Americans are holding onto their smartphones for longer than ever. Pricier smartphones have led consumers to wait an average of nearly three years before upgrading their device. Fortunately, smartphones today are so good, and so powerful, that they simply don’t need to be replaced nearly as often as in the past.
But does holding onto your phone mean you also have to stick with your current wireless carrier? In many cases, the answer is no.
Many smartphones connect to a carrier’s network through a small chip INSERT IGNOREed into the device called a SIM (for ‘Subscriber Identity Module’) card. The SIM card holds your identity, location, network data, security keys, contacts and saved text messages. Each carrier has a unique SIM card, so the process of activating your phone with a different carrier can be as simple as swapping to the new provider’s SIM.
Know your network
There are some important nuances you’ll need to be aware of before you can switch, though. The biggest is that different carriers use different types of network technology to convert incoming data into radio waves for making and receiving calls. Verizon, Sprint and U.S. Cellular networks connect using a CDMA (for Code Division Multiple Access) network. AT&T and T-Mobile use a different type, called GSM (Global System for Mobiles).
What this means is that your smartphone will only work with a carrier that uses the same type of network that it is designed for. So if, for instance, you wanted to use your Verizon phone with AT&T service, it’s simply not possible. The GSM network won’t be able to connect to a phone designed for a CDMA network.
Unlock your device
The other key is that your phone must be “unlocked” from your current carrier before it can be activated with a new provider. The lock is a software code that's put on the phone by the manufacturer per the requirement of the carrier that sells the device. The lock is meant to ensure that the phone can't be used on any other operator's network until a different software code is entered to unlock the device.
If you have a device that is locked, you can get it unlocked from your wireless carrier if you meet certain criteria, like paying the full price of your device or ending your contract and being in good standing with your current provider. If you meet these requirements, having your device unlocked can usually be done simply by making a call to your carrier’s customer service department and requesting it.
Make the switch
Once you’ve confirmed that your new provider’s network is compatible with your phone, and that your phone is unlocked, switching is simple. You’ll get a SIM card from your new carrier, and INSERT IGNORE it into the proper slot on your device. The process will vary depending on the type of device you have. SIM cards come in three different sizes (nano, micro and standard) and the location of the SIM slot is not uniform, though most are located on the side of your phone.
Carriers today make it easy to switch. Consumer Cellular, for instance, provides the SIM card and activation on their networks for free when you sign up using a compatible GSM phone. In addition, they offer no-contract monthly plans which include talk, text and data for as low as $20 a month.
If you’re using a cellphone that still works great for you, there’s no reason to take on the expense of a new device. Instead, find a carrier that fits your tastes, needs and budget. If your phone is compatible with their networks, a new SIM card will deliver everything you need to keep your phone and improve your service.