Unless you’re good at negotiating, switching carriers may be the only way to get a cheaper or more profitable phone plan. But the fear of getting a new phone number often outweighs the promise of a better deal. Luckily, you can usually transfer your number when you switch carriers, even if you’re leaving a prepaid service.
Operators are generally required to facilitate number transfers
According to the FCC, carriers must comply when a customer requests to port their number to a new provider. You can complete this process in-store or online, usually by providing your new carrier with your old number. (Some carriers, such as AT&T, may require additional information to complete the transfer.)
Number transfers work regardless of the “type” of plan you have subscribed to. You can even transfer a number from a prepaid plan to a postpaid plan, and vice versa. If you want to switch from Verizon to Cricket, that’s fine. And it’s not just for cell phones; number transfers are also available for landlines and VoIP services.
Most carriers suggest porting your number before your old phone plan ends, which makes sense. The porting process isn’t instantaneous, so waiting until the last minute could leave you without phone service for a short time. And because carriers recycle numbers, it’s usually impossible to try to port a phone number from a long-dead plan.
Note that your carrier may charge you for number porting, although you can negotiate this fee. Also, you may want to call your old carrier after the transfer process is complete to sort out termination fees or other issues with your old plan.
To be clear, you don’t have to port your number. You can skip number porting when joining a new carrier, if that’s what you want.
But you can’t always transfer your old number
Unfortunately, some situations make number transfers impossible. Providers are not allowed to port numbers to new “rate zones”, for example, because area codes are supposed to apply local call rates and tax codes. If the area code for your phone number does not match your current residence, you cannot transfer that number to a new provider.
A large percentage of American adults live outside the “rate zone” of their old phone number. I can’t find exact numbers here, but a 2016 Pew Research Center study indicates that 10% of American adults use a phone number that doesn’t match the state in which they live. And that’s just by state – area codes often differ between counties and cities.
And while most carriers are following suit, your new provider isn’t legally obligated to accept an old number. Smaller or regional providers often refuse to accept number transfers, either due to infrastructure limitations or the lack of a lucrative “porting agreement”.
Additionally, utility companies have the power to waive number porting requirements. Depending on where you live, carriers may not be required to submit or perform number transfers. (To be fair, these waivers are usually the result of an underdeveloped infrastructure, which can make number transfers impossible under any law.)
Check if your new operator will accept your old number
Most carriers have ‘number portals’ which tell you if they accept your old number. Using these tools will not affect your current phone plan, they will just make things easier for you.
Here is a quick list of number porting portals from some of the major providers:
Note that some of these carriers require you to sign in before using their respective number porting compatibility tools.
How long does a number transfer take?
Due to FCC requirements, most number transfers will complete within one business day. Verizon claims it completes cell phone number transfers in four hours, and landline transfers can only take two hours.
But complex number transfers can take longer than a day. If you want your whole family to keep their old numbers, for example, you might have to wait up to a week for the transfer to complete. (That said, you’ll probably only wait a day or two. If you’re worried, I suggest you only transfer adult phone numbers.)
Transferring a landline number to a mobile phone can also take a few days. And funny enough, your landline and your smartphone can temporarily use the same number during the transfer process. Keep in mind that some carriers, including AT&T, do not accept transfers from landline numbers to cell phones.
Again, carriers suggest that you port your number while your old plan is still active. This will ensure that you have a working phone during the transfer process. And of course, transferring a number from an inactive plan may not be possible.
Do you need to buy a new phone to transfer your number?
Since carriers make a lot of money selling phones, they tend to offer “switch and save” discounts to new customers. But buying something at a discount isn’t the same as “saving money,” so you might choose to ignore these offers. It is very good; you can always transfer your number to your new operator.
The transfer process is slightly more difficult when using an older phone. Chances are your old carrier locked the phone to only work with their network. This means you need to unlock your phone yourself or take it to the old carrier for help.
Once your phone is unlocked, your new carrier will provide you with a replacement SIM card. Simply insert that SIM card into the phone (or have the carrier do it for you) and you’re done.
Now, some phones are hardware-locked, meaning they can’t physically connect to other carriers’ networks. In this case, you need a new phone. Most people won’t run into this, though it might be a problem if you’re using a budget phone and switching to or from Verizon.