How to Unlock a Carrier-Locked Phone: Your Guide to Mobile Freedom
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Is your phone unlocked? Sure you might know the passcode, and it may be rooted or jailbroken.

But does your carrier prevent you from inserting a SIM card from one of its rivals? Is your smartphone (or mobile internet-capable tablet) locked to one single carrier?

If so, it’s carrier-locked. But what if you want to use a SIM card from another carrier (or network)? The answer is that you’ll need to unlock your phone. Here’s what you need to know.

Is It Legal to Unlock Your Phone?

A few years ago, it was illegal to unlock your smartphone.

Until 2014, that is, when President Barack Obama signed into law Is It Legal Or Illegal To Unlock My Smartphone In The US? Is It Legal Or Illegal To Unlock My Smartphone In The US? Unlocking your cellphone is now legal in the United States thanks to a bipartisan bill signed into law by President Obama, but it only lasts until 2015. Care to learn more about the legality of... Read More the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. Following this short-term action (which itself followed a declaration of the illegality of phone unlocking in 2013), a decision was eventually made by the FCC to put the power to decide in the hands of the consumer.

how to unlock carrier phone
Image Credit: MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr

As such, it is now legal to unlock your smartphone. This brings certain benefits to you, not least the option to switch providers as soon as your contract allows it. Just remember that you cannot overcome the GSM/CDMA limitations of your device. A SIM card from one GSM network can replace another, but such a SIM can’t be used on a device that sits on a CDMA network.

However, it is a good idea to get this done before you leave your carrier. Trying to unlock it after your contract has expired (it doesn’t happen automatically), when your carrier no longer cares about retaining your custom, might just leave you high and dry.

Why Is Your New Phone Carrier-Locked?

Many phones come locked to a particular carrier or network.

You have three options to unlock your smartphone:

  1. Contact your carrier.
  2. Buy an unlock code online.
  3. Make sure your new phone isn’t locked in the first place.

If you’re in the US, you’ll also need a completed contract/payment plan. In the UK, you don’t need to have finished your contract, but you’ll still be paying for it.

All three options are simple enough, but note that you should put time aside for this task. Whether you’re speaking to the carrier directly, or using a third part approach, unlocking your smartphone can take a while.

Is Your Phone Already Unlocked?

It’s worth checking if your phone has already been unlocked. Perhaps it was given to you (along with the carrier contract) as a gift, and you weren’t told.

Whatever the case, to find out if your phone is locked or unlocked, you’ll need to try it with a SIM from a different provider. Make sure this is a compatible SIM of the same size, as well as the same network type.

how to unlock carrier phone

Once you’ve done this, boot the phone up. You’ll usually see immediately if the SIM works; if not, the phone will report that the SIM is missing or invalid.

Even if this doesn’t happen, try and make a call anyway. If you’re successful, the call will prove the SIM is unlocked. If not, you’ll need to unlock it, so read on!

Contact Your Carrier to Unlock Your Phone

Before you get started, however, you’ll need to ensure you have some information.

  • Your name (and, if you’re contacting your carrier, your phone or account number.
  • Your device’s IMEI number.
  • Any telephone account management password you have set up.
  • Your phone should not have been lost, stolen, blocked or associated with any fraudulent actions.
  • Any papers that confirm an overseas posting, whether this is military or corporate.

It’s also wise to spend some time researching your carrier’s policy to network unlocking phones.

For example, Verizon does not lock 4G LTE and some 3G devices. On the other hand, AT&T have a few hoops for you to jump through. On a different network or carrier? No problem: consult the GiffGaff Unlockapedia for details.

how to unlock carrier phone

Once you’re confident with the policy, give them a call and present your case. Stay calm, and ensure you remain courteous throughout, even if presented with a charge for the service. Don’t like the amount quoted? Wait a few months and try again, it may be cheaper next time.

UK readers should get in touch with Vodafone, EE or whoever first of all. A quick chat will reveal whether or not you’re going to be able to network unlock your phone.

There is usually a three-month period at the start of the contract where it isn’t possible to unlock a smartphone. After this, they should be able to do it either for a small fee, or even free.

Buy an Unlock Code Online

Another option you have is to register with one of a few reputable websites that specialize in acquiring unlock codes for changing carrier or networks. However, you’ll need to pay for the privilege.

We’ve checked reviews for the following five unlock code providers:

  1. Unlock Radar
  2. Release My Code
  3. The Unlock Arena
  4. Doctor Sim
  5. Free Unlocks

These sites have good reputations, and offer refunds if the unlock code fails to unlock your device.

The process is simple: click the link, register (if necessary), and follow the instructions to get an unlock code. You should not need to pay more than $30; the average price is around $17. Often you can pay by PayPal, although alternatives are often available Making Online Payments - 5 PayPal Alternatives to Consider Making Online Payments - 5 PayPal Alternatives to Consider Is PayPal the best and most secure method of making online payments? We look at 5 PayPal alternatives that you should consider. Read More .

I’ve personally used this method, and found it was painless. The whole process lasted just 15 minutes, although your mileage may vary.

Don’t Buy a Locked Phone

There is one other way to avoid being hit by a carrier lock. Simply don’t buy a locked phone in the first place! This might be easier said than done if you’re already locked to a carrier, but it is wise to avoid it in future. After all, it saves all of the messing about with phone calls, websites, and IMEI numbers.

Of course, when a new phone is released and you have the “got to have it” moment, avoiding a carrier lock might seem really difficult. With a new iPhone or Samsung, you might be utterly desperate to get the shiny smartphone. Considerations like monthly cost might impact you; being tied to the network probably won’t.

The answer in these situations is simple: don’t buy.

Just wait a few weeks until the device comes down in price slightly, and becomes available unlocked. Sure, it’s initially more expensive than paying a monthly premium, but it’s almost always cheaper in the long run.

And you get to decide which carrier you use, rather than leaving the choice to them.

What Not to Do

In addition to the three options to ensure your smartphone is unlocked, there are two things you should not do:

  1. Private “repair” stores: It’s not difficult to stumble across a smartphone accessories store that offers unlock codes. But to remain safe, it’s smarter to avoid these, at least when it comes to unlocking the carrier lock. After all, these businesses require access to your phone to unlock it. From a security point of view, this isn’t wise.
  2. Downloadable tools: A search of the web will reveal downloadable tools that can be used to unlock your phone “free”. Steer well clear of these, which often harbor malware; in short, they’re scams. When they’re not, these tools are for phones that have long since been abandoned by their manufacturers.

Avoiding these is easy. Don’t be sucked in by the “convenience” of a local store or a piece of free software. Stick with our three recommended options to get a carrier-unlocked smartphone!

Once Unlocked, Your Phone Is Truly Yours!

The great thing about network unlocking your smartphone, tablet, or portable hub, is that once you’ve done it, that’s it. Your phone cannot be re-locked to different network. Any compatible SIM card can be inserted, and as long as you have an account and credit with that network, you’ll be able to make calls, send SMS, and perhaps even get online.

how to unlock carrier phone
Image Credit: Sole Treadmill

Furthermore, carrier- or network-unlocking your smartphone (or other device) can help when you come to sell your phone. A phone locked to a particular carrier is not as attractive as one that is unlocked. Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. Would you buy a phone locked to carrier A when you’re on carrier B? Or would you buy the phone that is unlocked, and capable of being used on both carriers?

Don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be. The alternatives are simple:

  1. Contact your carrier.
  2. Buy an unlock code online.
  3. Make sure your new phone isn’t locked in the first place.

Set time aside for this, as it probably won’t be swift.

Most of what is listed above should work on any phone. However, our iPhone-specific steps should work Everything You Need To Know About Unlocking iPhones Everything You Need To Know About Unlocking iPhones If you bought your iPhone direct from Apple, you've got an unlocked phone that's good for use with any network. But what if you bought it through your mobile carrier? Read More if you need help there. As you’ve seen, carrier locked phones become more flexible when the lock is removed.

Image Credit: oorka5/Depositphotos

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