Unlocking Your Cell Phone
A reader asks: 'I want to switch to another mobile provider, but I love my current phone and don't want to buy a new one. Can I unlock my phone so it will work on any cellular network?' It's a tricky question, and the best short answer is MAYBE. Here's the long answer on how to save money with an unlocked mobile phone...
Why Unlock a Cell Phone?
Why doesn't a cell phone work with any carrier, and not just the one from which you got the phone? Well, the company probably gave you the phone, or sold it to you for much less than the retail price. As an example, many smartphones like the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy have a retail price tag of $600 or higher. But purchasing the phone with a typical 2-year service contract can bring the price down to under $100, and in some cases almost free. (See related: The Worst Place to Buy a Mobile Phone.)
You get a great deal on a wonderful piece of technology and the mobile provider feels you owe them loyalty in return. So it gives you a phone that is programmed to work only with the SIM card that ties you to the carrier. The phone is "locked" to that one carrier. Or maybe you didn't get a great bargain, but the carrier locked your phone anyway, to make it worthless if you decide to switch carriers.
Either way, consumers would like the freedom to switch carriers without getting new phones, obviously. You may be going overseas, or moving to an area where your current carrier's service is not as reliable or high-quality as another's, temporarily or permanently. While in that area, you'd like to use another carrier.
That should be as simple as switching the phone's SIM card - a small electronic gadget about the size of a postage stamp, which your phone uses to connect to mobile carrier network. But not if the phone is locked. That's why some consumers want unlocked cell phones. And there are several ways to get an unlocked phone.
How to Unlock Your Cell Phone
First, ask your carrier to unlock your locked phone. Some will do so, especially after your initial contract period expires, or if you explain that you'll be living outside the USA for an extended period. Often, a carrier will want to charge you a fee to unlock your phone. Sometimes you can get that fee waived if you convince the carrier its in its best interest to do so. "Unlock this thing or I won't renew my contract with you," in other words. Apple has a page for people who want information about unlocking an iPhone.
Second, you can buy an unlocked phone from a non-carrier vendor. The drawback is that you will probably pay full retail price for it. But you'll be able to use that phone with just about any carrier's SIM card. (Buying a used GSM phone via eBay or Craigslist can save you money.) This is pretty much the norm in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. You buy an unlocked phone, and purchase a prepaid SIM card that works in a specific locale. If you move or travel, you just pop in another SIM card, to avoid paying roaming charges. (This is more difficult in the USA, for reasons I'll explain below.)
The third method is a bit risky. You can unlock some phones yourself without your carrier's knowledge or cooperation. The risk is that your phone may not work at all once it's unlocked, or may work imperfectly with other carriers. Some providers may void your warranty if you do so, so you should look into that first.
You can unlock your phone using software hacks downloaded online or pay a third-party service that, presumably, knows what it's doing to unlock your phone for you. Both free and paid unlocking applications are available for specific phones and carriers. A bit of googling will show you a variety of websites that offer unlocking information. But you get what you pay for; some of these hacks can turn your phone into a useless brick, and some may contain hidden software that turns your phone into a spammer's slave.
If you have satisfactory service in your area and don't travel widely, you may not need an unlocked cell phone. But if you want to change carriers and don't want to pay for another phone, or if you have to have multiple carriers to maintain quality coverage during your travels, then an unlocked phone is the way to go.
HOWEVER... in the USA, there's a bigger problem with unlocking. As of January 2013, it's no longer legal to unlock your phone. Strange as it sounds, the Librarian of Congress has the power to make this determination for US-based mobile phone users. But there is some hopeful news on that front. A bill currently in the US Congress would remove that restriction on phone unlocking, so customers can freely move from one provider to another.
Not All Phones Can Be Unlocked
Before you try to unlock your phone, there's an important caveat you should be aware of. Not all cell phones can be unlocked. In fact, only phones that are GSM-based can be unlocked, because they're the only ones that have swappable SIM cards. Phones that are CDMA-based cannot be unlocked. It doesn't matter much what the acronyms stand for, as long as you know which type of phone you have.
If you live in the USA, you'll probably have to go with AT&T or T-Mobile to find a GSM-based phone. Most other US-based mobile providers, such as Verizon, and Sprint DO NOT offer GSM phones, and the CDMA phones from these carriers cannot be unlocked. Outside the USA, your chances of being able to unlock your phone are better, since GSM is standard in most parts of the world.
Got something to say about unlocked mobile phones? Post your comment or question below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 1 Jul 2013
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Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved