Photo: Fox

Photo: Fox

AT&T has announced incentives worth up to $450 for T-Mobile customers who switch to their service. The move is being made in response to T-Mobile’s Uncarrier offers, after AT&T recently said that it too expected to move toward separating device and service charges.

Proving the old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the deal of course comes with strings. First, $250 of that is the maximum you’ll receive in return for trading in your existing T-Mobile handset. To get the full $250, you’ll need a recent handset in good condition – in which case you’d almost certainly get more selling it privately … 

Second, the balance of the $200 you receive just for switching is dependent on you buying a new AT&T handset outright at full retail, or activating your own unlocked phone. You’ll only receive that credit when you’ve been paying your AT&T bills for 90 days.

Finally, AT&T is not waiving its standard $36 activation fee, so you’ll have to pay that before you start seeing any money back. Oh, and it’s time-limited offer, but AT&T hasn’t yet said when it expires.

As a British sitcom character once put it, the small print taketh away what the headline giveth.

T-Mobile is believed to be planning to announce its own switching incentive at CES next week. While that too will no doubt come with catches of its own, renewed competition between the carriers can only be good news for consumers in the long run – though after AT&T’s failed bid to buy T-Mobile, it’s looking like Sprint may be next in line.

Update: T-Mobile CEO John Legere shared the following response to AT&T’s announcement on T-Mobile’s Media Relations site

Executive Statement

This is a desperate move by AT&T on the heels of what must have been a terrible Q4 and holiday for them. I’m flattered that we have made them so uncomfortable! We used AT&T’s cash to build a far superior network and added Un-carrier moves to take tons of their customers – and now they want to bribe them back! Consumers won’t be fooled…nothing has changed; customers will still feel the same old pain that AT&T is famous for. Just wait until CES to hear what pain points we are eliminating next. The competition is going to be toast!

-John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA