There are plenty of different reasons someone might want to switch phone carriers: cost, data, coverage, features, and more. My wife and I have been on an AT&T plan together for the past 5 years or so, and haven’t really changed the plan since then. When we first joined a plan together, I was able to apply a student discount to the rate, because we were in college at the time, which kept the cost affordable. Not long after moving to Seattle, I found out my employer had a similar broad discount code for AT&T plans and it was easy to switch over. That means for as long as we’ve had the plan with AT&T, we were able to pay ~$95 per month for two lines with unlimited talk and text plus 2-8 GB of shared data per month depending on what competitors were putting pressure on them to up the data limits at the time.
Compared to what I heard others were paying, I thought we were doing well in the cell phone bill expense category and didn’t put too much effort into shopping around. What wasn’t immediately obvious to me was that most other people are upgrading their phones often and paying for them as a part of their monthly bill along with insurance and a bunch of other add-ons. We’ve always purchased our phones outright, usually the previous generation, and have been able to keep a bare-bones, no contract plan for that reason.
Recently, I started taking a closer look at the different phone plans available to us and T-Mobile stuck out for a very specific reason, free international texting and data. The texting didn’t interest me that much (although it may prove useful), but having a free data line pretty much anywhere in the world (even if it’s slow) seemed very useful for navigation and looking up information while abroad. With our upcoming trip to Spain on the near horizon, we decided to give T-Mobile a shot and took a trip to the store to figure out how to switch over.
I’ll walk through the process we went through, what to watch out for, and how much we will potentially save in addition to the new features of the T-Mobile ONE plan.
Preparing for the Switch – Unlock Your Phones!
I first started seriously paying attention to switching plans after T-Mobile announced their new T-Mobile ONE package not too long ago. I don’t think the new plan is all that different from their previous one, but they really seem to be emphasizing that the taxes and fees are all included in the price, plus you get unlimited everything. After I decided there was a good chance we would want to switch, I started the process to unlock our existing phones to be used on other carriers using AT&T’s online tool:
Becky’s device was locked to AT&T because we purchased the phone directly from them as a part of the old $650 phone credit signup bonus that came with the AT&T Access More credit card. Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to sign up for this card directly.
My own phone was purchased refurbished, but was also locked to AT&T for whatever reason.
AT&T has a long list of terms for unlocking your phone (to allow use on other carriers) which can be found at the link above, but the main reason they would refuse to unlock is if you still owed money on it because you bought it as a part of a contract agreement. Since we owned both our phones outright, I was confident we wouldn’t have any problem and went through the process of locating our IMEI numbers (can be found in the phone settings) and filling out their online forms.
I received an email confirmation of the unlock requests and clicked the confirm button in each to finish the process (or so I thought!).
Fast forward a month later when we actually go to make the switch and we find out Becky’s phone didn’t unlock!
I had dropped the ball on this one because I never followed up to verify the unlock went through on each phone. Mine happened to worked without issue, but Becky’s threw an error during the process. For some reason, AT&T doesn’t send any more communication after you confirm the request, so I didn’t receive an email for either the success or failure of the actual unlock. Be sure to check the unlock status before heading in to the store to change carriers:
Remember to Take a Look at Ongoing Promotions
Back in January when I was looking at the new T-Mobile ONE plans, 2 lines would cost $60 a piece or $120 for the both of us. There was some kind of promotion for joining DirectTV at the time that didn’t really interest us, but I was still sold on T-Mobile for the international benefits alone. Even though our monthly bill would be increasing by ~$25, I wanted to give the international features a shot on our next trip to see if that kind of bump in price was worth the additional perks (which go a little beyond the international stuff).
Lucky for us, our procrastination paid off big time because the overall cost of T-Mobile ONE was down to $50 per line for two people ($100 total) AND they had a promotion that paid out $150 per line to switch from another carrier by the time we actually made it into a store. Now we could have changed our monthly price downwards to match the new offer, but I don’t think we’d be able to get the $150 retroactively in this case.
