How to unlock a phone
Your two-year contract is finally up, and you want to save some money by bringing your phone to a carrier with lower rates. Sadly, odds are that your phone is locked to your carrier, which prevents you from jumping ship and using your phone on another network. Thankfully, legislation and the FCC 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 More importantly, it superseded an earlier decision made by the Library of Congress that interpreted cell phone unlocking as a violation of copyright (a ruling that actually saw phone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 legally permissible.
Just because unlocking your phone is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to do, though. To that end, let’s dive into how to unlock a phone and break free of your two-year cycle with your carrier.
What you’ll need
Before you set your mind on unlocking your phone, you’ll need to keep in mind that doing so isn’t a fast process by any stretch of the imagination. Unlocking your phone can take several phone calls and hours of work. In addition, unlocking your phone before you leave your current carrier would be wise, as the incentive to help you through the process won’t be as great.
With that in mind, there are a few nuggets of information you’ll need:
- The account holder’s name and account number
- IMEI of your device
- Your phone number
- The account holder’s social security number or password
- A finished contract and/or device payment plan
- Overseas deployment papers, if the nature of your inquiry involves you being in the military and wanting to unlock your phone before your contract is up
Now that you have that information by your side, let’s see how each carrier handles unlocking your phone.
Unlocking a Verizon phone
Even though Verizon uses CDMA instead of GSM, most of Big Red’s devices come with an unlocked SIM card slot. According to Verizon, its 4G LTE devices aren’t locked, and, if you want to bring one of them to another carrier, there is no code you need to rejig the phone’s radios for other networks.
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 doesn’t have an online unlock request, but you can call 800-711-8300 and request a SIM unlock.
The procedure’s a bit different for postpaid 3G devices on Verizon’s network. Most aren’t locked, but require that you enter a code — either “000000” or “123456” — to enable third-party cellular compatibility. Verizon’s specially branded World Devices, on the other hand, can’t be unlocked without the assistance at the request of a store tech, which you can request by dialing the company’s support line at 800-922-0204.
Unlocking a prepaid device can get a bit dicier. A vast majority of the prepaid 3G phones on Verizon can be unlocked with the code “000000” or “123456,” but Verizon’s off-the-shelf Phone-in-the-Box Prepaid handsets are locked into the network for 12 months after activation. And, as with Verizon’s World Phones, you have to call Verizon support at 888-294-6804 in order to start the process.
Unlocking an AT&T phone
The process on how to unlock a phone from AT&T is a bit more complicated than with Verizon – indeed, you’ll need to jump through a few more hoops with AT&T than you do with Verizon.
Here’s the checklist of prerequisites you’ll need to meet in order to unlock your AT&T handset:
- You must be a current or former AT&T subscriber.
- The device in question must be from AT&T.
- It must not have been reported lost or stolen.
- 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 days “buyer’s remorse” period to pass before unlocking your old phone.
Unlike Verizon, AT&T offers an unlock request form you can fill out online. After submitting it, you’ll have 24 hours to click the link within the confirmation email sent to you. After about two business days, AT&T will send instructions for unlocking your device via email. AT&T no longer specify a hard unlock limit per year, as was previously the case – instead, the company crack down on individual cases. But unless you’re sending a hundred unlock requests a month, you shouldn’t need to worry.
Apple’s iPhones, however, 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.
In the case of prepaid devices (anything on AT&T Prepaid/GoPhone), AT&T also requires that they’ve been active for at least six months. The network offers limited unlock support via its support line, 800-331-0500, but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.
Unlocking a T-Mobile phone
There are several things to keep in mind if you want to unlock your T-Mobile phone:
- It must be a device from T-Mobile.
- It must not have been reported lost, stolen, or blocked.
- It must be attached to an account that has not been canceled, and is in “good standing.”
- It 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’ll need to have been active for at least one year, and the account associated with it must have had more than $100 in refills.
So long as you satisfy those requirements, you can use T-Mobile Mobile Device Unlock app to complete the unlocking process. Alternatively, you can unlock your phone through a live chat with a T-Mobile customer representative, or by calling 800-746-0949 (or 611) from a T-Mobile device.
Unlocking a Sprint phone
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, blocked, or associated with other fraudulent activity.
- It must be attached to an account with “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.
- You’ve made fewer than two unlock requests per line in a single year.
If you’re unlocking for international use, there are a couple of other requirements you need to meet:
- The device must be capable of international SIM unlock.
- The device and associated account must have been active for at least 90 days.
If you’re a member of the U.S. military deployed overseas and you want your Sprint phone unlocked, the aforementioned requirements still apply. In addition:
- You, and any relatives on the same account, must be active members of a branch of the United States military, and need to have overseas deployment papers, if applicable.
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 several years can’t be unlocked to accept a different carrier’s SIM card.
Sprint says that domestic SIM card-based devices launched after 2015 will automatically unlock when they become eligible. Alternatively, you can request an unlock either through an online chat with a customer representative or via a call to 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 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.
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:
- Release My Code
- FreeUnlocks — Unlock codes are free only if you try or buy an offer from a TrialPay partner. Otherwise, you have to pay.
- Cellphone Unlock
Buying unlocked phones
Another option is to just buy phones that are already unlocked. Many phone makers sell unlocked phones, including Sony, Huawei, Google, Apple, HTC, and more on their websites. 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 reviewed this article for accuracy and added some useful links.
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