An unlocked cell phone means that you can travel internationally or use your phone on different carriers. Your phone will accept a SIM card from another network (in most cases) or another provider, and you can make calls, surf the web, and send texts as you usually do.
If you’d like to use another carrier’s SIM card in your cell phone, you can verify that it is unlocked. Once unlocked, the phone is yours to do with as you please, but until then, you’re stuck with the original network provider.
Why Lock a Smartphone?
While it certainly made sense that a carrier would want to lock down the features of their specific models, it made reselling or refurbishing smartphones a complicated process for anyone who wasn’t a high-level tech genius, resulting in tons of smartphone waste.
Most carriers will sell you devices on an installment or leasing program. Until that phone is paid off, it will remain locked to that company’s network. Older phones were not always compatible with other carriers because they featured carrier-specific attributes.
As the years go by, more and more phones are offered as unlocked, meaning they are carrier-free. However, having an unlocked phone doesn’t automatically mean you can use any phone on any network. A bit of information gathering will save you from frustration, so be sure to learn the device’s history and which carrier initially locked it.
Your carrier can unlock your phone for you once specific criteria are met, or you can purchase an unlocked device. It’s safer to buy an unlocked device directly from the manufacturer, but you can find these cross-compatible cell phones at a lower price on eBay and other third-party seller sites.
Since not all phones ship unlocked from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), it’s essential to know if an existing device works outside the current carrier.
What Is the Advantage of an Unlocked Phone?
Locking or unlocking a phone doesn’t make any difference in installing applications or performing routine smartphone tasks like sending text messages, placing phone calls, and browsing the web. That said, there are other differences between an unlocked and locked device.
While Apple handles updates for all its phones directly, Android updates are typically pushed out by the carrier after the manufacturer has finished building the software for the device. OS updates for Android devices can get caught up in “carrier testing,” while unlocked devices and devices on other carriers have already finished the update.
Apple’s share of the market is so powerful that it can essentially bypass the restrictions of carriers like Verizon and AT&T. Android manufacturers don’t have that kind of clout with carriers. They need to sell their devices in stores to make money and are willing to load their phone with carrier-branded apps and sponsored bloatware. Many Android fans uninstall or disable these add-ons on their device.
Unlocked devices don’t always have improved support over the carrier models, however. The unlocked versions of both the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were, infamously, left behind on the Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system for months longer than the service provider models.
Overall, if you’re an Apple devotee, the only difference between an unlocked and locked iPhone is the ability to use your device on alternate carriers. On Android, software updates will arrive at different times, and your device will include pre-installed applications that may or may not be of interest to you.
Your smartphone might have carrier branding on the back or, in some cases, the front of your device. However, some manufacturers are finally starting to move away from that. Of course, you’ll be able to use your device on your carrier of choice, while still getting features such as WiFi calling and HD Voice.
How Do I Know If My Phone Is Unlocked?
If you bought your phone through a carrier, either on a two-year contract or a monthly payment plan, your phone is locked to that service provider, even if it does support other phone service companies. Since you’ve enacted a contract with that specific carrier, you’ll have to stick with them until the contract is up or the payment plan gets paid in full. After that, you can unlock it if not done already, and you can use it on your carrier of your choice.
How can you tell if your device’s SIM is unlocked once you paid it off? Well, the answer depends on what phone you’re using and whether or not it accepts multiple carriers. Let’s take a more in-depth look.
Is My iPhone Unlocked?
If you’re an iOS user, the answer is pretty simple. Either you bought your device straight from Apple (either for full price or through their iPhone Upgrade Program), through a third-party (assuming the seller did not have a carrier agreement before purchasing), or through your carrier.
Knowing Where You Purchased It
If you got your device from Apple directly, you had the choice to buy a model from a pre-selected carrier or get an iPhone without a SIM card. If you chose the latter, your device is already unlocked, and you can use any SIM card and pick up a full signal on any carrier.
