What you need to know about unlocking phones

Here at AndroidGuys we talk quite a bit about unlocked phones, mobile virtual network operators, and other related topics. And, while we try to keep things pretty simple and straightforward, we understand there may be questions.

Many MVNOs have “bring your own phone” policies. Do you know what that means? Does your current handset work with the carrier you’re considering?

We don’t want to make assumptions in our writing or gloss over things too quickly. So, as it pertains to unlocking phones, we thought we owed it to some of you to clear up any random questions.

Here’s a primer on what you need to know when it comes to unlocking phones.

What does unlocking a phone mean?

Nearly all phones purchased through a carrier are restricted to their respective network. In other words, your T-Mobile phone likely won’t work with AT&T.

Unlocking your phone means that it’s no longer restricted to a specific wireless service provider. By unlocking it you can potentially take it to another carrier. So, if someone has a deal that seems too hard to pass, consider taking your phone with you.

Can I buy phones already unlocked?

Absolutely! More and more we find smartphone makers offering unlocked versions of their phones. Chances are very good that the many of the top devices you see on TV and in media can be purchased unlocked.

Buying an unlocked phone? Consider these questions

Visit the website of any major phone maker and you’ll find a number of models sold in unlocked capacity. Some are GSM-only while others may be universally unlocked.

Why would I want to unlock my phone?

Phones are expensive. Whether it’s a $200 “low end” model, or a flagship that commands $1,000 or more, they’re not cheap investments. So, if you can, keep that beloved device and take it with you.

We often find carriers competing with incentives and deals for signing up or porting a phone number. Chances are good that you might save more than a bucks by switching.

Where can I buy unlocked phones?

Not only could you end up getting some form of rebate or bill credit, but you may find a cheaper rate plan. Extra money up front is nice, but a little bit of cash left over each month is even better.

Another reason to unlock your phone is so that you can switch to a prepaid provider or MVNO. These operate on the same networks as the larger companies but often come with lower monthly bills.

Are prepaid phones locked?

In a word, yes. Even prepaid smartphones come with restrictions that keep them from working on other networks out of the box. This is to combat fraud, theft, and other malicious activity.

Which major prepaid carrier has the best $40 rate plan?

Each carrier, even prepaid ones, have their own policies. Check with them to see what you have to do before a phone can be unlocked.

What if I am in the military?

Most service providers have exceptions to their policies which make it easier to unlock your phone.

Should you get relocation orders or find yourself deployed to another country for a bit, you want to make sure your phone works. Your carrier can often help get you unshackled if you move outside of their respective coverage area.

What else should I know about unlocking a phone?

You removed the carrier restriction from your phone so that means it works with everyone else, right? Wrong. Here in the US we have two competing technologies: GSM and CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM while Verizon and Sprint employ CDMA for coverage.

If you unlock a GSM phone, you can almost surely use it with any other carrier in the US. Moreover, they’ll likely work fine in other countries, too.

CDMA phones are different, but more often we’re seeing “global ready” models which mean they’ll work with other carriers. These types are unique in that they work across nearly all providers.

How can I tell if my phone is locked?

If you bought your phone brand new from the carrier or handset maker, you can check with them. If you purchased it second-hand, you might not have the full history of the handset.

An easy way to check whether your phone is currently locked is to insert a SIM card from another provider. In some cases it will ask for an unlock code, PUK, or something similar. If you find that you cannot make calls or use data, chances are very high that it’s still locked.

Another way to check is to go to your phone’s settings under mobile network operators. Do a quick scan to see if other carriers are showing up. If additional service providers are visible, it’s possible that your device is unlocked.

Can I unlock my phone?

The short and sweet answer to this question is almost universally yes. When it comes to unlocking phones, each carrier has their own policies; however, everyone has to play by some of the same rules. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • You account must be in good standing with your carrier, with no past due balance
  • Your phone must not be reported as lost or stolen
  • You’ll have to keep your device active with the current provider for a set number of days. This varies by carrier.

Where do I unlock my phone?

Despite a number of online outlets promising to help you unlock your handset, the best route to take is going through your carrier. If for no other reason, it helps you to steer clear of running afoul of the law. Not all of these sites offering instant unlocking are operating legally in the US.

Worth noting, Verizon will now automatically unlock your phone after 60 days provided you are in good standing.

Here are the places to start for each of the major carriers in the United States. You can also call their support lines and ask for help should you have additional questions.

Unlocking policies and help

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