When you purchase a phone from a cell provider, it’ll most likely come locked — that means you won’t be able to use or get any signal on the phone with a different carrier. After all, it’s in their best interest to keep you as a customer.
While most carriers offer unlocking services after you’ve fully paid off your phone and any installments, it doesn’t always happen automatically. The process can be tedious and different depending on the provider, so we’ve broken down the steps for each one.
What you’ll need
The difficulty of unlocking a phone can vary from carrier to carrier, and what is a straightforward process with one can be a pain with another. Depending on who you’re with, unlocking your phone can turn out to be a laborious process that requires several phone calls and hours of work — or it can be extremely simple. No matter how difficult the unlocking procedure is, it’s a good idea to unlock your phone before you leave your current carrier because it will likely prove even tougher after your contract has run out and you’ve left. Even if you’re not planning on using your old phone when you leave, who knows when you might need it in the future? Unlocking a phone that’s come off contract should be second nature, and it’s almost always worth the effort.
While procedures vary, there’s a common list of information you’ll generally need to unlock your phone. Make sure as many of the following are at hand before you start to unlock your phone.
- The account holder’s name and account number
- IMEI number of your device
- Your phone number
- The account holder’s Social Security number or password
- A completed contract and/or device payment plan
- Overseas deployment papers, if you are in the military and want to unlock your phone before your contract is up
Now that you have that information, let’s see how each carrier handles unlocking your phone.
Unlocking a Verizon phone
Despite not doing so previously, Verizon now locks its devices — but in fairness, it only does so for a short time. According to Verizon’s policy, newly purchased devices will be locked to Verizon’s networks for 60 days after purchase. This brief period of locking helps to mitigate theft and other fraudulent activity, apparently — and really, you shouldn’t need to unlock a phone in this time period anyway, so it’s unlikely to affect most people. This rule applies to both postpaid and prepaid devices, and the lock will be automatically removed after the 60 days are up. This thankfully means that — unlike most other carriers — there isn’t really a list of criteria to unlock your phone.
Deployed military users are exempt from this rule, and can request to be unlocked during this period by calling Verizon’s support line at 800-922-0204.
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 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’s unlocking policies don’t mention world devices and may still require the assistance of a store tech. You can request one by dialing the company’s support line at 800-922-0204.
The off-the-shelf, Phone-in-a-Box prepaid 4G handsets are locked to the network for the amount of time specified on the back of the box. You may also have to call Verizon’s prepaid support line at 888-294-6804 to start the process.
Unlocking an AT&T phone
The process of unlocking a phone from AT&T is a bit more complicated than with Verizon. 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 to unlock your AT&T handset:
- The device in question must work on AT&T’s networks.
- If you’re a current customer, your current contract or installment plan must be fully paid off (including early termination fees). If not, pay off your plan early and wait 48 hours before making a request.
- It must not have been reported lost or stolen or involved in fraud.
- It must be attached to an account with “good standing” — i.e., one not associated with fraudulent activity.
- It must not be active on a different AT&T customer’s account.
- On a postpaid account, it must have been active for at least 60 days, with “no past due or unpaid balance.”
- If it’s an AT&T prepaid device, it must have had service for at least six months.
- If you’ve upgraded early, you must wait for the 14-day “buyer’s remorse” period (30 days for business customers) to pass before unlocking your old phone.
- If it’s a business device, then you must have your company’s permission.
You might not need to complete your contract or installment plans if you’re in the military, so long as you’re able to email AT&T your TCS or PCS (Temporary/permanent change of station) documents.
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. AT&T will then send instructions for unlocking your device via text or email within two business days of the request. AT&T 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. You can check to see whether your request has been successful by checking AT&T’s unlock status page.
Unlock instructions and codes provided by AT&T will vary depending on your device. Notably, 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 card for your new carrier to begin the setup process.
The network offers limited unlock support via its support line, 800-331-0500, but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.
Unlocking a T-Mobile phone
T-Mobile may well be the Un-carrier, but it has some very similar criteria for unlocking to other carriers. Here’s what you’ll need to keep in mind if you want to unlock your T-Mobile phone:
- It must be a T-Mobile device.
- It must not have been reported lost, stolen, or blocked (via IMEI).
- It must be attached to an account that is in “good standing.”
- On postpaid accounts, the device must have been fully paid for and have been active for at least 40 days on the requesting line.
