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Unlocking cell phones in the United States is no longer a criminal offense, after President Obama signed into law the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.

The bill — which enjoyed bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House Of Representatives — will give consumers more choice with respect to how they use their cell phones, and with what providers they use.

Unlocking phones was made illegal in early 2013, when an exemption that had been issued to a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) lapsed. Tools used to remove the carrier locks on devices without the permission of the phone networks were also considered to be illegal under similar legislation.

The exemption will only be valid through 2015, meaning that another exemption will have to be issued when it expires. Until then, consumers are free to move their phones on to other networks without risking jail time or a steep fine.

But are you curious about the laws surrounding phone unlocking in the United States? Read on.

How Does The DMCA Relate To Phone Unlocking?

The DMCA is a significant piece of legislation that was first introduced in 1998 and brought the US into harmony with two treaties from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).


It was designed to protect rights holders and content creators, and when it was signed into law by President Clinton, the Internet was very much in its infancy. Broadband didn’t really exist — at least for consumers — and in terms of usage was nowhere near to reaching the massive level of ubiquity it enjoys now.


The DMCA remains a phenomenally controversial piece of legislation, largely due to greatly stiffening the penalties for copyright infringement. But in many respects it was also remarkably forward thinking.

The ‘Safe Harbor’ provisions of the DMCA allowed site operators to avoid responsibility for the copyright infringement of their users, provided that they removed infringing material within a reasonable period Chilling Effects – A Lesson In DMCA Takedown Notices Chilling Effects – A Lesson In DMCA Takedown Notices The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a major slice of law put in place by the United States government in order to crack down on piracy. Chilling Effects is an information portal and compendium... Read More after being alerted to the existence of it.

This exemption allows sites that host user-submitted content — like Facebook, Vimeo, and Youtube — to operate without being sued into oblivion by rights holders.

So, what’s a piece of legislation designed to protect rights holders got to do with cell phones? Well, despite the DMCA being relatively forward thinking for the year 1998, there were also some major issues with how the act was written. These relate to the anti-circumvention provisions in the second portion of Title One of the act.

The issues with this section were two-fold. Firstly, the act prohibits circumventing digital locks that can control access to copyrighted works. Sadly, the way in which this section was written was far too broad-reaching, and meant that using tools to circumvent the carrier locks on cell phones was illegal.


Another significant issue was that the DMCA had no fair-use exemptions included, which meant that it was impossible to use a personal-use justification for unlocking phones.

And that was the case for a while, until 2006 came around.

Under LOC And Key

In 2006, the Library Of Congress (LOC) issued an exemption to the DMCA that made cellphone unlocking legal. This helpful exemption stuck around until 2012, when the LOC decided not to renew it, making cellphone unlocking illegal once again New US Law Prohibits The Unlocking Of Cell Phones Starting Saturday [Updates] New US Law Prohibits The Unlocking Of Cell Phones Starting Saturday [Updates] A controversial new US law goes into effect on Saturday 26 January which prohibits cell phone users from unlocking their devices so they can be used with another carrier. The new law, which is overseen... Read More . The exemption officially expired in January of 2013.


The LOC justified letting the exemption expire by saying that consumers had the option of buying plenty of mobile phones without any carrier locks. By this, they referred to phones like the Nexus 4 and the iPhone, which could be bought without having to enter into a contract.

Opponents of this decision argued that not all phones could be bought without a contract, and that this would allow wireless carriers to unfairly refuse to unlock devices.

As It Is Today

And now, the current legislation that was just signed into law changes all of this. It’s now legal to unlock your phone on your own without getting on the wrong side of Uncle Sam. At least until 2015, when we’ll have to go through this all over again. Fun, right?


It’s probably not fair to go too hard on the US carrier market. For the most part, if your contract has ended in the US, you should be able to unlock your phone.

  • T-Mobile is happy to unlock any devices, provided that the account associated with the device is in good standing, the phone is a T-Mobile device that hasn’t been reported as lost, stolen or blocked, and all payments have been completed and satisfied in full.
  • Verizon will unlock any phone, provided that it has been active for 60 days and the account associated with the device is in good standing. This policy applies to 3G phones, as 4G devices are not locked.
  • Sprint will unlock any device, provided that the contract associated with the device has lapsed, and the account is in good standing.
  • AT&T will unlock any phone AT&T Says It Will Unlock Customers' Devices If They Meet Certain Conditions [Updates] AT&T Says It Will Unlock Customers' Devices If They Meet Certain Conditions [Updates] AT&T will unlock any of their customers' devices if their account and device meet several conditions, which are detailed in full in an AT&T company blog post headed "Bottom line: We Unlock Our Customers' Devices".... Read More , provided that the contract has lapsed with the device, has had service for at least 60 days, and the account associated with the contract is not delinquent.

Thanks, Obama

Thinking of unlocking your phone? You can breathe a little easier now that the rules have been changed. At least until 2015.

Got any thoughts on this topic? Let me know. The comment box is below.

Photo Credit: President Bill Clinton (Alan Light), Freedom (Johan Jarsson)Unlocked Cell Phone Shack (Consumerist), ATT Store (Mike Mozart)mobile phone (Irita Kirsbluma)

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