After decades of the big four networks dominating our choice for wireless services, we are now seeing the beginnings of a mini-revolution. Though exact figures are difficult to find, it’s believed that ten percentof the wireless subscribers in the US are using an MVNO (smaller providers that buy network access from the big carriers and resell it at a fraction of the price).
As more and more people choose a cheaper MVNO option, one question will be asked time and again: will my current phone work on a new network? For Sprint and Verizon customers, the answer can be confusing.
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A SIM or no SIM?
In the U.S., there are two wireless technologies — CDMA and GSM — and they are completely incompatible with each other. The majority of the Verizon and Sprint networks use CDMA technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile are built on GSM.
The big difference is that GSM networks use a SIM card to store a subscriber's identity and info, while CDMA devices have electronic serial numbers embedded in the device and require reprogramming to change networks.
With a SIM card, you can quickly swap your service provider by inserting a new card into your phone. If your T-Mobile or AT&T phone is unlocked, you should have no problems swapping SIM cards between devices on these networks.
Since the network operators launched LTE networks, it's become a little easier. All LTE networks in the U.S. are built using GSM technology, so newer Sprint and Verizon LTE-enabled handsets include a SIM card and may work on all GSM networks, big and small.
It depends on the way specific phones are designed though. Some older phones only use the SIM card for LTE services, meaning that even if you can switch to a new GSM network, you might not be able to access 2G and 3G services for calls and messaging.
Sprint: quick facts
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Moving to Verizon and Sprint MVNOs
If you're looking for a cheaper plan and you own a Sprint phone, you're in luck. There are more MVNOs on the Sprint network than on any other. This means your Sprint devices may be used with Ting, Straight Talk, ROK Mobileand Boost Mobile, to name a few.
Taking your Sprint phone to Verizon Wireless is more or less impossible. In addition to the incompatible spectrum bands, Verizon is unlikely to accept the device on its network and will insist you buy a new device.
Moving to AT&T or T-Mobile
If you wish to take a Sprint device to T-Mobile or AT&T, you may be able to do so with LTE-capable devices and later model Apple iPhones, but there are no guarantees. If your device is accepted, you may experience good LTE service but sub-par (or non-existent) talk, text and 3G data.
As confusing as it is, if you can get your Sprint phone unlocked, there is a chance you can have it activated for service on a GSM network – but you’ll need to speak with your new GSM carrier and ask whether they’ll accept the make and model of your handset.
Verizon: quick facts
Here's our selection of the best deals if you have a Verizon device
Moving to AT&T or T-Mobile
Verizon's LTE devices are now network unlocked as soon as you buy them. So some newer LTE devices - for example, the iPhone - may support GSM voice and data if you replace the Verizon SIM with a card from T-Mobile or AT&T.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees and, even if your new SIM does work with your Verizon device, you may not be able to access the 2G and 3G networks. You will be able to use high-speed data, but if 2G and 3G services are limited you won't be able to make calls or send SMS messages.
Moving to Sprint and other CDMA networks
In terms of moving to another CDMA network, some Verizon resellers, such as Page Plus and Red Pocket, may be compatible with pre-loved Verizon devices. But you’ll need to run your device’s ID number through their websites to determine eligibility.
Taking your Verizon device to Sprint isn’t yet possible. Despite both carriers sharing the same basic technology, Verizon devices won’t respond to Sprint service, and Sprint won't accept customer requests to activate a Verizon phone on its network.
Want to unlock your phone?
Thanks to new FCC regulations, wireless carriers are now required to let you unlock your phone and take it to another carrier -- no more locking you in with old hardware. The procedure varies slightly from carrier to carrier, so follow the links below to find out how to unlock your handset.
Original cell phone image via Shutterstock