- On prepaid accounts, the device must have had more than $100 in refills since the first use date, or have been active for at least a year.
- If the device is on a service contract, at least 18 consecutive monthly payments must have been made.
- If using T-Mobile’s Equipment Installment Plan, or if your phone is leased through JUMP! On Demand, all payments must be made and the device must be fully paid for.
- You’ve made fewer than two unlock requests, per line, in the last twelve months.
- T-Mobile may request to see proof of purchase.
Some Android phones from the carrier can be unlocked through their Settings menus once eligibility requirements are met. Others, such as the Google Pixel and older Samsung devices, can use Device Unlock apps from T-Mobile. However, these methods are not compatible with all phones. You can otherwise unlock your phone through a live chat with a T-Mobile customer representative, or by calling 611 from a T-Mobile device, or 877-746-0909 from any other phone. Deployed military personnel can also get their phones unlocked as long as they’re in good standing, and can produce deployment papers.
Unlocking a Sprint phone
Note: Sprint has recently merged with T-Mobile and will operate under that brand. As of this writing, the below policy and process are still applicable. It could be subject to change as a result of the merger.
Sprint says that domestic SIM unlock-capable devices launched after 2015 will automatically unlock when they become eligible on postpaid accounts. Sprint phones released before this period generally cannot be SIM unlocked. Before Sprint unlocks your phone, you’ll need to ensure your device and account meet the requirements below:
- It must be a device from Sprint.
- It must be domestic SIM Unlock capable (if unlocking for the domestic United States).
- It must not have been reported lost, stolen or blocked, or associated with other fraudulent activity.
- It must be attached to an account in “good standing.”
- It must have been active for at least 40 days on the requesting line.
- There must be no outstanding or pending payments or fees.
If you’re unlocking for international use, you must also ensure the device is capable of international SIM unlock.
If your device is currently inactive, you’ll want to call Sprint’s Customer Service at 888-211-4727 to help get the device unlocked. Be prepared to potentially force an over-the-air update to get it unlocked, and you may have to submit to extra validation to ensure your device can be unlocked.
If you’re a member of the U.S. military deployed overseas and you want your Sprint phone unlocked, the carrier relaxes some of its requirements. With an account in good standing, you must be an active member of a branch of the United States military and must have overseas deployment papers, if applicable. Family members on the same account are subject to the policy as well. If you’re currently deployed overseas, you can unlock your phone by contacting Sprint Worldwide Care or by calling 888-226-7212.
There’s a massive caveat when it comes to Sprint’s unlocking capabilities, however. Because the carrier relies on a relatively obscure networking technology (CDMA), many Sprint-branded phones won’t be compatible with carriers running on GSM networks. You should look to verify compatibility with your new carrier.
Unlocking a Metro by T-Mobile phone
Metro by T-Mobile, formerly known as Metro PCS, is one of the most popular choices when it comes to prepaid services. While it bears the T-Mobile branding, the requirements to unlock your phone do vary slightly:
- It must be from Metro.
- It must have had active service for a minimum of 180 consecutive days (about six months).
- If you have a warranty exchanged handset, then the 180 days is based on the activation date of the original phone.
One method of unlocking is through the Device Unlock app, usually found in the Metro by T-Mobile folder of your phone. This can only be done with a select group of phones including the Alcatel A30, LG Aristo, and Samsung J7 Prime — the rest of them can be found on the carrier webpage.
For devices not on the list, such as iPhones, you can contact the Metro customer service line at 888-863-8768 or visit a local corporate store to request an unlock code. Note that you’ll be asked to provide the phone number of the locked device, the account owner’s name, and the account billing PIN.
For military personnel, the 180-day service requirement isn’t needed — you can simply visit a corporate store with deployment papers and an agent will provide an unlock code for your device.
It’s important to know that since rebranding, Metro by T-Mobile now operates in the GSM network as opposed to CDMA, so your unlocked Metro phone will only be able to work with other GSM-carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T.
Unlocking a Boost Mobile phone
Boost Mobile customers are now a part of DISH Wireless following Sprint’s merger with T-Mobile. As a result, you may have new requirements compared to the past. You’ll want to ensure your Boost Mobile device can be unlocked in the first place. A SIM unlock is not possible for a good deal of their phones made before 2015.
Boost Mobile will not automatically unlock your phone or notify you when you are eligible, so you’ll need to keep track of your own progress. You can make a unlock request to the company’s customer care line at 888-402-7366, once you meet the below eligibility requirements:
- It must be a SIM unlock capable Boost Mobile device.
