For many of us, buying a phone outright is an expense we simply can’t shoulder. So it makes sense to buy a phone through a monthly contract with a carrier. But once that contract period is up, what do you do? You now legally own your phone outright, so at the very least that means lower monthly payments to your carrier. But do you really want to stay with your current carrier? Chances are you can get better value if you switch to another carrier — and it makes a lot of sense to take your phone with you when you move.
But it’s not always that simple, and “locking” is often the reason why. A locked phone isn’t able to jump ship and be used on another network without being unlocked. 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 More importantly, it superseded an earlier decision made by the Library of Congress that interpreted cell phone unlocking as a violation of copyright (a ruling that actually saw phone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 perfectly legal.
The process of unlocking a phone has ranged from super-simple to excruciating, though recent rulings have meant carriers have made it a lot easier to take your phone elsewhere. Let’s take a closer look at how to unlock a phone and break your phone free of your carrier’s icy grip.
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 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.
As ever, deployed military users are exempt from this rule, and can request to be unlocked during this period by calling Verizon’s support line at 888-294-6804.
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’s new unlocking policies don’t mention postpaid or prepaid 3G devices, but it’s assumed they function under the same rules. Under the previous procedure, such devices would require you enter a code — either “000000” or “123456” — to enable third-party cellular compatibility. If your device appears to be locked, either try that or call Verizon’s support line on 888-294-6804. World Devices are similarly not mentioned, and may still require the assistance of a store tech, which you can request by dialing the company’s support line at 800-922-0204.
Verizon’s off-the-shelf Phone-in-the-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 support 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. 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 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 24 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.
- It must have been active for at least 60 days, with “no past due or unpaid balance.”
- 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.
iPads and wearable devices with LTE connections are handled separately from smartphones, and are sold unlocked, so you won’t need to worry about unlocking them. Just put in your new SIM and enjoy your new network.
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. You can check to see whether your request has been successful by checking AT&T’s unlock status page.
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, but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.
Unlocking a T-Mobile phone
Like the other carriers listed here, there are several things 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.
- It must be attached to an account that is in “good standing.”
- On postpaid accounts, the device must have been active at least 40 days on the requesting line.
- 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 a single year.
- T-Mobile may request to see proof of purchase.
If your handset is a prepaid model, it will need to have been active for at least one year, and the account associated with it must have had more than $100 in refills.
Some Android phones can use the T-Mobile Device Unlock app to complete the unlocking process. However, not all phones are compatible, so 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
Sprint says that domestic SIM card-based devices launched after 2015 will automatically unlock when they become eligible, but there is a process to unlock if your device doesn’t qualify. Before unlocking your Sprint 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 at least 50 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.
Sprint Forward prepaid devices have some additional requirements:
- The device must not have been reported as lost or stolen or otherwise flagged as ineligible to be unlocked.
- The device has been active on the associated account for at least 12 months with the account active at that time.
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 your device is currently inactive, you’ll want to call Sprint’s Customer Service on 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 aforementioned requirements still apply. Also, you and any relatives on the same account must be active members of a branch of the United States military and must have overseas deployment papers, if applicable. 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, 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.
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.
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.
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 being 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
If you’re thinking of unlocking a phone eventually, why not cut out the middle man and just buy an unlocked phone? Many phone makers sell unlocked phones on their websites, and you’ll find such devices from Google, Apple, Sony, Huawei, OnePlus, and many manufacturers. Some of these companies offer payment plans to ease the financial burden a bit, removing the largest barrier to buying unlocked. Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart also sell unlocked phones, but often with high upfront costs. However, you can land yourself a bargain if you hunt for the best price, especially with Amazon’s Alexa Built-in unlocked phones. Those phones come at a knock-down price, but at the expense of having Amazon’s services pre-installed — and if you’re a fan of Amazon Alexa, this shouldn’t be too much of a chore.
In our opinion, the benefits of an unlocked phone more than make up for the added initial cost. 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 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.
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