How to break your mobile phone contract

We've got the recipe for breaking the Faustian bargain you've made with your mobile phone network, without giving up your pound of flesh.

Flora Graham
4 min read

Recent changes to T-Mobile's fair-use limits for mobile data had customers clamouring to get out of their contracts. Vodafone met a similar furore when it slashed its data allowances, as did Orange when it upped its call charges. Such changes can give you the right to break your mobile phone contract -- you just need some spare time and a geological level of patience.

If you feel like you're locked in a Faustian pact, we've whipped up this easy guide to getting out while the getting's good. Next time you read that your network has changed its spots, and you like the smell of freedom, you'll be primed and ready.

1. Get in quick

T-Mobile quickly backed down from bringing in the cuts for existing customers, after it recognised that they weren't buying its claims that fair use wasn't part of their contracts. Orange did the same after its customers did a runner in their droves.

So if you want out, act quickly -- preferably on the day you hear the news that your contracts' conditions have changed. Otherwise you could easily miss the boat.

2. Find your material detriment

We spoke to two law-men about the issue -- Stephen McGlade, a solicitor at Which? Legal Services, and David Gordon, a solicitor specialising in contract law. They told us we all have the right to get out of contracts if they're changed in a way that will cost us more. It's all thanks to the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, which governs contracts that the customer isn't able to freely negotiate. 

In the T-Mobile case, for example, although the network said it wasn't going to charge you if you go over its new 500MB-per-month cap, it would throttle some services on your phone. And people who spoke to the network said they were advised to buy a more expensive deal if they tend to go over the cap often.

That means if you use bags of data, the service you receive from T-Mobile would change, or you'd have to pay more. In the lawyering business, that's what they call 'material detriment' -- and that's the key to breaking your contract under the Consumer Contracts Regulations.

In this example, if you consistently use less than 500MB of data, you'd have a harder time wriggling out of your deal. But if you plan to use more data in the near future -- if you've changed jobs or houses and you're losing your Wi-Fi, for example -- then you could still give it a go.

T-Mobile argued that the data bundle wasn't part of the core price plan -- that it was an add-on or an additional extra. But that's a matter of interpretation. If you consider the data as part of the core service, you could argue that it's included -- especially if it was one of of the major reasons why you chose T-Mobile.

The network must also give you a month's notice of any big changes to your contract, so make a note of when they were announced and when they come into force. If it's less than 30 days, that's a weapon in your quiver too.

3. Were you mis-sold?

You could also argue that T-Mobile was guilty of mis-selling the deal, if its salesperson sold you the contract by telling you flat-out that the data allowance would be larger than 500MB. That's another reason you could walk away from your contract.

If you ordered your contract over the phone, the network should have a recording of the conversation, which would back up your claims that you were mis-sold a deal that doesn't suit you.

4. Bring snacks

In our experience, trying to wrangle out of a phone contract is harder than wrestling an angry boa constrictor covered in baby oil. The key is to metronomically repeat your arguments like a demented broken record. Gird your loins and get ready for a looooong phone call.

Here are the points to hammer home:

  • The amount of data, overseas call charges, or whatever is being changed, was one of the main reasons why you bought the contract -- it's part of the core service for you.
  • You use so much data, make so many overseas calls, or whatever relevant action, that you will have to pay for a more expensive deal (or suffer reduced service) -- that's the 'material detriment'.

Doing this over the phone can be an exercise in frustration, so you must strike quickly. Just be ready for a marathon session -- call-centre staff seem trained to keep you at bay with a soul-sapping ability to contradict. Don't take no for an answer.

The alternative is going straight to the litigators' best friend -- the post. Writing a letter is painful, but it hurts less than taking on a slippery call-centre operative. We like this letter whipped up by grumpy blogger Cantankerous as a starting point for your particular complaint. Writing a letter, however, does give the network a chance to change its mind about the changes, which solves the problem but won't set you free from your contract.

Don't forget to ask for your PAC code so you can keep your number. You may also want to cancel your direct debit and offer to pay the balance of your bill directly -- that will keep the network from snagging any unexpected fees directly from your account.

5. Use the big guns

You must go through your network's complaints procedure -- here's T-Mobile's -- but then, if you don't get what you want, you can complain to Ofcom. In our experience, although it takes time, Ofcom does a good job of squeezing the networks until they behave.

Ofcom has also stated it will investigate if lots of people complain about a network swapping its terms, so throwing in your whinge could help everybody's case.