How to unlock your mobile phone – and why you want to

How to unlock your mobile phone – and why you want to

Woman showing phone lock features or selling the phone in a phone shop
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Imagine if every time you wanted to switch to a new cable provider or streaming service you had to make sure it would work with your TV. Or whether a new ISP will work with your computer.

Switching providers every couple of years (or more often) is usually an easy way to save money. But when it comes to switching phone service, it suddenly isn’t.

We are often pressured into buying a new device. It may not be clear if using our current phone is an option or if we can sell it.

It can feel like we’re locked in with our current carrier — and sometimes we are. “Unlocking” the phone is what they call a process that is often necessary before you can transfer to a new network. This is how it works.

What is a locked phone?

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A locked phone is one that only works with the current network and cannot be used elsewhere without first unlocking it. You will not be able to make calls or use data on another network, although the device can still connect to Wi-Fi for internet.

“Unlocking” a phone is not the same as “jailbreaking” it, another term you may have heard. Both processes are legal and involve the removal of software restrictions on the device.

You can jailbreak a device (usually an iPhone) on your own to install apps and make customizations the manufacturer didn’t necessarily want you to do, although it’s a technically involved process. In other words, it’s about adding functions the phone doesn’t have.

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Unlocking a device requires assistance from your carrier and is done to switch networks. It’s about keeping the features you have, but paying someone else for service.

In general, you can expect a phone you haven’t paid off or one under contract to be locked, and as the FCC points out, carriers can refuse to unlock these devices for customers.

Not everyone needs to unlock their phone

Man showing woman his great cell phone service on smartphone
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Phones are not always locked. It is possible to buy an unlocked model, and most places that sell phones have them. If you buy a phone outright or a used device, it may already be unlocked. If you’ve been on Verizon for more than a couple of months, it should also be unlocked.

If you’re not sure if your phone is locked, there are a couple of ways to check. On an iPhone, go into “General” settings and then “About” and look for a line called “Carrier Lock.” If it says “No SIM restrictions”, it means it’s unlocked. On an Android device, the location may vary, but you can find it on a similar “About” settings screen or under something like “Mobile Networks”. Another option is to ask your carrier – they know for sure.

Check compatibility first

The fraud victim looks at her phone
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Unlocking your phone does not guarantee that it will work on another network, or that it will. Your phone may not be compatible with 5G networks, and older devices are more likely to be limited to certain carriers.

You can check compatibility with your future operator. Most have a way to check your phone’s unique IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number – think of it like a car’s VIN – on their website to see if it’s compatible. They may also have a list of compatible devices.

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For both Apple and Android devices, you should find the IMEI on the “About” settings page.

You will also need this IMEI for the next step.

How to unlock your phone

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Ready to get this show on the road? Gather your IMEI and account information and go to your current carrier’s website, or one of their stores if you need help. The unlocking process is free (notwithstanding any account balances or contractual early termination fees) and usually quick. Here is information about unlocking with the largest operators:

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