How Military Members Can Get Out of a Cell Phone Contract

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Military Cancel Cell Phone Contract
If you are like me, you probably don’t like being stuck in a cell phone contract, even if you do have a military discount for your cell phone plan. Unfortunately, canceling your cell phone contract often comes with an Early Termination Fee (ETF) that can run as high as $200 (or more)! The good news…

If you are like me, you probably don’t like being stuck in a cell phone contract, even if you do have a military discount for your cell phone plan. Unfortunately, canceling your cell phone contract often comes with an Early Termination Fee (ETF) that can run as high as $200 (or more)!

The good news is there are ways to get out of your contract without paying any fees. If you are a military member, there are a few extra clauses that allow you to cancel your cell phone contract without paying any early termination fees.

Military Cancel Cell Phone Contract

Cancel Your Cell Phone Contract When You PCS

One way to cancel your cell phone contract without early termination fees is when you PCS. You won’t be able to do this every time, but you should be able to cancel your contract if you PCS to a location where your current cell phone provider doesn’t have service, or if you PCS overseas.

For example, some regional cell phone providers like U.S. Cellular or Cricket Wireless may not offer cell phone service if you move outside of their region. Even some of the major mobile phone services, such as AT&T and Verizon, may not offer reliable service in every location in the United States.

Be sure to show the cell phone provider a copy of your military ID card and a copy of your orders.

I’ve read about some cell phone providers trying to force military members to continue paying their contracts even when the PCS overseas, but you should insist that they allow you out of the contract.

It’s the Law:

A servicemember may terminate a contract described in subsection (b) at any time after the date the servicemember receives military orders to relocate for a period of not less than 90 days to a location that does not support the contract. (source: 50 U.S. Code § 3956 – Termination of telephone service contracts).

Contact your base legal office or JAG for assistance if your cell phone provider won’t allow you out of your contract. They should be able to draft a legal letter on your behalf stating you will be moving overseas. Many cell phone company employees may not be aware of the laws that protect servicemembers. Bringing this to their attention nicely can go a long way toward getting your cell phone contract canceled.

Cancel or Suspend Your Cell Phone Contract When You Deploy

Deployments are not always a guaranteed way to get out of your cell phone contract without paying early termination fees, but you may be able to do it. Be sure to take a copy of your military ID and orders with you, or you may be able to fax in a copy.

Again, the law referenced above requires cell phone companies to let you out of your contract if you are sent to a location for more than 90 days that does not support the service.

Another option is to place your cell phone on vacation status, which places your contract on hold until you return. You will be able to keep your phone number and will still remain on contract when you return from overseas. In most cases, your contract will pick up where it left off. So you would still have the same amount of time remaining on your contact.

Note about vacation status: Many servicemembers have mentioned having problems with this in the past. Be patient with the company and see if there is anything you can do to cancel your contract, put your phone in vacation mode, or perhaps decrease your service level to the minimum.

Keep your phone number: The law allows servicemembers to keep their phone number when they cancel their contract for military orders. See below for more info:

(c) Retention of telephone number

In the case of a contract terminated under subsection (a) by a servicemember whose period of relocation is for a period of three years or less, the service provider under the contract shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, allow the servicemember to keep the telephone number the servicemember has under the contract if the servicemember re-subscribes to the service during the 90-day period beginning on the last day of such period of relocation. (source: 50 U.S. Code § 3956 – Termination of telephone service contracts).

Get it in writing! As always – get your new arrangement in writing! Don’t take a verbal agreement at face value. Make sure you have a written copy of your new contract or proof that your contract was placed on hold. You don’t want to come back from your deployment to find out that your cell phone provider has been charging you for several months. That can result in a large debt, and possibly having your information turned over to debt collectors.

Sell or Transfer Your Cell Phone Contract

If canceling your contract doesn’t work, you may be able to sell or transfer your cell phone contract and avoid early termination fees. You may be able to find a friend or relative willing to take over your contract.

All you need to do is call the cell phone provider and do an assumption of liability transfer, which legally transfers your contract to another person – that way you won’t get stuck holding the bill.

If you need help finding someone interested in taking over your contract, you can try posting your phone on Craig’s List, or using a free service like Trade My Cellular, who will match you up with people around the US. You can also try Cell Trade USA which provides a similar service for a $20 fee, but also seems to have more options.

The downside to transferring your cell phone contract: You lose your phone number. You need to do something else if you want to keep your phone number.

Go to a Cell Provider That Will Pay Your ETF

The cell phone industry is incredibly competitive right now, and some cell phone service providers are even going as far as offering to pay your Early Termination Fee if you switch to their service.

One such company is T-Mobile, which currently has an offer that will allow you to transfer up to 10 lines, and they will pay the Early Termination Fee for each line! (Sprint has offered similar deals in the past).

T-Mobile also offers a strong military discount, as well as an unlimited plan with no contracts. So you won’t have to worry about breaking a contract again.

Here’s how the T-Mobile discount works:

  • Transfer your current phone number to T-Mobile
  • Process your trade-in within 14 days of your new phone purchase (T-Mobile will offer you credit based on the market value for your eligible device).
  • After entering your order number and T-Mobile phone number, print the postage-paid shipping label and send in your device.
  • Submit your final bill. When you receive your current carrier’s final bill with your Early Termination Fees (ETFs), submit the bill to T-Mobile electronically within 2 calendar months of your number transfer to T-Mobile for reimbursement (up to 12 lines).
  • Get up to $650 per line based on the Early Termination Fees (ETFs) on your carrier’s final bill.
  • Eligible device trade-in, device purchase, qualifying plan, and port-in required.
  • Trade-in credit applied to T-Mobile bill.
  • Allow 8 weeks for processing.
  • One offer per line up to 12 lines.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

Another possible way out of your contract is through protections provided by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which gives military members certain legal protections based on the military service. Please me be sure to read more about this act and the benefits it provides before taking action on it. The SCRA won’t apply to every situation.

