Your two-year contract is finally up, and you want to save some money by bringing your phone to a carrier with lower rates. Sadly, odds are that your phone is locked to your carrier, which prevents you from jumping ship and using your phone on another network. Thankfully, legislation and the Federal Communications Commission have made the process of unlocking your phone easier than ever. More importantly, it superseded an earlier decision made by the Library of Congress that interpreted cell phone unlocking as a violation of copyright (a ruling that actually saw phone unlocking rise in popularity). Cell phone unlocking, in other words, is legally permissible.
Just because unlocking your phone is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to do, though. Let’s dive into how to unlock a phone and break free of your ties to a carrier.
Before you set your mind on unlocking your phone, you’ll need to keep in mind that doing so isn’t a fast process. Unlocking your phone can take several phone calls and hours of work. It’s also a good idea to unlock your phone before you leave your current carrier.
With that in mind, there are a few nuggets of information you’ll need:
Now that you have that information, let’s see how each carrier handles unlocking your phone.
Even though Verizon uses CDMA instead of GSM for channel access, most of Big Red’s devices come with an unlocked SIM card slot. According to Verizon, its 4G LTE devices aren’t locked, and if you want to bring one of them to another carrier, there is no code you need to rejig the phone’s radios for other networks.
Even though SIM-equipped Verizon phones can be used on AT&T, T-Mobile, or other GSM carriers, the phone will need to have roaming GSM radios in order to make phone calls and send texts in the United States. While most recent Verizon handsets will work just fine on American GSM bands, your mileage will vary when it comes to LTE support.
Verizon doesn’t have an online method to make an unlock request, but you can call 888-294-6804 and request a SIM unlock.
The procedure’s a bit different for postpaid 3G devices on Verizon’s network. Most aren’t locked, but require that you enter a code — either “000000” or “123456” — to enable third-party cellular compatibility. Verizon’s specially branded World Devices, on the other hand, can’t be unlocked without the assistance of a store tech, which you can request by dialing the company’s support line at 800-922-0204.
Unlocking a prepaid device can get a bit dicier. A vast majority of the prepaid 3G phones on Verizon can be unlocked with the code “000000” or “123456,” but Verizon’s off-the-shelf Phone-in-the-Box prepaid handsets are locked into the network for 12 months after activation. And, as with Verizon’s World Phones, you have to call Verizon support at 888-294-6804 in order to start the process.
The process of unlocking a phone from AT&T is a bit more complicated than with Verizon — but while you’ll need to jump through a few more hoops, it’s still not a difficult process to complete.
Here’s the checklist of prerequisites you’ll need to meet in order to unlock your AT&T handset:
Unlike Verizon, AT&T offers an unlock request form you can fill out online. You can either enter your AT&T mobile number — or if you’ve already switched, the IMEI number from your AT&T device will also do. After submitting this form, you’ll have 24 hours to click the link within the confirmation email sent to you, then AT&T will send instructions for unlocking your device via email within two business days of the request being made. AT&T also no longer has a hard unlock limit per year, so unless you’re sending a hundred unlock requests a month you shouldn’t need to worry about being flagged as suspicious.
In the case of prepaid devices (anything on AT&T Prepaid/GoPhone), AT&T requires that they’ve been active for at least six months.
If you’re in the military, you can scratch off the third requirement on AT&T’s list — you won’t need to complete your contract or installment plans, so long as you’re able to email AT&T your TCS or PCS (Temporary/permanent change of station) documents.
Apple iPhones don’t need an unlock code. Instead, after receiving the email specifying that your unlock request was approved, remove your AT&T SIM card and insert the SIM for your new carrier to begin the setup process.
The network offers limited unlock support via its support line, 888-211-4727 (or 855-639-4644 for Sprint Forward members), but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.
There are several things to keep in mind if you want to unlock your T-Mobile phone:
If your handset is a prepaid model, it’ll need to have been active for at least one year, and the account associated with it must have had more than $100 in refills.
