My T-Mobile phone doesn’t work — now what?

Cellular tower, waiting to be disconnected. / Photo by Gary Lerude - Flickr
Cellular tower, waiting to be disconnected. / Photo by Gary Lerude – Flickr
Question: My daughter and I have been experiencing problems with our T-Mobile service, and we need your help. I’ve made multiple calls to T-Mobile and received the exact same responses: “You’re not the first person to call about this problem, and a ticket has already been opened,” and, “Remove the battery and SIM card and put them back in.”

I saw one of your recent columns, and I took your advice and sent a very long email requesting that my accounts be canceled, without penalty. After a month, I received a generic letter stating T-Mobile “can’t guarantee service in all areas.”

It infuriated me. I’m not asking for service to be guaranteed in all areas. I should be able to expect adequate service in areas where there is service. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

After receiving the rejection letter, I had additional problems and contacted T-Mobile again. This time, I was asked to allow them time to check their lines in the area and give it a week or two to see if the problems improved. I continued not receiving more calls, voicemails, and texts for a few weeks, and having people not be able to hear when I talk on my phone. Even the T-Mobile staff had a very difficult time hearing me, and I needed to yell into the phone for them to hear me.

I was asked if I would like to swap out my phone. If my daughter and I had the same phone, I would believe it was the phone. We do not. If we were able to swap phones to a different model, and have the possible option of cancelling my contracts if new phones did not solve the problems, I would have considered it.

It frustrates me that the contract spells out the penalties if the consumer does not fulfill his or her part of the bargain, but it says nothing about the consumer’s recourse when T-Mobile does not fulfill its responsibilities. Can you help? — Robin Myers, Hartford, Conn.

Answer: T-Mobile should have given you and your daughter working phones. But you’re right, the contract doesn’t explicitly guarantee any level of service. But T-Mobile certainly implies you’ll have a reliable connection in its promotional material.

“Our superfast 4G coverage reaches more than 220 million Americans coast to coast. We’ve got you covered where you live, work, and play — so it’s easy to stay connected when and where it counts,” it raves on its website.

The paperwork you signed is known as an adhesion contract, which is legal-speak for a one-sided agreement. It spells out all kinds of obligations on your part and penalties for not meeting them, but can let the company off the hook for not meeting its most basic obligations.

T-Mobile is hardly the only telecommunications company with a “take-it-or-leave-it” contract like that. But it’s generally understood that when something goes wrong — like, say, your phone doesn’t work — the company will do everything in its power to get you the basic service it implied you would get.

You were correct to put your complaint in writing after repeated calls to T-Mobile failed. Going through channels allowed you to create a paper trail, which is important if you need to escalate this to someone higher up. I might have suggested that you appeal this to a T-Mobile executive, but I thought you had already been through enough.

I got in touch with T-Mobile on your behalf. A representative contacted you and you both agreed to move you to a no-contract, month-to-month service plan. That way, if you decide to cancel your T-Mobile account, you won’t be assessed an early termination fees for the lines on your account.

Are cellular contracts too one-sided?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Is the moving to the month-to-month simply a saving face measure allowing the OP to cancel? If there’s no service, there’s no service, no matter how you spin it…

  • Cybrsk8r

    This is why I will never, repeat, never, get anything besides a pre-paid phone. It’s the only way to protect yourself from paying for a service which may, or may not actually work for you. Signing a cell phone contract is like buying a vehicle with a blindfold on.

    Cell phone companies should be required to have a 14-day “opt-out” period after you sign up. That way, if you sign-up and find out that the “robust coverage” the sales guy promised for your home and work isn’t so robust, you can bail out. Some sales people will say, or do, anything to make that sale, knowing that when you complain about the poor service, it won’t be to them.

  • EdB

    All the major carriers do have the 14 day “opt-out” period. If you don’t like the service, bring the phone back and cancel with no penalties. In California, state law gives you 30 days.