Check the Settings – iOS 14
iOS 14 allows users to see if there are any SIM restrictions right from the settings of the phone. All you need to do is open ‘Settings’ scroll down and tap ‘General,’ then tap ‘About.’ If you see the ‘No SIM Restrictions’ message next to ‘Carrier Lock’ your iPhone is unlocked.
Try Another SIM
Alternatively, you can power down your phone, place a new SIM card (for your new carrier) into the SIM tray on the side of the iPhone, then power the device back on.
Try to place a phone call or use mobile data to see if your device supports your carrier, but be sure you have active service first. If the phone does make calls, you’re all set to use it on another network. If it doesn’t, or if you receive a ‘SIM not recognized error,’ the phone is locked.
Is My Android Phone Locked?
Unfortunately, Android doesn’t have an option to check SIM restrictions in the settings as new iPhones do. But, that doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck.
Try Another SIM Card
The Android OS is used in a wide array of manufacturer’s devices so it’s a little more difficult to provide instructions for each model. Basically, if your phone has a removable back, you’ll find the SIM Card under the battery or in the frame next to it.
If your phone doesn’t have a removable battery, you can find the SIM slot on the side or top of the phone. Look for a pin hole encased in the outline of a tray. Using a SIM popper, earring, or paperclip, open the tray and insert another carriers’ SIM card.
Call Your Carrier
At one time we could input our IMEI for an Android into another carrier’s website to determine lock status. However, our most recent tests in November 2020 proved that this is incredibly unreliable. Using a locked Note 20, all major carriers returned a device eligible status. It clearly isn’t.
So, you’re best bet is to call your current carrier to find out the status of the IMEI. If you’re purchasing a device from a third-party, it is recommended that you meet the other person at the carrier store of your choice to ensure it will work properly before exchanging money.
Although your phone is unlocked, it may not function correctly with another carrier. There are several reasons why your specific smartphone or the one you’re purchasing won’t work.
Here are the top two reasons your unlocked phone cannot activate on a specific carrier.
- Blacklisted: Before buying a phone, check that the IMEI isn’t blacklisted. A blacklisted device is usually due to getting reported as stolen or lost, and, therefore, will not activate on any carrier.
- CDMA vs. GSM: Some models aren’t cross-network compatible. The AT&T/T-Mobile (GSM) iPhone X isn’t compatible with the Verizon or Sprint Network (CDMA).
You should also note that certain features will not work correctly if the phone was purchased from a GSM carrier and activated on a CDMA carrier. The same situation goes for the other way around.
Is My Phone Compatible with Another Carrier?
Each of the four top carriers allows you to check your current IMEI on their website. If you’re currently a Verizon customer looking to go to Sprint, you can visit the Sprint Website, input your IMEI, and it will tell you if your device will or will not work. Just beware that if the website states it is compatible that doesn’t exclusively mean that it’s unlocked.
To check your IMEI compatibility visit the website of your choice:
- Sprint (T–Mobile successfully acquired Sprint as of April 1, 2020, so use the T-Mobile link below)
Pre-paid users can check their IMEI’s using the new carrier’s website of their choice as well. Whether you’re going to Boost, Straight Talk, or another provider, visit that company’s website to check compatibility.
How to Find My IMEI
If you aren’t familiar with your phone’s IMEI number, there are three ways to find it on Android and Apple devices.
The SIM Tray – Look in the SIM tray, assuming that it’s the original component with the device, and you will see the IMEI along the side. The characters will be very small, so grab a magnifying glass.
The Settings – iPhone users can use “Settings -> General -> About” to find their IMEI. Android users can go to “Settings -> About Phone.”
The Back of Your Device – Older Android and iPhone devices displayed the IMEI on the back of the device. If your IMEI is there, it will be near the bottom, assuming you haven’t replaced the back of your phone. Really old models placed the IMEI under the removable battery.
How Can I Unlock My Smartphone?
If your device has the capability to pick up various networks beyond the one it was designed for, you’re free to stick any SIM card you’d like into your device.