Anyway, I recommend taking a look at the T-Mobile home page to see what they are advertising and also take a quick look at the current promotions before you head into a store so you know what to expect. It wasn’t very clear whether we would be able to take advantage of both ongoing promotions at the same time, but I was certainly going to ask when we got there.
Actually Making the Switch
I didn’t actually do much research before heading into a store on the actual switching process, but I assumed we were a pretty standard case and decided to just go for it. Someone greeted us as soon as we walked into the store and we were an easy sale because I already knew what I wanted. I mentioned that we wanted to switch over to the two ONE plans for $50 per line and also take advantage of the $150 prepaid card for switching in from another carrier. The friendly gentleman said that wouldn’t be a problem and we made our way over to a computer to start the transaction.
They did have to pull my credit to set up a new account which I agreed to (they pulled TransUnion if you’re curious), but didn’t have to pull Becky’s if I was going to be the primary account holder.
After that, he set us up with a new plan for 2 lines at the $50/line price with two temporary phone numbers. Once this process was complete, he was able to “port” both of our numbers over from AT&T into the new account so we could keep our same phone numbers. In order to do this, he needed our AT&T account number (not a phone number, but the actual account number that appears at the top of our bill) and our AT&T account pin in order to pull the numbers over.
It was easy enough to pull up our latest bill on my phone to get the account number and I remembered the pin I set a long time ago. (If you’re not sure what your pin is, I believe it defaults to the last 4 of your SSN unless you specifically changed it after initial account setup.) Worst case, you can call AT&T (or your current provider) to reset the pin.
Both phone numbers were successfully ported over to T-Mobile, so we popped open the slot on my phone to insert the new sim. We didn’t even have to turn off the phone. It instantly recognized the new sim card, went through a brief setup process where I entered my Apple Id (this is probably iPhone specific), and the phone was good to go at that point.
Repeat the same process for Becky’s phone and we ran into our first problem of the day, her phone wasn’t unlocked and couldn’t be used outside of AT&T! As I mentioned above, this was my fault for not following up on the unlock process, but luckily we were able to work through it. We were in a mall that contained both an AT&T and a T-Mobile store, so we walked over to AT&T to hopefully get help with the unlock process that previously failed. After going through the steps to check the unlock status (which I failed to do up until this point), we got the following message:
“Device unlock portal – Denied: Your unlock request was denied because the account information doesn’t match our records.”
After showing this screen to the AT&T rep in the store, they had no idea what the problem could have been and are unable to do anything themselves regarding phone unlocks. They recommended going through the process online again and calling customer service if it fails. I should note that the AT&T reps were quite friendly despite it being obvious that we just dropped them to move to another carrier. They also mentioned that even though the website says two business days for the unlock process, it usually only takes 5-10 minutes if successful, that info proved useful later.
We filled out the online form again (this time checking the box that this was no longer under an AT&T account), got the email with the confirm link, and clicked it to hopefully kick off the process. Unfortunately, that pesky “confirm” link took us to a page that was “experiencing technical difficulties” and the customer service phone line was closed for the day. Oh joy…
Now Becky’s phone number was caught in a twilight zone of sorts. The number belonged to T-Mobile because they had already ported it out of AT&T, but the phone she has can only be used by an AT&T sim card. We briefly entertained the idea of porting the number back to AT&T temporarily while this unlock business was sorted out, but then remembered that we had an older unlocked phone at home that would work for a few days if necessary.
Back to the T-Mobile Store
At that point we walked back to the T-Mobile store to finish up our new phone plan transaction, despite not having a second phone to set up on the network right away. Luckily, this wasn’t a problem because there is nothing specific they have to do once the sim is set up in store. We were assured that we could simply install it ourselves once we got home and everything should work just fine.
Then it got a little interesting. I’m not sure if we made a really good impression on the T-Mobile rep, he felt bad about our unlock situation, or something else, but he offered to use one of his “Insider” promotions that employees can give out towards our account. I think these are intended for friends and family as he mentioned having a few extras left to give out, but we weren’t going to turn down the offer to save even more money on our new phone plan. After confirming my account information again, he said the discount was applied and we would get 20% off the ONE plan forever.