So long as you satisfy those requirements, you can use the T-Mobile Mobile Device Unlock Android app to complete the unlocking process. Alternatively, you can unlock your phone through a live chat with a T-Mobile customer representative, or by calling 611 from a T-Mobile device, or 1-877-746-0909 from any other phone.
Before unlocking your Sprint phone, you’ll need to ensure your device and account meet the requirements below.
If you’re unlocking for international use, you must ensure the device is capable of international SIM unlock.
Sprint Forward prepaid devices also have some additional requirements:
Sprint Forward devices also need to be unlocked by a customer service representative — but don’t worry, you can contact Sprint Prepaid Customer Care by dialing 855-639-4644.
If you’re a member of the U.S. military deployed overseas and you want your Sprint phone unlocked, the aforementioned requirements still apply. In addition, you and any relatives on the same account must be active members of a branch of the United States military, and need to have overseas deployment papers, if applicable.
There’s a massive caveat when it comes to Sprint’s unlocking capabilities, however. Because the carrier, like Verizon, relies on a relatively obscure networking technology (CDMA), Sprint-branded phones that have been manufactured with a SIM slot within the past few years can’t be unlocked to accept a different carrier’s SIM card.
Sprint says that domestic SIM card-based devices launched after 2015 will automatically unlock when they become eligible. Alternatively, you can request an unlock either through an online chat with a customer representative or by calling 888-211-4727 (*2 from a Sprint device).
Uniquely, Sprint offers short-term unlocking for international travel. Assuming you meet the above requirements, you can log into your online account and navigate to the relevant page. Simply click on the My Account tab, pick your phone from the resulting list, and select Unlock device to use int’l SIM from the Manage this device drop-down menu. If you’d rather have a Sprint rep walk you through the process, though, you can request an over-the-phone unlock at 888-226-7212.
There are, of course, folks who eschew postpaid phones for less common alternatives, namely prepaid and paid-in-full devices. Unlocking these is, for the most part, relatively straightforward. While there was already a generalized unlocking policy, the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CITA) put forth a set of standardized unlocking policies for cell phones and tablets. The agreed-upon terms require carriers to unlock a phone paid in full, or a prepaid phone in service for a year, if a subscriber makes such a request. Cellular providers also have to alert subscribers when their handsets are eligible for an unlock. And finally, carriers must unlock phones for U.S. military personnel upon request.
Third-party unlocking services, by and large, differ only in name. Here’s how most of them work: You make your way to a website, provide payment in exchange for an unlock code, and wait for the code to arrive via email. Prices vary depending on your device, but they typically range anywhere from a few dollars to around $54. Third-party services can be precarious, though. Most of these require you to pay upfront, and there’s always the risk that the unsavory among them will simply take your money and never send you a code. It’s always smart to research a service thoroughly before you fork over any amount of cash.
Reputable unlocking services also often have customer support lines in order to assist with code issues. They typically deliver codes quickly, too. If you notice users complaining about codes being delayed for days, weeks, or even months, it’s probably best to stay away from those services.
With that said, here are some third-party resources:
Another option is to just buy phones that are already unlocked. Many phone makers sell unlocked phones on their websites, including Sony, Huawei, Google, Apple, HTC, and more. Some of these companies also offer payment plans to ease the financial burden a bit. Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart also sell unlocked phones, but often with high upfront costs. However, you can often land yourself a bargain if you hunt for the best price, especially with Amazon’s Prime Exclusive unlocked phones.
The benefits of an unlocked phone more than make up for the added cost, however. You don’t have to jump through any hoops to unlock them, for one, and you have the option to pick any cell phone service you want, whether it’s prepaid, postpaid, or something in between. Sure, you’ll have to shell out a few extra hundred dollars at the time of purchase, but the freedom to switch between carriers could save you a bundle in monthly plan costs down the road.