Here’s what all four national carriers have had to say on whether the devices purchased through their carrier stores (or through resellers like Best Buy) support other carriers.
Is my Verizon phone unlocked?: Surprisingly, Verizon has been fairly relaxed about customers keeping smartphones unlocked. All devices sold through Verizon have a 60-day locked waiting period after activation, but will then get unlocked.
Verizon will even allow you to switch the SIM card in the device out for another carrier while under contract. Of course, you’ll still have to pay your monthly Verizon bill. There’s no number to call or unlocking code to enter—almost every device sold through the carrier can be used without any effort on your part. Verizon had a history of being one of the more locked-down carriers of the 2000s before the launch of their LTE network, so their total 180 on unlocking devices is refreshing and welcomed.
Is my AT&T phone unlocked?: Following this link will let you check your unlock status and availability. The general policy is that you can use any device purchased through AT&T on another carrier, as long as the device supports it. Unfortunately, you’ll have to jump through a couple of hoops to get there.
Your device’s IMEI number cannot be reported stolen or missing, your account must be in “good standing” with no missed payments or large balances owed, and your device must have been active on AT&T for 60 days. Assuming you meet the company’s requirements, which can be determined through their online portal, you can unlock your device for any other supported carrier. The bad news: AT&T only allows five devices to be unlocked per year from your account. You might also need to wait a few days before your request is finally processed. It’s a bit of a headache, but at least you can use your device on other carriers once the process is complete.
Can my T-Mobile phone be unlocked?: The “Uncarrier” stance on unlocking is ironically similar to what we’ve seen from AT&T. Your device must be a T-Mobile product first, must not be reported as stolen or missing, must be connected to an account in good standing, and must have been active for 40 days on the T-Mobile network.
When it comes to unlocking quotas, however, T-Mobile is far more strict. Only two devices can be unlocked every year, making it difficult for a family to leave the carrier. Furthermore, you have to ensure your T-Mobile payments on the device are completely paid. Assuming you meet those demands, you can contact T-Mobile’s support to ask for an unlock code for your device. It’s a bit archaic, especially for a carrier that markets itself as the carrier that breaks the rules, but it’s the current system.
What about unlocking a Sprint phone?: Sprint’s guidelines for unlocking a device are similar to T-Mobile and AT&T. You’ll have to use the device on Sprint’s network for 50 days, ensure your contract has ended or that your lease payment on your device is paid off, hold an account in good standing and, of course, have a device that hasn’t been reported as stolen or missing.
Sprint’s documentation on this topic states that phones bought after February 2015 will automatically get unlocked once the device meets these standards, which means you may not have to contact Sprint at all once you pay off the lease. If you believe you’ve met all the standards mentioned in their guidelines and your phone hasn’t been unlocked, you’ll have to contact their customer service for more information.
To reiterate, you still have to make sure your device will work on the carrier before moving to another one. That said, it’s typically easy to find those results on Google. Search for your device name with the carrier you started on and the carrier you’re moving to, and then read the various sources available.
Where Can I Buy Unlocked Devices?
If you’re looking to purchase an unlocked device, it stands to reason that you’ll want to steer clear of carrier stores. This may sound obnoxious or frustrating, especially if you’ve always purchased your devices from carriers through contracts or on payment plans. Remember, any device you buy through a mobile provider will stay locked until you pay the full retail price of the device or until your phone contract ends. Besides carrier stores, you have three choices on where to pick up your phone.
Buy Unlocked Phones on Amazon
Amazon unlocked phones include everything from budget devices to flagship models like the Google Pixel. In addition, Amazon also offers a “Prime-exclusive” series of phones under the $300 mark for current Prime members.
Buying an unlocked phone on amazon.com does not require you to select a carrier during purchase. Financing does not require a payoff to get unlocked status.