  • Wayne Dayton

    T-Mobile at Phoenix Metro Center sold my friend a phone, telling her that it included insurance in case of loss or theft. When it was stolen in Detroit (big surprise there), they said it didn’t have insurance because it was pay-as-go…even though clerk had sold it as having had insurance…it wouldn’t have been bought otherwise. T-Mobile personnel, including the office of the CEO, was very rude. Needless to say, the replacement phone was from Verizon. Screw T-Mobile all the way.

  • EdB

    You will find stories like that with every carrier. Salespeople are so desperate to make sales they will tell customers what ever they want to hear to make the sale knowing the customer doesn’t have the promise in writing so will never be able to prove what was said. Sad really. :(

  • SoBeSparky

    I can’t really answer the question. True, the company has certain obvious obligations which should be set forth. However, few consumers realize the cell company is paying up front a subsidy of up to $600 to the cell phone manufacturers. Given that the cell carrier fronted that money, it should get back a pretty solid contract obligating the user to pay under most circumstances.

    Consumers, like companies, can be wily if not disingenuous. Both sides should be held to perform with the same strictness. In other words, “sad stories” are not excuses by either side for failure to perform.

    Most cell carriers allow you to cancel within two weeks or 30 days. So you should check out the signal at your most needed locations in that time period. Otherwise, you are stuck for the length of the contract.

    Commonly, you should reject any verbal assurances. If within the trial period they say it will be fixed, fine. If they say you must wait beyond the trial period for the signal to improve, invoke the no-penalty cancellation clause immediately.

    Seems pretty fair to me, if the consumer cares to understand their options.

  • sirwired

    While there are a few exceptions (certain usage patterns, those with good credit and no cash, and those that MUST have the latest phone), most people can save a LOT of money by moving to a decent pre-paid plan. You can usually find a pre-paid provider that will work with your existing phone (or other suitable phone) without a problem.

    My wife and I moved from Verizon to PagePlus, and our bill went from about $60/mo to about $240/yr. PagePlus uses the Verizon network, and can use any Verizon phone (except pre-paid and 4G models). Every major provider has pre-paid providers that piggy-back on their network, and usually for a LOT less money.

  • Bob

    I tried T-Mobile when it first came out. Just walking around the mall where I signed up and then checking their national coverage was enough for me to cancel the next day with no penalty. I believe their first network was one abandoned by Sprint.

  • EdB

    T-Mobile uses a GSM system where Sprint uses CMDA. I don’t think that original T-Mobile network was from Sprint. And I would doubt any carrier would abandon towers.

  • Charlie Funk

    It would appear Chris has at least six subscribers employed by the mobile communications industry.

  • emanon256

    I don’t understand why people keep the phone after 14 days if it doesn’t work.

  • EdB

    I don’t either. If it’s not working in the first two weeks, it probably isn’t going to be working in the weeks after that so might as well get out while you can.

  • emanon256

    I am curious, did they have service when they bought the phone, and the service went away later? With the 14 day (formerly 30 day) return policy it’s pretty easy to tell if you have service or not when you get the phone. I, and both of my parents, have canceled cell phone contracts within the trial period many times due to lack of service. Also, myself on AT&T and my dad on Verizon at times moved into or worked in “dead zones” and the service provider gave us little boosters that plugged into our internet free of charge due to the service failure.

    If someone buys a phone and doesn’t get service, they really need to cancel their contract within the cancellation period. That’s what its there for. If someone has coverage where they live, and the phone company actually removed coverage from that area, I do believe its grounds to cancel the contract without the early termination fee as the company stopped providing the service. However, we have to remember that these companies pay $400-$600 towards our phones, which is why they have the contact. They expect to recover that cost over time, so I think it would be fair that if they reduce coverage, that they let us out of the contract and we return the phone to them so that can re-furbish and re-sell at a discount. I do however, think its unreasonable to expect a cell phone to get service 100% of the time in every possible location.

    As far as the contracts, my co-workers in Europe tell me they pay the full price of the phone upfront and have no contracts. So they spend $650 on an iPhone, or $400 on a lesser phone, but then they pay a lower monthly rate. One guy in Ireland says he pays $30 a month for unlimited calling, data, and texting. I would much rather we had that model here. Since the US phone providers charge the same rate whether I have a contract or not, I feel like I am leaving money on the table if I don’t get a new phone every 2 years. I would rather buy a phone, keep it, and just pay for the service. Even with the subsidy, I am paying far more than the total cost of my phone over the 2 year contract period.

