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Get Out of Your Cellular Contract

Contracts are no longer required to initate service, but if you have one, here are some ideas to get out of it
with no, or minimal, charges.  If you buy a phone at less than retail price and you are making payments on it, you are still obligated to pay for that phone, whether or not you leave early. With a service contract, and not a phone purchase obligation, the Early Termination Fees (ETF) can be several hundred dollars, in addition to the remaining price of the phone if you are paying for it over time. If you want to terminate service and stop making payments for the phone, the carrier may or may not accept the return of the phone to end the payments, and if they do accept the return, you may not get back any of the payments you have already made. These ideas address just the contract, unrelated to the phone purchase. We can't guarantee these will work for you, but they have for others.

    Many carriers no longer require, or even offer, minimum term contracts.  They have been replaced with phone payment plans or no-contract plans. In some cases, you can replace your contract with one of these new plans without penalty.

    Pay attention to your carrier's Terms of Service. From time to time they will change rates and fees that affect every customer. That is considered a change that "materially affects" your cellular account and would result in significant changes or charges in your account. Example, changing Text Messaging fees. You can call and indicate your disapproval of this change and ask to terminate your account without an Early Termination Fee (ETF). They may argue with you and force you to speak to a superior, but it has been a fairly reliable way out.

    Even though you may have a serious problem with your cellular service, Customer Service agents will do whatever it takes to make you fulfill your contract, including financial threats. But if you can make your case, they may be able to help. Failing that, and most likely you will, ask to have your problem "escalated". Quite often you are just transferred to another agent, but in some cases you get a supervisor who can really help. The next step is to take your case to the top. If you can find them, the executive offices of some companies will help you just because you've taken the trouble to pursue the matter that far.

    Carriers of all sizes may offer to pay part of all of your Early Termination Fee by switching from your old carrier to a new one. Some carriers make this offer part of an ongoing deal, a promotion, or only if you ask for it. There may be some requirements such as trading in your old phone or switching an existing number to the new carrier.

    You can do it yourself by contacting the carrier and asking them to execute a 'change of responsibility'. You and the tradee need to be nearby to give your ID or Social Security Number. Or you can use the services of a cellular trading web site including or It's also a good way to pick up a plan that fits your usage better with a shorter contract than you would get signing up new.

    Nicely tell your carrier you can't use their service any longer. You can choose to tell a story or the truth and they will probably charge you an Early Termination Fee. Expect to pay all your normal usage charges up to the last day you use the phone, and you still need to pay or return the phone, but go ahead and ignore the ETF. Yes, they'll threaten you with collections and putting the action on your credit report, but in these days of legal confrontations, they do that with some hesitation. I have not read in a forum that someone has actually had this appear on their credit report, but if it does, you can add a note in your report that you had a problem with your phone and had to cancel. If your report is otherwise clean, it should be ignored. Even credit underwriters have trouble with their wireless phone at some time. Just in case, drop your plan to the cheapest level possible. This makes it less profitable for the carriers to pursue you, and should you decide you need the pay the charges anyway, they'll be as cheap as possible.

    Check your Terms of Service to make sure, but many carriers will drop you without an ETF for excessive roaming or by using an "unreasonable" amount of wireless time. Continuous or excessive usage usually results in being warned to stop, or having your service disconnected, even with an "Unlimited" plan. In most cases, you will be allowed to drop your contract under those circumstances. As an example, AT&T Terms of Service state: "If AT&T finds that you are using an unlimited voice service offering for anything other than live dialogue between two individuals, AT&T may at its option terminate your service or change your plan to one with no unlimited usage components. AT&T will provide notice that it intends to take any of the above actions, and you may terminate the Agreement.". You may also find yourself using your phone more than 51% of the time off your own carrier's network. You might be able to force your phone to Roam more often. Some carriers don't mind.

    Some Early Termination Fees are 'pro-rated' which means they are reduced each month as you approach your contract end date. You could wait a few months until the fee is more tolerable.

  • MOVE:
    You can either make a boxed move or a virtual move, and if you can prove the new location is out of their service area, or an area with a known lack of coverage, the carrier may let you out of your contract. That particular point has been the subject of many class action lawsuits, and carriers are becoming a little more flexible about it. Be ready to document your move with a utility bill or similar convincing evidence.

    If you're serious about not paying the fee, there are many attorneys who will take on the case for you. It could cost you a lot, or nothing. You may see diminishing returns as just speaking to a lawyer about your case may cost more than the ETF. Some attorneys actually solicit this kind of business and might add your complaint to a 'class action' suit at no charge.

  • CONTACT THE FCC (Contact information, below):
    The FCC will listen and may respond to your complaint, but that by itself won't get you out of your contract. Keep track of your correspondence with them and present it to the cellular carrier. The carrier may see you as someone who is serious and might be more sympathetic, especially after asking to be released of your contract.

    Try telling your story to a "consumer reporter" at a local radio or TV station or newspaper. If your case seems worthy, they might contact the carrier in your behalf. Cellular companies want to avoid bad publicity, especially if the problem is something they created. Don't bother if you just want to leave because you're tired of your old phone.

    Seriously, if you get deployed to a location outside of your carrier's service area, they are usually quite supportive in letting you leave without penalty. Expect to prove your assignment.

    If you are adverse to contracts you would be smart to avoid them in the first place. At renewal time you can switch to Prepaid, often with the same carrier and handset. You can also choose among the cellular carriers and retailers who either do not require a contract or who offer the option of either buying a phone at full price or by making a certaini number of payments..

How to Complain to the FCC

If you have questions or complaints about particular wireless phone plans, the handling of calls by a particular provider, the fees charged, or similar service matters, contact the provider directly and keep a record of the person contacted, the date, and other details of your inquiry. If you are still dissatisfied, you can file a complaint with the FCC in several ways:

You may file electronically using the FCC Form 475 (complaint form) at

E-mail your complaint to

Send your written complaint to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20554

Toll Free: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice
1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY
Consumer Advocacy and Mediation Specialists are available Monday - Friday, 8 am – 5:30 pm ET.

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