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

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Unlocking your prepaid or 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) 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. 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:

Buying unlocked phones

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 cost a bit. Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart also sell unlocked phones, often with high upfront costs. The list price for an unlocked iPhone 7, for example, is more than $700.

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 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.

Update: We updated this article for accuracy and added some useful links.

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