Unlocking your cell phone is about to become legal again

A week or so ago the Senate passed a bill that will finally make cell phone unlocking legal in the United States again. Now the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act has also cleared Congress, so all that’s left is for the President to rubber-stamp the decision and you can take your phone to another network without fear of prosecution.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 — intended to curb piracy — has until now been used by manufacturers to ban users from modifying their phones by unlocking them. An exception for mobiles introduced in 2006 was reversed in 2012, so the practice is technically illegal today. The relevant legislation is reviewed every three years, so you should be safe for a while.

There’s no exact timeframe for when the Act will officially get the all-clear, but given that the White House has expressed strong support for the bill in the past it won’t take long to complete the process. The original intention was to get the Act passed by the end of the year, so there should be no danger of missing that deadline.

“The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget,” said President Obama in a statement. “I commend Chairmen Leahy and Goodlatte, and Ranking Members Grassley and Conyers for their leadership on this important consumer issue and look forward to signing this bill into law.”

Once cell phone unlocking is no longer a criminal offense, you’ll be free to switch between networks more easily. The Act covers bulk unlocking for businesses who want to offer handsets to customers and allows you to get your phone unlocked by a third party if you don’t want to work through the process yourself. Ultimately it means more freedom and choice for consumers, so let’s hope the decision sticks this time.