You have enough to worry about when you serve our country. Hopefully, your cell phone contract isn’t one of them.

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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is the founder and editor of The Military Wallet. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over 6 years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the IL Air National Guard.

Ryan started The Military Wallet in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about personal finance and investing at Cash Money Life.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free Personal Capital account here.

Featured In: Ryan's writing has been featured in the following publications: Forbes, Military.com, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Reserve & National Guard Magazine (print and online editions), Cash Money Life, The Military Guide, USAA, Go Banking Rates, and many other publications.

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  1. Grant says

    Hey, this is a great idea for a blog. Thank you for your service. I don’t know about military discounts, but I’ve seen other finance blogs point out that you can use “pay as you go” services and other low paying contracts to drastically reduce your monthly phone bill. All the extra features that come with phones are luxuries that don’t really matter if you’re trying to kickstart your financial future. Good info and a good subject to talk about saving money.

  2. Nate says

    What happens when you PCS to an area where the AT&T map says you have service, but you have to walk 1/4 mile down the road to actually get any bars on the phone at all. They keep repeating the line that they don’t guarantee service in buildings, even when I tell them I don’t get service outside, either.

    Also, they have admitted to me that other people have microcells in their houses in that area. I’m seriously considering asking for an SCRA cancellation at this point.

    Another question, how would I know “before the date of the commencement of such deployment or permanent change” whether I get service in the new area. Wouldn’t I want to cancel after I deploy or PCS?

    • Ryan Guina says

      Nate, This is an interesting situation. No cell phone company will easily let a customer walk away without doing everything they can to keep you under contract. What I recommend is keeping track of every time you call them about not receiving cell phone reception – just track the date and time of the call – that should be all you need. Call every day if you need to, and ask to elevate the situation to speak with a manager.

      If they have given other people microcells in their home, then that is a likely option for you as well. If you are otherwise happy with their service and your contract, then request a microcell installation. Again, continue calling customer service about the poor reception and continue tracking your call logs. Each time you speak with a customer service rep, inform them how many times you have called for this specific problem. Eventually they will realize that it is costing them more in customer service time than it would to install a microcell in your home.

      Regarding canceling under the SCRA – you may want to speak to your base legal department for assistance if you get pushback from your cell phone provider.

      And to answer your final question: you won’t always know if you have reception, but you might. For example, if your orders take you to a country or location that your cell phone provider doesn’t offer at all, then you could cancel your coverage. Your situation is different because they claim coverage, but you don’t actually receive it. All things being equal, try to get the microcell installed. That will usually be the easiest way to go.

  3. erin says

    I have my phone on a military hold with sprint. When I turn it back on, will I still have my old voicemails? Also, will I still be able to receive texts and voicemails that were sent to my phone while it was on the hold?

    • Ryan Guina says

      Erin, if your old voicemails are stored on your phone, and your phone doesn’t automatically delete them after a certain time frame, then your voicemails should be there. I don’t know what will happen to your old voicemails if they are stored in Sprint’s system. I also don’t know about new text messages and voicemails you would have received while your phone was on military hold. You will need to contact Sprint to get that info.

      Best of luck, and thanks for your service!

  4. Harry says

    My son is in the USAF currently on a 6 month TDY in the Middle East. Prior to leaving the USA , we arranged with AT&T to suspended his wireless service for the duration of his deployment. A copy of his orders was faxed and received by AT&T. He arrived in the beginning of April 2012 to his TDY base in the Middle East. Initially, AT&T failed to suspend his wireless phone line, which they later corrected by adjusting the account billing. However, instead of suspending the line AT&T canceled it, and in June issued my sons phone number to someone else. That person has now been sending out text messages to people that my son has on his contact list, and their caller ID is showing the sender to be my son.
    Once we became aware of the problem, I immediately contacted AT&T. Their response has been terrible. While acknowledging that AT&T had made the mistakes of cancelling instead of suspending the number and of assigning the number to a new customer, they claimed there was nothing they could do. One manager went so far as to tell me that AT&T did not have any departments in the entire company that could handle such a problem. I have been dealing with several AT&T call centers and finally , had to look on the web to find the number for the “Office of the President” of AT&T Wireless , since not one of the call centers had the phone number or any way to find it for the corporate offices of AT&T. While the solution to the problems caused by AT&T seems simple ( turn off my sons number, issue a new number to this unknown customer, provide documentation of the issue to avoid problems with USAF officers who may have received text messages believed to be from my son, and upon his return the USA, return the number that my son has had for over five years ), they claim they can not contact customers and therefore will not offer a new number to this unknown customer, will not be able to give my son his number back, and they have absolutely no idea how many other servicemen and servicewomen AT&T has done this to in the past, currently, and has no solution to it occurring in the future. Nor do they notify anyone that AT&T has created this problem until those overseas receive other forms of communication complaining of rude text messages sent to family or friends, messages and/or passwords being sent by banks to numbers they believe are secure and active, etc. It appears that AT&T at first was giving me the run around and now is dragging it’s feet, with the only promise being they will issue my son a completely new number when he returns.
    There has to be a simple way to prevent my sons identity from being compromised as a result of AT&T mistakes and their inability to correct them. He can not handle these matters from where he is currently stationed, nor should he have to. I am willing to for my son, but AT&T should have handled it without making things worse.

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