How to Take Your Numbers With You

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If you haven’t heard about cell-phone number portability, you’re either living under a rock or very happy with your current service. Now that carriers have followed through on the FCC mandate to let customers take their numbers with them when they switch to another service providers, industry estimates suggest that, before the year is out, 13 million people will jump ship with their 10-digit number in tow.

If you want to be one of them, bring a book. You can switch over the phone, but carriers recommend swapping in person, which they say can help eliminate errors and misunderstandings. The coming holidays already cause shopper congestion in cell-phone stores. Add to that a posse of disgruntled ship jumpers, and the experience might be positively DMV-like.

Right now, only customers in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas can switch. If you’re town is smaller than Fort Wayne, IN, you must wait until May. Make sure you’re free of your carrier’s contract. If you’ve modified a plan or purchased a phone during the last 12 months, you’re probably under contract. Breaking it, even a month from its end, could cost you $150. Call your current provider to find out; don’t expect your prospective carrier to know — or care — about your contract.

Generally, there’s limited compatibility between networks, so you’ll probably need a new phone. The only major exception to this is with GSM carriers AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile; most GSM phones are carrier agnostic, although using your old phone may mean missing some of the new carrier’s services.

When you’re ready, go to the new carrier. Don’t cancel your existing service, because that happens automatically during the number “port,” and canceling early could cost you your number. The new carrier will verify your information with your old provider. To speed this up, bring your old bill and keep your personal data (nickname, mailing address) consistent. Once it clears, the actual transfer can take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours or, if you’re moving your landline number to a mobile, up to four days.

Porting can be tricky. In the U.S., a company called NeuStar moves your number from one part of its phone-number database to another, and then broadcasts that list to over 400 landline and wireless carriers nationwide, so that, say, someone calling you from a Montana payphone will reach you on the first try. Most of the process is automatic, but the chance for human error is high. “It’s not going be pretty in the first couple of days,” says one carrier’s spokesperson.