Starting November 24, 2003 wireless phone service subscribers have been granted the freedom to keep their phone number when switching service from one wireless carrier to another wireless carrier. The government agency that regulates the wireless industry, the FCC, has decreed that all subscribers must be able to move their phone number from one carrier to another. This transfer of a phone number is called porting. You will hear the ability to port a number called, 'number portability', 'local number portability', and 'wireless number portability (WLNP)' among other things.
The FCC mandate for number portability includes a few restrictions and a time line for its implementation. Briefly, subscribers with billing addresses in the top 100 U.S. population centers (called MSAs) are be able to take their numbers with them after November 24, 2003. People in the rest of the U.S. have this freedom six months later after May 24, 2004.
All US wireless customers are now eligible to take their phone number to another wireless carrier. You can enter your ZIP code in our ZIP code search function on our home page or in the right column of this page. If you search from those places, we will give you a list of wireless carriers licensed to serve your area. You can find more information about these number portability availability dates in publications from the FCC and the wireless industry. See the end of this article for links to those resources.
Aside from two deadlines, there are a few other restrictions that may prevent you from porting your number to a new wireless company. The first and most important is that the number must remain in the same market. That is why it is called local number portability. As an example, you can't take a phone from New York, move to LA and then request that your number be moved to a new carrier with your new address in LA. Additionally, since local landline phone numbers have been portable for years, the FCC has ruled that those numbers must also be portable to wireless phone services.
One thing you might be asking is 'Why all the fuss over keeping your number?' It is a good question because it may not really be an important freedom to some, while very important to others. For example, business people who use their cellular phones extensively may have built up a valuable network of contacts who know that cell phone number. Such people may have a significant investment in business cards, stationary, signs and advertising; all linked to one cellular phone number. If they had to change phone numbers, they would incur high costs both in time and money. Another important point, is that unlike wireline (landline) phone numbers, wireless companies do not provide a 'this number has been changed to' type recording to direct callers to an alternate number. The recording on an unused wireless number usually just says that it is not in service; that is a dead end for people who do not have the new number. Some people are just attached to their numbers because they are easy to remember or spell words. There are clearly some good reasons to want to keep your number. On the other hand, if you really don't have any attachments to your old number, just let it go and get a new one.
Porting your phone number
If you have decided you want to keep your number and switch to a new wireless company, here is some advice to make it go smoothly. The number one piece thing to remember is DO NOT CANCEL YOUR PLAN WITH THE CARRIER YOU WILL BE LEAVING. If you cancel, and then decide you want to keep the number, it is too late - the number is gone. Follow the time line below and you will be in good shape.
Check your current wireless service contract
You need to know when your current contract expires. If you cancel the contract before the end date, you will be liable for the termination fee. The amount of the termination fee will be detailed on your contract for wireless service. Porting your number to another carrier is considered canceling your contract, so now may not be the best time to switch carriers.
Double check and clean up your customer information
Go over a copy of your last wireless bill to be sure all the contact information is correct. In order for the number transfer to go smoothly, the information you give to sign up with the new carrier, must match exactly what the old carrier has on file. Seemingly trivial items like middle initials in your name, or other abbreviations not matching, can cause delays.
Research your options and sign up with a new carrier
Now, as long as you are thinking of switching, take some time to research your options. Things change every month in the wireless industry. With the onset of number portability, most carriers have begun offering plans to keep their old customers and attract new ones. Do some research before you make a decision. Call your current wireless carrier's customer service number to find out what they are offering to keep you as a customer. These 'customer retention' deals are unadvertised and often extremely attractive. Once you sign with new carrier and request that your number be ported, it will be too late to take advantage of a retention program.
If you are set on switching, we suggest that you take full advantage of the tools here at WirelessAdvisor.com to help you find and research your options. Just enter your ZIP code in our search box and we can provide a list of wireless carriers for your area. If you want to get some opinions about the wireless carriers in your area, see our regional discussion forums.
After you have found a company that will serve your needs and budget, then tell new carrier you want to transfer a phone number over from another carrier. The representative from the new carrier will initiate and handle the porting process. An important point here is that only the account holder is authorized initiate a request to move a phone number to another carrier. If you know someone that needs assistance with this sort of thing, have that person nearby or accompany them to request the switch in person.
What to expect
When you do switch carriers, the chances are very good that you will need to get a new phone. Most carriers' wireless networks are not compatible with other carriers' networks. Even in the unlikely event that you can use your old phone, it is probably better to get a new one. Your old phone is likely already a year old and by the time your new contract expires it will then be two years old. In the world of wireless handsets today, that is already on the verge of obsolescence! Switching carriers is a great time to take advantage of the sign-up deals being offered by your new carrier and get a nice new phone. You can keep the old phone in your car to dial 911 in an emergency, or give it to someone else for that purpose, or donate to a number of charities that will find a good purpose for it. See the end of this article for places to donate old phones.
How long does it take?
The wireless industry has agreed on a time frame of two and a half hours from when a porting request is sent to the old carrier to the number being functional on the new carrier's network. The FCC has not set a regulated time, so it could possibly take longer. In the case of a wireline to wireless port, it may take several days to complete. It is a good idea to ask up front how long it will take to transfer your number.
Function of the old and new phones
Once the porting request has been made, you may experience an hour or two when you can make calls on the new phone, but incoming calls go to the old phone. This brief situation could be a problem with calls to 911. The problem is that if an emergency call gets disconnected, the 911 operator may not be able to call you back. This limbo period should be very brief, and if you keep both phones with you, it should not be an issue.
The porting of your number to a new wireless carrier should all go very smoothly, but there are a few things that can complicate the process and slow things down. We already mentioned that problems can occur if your contact records don't match with old and new carriers. Another problem can arise if you owe the previous carrier money. If you owe unpaid bills, or if you try to skip out on the termination fee, the old carrier can NOT stop you from taking your number to another carrier; like it or not, they must let you go. However, they will report any unpaid obligations to credit bureaus and credit databases. And, you can be sure the new carrier will check your credit report before signing you up for service (credit checks are not done for pre-paid services). You can easily image, that if one wireless company sees that you already stiffed another wireless company, they will not be eager to have you as a customer.
Carriers are allowed to charge a fee at the time of the transfer to cover their costs, however the charge may not exceed their costs. Carriers have also been permitted to charge a monthly fee to all of their customers to recover costs associated with making WLNP an available option. You can probably already find this fee on your recent wireless bills.
Delays and glitches
In the early stages of portability, all wireless carriers might not have all the behind-the-scenes systems worked out to perfection. Some carriers may be better than others. If you want to read about some other peoples' experiences, see our number portability discussion forum: WirelessAdvisor.com Number Portability Forums
If you do run into extraordinary problems in trying to take your number, you can file a complaint with the FCC. There is a link to the FCC complaint area at the end of this article.
And finally, once you have your number working on another carrier…
You didn't think the new wireless company would be perfect did you? The cliché, "The grass is always greener on the other side" very much applies with wireless carriers. Wireless service is not perfect with any company; they all have their pros and cons. You may now get good service where you did not before, but you are still going to find some spots with poor service. That is just the nature of wireless service as it exists today. If your new service is much worse than your old service, use the trial period and take your number somewhere else. Enjoy your freedom!
WLNP Pages of Wireless Carriers
- Centennial Wireless
- AT&T Wireless
- Southern LINC
- Sprint PCS
- US Cellular
- Verizon Wireless
- Wireless Local Number Portability - Checklist and FAQ
- FCC Complaint Contacts or Call: 1-888-CALL-FCC
- FCC Consumer Facts
Wireless Industry Links