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How to Get Out of Your Cell Phone Contract

Written by Nickel - 29 Comments

A few weeks ago, I ran across a nice video that gave a rundown of ways to get out of your cell phone contract without paying an early termination fee (ETF). We actually just went through this process (more below), and I’m sure that many others are in the same boat, so I thought I’d highlight it here.

Avoiding a cell phone ETF – in theory

What follows are six (possible) ways to break your cell phone contract without a penalty. Some are easier than others, but in any case you’ll probably have to work at it to convince your carrier to let you out.

  • Cancel within 30 days. Many carriers have a 30 day trial period during which you can cancel without an ETF.
  • If you have free roaming, use more than half your monthly minutes while roaming and your carrier might terminate your agreement to save money. Set your preferences to roaming only and make tons of calls using your free night and weekend minutes.
  • Keep an eye out for notices of service changes. You typically have the right to cancel if your provider makes a “materially adverse” change to your agreement.
  • If you have recurring problems with your service, call in and document the problems whenever they occur. Takes notes on your conversations and get the name and/or ID of the people you speak to. If you can document a pattern of problems, you might be able to get out of your contract.
  • If you have a friend that needs cell service, and is willing to take over your agreement, ask if your carrier if you can transfer your line. If you don’t know anyone who needs a new phone, search the internet for cell phone swap programs.
  • Move to an area without coverage (seriously?). If you can’t get reliable service at your home address, your carrier might let you out of your contract.

Avoiding a cell phone ETF – in practice

In our case, we had suffered through terrible coverage at home for a few years. We put up with it for so long because we were getting dirt cheap service through a pair of Sprint SERO plans. In the end, however, we decided to move on to greener pastures.

In looking at the Sprint coverage maps, I noticed that our house was outside of their coverage area, so I called to inquire about canceling. I was told by the phone rep that we could get out of our contract without the ETF. He said he’d notate our account and we could simply port our numbers elsewhere.

Fast forward about six weeks and we got hit with a $441 bill — two $200 ETFs plus a little over 10% in taxes. To make a long story short, I spend the better part of two weeks (and countless hours on the phone) getting this removed from our account.

We even had to go so far as providing proof of residence. Apparently the fact that we’ve been receiving (and paying) our bill at our current address for roughly three years wasn’t sufficient “proof” that we actually live here.

Lessons learned

I think the take home message here is that, no matter how strong your case, you need to be prepared to fight with your carrier. Take good notes whenever you call. Record the date and time of your call, the name and ID number of the rep that you speak to, and so on.

As long as you have a legitimate case, you should be alright — eventually. I do have to say that the frustration was totally worth it, though… I’m loving my iPhone, and we’re thrilled to once again be able to use our phones at home.

Source: Spend Less TV via Bargain Babe

Published on October 5th, 2009 - 29 Comments
Filed under: Miscellany

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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29 Responses to “How to Get Out of Your Cell Phone Contract”

  1. 1
    John DeFlumeri Jr Says:

    That was real good, I thought you just couldn’t terminate them without paying.

  2. 2
    Kyle Says:

    Great list, although I am pretty sure it may be cost prohibitive to move just to get out of a cell phone contract. I haven’t heard of the roaming minutes suggestion before, I wonder if that would actually work?

  3. 3
    EZ Says:

    Good list except for moving. Who would move just to change cell phone carriers?

  4. 4
    Ellen / Money Lounge Says:

    Thank you for this great information. This is always a problem when you are getting horrible service and still have 18 months left on your contract.

    I have heard nothing but complaints about Sprint service, and would never go with them as a provider.

  5. 5
    Nickel Says:

    Kyle & EZ: Definitely, but if you’re moving anyway… If you really wanted to, you could probably change your billing address as well as the mailing address for one other critical bill (like a utility bill? — needed for proof) and then try to get out.

    Ellen: I’ve heard all the same complaints, but had nothing but good things to say about Sprint’s customer service until the very end.

  6. 6
    mewithoutdebt Says:

    Good list with information. I would love to hear real life experience from others who have really used and gout out from their cell phone contract.