Unlocked Phones at Best Buy
Best Buy unlocked phones are organized into manufacturer, brand, and type for shopping ease. If you’re looking to finance your phone instead of paying for it in one lump sum, you’ll have to sign up for the Best Buy Citi Card, which allows you to pay for the device over 12, 18, or 24 months. Unlocked status remains through the Citi Card payment plan, but becomes locked if choosing to activate on bestbuy.com.
Other Unlocked Smartphone Options
If you’re interested in financing and don’t mind missing out on some exclusive “provider” models and colors, you can go directly to the manufacturer to purchase an unlocked phone. Apple will sell you an unlocked, SIM-free iPhone for the same price it sells its carrier models, and with their iPhone Upgrade Program, you can pay similar prices we’ve seen from the carriers while also gaining access to 12 month iPhone upgrades and having AppleCare+ included in your price.
It’s not a bad deal at all, and while it won’t make your device any cheaper, compared to buying the device through a carrier, you at least get the benefit of having a quality extended warranty program. Android manufacturers also sell their devices on their websites. If you search for the unlocked models of the brand’s devices, you’ll find them listed alongside the carrier versions. For example, Samsung has its Galaxy line on their website for purchase, with the option to finance the phone over 24 months.
HTC’s flagship U series is only sold in Sprint carrier stores, but you can buy an unlocked model that supports Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T on their website. Keep in mind that not all manufacturers offer financing plans, HTC included.
The final method for purchasing your devices is through a seller-based marketplace like eBay or Swappa.
You can pick up refurbished devices on those sites, right alongside brand new phones, and eBay listings will typically tell you whether or not the phone is unlocked. If you’re unsure if a listed phone is the unlocked model, research the model number online.
For example, Samsung’s Galaxy series has dozens of model numbers referring to specific countries and carriers, but the unlocked model sports a U1 at the end of its model number to differentiate between the other carrier versions. Remember to research the sellers. If the price seems too good to be true, or the seller is a brand-new account, you could be buying a device that has been marked as stolen or missing, which means it could have difficulty registering on any network, regardless of its locked or unlocked status.
I Purchased a Phone but it Says it’s Locked
If you purchased a phone from a third-party or individual and it is locked, you don’t have many options with the carrier. Your phone is still locked because someone didn’t have it unlocked or someone didn’t have it paid off.
Unfortunately, the seller will need to help you to use the phone. If they’re unwilling to, you can still activate it on the original carrier as long as it isn’t blacklisted. Before purchasing a phone from eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace, verify that the IMEI will work or, better yet, have them meet you at the carrier of your choice to check activation before paying.
Unless you have the original owner’s account information, the carrier won’t be much help. Even if you want to pay to have it unlocked.
Once My Phone Is Unlocked, What Can I Do?
Once you’ve unlocked your phone from your carrier, you can move to another cell provider of your choice, so long as your device is capable of receiving a signal from that provider. You can take your phone internationally, as long as it supports the GSM network (Global network), meaning you no longer have to pay for international plans while traveling.
That said, SIM cards don’t provide any other information beyond the cellular connection for your device (though in some cases, you can save some small amounts of data to your phone’s SIM card, like a microSD card). For example, if you placed your spouse’s SIM card into your device, your phone will adapt to your spouse’s phone line, including the number that people use to contact them.
That’s it—everything else, including apps, photos, and music, is tied to either the Apple or Google account on the phone. If you’re trying to set up an old device for a spouse, you’ll want to wipe that device first and set it up as a new phone; beyond a phone number, you won’t gain any other data from the SIM card.
The difference between buying a locked carrier model of a device and an unlocked version has never been clearer. With most carriers no longer offering two-year subsidies on devices, consumers are finally beginning to pay full price for their phones, allowing them more freedom to move between mobile providers. With the prevalence of LTE in the United States, more and more phones finally support all four national providers at once, giving consumers more selection than ever before. Before you upgrade your device on a payment plan, do your research into unlocked models of your favorite devices.
In the long run, choosing an unlocked model with a payment plan through the manufacturer might be a better choice for you and your wallet, especially if you’re ever planning on switching carriers.