In America, as in several other countries, mobile carriers sell phones with special offers or price cuts. But such phones are also often locked to their network. You can’t swap out the SIM card and use a different carrier’s network.
It’s unnecessarily restrictive, isn’t it? You should be able to use any SIM you want on this phone you purchased legally. And you can. Here’s how.
Is It Legal?
The U.S. has flip-flopped about the legality of unlocking phones for some time. But the final verdict by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is resoundingly in favor of the consumer. Yes, it is legal to unlock phones.
More importantly, the FCC has mandated that all carriers should unlock phones for their consumers for free, if a consumer so desires.
That said, you need to know whether your phone is eligible to be unlocked. The FCC isn’t giving you a free pass to con the carriers. It explicitly states that you can unlock only “after you have fulfilled the applicable service contract, completed the device installment plan or paid an early termination fee.”
Is Your Phone Locked?
So, how can you tell if your phone is locked or not? Well, unless you specifically bought an unlocked phone, chances are that it is locked. It’s why we always recommend that you buy unlocked phones and save hundreds of dollars.
Why Should You Unlock?
The biggest benefit of unlocked phones is that you are no longer at the mercy of a single provider. You are free to change networks as you see fit, so that you can use the SIM that best works for you in any region of the USA.
Unlocked phones also help tremendously when you’re travelling abroad. Land in any country, buy a local SIM card, and use it. It’s going to be much cheaper than racking up international call and data charges.
Finally, unlocked phones are excellent backup devices. Whether your main phone isn’t working, or someone needs to borrow a device for a few days, an unlocked device gets the job done.
What Unlocking Does and Doesn’t Do
It’s pretty simple. SIM unlocking a phone is only about letting you use any SIM card from any carrier, as long as it is compatible.
It cannot break the GSM-CDMA limitations of the phone. So, unlocked phones from GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile will let you fit SIM cards from GSM networks. But you can’t fit SIMs from CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon. And vice versa.
Ways to Unlock Phones for Free or Cheap
So, let’s say you have a locked mobile phone, and want to get it unlocked. You want the safest and least expensive way possible, of course. Here’s what you can do.
1. Go to the Carrier
The first and best route is to go to the carrier. If you are eligible to unlock your phone, then it’s completely free!
The FCC says: “Participating providers may not charge existing or former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked. Providers may charge a fee to unlock eligible devices for non-customers and former customers.”
Here’s how to check if your phone is eligible to be unlocked:
If your phone is eligible, then either request to unlock it online or go to a store. Here are the direct links to contact each carrier:
- Verizon: Contact Verizon at *611 from your Verizon Wireless Prepaid phone, or (888)294-6804.
- Sprint: Contact Sprint Customer Care by dialing *2 from your Sprint phone, or call 888-211-4727
2. Get an Unlock Code Online
Ideally, you should unlock your phone through the carrier. But if you aren’t eligible by their terms and still want to unlock it, you’ll need to get it done via a third party. But it probably won’t be free.
Note: This method is a little iffy to use with iPhones now. We have a full guide to unlocking your iPhone, and we suggest you follow that.
The internet is full of websites that sell unlock codes. Depending on the country you are in, the manufacturer of the phone, and the carrier you use, you should expect to pay up to $30. Don’t spend any more than that if the seller asks, because you will find it cheaper elsewhere. You can get some codes for as low as $10.
We checked online reviews and testimonials to find sites that usually work, and offer refunds in case the code didn’t work. Here are some of the best:
While all of these are paid websites, you can get free unlock codes on Free Unlocks. This site is a part of the TrialPay network, by which you can get the first code from the site for free. You will need to sign up for TrialPay as a part of it, of course.
Online reports show customers of Free Unlocks repeatedly got the free codes, and successfully unlocked their phones.
3. Use a Free Software for Samsung Androids
If you’re using a Samsung Android phone, one desktop software claims to also unlock devices for free. Wondershare’s Dr. Fone Toolkit is a paid program for Windows, but the trial version is free.
With the trial version, you can try out the SIM unlocking service for free. You will find it under the More Tools section, and you will need a USB cable to connect your phone to the computer.
Dr. Fone Toolkit is a little old and might not support all Samsung phones, but it claims to work with over 400 models across 60 countries. Here’s a full list of supported devices.
And in case you’re worried, Dr. Fone has an active customer care service, offers a money-back guarantee, and says the software won’t affect your data.
Download: Wondershare Dr. Fone for Windows
Do You Buy Locked or Unlocked?
When you’re buying a new phone, we suggest you always get an unlocked device. Even for iPhones, that’s why it’s best to buy from Apple directly. And if you’re looking to save money, check out the best cheap unlocked phones.
Do you buy locked phones through carriers, or do you prefer to buy unlocked phones that give you full freedom?
Originally written by Dean Sherwin on Aug 9, 2009
somrak jendee via Shutterstock