  7. 7
    Craig Says:

    I have att and would love to get out of their two year contract. My iphone was stolen and can’t get a new one at rebate cost and don’t like the att service so now am stuck.

  8. 8
    TonyD Says:

    (“I think the take home message here is that, no matter how strong your case, you need to be prepared to fight with your carrier.”)

    The primary lesson-learned is — NOT to sign unfavorable business contracts.

    It is foolish for a consumer to sign a complex contract with vague provisions & clauses that he does not understand… with a company he does not fully trust.

    Deluxe Cell fones are very convenient & versatile, but certainly not a necessity to most people. There are always alternatives to onerous contracts.

    When I first considered getting a cell fone, I immediately dropped the idea when I saw the complex, one-sided contracts arrogantly ‘required’ by the carriers. Fortunately, ‘Pre-Paid/Pay-as-You-Go’ soon appeared with no contract requirement at all. I’ve happily used pre-paid cell fones ever since; they are a real bargain unless you have unusual phone use needs… or absolutely can not live without an iPhone.

    Also, seems a tad unethical to ‘break’ a voluntary contract to avoid an ETF… if the consumer did fully understand that ETF contract requirement. Honest contracts work both ways.

  9. 9
    Nickel Says:

    TonyD: The contracts are not “arrogantly required.” Rather, they are a condition of getting favorable pricing on the handset. If you want to pay full freight for a phone, you can go month to month with just about any carrier. Of course, if you want a fancy phone, then you’re going to pay through the nose.

  10. 10
    kev Says:

    @Nickel: “The contracts are not “arrogantly required”. Rather, they are a condition of getting favorable pricing on the handset.”

    I can’t speak for all carriers, but with Verizon it’s more than just the price of the handset. They will not allow you to change your service (i.e. add a texting package, reduce minute plan, etc.) while you are month to month. They force you to re-up. This has happened to me twice, but I have never pressed the issue with them. It may be something you can get out of if you yell at the right person long enough.

  11. 11
    Kelli Says:

    When my dad passed away we inquired about cancelling his phone and were told it would be no problem, we would only be charged the $200 ETF because he still had I forget how much time left on his contract. I serioulsy thought they were joking until my mom’s friend told us she went through the same thing when her husband died. My mom ended up taking over his contract and changing it to her needs when it was up but I’m thinking now we maybe should have just said he moved to an area without good coverage.

  12. 12
    Eric Says:

    I love my iPhone too :)

  13. 13
    kenyantykoon Says:

    i close family member was overcharged and from then on i avoid those phone contracts like the bubonic plague, just like credit cards and anything else that is in the disguise of convenience but it is meant to bleed your bank account dry

  14. 14
    Alex Burda Says:

    I tried to get out of a contract for mobile boradband with my current phone company. The costs outweighed the hassle of taking it further. This time I will cop it sweet & wait for my contract to expire. I will not use the same phone company again and will keep your advice saved for if I even come across this situation again.
    Better still I will ask for all the terms and conditions to be explained to me before I sign anything in the future.

  15. 15
    Alex Burda Says:

    Just making sure that I can receive the follow up comments from this post.
    Thanks

  16. 16
    GM Says:

    In a different vein, analyze how many minutes you really use and how many text messages you really send and how many times you could put off looking up something over the internet or checking your email until you got home.

    Do you want to pay an extra $10 for unlimited text messages when you only send about 20 messages a month? Even at $0.2 a pop, it just comes to $4.

    Then you can choose a plan that best suits your needs. If a cheaper plan fulfills most of your needs, with occasional overages that is the one you should be on or else you are paying for something you don’t use month after month.

  17. 17
    Chris I. Says:

    @Nickel: “The contracts are not “arrogantly required.” Rather, they are a condition of getting favorable pricing on the handset. If you want to pay full freight for a phone, you can go month to month with just about any carrier.”

    I can understand that the carrier might want to lock you into a contract in exchange for giving you a discounted price on a phone. They are essentially making up for the up front discount over the next several months of monthly service charges. The problem is that if you are paying month to month (for example, if you provide your own phone), you pay the exact same monthly amount for service. They should charge you less!

