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How to set yourself free from wireless carrier contracts for good

  • Stop paying for device installment fees.
  • Pay full price for a smartphone.
  • Consider buying unlocked smartphones.
Cultura RM Exclusive | Christin Rose | Getty

I stopped signing wireless contracts — and now I've taken control away from the carriers.

First, a little backstory. T-Mobile started the war on wireless contracts — the agreements that you'd stick around for two years — when it introduced device installment plans a couple of years ago.

These pretty much eliminated carrier early termination fees that customers would need to pay to end a two-year contract early. Instead, installment payments keep customers locked to a specific carrier by requiring them to pay off the cost of a phone before they leave. Like leasing a car, these fees allow you to pay down the cost of an expensive smartphone over the course of many months. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint all followed suit.

These device installment fees are still very much contracts, though, and you shouldn't sign them. In fact, you'll be able to jump around from carriers much easier if you avoid them altogether by paying full price for your smartphone.

I realize that some folks can't afford coughing up $700 or more for a new device. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available from places like Amazon or Best Buy that cost much less. They're frequently called "unlocked smartphones" because they aren't tied to a carrier. The Moto G5 Plus is one example of an unlocked phone that we recently reviewed, and it costs just $329. It works on T-Mobile and AT&T in the U.S.

Once you have one of these phones, you're no longer at the mercy of the carriers. If you're paying for AT&T service and aren't paying for a smartphone installment fee, for example, you can jump right over to another carrier. Maybe your service stinks on AT&T but your neighbor says T-Mobile is great. All you need to do is take your phone into a T-Mobile store, tell them you want to switch, and you'll be out the door and on their network in minutes.

I'm speaking from experience, too. Over the weekend I decided that my carrier's performance wasn't worth what I was paying for. So, I took a couple of my unlocked phones and switched four lines to another provider. It was seamless, though I did have to pay about $20 per SIM card to move my numbers over. Better than paying for service that isn't good though, right?

There are a few things you need to keep in mind.

Some phones don't support every wireless network. Apple's iPhones are usually one of the rare outliers. You'll want to make sure the unlocked phone supports the carrier of your choice before diving in. This is as simple as reading a description on the store page. Also, you always have the choice to pay out the full price of your phone if you want to switch carriers, though sometimes there might be a pretty hefty balance left to cover.

While it might seem pricey to buy a phone upfront, you earn all of that back in the freedom to choose who you pay for wireless service, and when. Maybe you ultimately don't like the carrier you've switch to, for example. Just walk right back into your other provider and make the switch again.

I've found this is a much better approach to dealing with wireless, and it puts me in a position to be in control instead of T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon or Sprint.