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Free yourself! How to unlock your phone from the icy hands of your wireless carrier

Your two-year contract is finally up, and you want to save some money by bringing your phone to a carrier with lower monthly costs. Unfortunately, odds are that your phone is carrier locked, which prevents you from jumping ship and using your phone on another network. Thankfully, recent legislation and some sweet talking by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have made the process of unlocking your easier than ever before. More importantly, it superseded an earlier decision made by the Library of Congress that interpreted cellphone unlocking as a violation of copyright. Cellphone locking, in other words, is now legally permissible.

Related: How to avoid early termination fees and switch phone carriers like a pro

Just because unlocking your phone is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to do, though. To that end, let’s dive into what you’d want to do if you were to unlock your phone and break free of your two-year cycle with your carrier. If you’re interested in how to unlock your phone after the two years are up, head to the next page.

What you’ll need

Before you set your mind on unlocking your phone, you’ll need to keep in mind that doing so isn’t a fast process by any stretch of the imagination. Unlocking your phone can take several phone calls and hours of work. In addition, unlocking your phone before you leave your current carrier would be wise, as the incentive to help you through the process won’t be as great.

With that in mind, there are a few nuggets of information you’ll need:

  • The account holder’s name and account number
  • IMEI of your device
  • Your phone number
  • The account holder’s social security number or password
  • A finished contract and/or device payment plan
  • Overseas deployment papers, if the nature of your inquiry involves you being in the military and wanting to unlock your phone before your contract is up

Now that you have that information by your side, let’s see how each carrier handles unlocking your phone.

Unlocking a Verizon phone

Even though Verizon uses CDMA instead of GSM, 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 rejigger the phone’s radios for other networks.

However, 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.

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Verizon doesn’t have an online unlock request, but you can call 1-800-711-8300 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 at the request 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.

Unlocking an AT&T phone

You’ll need to jump through a few more hoops with AT&T than you do with Verizon, at least when it comes to unlocking your phone.

Here’s the checklist of prerequisites you’ll need to meet in order to unlock your AT&T handset:

  1. You must be a current or former AT&T subscriber.
  2. The device in question must be from AT&T.
  3. It must not have been reported lost or stolen.
  4. It must be attached to an account with “good standing” — i.e., one not associated with fraudulent activity.
  5. It must have been active or at least 60 days with “no past due or unpaid balance.”
  6. You’ve made fewer than five unlock requests in a single year.

Unlike Verizon, AT&T offers an unlock request form you can fill out online. After submitting it, however, you’ll need to wait a up to five business days for the instructions to arrive via email.

Related: The 7 best phablets money can buy

In the case of prepaid devices, AT&T also requires that they’ve been active for at least six months. The network offers limited unlock support via its support line, 1-800-331-0500, but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.

Unlocking a T-Mobile phone

There are four things to keep in mind if you want to unlock your T-Mobile phone:

  1. It must be a device from T-Mobile.
  2. It must not have been reported lost or stolen.
  3. It must be attached to an account with “good standing.”
  4. It must have been active at least 40 days on the requesting line.
  5. If the device is on a service contract, at least 18 consecutive monthly payments must have been made.
  6. You’ve made fewer than two unlock requests per line in a single year.

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 $25 in refills (if it’s a basic phone) or $100 (if it’s a smartphone).

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So long as you satisfy those requirements, you can use T-Mobile Mobile Device Unlock 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 1-800-746-0949 (or 611) from a T-Mobile device.

Unlocking a Sprint phone

Before unlocking your Sprint phone, you’ll need to ensure your device and account meet the requirements below.

  1. It must be a device from Sprint.
  2. It must not have been reported lost or stolen.
  3. It must be attached to an account with “good standing.”
  4. It must have been active at least 50 days on the requesting line.
  5. You’ve made fewer than two unlock requests per line in a single year.

If you’re a member of the U.S. military deployed overseas and you want your Sprint phone unlocked, the same requirements apply.

Related: 7 powerful smartphones you can buy for $400 or less

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 several 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 via a call to (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.

Unlocking your prepaid/fully paid phone

There are, of course, folks who eschew postpaid phones for less common alternatives, namely prepaid and paid-in-full devices. Unlocking those is, for the most part, relatively straightforward. While there was already a generalized unlocking policy, the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CITA) recently put forth a set of standardized unlocking policies for cell phones and tablets with which AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon have begun to comply. 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. In addition, cellular providers have to alert subscribers when their handsets are eligible for an unlock. And finally, carriers must unlock phones for U.S. military personnel at request.

Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon have all complied, and AT&T’s policies were basically already in line with the new terms.

Third-party services

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 typically, they 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. There’s never any harm, then, in researching a service thoroughly before you fork any amount of cash.

Related: Sprint vs. AT&T vs. Verizon vs. T-Mobile: Who has the best family plan?

Reputable unlocking service 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 these services.

With that said, here are some third-party resources:

Buying unlocked phones

Another option is to just buy phones that are already unlocked. Many phone makers sell unlocked phones, including Sony, Huawei, Google, Apple, HTC, and more on their websites. Some of these companies also offer payment plans to ease the cost a bit. Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart, also sell unlocked phones, often with high upfront costs. The list price for an unlocked Galaxy S7 is $800, for instance.

The benefits of an unlocked phone more than make up for the added cost, however. You don’t have to go through any hoops to unlock them, for one, and you have the option to opt for any cellphone 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 purchase time, but the freedom to switch between carriers could save you a bundle in monthly plan costs down the road.