Unlocking Your Cell Phone

Category: Mobile

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.

Unlocked Cell Phone

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...

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Most recent comments on "Unlocking Your Cell Phone"

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

Illegal to unlock MY phone in the USA? Land of the free my Aunt Fanny!
Next thing you know you USA citizens will be told you cannot take a holiday in Cuba....

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

Yes you can unlock your phone. After you pay off your last bill and before 3 months pass since you discontinue service, You call your former carrier with the IMEI number of your phone. The IMEI number is located inside the phone where the battery is. Remove the battery and give them the IMEI number. They will send you a email with a long number about 10 - 15 digits long. When you put in a new SIM chip (of a different carrier) in the old phone it will ask you for the password. Use that long number that is emailed to you by your former carrier as the password. The phone is now open and can be used with any carrier. I have a few old phones which I unlock and keep as backup, just in case.

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

Cheaper unlocked from the start
In fact most contracts ask for $50 per month, so a free locked iPhone plus 3 years contracts that is $1,800 in all. Yet an unlocked iPhone costing $600 plus a $25 monthly cell / data usage will cost $1,500 in all.

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
01 Jul 2013

I know that Tracfone phones have the hardware modified, making it impossible to unlock, or at least they did a few years ago (the last time I bought a Tracfone cell phone). As one example, the wiring on the mini-USB port is changed so that it will not charge when connected to a computer USB port. Of course, the car and home chargers for the Tracfone cell phones are wired specially to be able to charge them. Consequently, the mini-USB port is unusable as a connection to any computer. For example, this is done because if you could transfer anything (i.e. pictures) directly between the cell phone and the computer via the USB port, you would use less minutes (compared to sending wirelessly via the phone) and they would make less money from their prepaid phones.

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

As most people probably know by now, AT&T will unlock iPhones that are out of contract, BUT there is an important caveat. You must be able to produce the original purchase receipt for the phone. I bought a used iPhone from a friend when he upgraded. The phone has been out of contract for over 3 years. But when I asked AT&T to unlock it, they asked for the purchase receipt and when I couldn't produce it, they denied me. So I guess I'll just have to buy an unlock code on ebay.

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

i also used to think that verizon wouldn't want to include gsm service to their lineup, but just last week i personally confirmed that changed when an acquaintance showed me a verizon-branded phone with a sim card slot under 'vodafone'.
let me know more about it if you decide to research into this for an article about it.
God bless!

Posted by:

01 Jul 2013

@ stuart berg; I've been with Tracfone for a least 3 years. Bought an LG 600 flip phone twice. They DO download from my computers using a bluetooth connection. I've loaded a couple games, wallpaper, and ring tones using that phone model. Search the forums. Bought the 2nd phone after I misplaced the 1st. During that time I purchased a Samsung which was supposedly popular. The Samsung was blocked like you said. I immediately returned it. Whether any others work? I have no idea. I'll check the forums before purchasing a smart phone.

Posted by:

02 Jul 2013

"The Librarian of Congress believes cellphone companies are doing a good enough job of fostering competition in their market, so the era of third-party unlocking is coming to a close."

Now this is a staggering statement from what was euphemistically known as the "home of the free" now well past its use-by date. However, when comoared to other erosions into the freedoms of the US peopole of late, this is relatively harmless. Frightening, none-the-less

This is just another example

Posted by:

02 Jul 2013

"Phones that are CDMA-based cannot be unlocked." Actually it isn't true. Technically, there are Virtual Mobile Operators, like Tracfone, Virgin, etc, that use others carriers network, like Verizon, ATT. In this case you can unlock you cell to switch to another carrier. But there are caveats as well - some carriers use IMEI-database that contains only their own cells, so any other IMEI can not connect to their network. This technology makes any unlocking useless. This is why I stick to GSM-cells only.

In addition to ATT-cells unlock. I read that there is a legal way to unlock them after you prove that your account it OK for at least 90 days and you have to go outside of ATT network, like go overseas for vacation or to military service. As I remember, you don't need to show them any receipts. But I didn't have such experience and can not guarantee that I caught every small detail of this procedure. Also I remember that I've read that newest models of Verizon's cells, including iPhone 5, have GSM-compatibility as well and you can ask them to unlock your cell for overseas voyage, using Verizon's GSM service for $5 monthly extra fee.

Note: There are two procedures that give you different sorts of freedom. One is unlocking, that gives you carrier-free cell. Another one is rooting (for UNIX-based cells like Android and IOS) that gives you freedom of any bloatware that any carrier adds to your cell and freedom for information and media exchange (like ringtones, themes, synchronization, SMS backup, etc). Carriers hate both of them since they cut them off of some money that can steal from you for services that could be found for free. By the way, Apple considers that procedure illegal as well - you can not modify iPhone that you paid for in full. We love Apple, right? I used iPhone a couple of years ago for around a year and don't want it anymore including that reason.

Posted by:

02 Jul 2013

I believe the new law preventing you from unlocking your phone only pertains to Android and not to Iphones. But I would take this unlocking topic one step further; rooting your Android or jail breaking your Iphone. I have a pay as you go plan, not tied to any specific locked phone. I rooted my phone which allowed me to remove all the bloatware. My phone now works much faster and smoother. There are many other benefits to rooting.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You're mixing two things: unlocking (which involves the SIM card for GSM-based phones) and rooting/jailbreaking (which means modifying the software on a smartphone to give you admin privileges). The former (unlocking) was made illegal for ALL phones (even non-smartphones) in the USA by the recent ruling. Rooting (for Android phones) and jailbreaking (for iPhones) is legal, but the phone companies and Apple may have policies that restrict it.

Posted by:

Art Frailey
11 Dec 2013

You said "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"

Technically this is not true. Congress makes the laws, and the administrators enforce them. Some times they go beyond their legal boundaries, for the sake of their 'friends' benefit. In this case, telephone companies. Another example of this would be an executive order for all government business to be conducted in each individual's language, whether in English or other.This can be done without congress approval. But it is not necessarily enforceable for an making an individual to follow. IE, therefore it is not against the law to unlock a phone, since no legislature has been passed by lawmakers.


Posted by:

19 Dec 2013

what about this app?? i used it many times to remove simlock - iphone, lumia, xperia, lg and one alcatel :)) http://hack-methods.com/ultimate-simlock-code-generator/

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