Mobile carriers like Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T lock the devices they sell on contracts in the US. Locking a device is a tactic these carriers use to maintain a competitive advantage and customer loyalty. Thus, the carrier removes the phone's ability to work with any SIM card other than its own.
Phones from mobile carriers are cheaper than buying from the manufacturers, but they will be locked. If you do not want a locked phone, you’ll need to pay the mobile carrier the total retail price for the device or buy your device directly from the manufacturer or a third-party retailer.
If you have a locked phone and are wondering if it's legal to unlock it, the answer is yes. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) made it legal to unlock a device. All service providers must sign the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service. Thus, your carrier should allow you to unlock your device. However, you must meet some eligibility requirements before it is okay for you to unlock your device:
If you are an existing customer and eligible for unlocking your device, the carrier cannot charge a fee for the service.
The main disadvantage of buying a locked phone is that you cannot use another carrier if you travel abroad, restricting you to your carrier's international phone plan. Unlocking your device gives you the freedom to use your device with any carrier you want. Also, when you travel, you'll be able to connect locally or use any of the best international phone plans for you.
If you own a locked phone, you most likely signed a contract with the carrier so that you could get a discount. Unfortunately, signing the contract meant you had to pay an additional amount to your monthly phone bill. If you unlock your device and move to a new carrier, you can get any of their plans without a contract, lowering your monthly phone bill. Best of all, you can cancel a plan without penalties.
If you have a locked device and plan to sell it, you may want to unlock it beforehand. That is because most people do not want to have to deal with a locked phone. Buyers will place a premium on an unlocked phone.
Unlocking your phone does not come without downsides. Here are three common problems that phone owners who unlock their device face:
When you buy your phone from a mobile carrier, you get technical support when things go wrong. Technical support is no longer a contractual right after you unlock your phone. So, the original carrier cannot help you if your phone suddenly fails, has network problems, or other technical challenges. Furthermore, you will have trouble getting updates on your unlocked device, as branded devices typically get updates from the carrier. If you unlock your device, you will have to download updates manually.
Although the primary reason to unlock a device is to enable it to work with all carriers, not all unlocked devices can work with all carrier networks. For instance, an unlocked CDMA phone will not work on a GSM network, regardless of the carrier. Before you unlock your phone and make the switch to another network, ensure that your device is compatible with the mobile carriers you intend to use.
When you buy a phone from a carrier, it comes with a warranty. So when something goes wrong with the device, you can visit the brand's local retail location and have it repaired. However, if you unlock your device, you effectively void your warranty and lose access to this perk.
As long as your phone is locked to a carrier, you can get discounted insurance coverage against breaks, water damage, theft, and even loss. However, unlocking your phone terminates this contract, and you must get coverage from other insurance providers. Third-party insurance providers are expensive and do not offer the extensive protection carrier-partnered providers provide. Still, there are affordable cellphone insurance plans out there.
If you unlock your phone and have trouble using it, you must get help from certified technicians. While you are at it, you must take care not to fall for scammers who impersonate customer service or tech support and offer to fix your phone problems. It is possible to identify an unknown caller who claims to be a mobile carrier employee before they collect your personal information or compromise your device security.
That said, if you still want to unlock your phone, you need to check that your phone is locked in the first place. There are three ways to find out if your mobile device is locked:
If you're unsure about something, the simplest way to solve the problem is to ask. Contact your carrier's customer service department and ask about your phone status. You will need to give them your account information during the inquiry.
Another easy way to find out if your device can take other SIMs is to test it. For example, if your friend uses a different provider, borrow their SIM card and put it in your phone. Remember to shut your phone down before switching SIM cards. Then, after switching SIMs, turn your phone back on and give it a few minutes to boot and recognize the new carrier. Then look to see if the device has established a connection with the new network. You can also try to make a phone call. If the call connects, you have an unlocked phone. If it does not, you will need to unlock your device.
If you do not want to use the options above, you can check your device unlock status on third-party websites. Generally, these websites require your device's IMEI number. All mobile devices have an IMEI, i.e., International Mobile Equipment Identity, and there is a lot you can do with it, including tracking a lost phone.
You can easily confirm the IMEI by dialing *#06#. Once you have the number, you can feed that to the site and then find out if your device is locked or unlocked.
In the US, only locked phones are sold on contract. If you decide that you want to unlock your device after your contract expires, contact your carrier's customer service and request that they unlock your device. Generally, customer service may require that you provide your IMEI. Once you give the number to customer service, they will provide you with an unlock code. Once you use the unlock code, your device will work with other mobile carriers.
Although the above instructions work for most networks, some have specific procedures that you must follow to get your phone unlocked. Below are some examples:
To unlock your AT&T device, you can either call customer care or visit the unlock portal. However, before they agree to unlock your device, you must have maintained an active account for the past sixty days. Furthermore, before you can make an unlock request, you must have no outstanding unpaid bills. Also, if you recently upgraded your device, you must wait for at least fourteen days before making an unlock request.
Sprint does not have a dedicated unlocking portal, but its customer service department processes unlock requests. However, to qualify to get your Sprint phone unlocked, your account must have been active for ninety days and have no outstanding debt. Also, Sprint limits your unlock requests to two requests per year. And while you are at it, request that Sprint unlocks your device for international use if you want to use affordable international plans when you travel abroad.
T-Mobile allows customers to unlock their devices by calling customer care or through its unlock app. However, to qualify for an unlock request, your account must have been active for forty days and have no outstanding bills. In addition, if your account is under a service contract, T-Mobile requires that you have made payments for at least 18 months before requesting they unlock your device.
If, for some reason, your carrier will not unlock your phone, you have other alternatives. You can visit an independent phone store and get them to unlock your device for a small fee. This option is straightforward and time-saving, given how difficult it is to get a hold of mobile carriers' customer care.
If you don't want to go out to a store, you can unlock your phone by yourself using third-party services that provide unlock codes for a small fee.
You cannot unlock your phone if, for example, your contract is still active. Not being able to switch SIMs can be a problem if, for instance, you have to travel overseas. In such a situation, you may have to look for alternatives. Here are a few other options below:
If you need to stay connected while traveling, you can find out if your carrier has an international phone plan and buy it. Most of the major phone carriers have international plans and there are other service providers that provide affordable international phone plans for travelers. One advantage of purchasing an international phone plan from your mobile carrier is that you can travel without worrying about switching carriers or getting new SIM cards.
If you have a smartphone, you may have noticed that it can work perfectly as long as it has a WiFi connection. Many travelers go abroad and depend solely on WiFi for connectivity. Most hotels, cafes, and restaurants have WiFi so that you can stay connected a lot of the time. However, if you don't want to depend on public WiFi, you can buy a mini WiFi router to keep your device connected while you travel.
If you must have a phone when you go abroad, you should consider buying a cheap and unlocked one. Buying a cheap phone is prudent if your trips last longer than a month. With an unlocked phone, you can get a SIM card in any country you visit and make calls at a reasonable price.
Having a locked phone can be difficult, especially if you need to travel and make phone calls while you move. However, if you can unlock your phone, you can get a local SIM card and stay connected. If, however, you cannot unlock your phone, you can resort to other alternatives. For example, you can use WiFi, buy an international phone plan, or get a cheaper, unlocked phone to use with a local SIM card.