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How to keep your unlimited Verizon data plan

Keeping your unlimited Verizon data plan these days is tricky, but not impossible.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Last year, I picked up a new iPhone 6 for my main Verizon line while keeping my grandfathered unlimited data plan with mobile hotspot access. I'm not too proud to admit that was a major coup on my part. Like most carriers, Verizon is now doing all it can to switch longtime customers to more lucrative tiered data plans.

If you'd like a new Verizon phone but you're not ready to give up unlimited data, I don't blame you (I used well over 30GB in my first month with my new iPhone 6 , just to prove to myself that the hassle was worth it), be prepared to fight. Here are your options.

Pay full retail

Paying full price for a new phone is an expensive -- but easy -- way to keep your unlimited data plan forever. In fact, Verizon is doing its best to make sure this is the only way you can keep your unlimited data plan. You should be able to handle it all online and avoid visiting a store -- just keep an eye on your plan details as you traverse Verizon's site. If successful, you shouldn't even get a pop-up advising you that you need a new plan. Just remember that this will cost you. For reference, a new 16GB iPhone 6 will run you $649, while a new 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6 will set you back $599.

Steal an upgrade

If you don't want to pay full price for a new phone, you can still buy a subsidized phone and keep your unlimited data -- it's just a lot trickier than it used to be.

Here's what you need to do:

Step 1: Have a second line with limited data that is eligible for an upgrade

To make this work, you either need a second line that is already eligible for an upgrade (e.g. your work line or your spouse's line), or you need to open a new line on your account.

Step 2: Buy a new phone with the upgrade

Verizon lets you swap upgrades between phones. Do not do this. Instead, purchase your new phone on the second line.

Step 3: Go into a Verizon store and have them switch the phones between the two lines

Once you have your new phone, and it's been activated on your second line, go into a Verizon store and ask a store rep to swap the two phones between the lines. Make sure the rep knows that you have an unlimited data plan on one line and you do not want to lose it. They should be able to swap the LTE SIM cards without issue, unless one card is smaller than the other (that can happen if you're swapping an Android phone and an iPhone). If that's the case, they should still be able to switch the phones, but it will be more difficult. Whatever happens, though, keep checking with them to make sure they're aware of your unlimited data throughout the entire process.

Step 4: Enjoy your unlimited data

You may need to go to a few different reps, but ultimately you should be able to purchase a phone this way and keep your unlimited data. There are a few caveats to this method, however:

  • Buying a new subsidized phone does extend the contract of your second line (or your new line), so you will either need to pay for two years' worth of phone access for that line, or cancel the line and pay the early termination fee of $350. Previously, you could use a feature phone's upgrade to do this (while retaining the feature phone access fee of just $10 per month), but now if you use a feature phone's upgrade, that line will be permanently converted into a smartphone line.
  • You must use a different line's upgrade. If your unlimited data line is eligible for an upgrade, you cannot use this upgrade, not even if you swap it to another line. If you swap it to another line, upgrade on that line, and then activate that phone, you'll lose your unlimited data. If you've already switched the upgrade and ordered a new phone, you may be able to salvage your unlimited data if you call Verizon before you turn on the new phone. Ask them to perform an "Unlimited Data Retrieval," and provide you with a request ID number. Only Verizon phone reps can do this - Verizon in-store reps can no longer do this as of October 2014.
  • You won't save a ton of money. If you open a new line, buy a new phone, and cancel the line, you'll save about $100 on a new iPhone 6 and $50 on a new Samsung Galaxy S6.