- It must not be reported lost, stolen, or flagged as unlockable.
- The device has been active for at least 12 months on the account.
- The device’s account is in good standing and active.
Active military personnel can request an unlock with their deployment papers and an account in good standing. Moreover, family members on the same account are also eligible for SIM unlocks. Each phone number is allowed up to two unlocked devices during a 12-month period.
It remains to be seen what network versatility will be like for Boost Mobile phones going forward. Past phones from the carrier used the CDMA technology and were restricted to that when unlocking and switching. Newer phones have some compatibility with GSM/LTE networks through T-Mobile, which will continue to provide coverage for Boost Mobile customers as DISH builds out its own network. You’ll want to keep these factors in mind when unlocking your phone.
Unlocking a UScellular phone
Since February 1, 2016, most of UScellular’s 4G LTE devices are sold unlocked. Those sold before that date can potentially be updated through an over-the-air update, so make sure your device is up to date before contacting UScellular about unlocking. If that doesn’t apply to your device, or if you have a 3G or 1X device, then you’ll need an unlock code from UScellular’s customer service line on 611 (from a UScellular device) or 888-944-9400 on another device.
Like other carriers, UScellular’s unlocking procedure is fully in-line with CITA’s guidelines on unlocking its devices, and will unlock phones and tablets, as long as they adhere to the following criteria:
- It must be a device from UScellular.
- The device in question must not have been lost, stolen, or obtained fraudulently.
- The device in question must have been fully paid for.
A specific range of popular phones from Apple and Samsung, whether prepaid or postpaid, are subject to a 120-day lock policy to deter theft and fraud. An account in good standing that meets the above requirements can still request an early unlock. As is usual, deployed military personnel can also get their device unlocked earlier by presenting their deployment papers, as long as their account has no past-due balance.
UScellular also warns that some devices can’t be unlocked, either because of the age of the device or because it doesn’t have the technology to access other networks. If it sounds like your device might fall under that, you can contact UScellular on 611 (from a UScellular device) or 888-944-9400 on another device.
Unlocking your prepaid or fully paid phone
There are, of course, folks who have 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 (CTIA) 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. Finally, carriers must unlock phones for U.S. military personnel upon request.
You should be aware that unlocking your phone doesn’t exactly mean you can just take it to any other provider. While some modern phones are built for that kind of compatibility, others are still only designed for the network capabilities and features of a particular carrier. Most carriers offer an online Bring Your Own Phone tool to see if your unlocked device will work well on their network. You’ll just need to enter your device’s IMEI number to get an instant check.
Third-party unlocking services, by and large, differ only in name. Most of them work in the same way: 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 $50. But like everything out there, third-party services can be risky. Most of them require you to pay upfront, and there’s always the danger unsavory services will simply take your money and never send you a code. As ever with this sort of thing, it’s smart to research a service thoroughly before you fork over any amount of cash, so make sure to thoroughly Google any service you’re considering using to make sure it’s legit and above board. Make sure to check websites like Trustpilot before making any decisions and especially before sending over any cash.
Reputable unlocking services often have customer support lines to assist with code issues. They typically deliver codes quickly, too. If you notice a lot of customers complaining about codes being delayed for days, weeks, or even months, it’s probably best to stay away from those services.
Here are some third-party resources:
Buying unlocked phones
The easiest, most hassle-free option is buying a phone that’s already unlocked. It’s simple to purchase the most common unlocked phones from a wide range of manufacturers if, for whatever reason, you’re not keen on the idea of any of the unlocking methods listed above. Offset the cost by combining your purchase with the latest deal from your mobile carrier — the good news is that you can shop around with no strings.
Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart also sell unlocked phones, but often with high upfront costs. However, there are bargains out there if you know where to look, like Amazon’s Alexa Built-in unlocked phones, for example. Those phones are much more affordable but at the expense of having Amazon’s services pre-installed. If you’re a fan of Amazon Alexa, though, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
When all is said and done, the best option for most people is usually purchasing an unlocked phone rather than figuring out how to unlock one. First of all, it saves you the hassle of getting it unlocked. Secondly, you can choose whichever cell phone service you’d like, whether it’s prepaid, postpaid, or something in between. It’s a significant investment and may hurt a little if you already have a phone, but the freedom to switch carriers at any time is worth it.
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