A place to rant.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Porting a Verizon number to Cingular + iPhone (after the fact)

I finally took the plunge: I bought an iPhone. I mainly just wanted a phone with a reasonable user interface, where "Calculator" wasn't under the "Planner" section and I could easily sync my contacts with my laptop. But if I'm going through the pain and expense of a new phone, I thought I'd get a sweet one that would let me check NextMuni and such, too.

I'd been debating it for along time: is it really worth $500? Is Cingular's reception as good as Verizon's? (It turns out that no, it's not, but you should check each company's coverage map for your area.) But what really tipped the scale was a Cingular agent's suggestion that I sign up for a new account without porting my old number. They'd give me a temporary number, and then if I wanted to stick with Cingular, I could port my old number and have it replace the temporary one. I could return the iPhone and cancel the contract within two weeks if it really sucked, though I'd have to pay a 10% restocking fee on the phone. Sounds perfect, right?

This might be a good option if you're worried about switching carriers (as I was), but despite confirming with the agent several times that this plan was actually going to work, it turned out to be a real pain. I'm hoping this blog entry will help people avoid some of the annoyance I went through.

The first problem was that my old number was in the Boston market, but my Cingular account was opened in the Northern California market, and you can't port numbers between markets. I found this out when I called the porting number that the agent had given to me. The agent told me I had to relocate my account first, and then I could port it. These are two separate transactions, and as I later discovered, the people involved with one don't necessarily know anything about the other.

So I went to the store to relocate my account, because I generally find people more helpful in person than on the phone. The agent spent ten minutes on his computer and decided he couldn't help me, and that I had to call customer service to relocate the account.

I called customer service the next day. I explained the situation to an agent, but he didn't seem to get it. I told him I needed him to relocate my account so that I could port my number, and he kept insisting that he could not port my number for me - I had to call Porting for that. Frustrated, I told him that I just needed him to relocate my account so that I could call the Porting people myself later to have the number ported. 25 minutes and three times on hold later, he transferred me to the relocation department. (If I'd known there was one, I'd have just called them directly.)

The agent from the relocation department was very helpful. She explained that while she could relocate my account for me, I'd need a new SIM card, which would take 3-5 days to be mailed to me. Then I'd have to call them again to activate the card once I got it and installed it. But she also told me that corporate AT&T stores should be able to relocate my account (as opposed to authorized dealers, who may or may not be able to), and that the store I went to was in fact a corporate store. If you do the relocation in-store, they basically just call the customer service people to do it for you, but they give you the SIM card right then and there and you don't have to call them again later.

Armed with this new information, I went to the same store, got somebody who actually knew something about what they were doing, and did this process. This agent told me that with the new SIM card, the iPhone would not work until I resync'd it. Okay, no big deal. But then he said that he thought I shouldn't resync it until I had ported the new number, because otherwise I might need yet another SIM card for the newly ported number. The customer service agent he was talking to confirmed that I shouldn't sync until after I'd done the port.

So I left with a broken phone, came home, and called up the Porting department to port my number. All seemed fine, and this agent told me that I could reconnect my phone in 5 minutes. Great! I thought. I waited 15 minutes to be sure, but when I connected my iPhone to my Mac, iTunes claimed that my AT&T account had been deactivated. An hour later I got the same result. Great.

I called the number given in the error message (with my old phone at first, which had already been turned off!), and the agent told me to wait up to 24 hours, but that she wasn't sure about that and couldn't verify it with the Porting people because they were closed already. She told me I should try again the next day or call them again. I tried again in the morning with no luck, so I called again. The agent was very confused - she couldn't figure out how I could possibly have a new SIM card in the phone and iTunes wasn't taking me back to the initial activation screen. When she seemed so confident that it should have done this, I got the idea to turn off and on my iPhone (which I hadn't done since I bought the thing - you have to hold down the sleep button on the top until it asks you to confirm turning it off, and again to turn it on) and voila! Back at the initial activation screen. I followed the usual prompts (being sure to enter my old zip code, not my current billing zip code, where it asks for billing zip code), and I was set. After a few minutes, I was able to both send and receive calls from my new (old) number!

The summary is this:
  1. It is possible to buy an iPhone and sign up with Cingular, and then later port your old number, even from a different market. It's not easy, though. In my case, I spoke to ten different agents for a total of a few hours, admittedly two of whom did absolutely nothing to help me, and only another two of whom seemed to actually understand the whole process involved.
  2. If you need to port your number from another carrier, you must be porting it within the same market. So if you're moving, for example, you should sign up for a new account before you move. If not, you'll have to relocate your new account to the old area. This requires that you have an address local to that area, though you can give them a different billing address, in which case it's unclear what, if anything, they use the local address for.
  3. If you need to relocate your account, you should be able to do it at any corporate AT&T store. You can also do it on the phone, but if you'll need a new SIM card, they'll have to mail it to you and you have to call them again to activate it.
  4. It's unclear to me whether you need a new SIM card whenever your number changes, or just when your market changes, or just when you change markets across the country.
  5. If you get a new SIM card, make sure to turn off the iPhone and turn it on again before reconnecting it to iTunes, or iTunes won't recognize that it's a new SIM card and should reactivate the phone.
  6. If you have an iPhone and you relocate and port a number, you shouldn't sync your iPhone in between.
I hope this experience helps convey how unnecessarily complex this process was and that it helps someone else trying to do the same thing to do it more quickly and less painfully.

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