getting a new discounted iPhone from a carrier often requires a significant commitment.

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Fortunately, two-year contracts have largely disappeared from the US wireless market. Unfortunately, they now seem poised to be replaced by longer and longer installment plans.

With iPhone 13 deals, AT&T required acceptance of a 36-month installment plan as part of its terms to get a free device. T-Mobile asked for a 30-month commitment to get its deals while Verizon experimented with going from 24 months to 30 months.

Verizon has since followed AT&T and only offers 36-month payment options. T-Mobile still has options for 24 months, though more expensive devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 would need a 36 month plan if you want to fund it monthly.

With those longer lead times, you can get an expensive new phone for a lot less, but you have to stay on that carrier (and potentially a more expensive unlimited plan) for two or three years. If you leave before the end of this period, you may have to pay the balance due on the phone, which some providers require before “unlocking” the device for use on other networks.

A good thing, however, is that major carriers often offer several hundred dollars when you change to subsidize the change. But you’ll want to check your account online or visit your carrier’s store to find out how much you might still owe on your phone before you go.

Decide if you should keep your current phone

Modernizing phones and networks means your existing phone will likely work just fine on a new carrier, and all major wireless carriers offer a similar assortment of the latest devices, especially when it comes to the iPhone and Galaxy lines.

To get the most out of any Switch, you’ll probably want to take this opportunity to upgrade your device, as there are often great deals on adding a line or opening a new line. If you prefer to keep what you have, your existing device will probably work just fine as long as it’s unlocked with your previous provider.

Know your discounts

Keep in mind that all carriers offer additional savings that you may be eligible for depending on your employer, military status, student status, or even your age. If you’re on a family plan, maybe a family member qualifies even if you don’t.

First responders, military, veterans, nurses, and teachers, in particular, can get discounts from all major carriers. Verizon offers discounts for students, while T-Mobile’s Work Advantage could cut $10 a month off a Magenta Max plan, and AT&T offers a similar program for its Unlimited Elite plan it calls Signature.

If you’re 55 or older, you may also qualify for a discounted plan: T-Mobile offers discounted plans nationwide for as little as $55 a month for two lines, while Verizon and AT&T offer similar options but only for Florida residents.

This could save you money if you switch, or potentially lower your current rate a bit and avoid having to switch providers.

Understand the benefits

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If you have the right Verizon plan, you can get Disney Plus for free.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Many major carriers offer perks for using their premium unlimited plans, especially streaming services. Verizon offers the Disney bundle (Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus) to those with its Play More and Get More unlimited plans, AT&T offers HBO Max with its Unlimited Elite plans, and T-Mobile offers Netflix, Paramount More and Apple TV Plus with its Magenta and Magenta Max offerings. The Paramount offer is also available even for those with older T-Mobile or Sprint plans.

Even prepaid and smaller carriers like Cricket (HBO Max with ads), Metro by T-Mobile (Amazon Prime Video), and US Mobile (a variety of options) offer perks with their unlimited plans.

Read more: Best streaming service deals

Additionally, some Verizon plans (like the premium Get More option) include Apple Music, while T-Mobile’s Magenta and Magenta Max also offer GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi. T-Mobile’s Metro offers 100GB of Google One storage as well as an Amazon Prime subscription. AT&T is giving away six months of free games with Stadia Pro from Google and Nvidia GeForce now.

If you’re already paying for one or more of these subscriptions, switching to the right provider could be a way to help you save even more.

We’ll keep updating this with more mobile phone plan tips.

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