Canceling AT&T Service, Paying your ETF, and Quickly Unlocking your iPhone

So you're abandoning AT&T.  Congrats!

Leaving AT&T often means that you want to bring your phone and your phone number to a different cell phone service provider.  That's all fine and good, but you need to have your phone SIM unlocked so that you can use it with a different carrier.  And you're under contract.  And you can only unlock your phone after your contract has been terminated.  And unlocking a phone takes significant time.

That means that there will be a block of time when you can't use your existing phone with your new telephone service.  Conceptually, this time could be very quick: cancel the line, pay off the contract, unlock the phone, and go.  But due to the realities of the computer billing process used by AT&T, the unlock process can take weeks.

One way around this is to buy a new phone, but that always costs a lot of money.  So what else can you do?  There is a way to make the unlock process less painful.

Figure 1 shows the basic process.  Unlocking your under-contract phone starts with the process of Porting to a new carrier. From there, there are several steps - some that can take days or even weeks.  In the end, your phone is unlocked and you can use it with your new carrier.

All the orange boxes in Figure 1 represent time when you can't use your existing phone with your new carrier.

With some strategy, this process can happen in as little as 4 days.  Without a strategy, you might not be able to use your old phone for a month or more.
Steps of Porting with a Locked Phone

Preparing to Leave AT&T:

To be as efficient as possible, it is necessary to do some things in advance:

You'll need following information from http://att.com/ :
  • AT&T Account Number.  This is under "Profile".
  • Your AT&T Access ID.  This is under myAT&T Login Password.
  • Your AT&T Security Passcode.  This is also under the Passwords section of Profile.  Don't have a security passcode?  Then you must set one. 
  • Your AT&T Billing Date.  This is NOT your payment due date, but the date your bill closes every month.  For me, my monthly bill always includes charges from the 9th of the prior month to the 8th of the current month.  You'll need your bill closing date (for me, the 8th of the month).
You'll also need these basics:
  • The phone number to move to a new carrier. 
  • Your phone's IMEI number.  Make a phone call to *#06# and the IMEI number will appear on your phone's screen.
You'll need a temporary unlocked phone.

You won't be able to use your phone with your new carrier while it remains locked with AT&T.  You'll likely want a temporary phone.  You can borrow a friend's old unlocked phone, or you can do what I did:  I bought an inexpensive, used, unlocked iPhone on Amazon for about $100, and later sold it on Craigslist for about the same price.

The Efficient Migration Process with a SIM-Locked Phone

The strategy to a quick unlock is for AT&T to bill you as soon as possible after you initiate a port.  AT&T bills are generated at about the same time every month, about three days after your monthly bill closing date.

Therefore, the porting process should be pursued about 1 day before your bill closes.  My monthly bill closing date is the 8th of the month, so I had my phone service ported to my new carrier on the 7th of the month.

Here's the process I used:
  1. Make sure you have all the information mentioned in the Preparation section above, including your temporary unlocked phone.
  2. On the day before your bill closing date, go to your new carrier and tell them that you want to do a port.  Show them your unlocked phone.  Have them verify that the phone is unlocked and works with their service.
  3. Have your new carrier port your phone number from AT&T.  Your new carrier will need your AT&T account number, your AT&T security code, and other things like payment. The port generally happens in under 5 minutes.
  4. Now you have to wait for AT&T to bill you.  This takes about 2.5 to 3 days after bill closing.  Since my bill closes on the 8th at 11:59 pm, or so, that means my bill will appear around the 11th.  I just check the AT&T web site every 4 hours or so until I see that I owe.  Note that since your phone number is no longer an AT&T phone number, you'll need to log into ATT.com with your AT&T Access ID, as gathered earlier.
  5. Immediately after AT&T produces your final bill, pay the bill on-line via credit card.  You should immediately see the amount you owe go to $0. 
  6. On the day after you successfully pay your bill, ask AT&T to unlock your phone via the AT&T unlock portal.
  7. Usually within hours, AT&T will give you information on how to unlock your phone.  If AT&T rejects your unlock request, you'll have to call them up and have them fix the problem.  This could be due to a problem in their billing, contract, or device database.
  8. Follow AT&T's unlock procedures and start using your phone again!


In conclusion, porting a number to a new carrier is easy, but the unlock process make the everything a bit more complex.  By using the above procedure, you may be able to minimize the time and effort to port to a new carrier without having to give up your existing, locked phone.

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