You want to change networks, but your new SIM card won’t work in your phone. Baffled, you call the new network, only to learn that your smartphone is locked to the first network, and there’s not much you can do about it.
Of course, this isn’t strictly true. If you’re using an Android device (we’ve already covered SIM card unlocking for iPhones), there’s always something you can do.
A SIM Unlock Is Not Rooting
Before we proceed with our look at unlocking Android phones, let’s briefly look at what unlocking the network/SIM is, and what it is not.
It’s simply the process by which you enter a specially-generated code into your phone’s keypad in order to break the restriction placed on the device by the network that shipped it. This enables you to insert a compatible SIM card from a different network and connect to their service.
Unlocking the SIM does not root your phone; that would be unlocking the bootloader, which is a different thing entirely. Both types of unlock are legal, although a SIM unlock often requires help from the network/carrier.
Is Your Phone SIM Locked?
Not all phones are SIM/network locked. To find out if yours is, you can begin by checking the documentation for the device. If the word “unlocked” appears on the initial receipt/invoice, you can be largely certain that it is not locked to a particular carrier.
You can, of course, contact your carrier to ask if the phone is locked to their network, or you can just try another SIM card with the phone. If you pop in a SIM from a different carrier and it doesn’t work, you know it’s locked.
Phones bought directly from a manufacturer or third-party retailer like Motorola, OnePlus, or Amazon for an unsubsidized price (usually $500-$700) are more likely to be unlocked than phones purchased from carriers like Verizon, T-Mobile, or AT&T for subsidized prices (usually free to $200).
But if you’ve discovered that your Android phone is locked to a particular carrier/network, how can you unlock it?
SIM Unlock App Scams
The first thing you should not do is head to Google Play and look for SIM unlock tools. These services have very poor reputations and are more than likely scams. At best, they don’t unlock your phone for you.
What you should also avoid are downloadable “phone unlock tools” that are prominent on download sites and the Bittorrent network. These are more often than not laced with Trojans and other malware, and are very rarely suitable for the phone you’re trying to unlock (contrary to the download’s description).
Safe, legal means exist for unlocking your smartphone’s SIM/network relationship.
Ask Your Carrier to Unlock Your Device
Amazing as it may seem, you can get in touch with your carrier about SIM unlocking your phone or tablet — and this really is your best option.
Since February 2015, it has been possible for American cell phone owners to ask their networks to unlock their devices to switch carriers, bringing the USA in line with the European Union (and reversing an unpopular law passed in 2013). Carriers must also inform customers via a notice on the monthly bill whether the device is eligible for unlocking.
Begin by finding out if your phone can be unlocked. There is an eligibility clause on smartphones bought on contract, and if the initial two-year deal isn’t yet up, then you’ll need to pay an early termination fee to break the contract, get the unlock code, and be free to use another SIM.
For those of you who bought your phones outright, usually you’ll need to wait a full 12 months from the time of purchase, and ensure that your bill is paid up to date before the network will give you the unlock code.
How to SIM Unlock Your Android Phone
To break the network/SIM lock, you’ll need to confirm the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity, a unique code used to identity your phone on any network) number of your phone or tablet.
In Android, the IMEI number can be quickly found by dialing *#06# or by opening Settings > About phone > Status > IMEI Information. With this 15-digit string handed over, the network should be able to provide you with a PIN code to enable your device to use the new network’s SIM card.
(Note that the full process can differ across networks, and your new network may require you to input a specific code to work with that carrier.)
This is particularly useful if you’re travelling overseas, for instance, and don’t have a dual SIM device.
While American carriers are not permitted to charge for this service, in the UK and Europe your network may charge a small administrative fee for unlocking your phone.
Find a Reputable Smartphone Unlock Service
If your network is not accommodating requests to unlock your phone, then you can try one of the reputable online smartphone unlock services. However, finding such a service can be difficult.
We would advise that you only use such a service if you’re absolutely desperate and there is no way that your network will unlock the device. These sites, which require your IMEI for creating the unlock code, are unregulated, and while there is a certain amount of protection afforded from making a payment via PayPal, they’re not always reliable.
Did You Unlock Your Device?
SIM unlocking your smartphone or tablet isn’t ideal for everyone. We would recommend that you spend a good deal of time weighing up the pros and cons of this process, and what you hope to gain from such a move.
Is the target carrier offering a better deal on connectivity? If you live in a city or large town, local Wi-Fi (secured with a VPN) might be a better (and almost certainly cheaper) option.
Have you unlocked your Android device? How did it go? Tell us about it in the comments.