This seems too good to be true, but we thanked him and were extremely grateful for his generosity. Two days later I received a text that confirmed we got the “Insider Hook Up” and 20% off standard T-Mobile ONE voice plans. We’ll see what the first bill says (is the 20% off of a non-promotional price or the “limited time offer” of $50/line?), but either way I’m pretty sure we’ll end up paying even less than we expected which is amazing.
At that point, we paid for the 2 sim cards and walked out of the store as two new T-Mobile customers.
Heading Back Home and Totaling Up the Results
We stopped for dinner on the way home (this was part of the plan all along), and after finishing our entire trip, decided to try the AT&T unlock process again. Without filling out the form again, we simply tried the “confirm” button in the unlock email that previously errored out and this time it successfully started the process to unlock. Now keep in mind we saw this same “successfully started the process screen” a month ago which ended up in the Denial page you saw above.
Despite the previous failure, we were optimistic and decided to pop in the new T-Mobile sim to the same phone about a half hour later. Somewhat surprisingly, it actually worked and everything booted up like it was supposed to with the new sim on the new network. Success!
Now we both had active phones on the T-Mobile network and will apparently be paying even less than we were with AT&T! Let’s total up the numbers part of the exchange:
Before the Switch:
- 2 Lines on AT&T with unlimited talk/text and 8GB of shared data – ~$95 per month
During the Switch:
- One hard pull on my TransUnion credit report
- One time fee for the two new T-Mobile sim cards – $43.84 after taxes
- Promotional prepaid Mastercards for switching to T-Mobile ($150 per line) – +$300
After the Switch:
- 2 lines on T-Mobile ONE with unlimited everything – $80-96 (will find out the total on the first bill)
Overall, we profited over $250 from the switch itself thanks to the prepaid card promotion and it looks like we’ll be paying the same per month in the worst case application of the “Insider Hook Up” program. If the discount ends up being a full 20% off on the “limited time offer” $100 price, we’ll actually be saving ~$15 per month going forward! Definitely a much better scenario compared to when I was first looking at making the switch back in January.
The other thing I’m unsure about is their “Kickback” program which offers $10 back per month for any line that uses less than 2 GB of data in that month. Since we spend most of our time in Wi-Fi between work and home, it’s not uncommon for one or both of us to fall under that number on occasion. Once again, I’m not really sure how that will all calculate out with the various other promotions we’re enrolled in, so we’ll have to see what comes out on the actual bill.
The overall process to switch was fairly straight-forward and didn’t take very long at all. We spent around 50 minutes in the mall total including walking between the T-Mobile and AT&T stores (which are of course on opposite sides of the mall), but it probably would have only taken 20 minutes if we had properly unlocked both of the phones beforehand.
For the $150/line prepaid card promotion, I needed to fill out a form online (after waiting a recommended 24 hours) to request the cards which will be mailed in 6-8 weeks. Very similar to a mail-in rebate if you’ve done one of those before.
If you’re thinking about making the switch yourself, be sure to unlock any phones you plan to use ahead of time (if necessary) and bring your existing carrier’s account number and pin to make the process of porting your existing number in seamless.
If you haven’t taken a look at your cell phone bill recently, this seems to be a very good time to look at the different options available from all the carriers, as the competition between them seems to keep generating cheaper and better plans for us, the customer.
Now I don’t think it’s fair to actually review the T-Mobile service itself since we’ve only been using it for a few days at this point, but I can say it’s worked just as well at AT&T up until this point. We’ll have a better idea of it’s actual capabilities once we get outside of the city and will be able to give a proper test of the international features on our trip to Spain.
Overall, I’m very excited to try out the free international data, specifically for navigating transit systems in foreign lands. The free texting while in flight (for carriers with gogo) and internationally may also prove to be a useful feature and we might even take advantage of the “T-Mobile Tuesday” promotions that seem to offer pretty great perks on occasion (free movie tickets, pizza, lyft rides, and more were offered previously).
We’ll give the overall service and several of the features a proper test run as we fly to Spain and back, so be sure to hit me up on Twitter if I don’t make a specific follow-up post with our impressions. I’ll also probably update there with what our first bill looks like rather than making a new post, but we’ll see.