  • EvilEmpryss

    I had a similar problem with a local telephone company that was providing me with my broadband internet. I suddenly started having a terrible time staying connected, and the speeds where noticeably much slower than previous months (I’m talking dial-up slow). When I contacted the company to see what was going on, I got a couple of different responses but it mostly boiled down to “higher use rates from new customers in your area”. Okay, fine, but I had been their customer for seven years now and was contracted for their 30mbps plan. I wasn’t getting anywhere near that speed. What were they going to do about that?

    I was primly informed that my contract was for UP TO 30mbps. They claimed that so long as I had connectivity, at ANY speed, they were fulfilling their part of the contract and were not obligated to do anything to improve it. O.O

    The response had me canceling my account with them that day.

    Contract wording is set up to benefit and protect the company, and it seems like it almost never really protects the consumer. Buyer beware.

  • Charles B

    I’ve been an AT&T customer for many years having moved off Sprint before that. Both carriers have always had problems with a low-signal area at my house. AT&T’s solution was a pleasant surprise to me. Around the time Verizon picked up the iphone, AT&T was pushing to keep customers from switching. They offered me a free microcell if I agreed to stay with their service. The device is basically an internet appliance that provides 5-bar cell signal in my house by using my internet connection. I didn’t pay for the unit beyond having to use the internet connection I’m already paying for. Their promo worked. I’m still happily an AT&T customer and have no problems with service at home. Perhaps T-mobile could take a lesson from that, if they cared.

  • EdB

    Sprint also offers such a device for free with no monthly charge.

  • DavidYoung2

    T-Mobile has a newer plan where they DON’T subsidize the phones. We paid $550.00 for two Samsung S3 phones with a two year contract, but if we were not satisfied we could cancel the phone contract so long as we paid off the phones if we cancel (they ‘finance’ the phones at $20.00/mo with zero interest, but you pay retail for them). They immediately unlocked the phones so it’s no problem taking them somewhere else, even a no-contract ‘pay as you go’ from Target.

  • Miami510

    For your “pound of flesh,” and to get the phone company’s attention, you might consider sending a letter of complaint with evidence of the company’s inability or unwillingness to rectify the problem, to your state Utilities Commission and a copy to the FCC and your State Senator.
    These commissions may not usually interceed in your behalf, BUT, the company is loath to have a letter of complaint in their files. People opposed to to the periodic rate increases sought by telephone companies always demand to see any complaints on file. Companies love to have a perfectly clean record or want to show the commission that they successfully addressed the problem.

  • TonyA_says

    Hi David, I was wondering if you know the answer to this question.
    My sister bought two Samsung S3 Android phones. Just like yous, hers was unlocked. And then she realized that there were some menu functions that each carrier has selected to activate/deactivate in Android (itself). So it did not matter which SIM card or operator she used. It seems that the carriers ordered different versions of the Operating System or something to the effect. Can you verify for me that your S3 has all the Android feature activated. Thanks.

  • jpp42

    That usually only applies in the case of price-regulated services where the government is involved – landline telephones normally are in such a category because they have a natural monopoly. The regulators don’t care nearly so much about mobile services because they are not price-regulated and there is competition in most areas. Yes, there are regulators involved for mobile services but that’s more around frequency use and other backoffice items, not the price or quality of consumer services.

  • Jessica Smith

    Many, if not most of the phones that T-Mobile has these days have the option to use Wi-Fi callinig, you just have to turn it on when you are someplace that has Wi-Fi available. The only downside to it is, if you are on a call and lose the Wi-Fi signal, the call will drop (so end yoru call and leae the house and then call the person back after turning off that feature). The user would just have to have a phone that has this feature on it, not all phones do if they are older or one of the few newer models that doesn’t have it.

  • B.Green

    This sort of thing happened to me, except I think it was my phone as it was taken in for mobile repairs where I brought the phone from but it was very frustrating. Hope yours in sorted now!