Smart Buying

5 Sneaky Cell Phone Fees

Activation and upgrade charges add up fast.

Thinking of switching to a new wireless provider? If it’s one of the major national carriers, expect to be slapped with an activation fee -- typically about $35 -- for each new line you open. For a family plan with four lines, that would add up to a whopping $140. The salesman may be willing to waive the fee if you threaten to walk away. Or keep an eye out for promotions that allow you to sign up without activation fees. Recently, customers who bought Verizon Wireless phones through Best Buy paid no activation fee.

Even if you stick with your current provider, you may not be off the hook. The big carriers also charge an activation or upgrade fee when you are extending your contract and you purchase a new phone or qualify for a free phone. That fee ranges from $18 at T-Mobile to $36 at AT&T and Sprint. Depending on your carrier’s rules, you might bypass the fee by purchasing a phone from another source -- but first check whether you can use the phone you want to buy on your network. If you buy a full-price phone from your provider with no contract, you’ll likely dodge the upgrade fee -- but you’ll pay a lot more than you would for a subsidized phone.

Early-termination fee. The price for exiting your contract early can be as high as $350, depending on how much time is left on the contract (the major carriers prorate the fee). If you can get a better deal elsewhere, do the math to decide whether canceling now will save you money. You can try to negotiate to eliminate or lower the early-termination fee; if you have a good reason for canceling, such as moving out of the country, you’re more likely to succeed. Or try selling the remainder of your contract at www.celltradeusa.com (you’ll pay a $20 listing fee).

Texting charges. Most of the big carriers charge $20 per month for unlimited text messaging. If you have an iPhone or Android phone, you can save $240 a year by downloading the Textfree app, which allows you to send and receive text and picture messages free over a data or Wi-Fi connection (you’ll use a separate phone number for sending and receiving messages through the app).

411 fees. No need to pay a couple of bucks plus airtime to dial directory assistance. A serv­ice such as 1-800-FREE-411 will do the job, and you’ll pay only for the minutes you use. Or, if your phone has a data or Wi-Fi connection, you could do a Web search instead.

Stealth cell-phone fees. Check your bill each month for unexpected fees from your carrier as well as unauthorized charges that third-party companies sneak into bills -- a practice known as cramming. Schwark Satyavolu, chief executive of online savings tool BillShrink, says that in the past, he has contacted his cell-phone carriers to remove unrequested services from his bills, including international calling, a ringtone subscription and an insurance plan. If you don’t typically buy services, such as ringtones and games, from other companies, you can fend off the fees by asking your carrier to block third-party charges.

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