  18. 18
    peter Says:

    Is there any way for me to get internet for my phone while at my home? I have at&t

  19. 19
    Bargain Babe Says:

    Thanks for linking to me, Nickel!!!

  20. 20
    Pat Says:

    Generally, the reason for the ETF is the leftover cost of the phone that is included in the purchase, so consider the following two options:
    1. buy the phone separately and go with a month-to-month plan. You should then be able to cancel when you want.
    2. ask about a 1-year contract with a little more upfront for the phone

    Upon purchase and signing up:
    1. Ask how much of your bill is for the phone itself and how much is for the service before signing up. Have then write it down and sign and date it. Hold them accountable for what they are telling you.
    2. Ask that the cancelation and fees portion of the contract be circled and explained to you.
    3. Ask about their auto-renewal policies with/without action by you (if they have a negative-option program it means you MUST TAKE ACTION to stop the renewal)

    KEEP THE CONTRACT SAFELY TUCKED AWAY FOR FUTURE USE.

    Warning about family plans
    Also, be aware that if you are in a ‘family’ plan there is a possibility that they may consider you a co-signer. If the originator of the contract doesn’t pay, they may come after you for the unpaid amount–not only for your portion of the bill, but theirs as well.

    As a certified credit counselor, I have seen this show up on credit reports often.

  21. 21
    FinanciallySmart Says:

    This is great information. One should read the fine prints on the contract also. Sometimes having information like this person forget to read these fine prints and then attempting to follow the above it backfire.

  22. 22
    Britt Says:

    Thanks for the info. I recently switched to Sprint from T-mobile and have been regretting it ever since. While I love my new phone (Palm Pre) Sprints service is unacceptable. I drop calls constantly, and probably a good half of my calls don’t come through at all. I have had to tell people that if they know I’m home, don’t bother calling because I usually have zero bars (I never had a problem like this with t-mobile) I want to cancel but refuse to pay at $200 fee since they are not providing me with the service I have been paying $100 a month for.

  23. 23
    jane Says:

    Do not sign with tmobile worst company I ever seen. I have $929.00 400 SHUT OFF SERVICE WHEN EVERYONE HAVE 50 UNLIMITED CALLING PLAN.. customer service is awful go with any other company f rating better business bureau….

  24. 24
    scott wilson Says:

    We tried to get out of our contract, because we have to drive 6 miles to make a call and to dial the number 611 to talk to att we have to drive 17 miles. it takes 2 days to get a text or a voice mail. They said they couldn’t help us and for us to find someone to take over our contract. So that is what we are trying to do now and any info I can get will be grateful.

  25. 25
    Sam Says:

    Get out of your cell phone contract with no ETF using our free service
    at http://www.mobileswap.org/.

  26. 26
    kate Says:

    T-Mobile blows chunks. We moved to an area that shows reasonable coverage on their map, only to find out that whenever someone breathes heavy on the goddamn antenna, we lose service for the better part of a week. I’d like to call the 611 customer service number each time, but to do that, I have to get in my car and drive out of town! The last time I called, I guess I actually scared someone because they gave me a $10 credit (I know, whoopee – but that’s akin to them admitting they know there’s a problem). I have no house phone, and still have a good 6 months on my contract – how do I get them to let me out? I’ve started using Google Voice just to make calls from home, but my family can’t figure out it’s me calling (I’ve had the same cell number for over 10 years.) I HATE T-Mobile!!!!

  27. 27
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  28. 28
    toolmonger.com Says:

    Very nice post and straight to the point. I don’t know if this is in fact the
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  29. 29
    wayne Says:

    These companies have us by out balls. I am a Verizon customer and we loose signal response-quite often no matter where i place the jet pack. My bill is $170 average and I am going to pay the penalty to save money and get ATT in the house and a cheap ass flip phone & pay as you go. So if it only works 1/2 the time, that is 1/2 the time with less aggravation. I use to not ever have a cell phone, so why cant I go back to those days. I plan to, so no more texting for me and if i cant hear the phone ring then I guess You will have to call me back. I plan on the money savings to help pay for a bigboy toy……motorcycle, boat or vacation. So as it is said at a baseball game, “Verizon, you are out of here”.

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