Updated June 26, 2020.

Chances are, if you’ve ever tried to change wireless carriers, you’ve seen the term “unlocked phone.” But what is an unlocked phone? Why are they locked? And more importantly, what can you do about it?

In this guide, you will learn:

There’s a lot to cover in this guide, so let’s get started.

What is a Locked Phone? 

A locked phone is a mobile phone that is tied to a specific carrier network. When you buy a phone new, it is very likely locked, especially if you bought it under contract. Phones of all sorts are locked ranging from the cheapest, oldest phones to the highest quality, brand new mobile phones.

Why Are Phones Locked? 

The biggest reason mobile phones are locked is to keep you under contract with your wireless carrier. If, for example, you open a contract with a specific carrier, like Verizon, and you purchased a new iPhone through this plan, the cost of the phone is built into your monthly bill. So instead of paying for the phone upfront, the cost is broken up and added into a two-year contract. So you’re paying for the phone in 24 monthly installments, in addition to your service fees. If you decide to switch to another carrier, you have to get the phone unlocked. 

Usually, unlocking your phone can be expensive, and most of the time it involves paying in order to get out of your remaining contact. This is why it is best to purchase a phone outright, or buy an unlocked phone before entering a contract. 

What’s the Difference Between a Locked Phone and an Unlocked Phone? 

A locked phone has a software code that prevents other networks from working with that phone. So if you put another SIM card from a different carrier into that phone’s SIM card slot, it won’t work. An unlocked phone, by comparison, doesn’t have that lock on it which means you can just pop in a SIM card and the phone works and is tied to your wireless account.

Effectively, a locked phone is one that will only work with a specific carrier. By comparison, an unlocked phone can be used with different carriers. So, if you own an iPhone 11 and want to get service with AT&T, an unlocked phone could be used on their network, but a locked phone can not. It would only work with your original carrier’s network.

What Are the Benefits of an Unlocked Phone?

The biggest benefit of an unlocked phone is the flexibility to take it to any wireless carrier you choose. If you have an unlocked phone and there is a new deal offered by a specific carrier, you can take advantage of that cheaper plan and just switch your phone over without having to go through the hassle of getting it unlocked. 

This makes it super easy to switch carriers, because all you have to do is put in a new SIM card. You don’t have to buy a new phone, which means you can shop around for the cheapest or the best service in your area, depending on what you care about most.

What About the Technology? GSM vs. CDMA

While you may not be a techie, or someone who understands the finer workings of mobile phones and networks, it is important to understand a bit about the technology behind how a phone works. 

Not all phones work with every network. So, if you are trying to unlock your current phone because you want to change carriers, take a minute to figure out whether your phone would be compatible.

  • AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM wireless standard
  • Verizon and Sprint use CDMA wireless standard

These refer to the types of networks each carrier provides. They are incompatible with one another so if you buy a phone from Verizon which is a CDMA phone and you unlock it, you can’t take it to AT&T and use it with a GSM network.

CDMA is more restrictive so you can unlock a phone from AT&T and use it with T-Mobile but you cannot unlock a phone from Verizon and use it with Sprint because Sprint has the more restrictive CDMA network. So just make sure that your phone would be compatible with the other carrier network before you unlock it and make the switch.

What Do You Need to Unlock a Phone? 

When you purchase a phone online or from a carrier, the company will indicate to you whether it is unlocked. Usually, this is only the case if you pay in full for the phone. When you purchase an unlocked phone, you don’t have to do anything.

However, if it is locked, you will need to figure out the specific criteria for your carrier that you are under contract with. They will be able to explain and negotiate the terms and conditions of your contract to find an agreement, so they can give you the code to unlock your phone.

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How Do I Get My Phone Unlocked? 

Getting your phone unlocked is different depending on the carrier you have. 

Unlocking AT&T Phones

AT&T requires that you pay off the phone and you remain active with your AT&T service for at least 60 days. Then, once you have met the 60-day requirement you have to wait an additional 14 days to submit the request at which point they will give you the code to unlock the phone.

Unlocking T-Mobile Phones

T-Mobile requests that you pay off your phone in full, after which you must wait 40 days. However, T-Mobile has one contingency that other carriers do not have. If you are traveling overseas they will provide you with a temporary unlock code, allowing you to use an international SIM card wherever you are for the duration of your visit or stay.

Unlocking Sprint Phones

Sprint requires that your phone is paid off and that you wait 50 days after the phone is paid off. At that point, the phone will be automatically unlocked.

Unlocking Verizon Phones

Verizon does not allow you to unlock phones, with the exception of customers who have locked phones from other carriers.

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3 Things to Be Careful of When Unlocking a Phone 

Before you go off and unlock your iPhone or Android phone with this newfound knowledge, there are a few things you should be aware of first: 

1. Violating Your Carrier’s Contract 

If your carrier has a contract with you because you haven’t paid off the full amount of your phone, unlocking your phone could be a serious violation. So always make sure you check with your provider and pay off the cell phone before you try to unlock it.

2. Exposing Your Personal Data 

You should always be sure to take the proper steps to secure and clear the data on your old phone if you choose to trade it in for an unlocked phone. 

3. Understanding the Technology

It’s important to remember that the carrier network plays a big role. Knowing the limits of GSM vs. CDMA will help you determine whether you can switch networks using the phone you already have, which might make the decision easier for you.  

Where Can I Purchase Unlocked Cell Phones Online? 

Want to buy a new phone that allows you to have the freedom to choose your own carrier without paying through the nose to get out of a strict contract? On the Glyde Marketplace, you can browse a wide selection of GSM and CDMA phones that are supported by the most common carriers. 

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Locked vs. Unlocked Phone FAQ

Now that we’ve covered the main differences between locked and unlocked phones, let’s go over some of the most commonly asked questions!  

How do you know if your iPhone is unlocked?

The simplest and easiest way to find out if your phone is unlocked is to insert a SIM card from another carrier. If you see the name of the network appear on your phone and the phone works, it’s unlocked.

Can I unlock my phone for free?

Technically speaking you can, but if you haven’t paid off your phone and it is under contract, you will have to pay off the remainder of the phone before your network carrier will give you the freedom to unlock the phone.

Is it illegal to unlock a phone?

It is not illegal to unlock your phone. However, most carriers will not allow you to do so if you haven’t paid off the phone to keep you under contract until the phone is paid off.  In fact, when you become eligible for a new phone, and your phone company is telling you such, that’s usually because you paid off your old phone and now they want you to take out an installment plan on a new phone.

Can I unlock a phone under contract?

Most carriers won’t let you unlock your phone under contract until you’ve finished paying off the phone in full. Once you own the phone outright, you can unlock your phone and switch carriers.

Can you unlock a phone that is not paid off?

No. If you ask for the code to unlock your phone and it isn’t paid off your carrier won’t provide the code.

Why do I want an unlocked phone?

With an unlocked phone you can go from one network to another without any issue using the same phone you already have.

Do all iPhones come unlocked?

If you pay for the iPhone entirely and you buy it from Apple it is usually unlocked. If you buy it through a carrier and are paying for it in installments it is likely locked.

Are all AT&T phones locked?

All phones that are sold by AT&T have a factory lock setting on them. If you have paid off your phone you can ask AT&T for the unlock code.

What information is needed to unlock a phone?

Most of the time you need four pieces of information to unlock your phone including the make, the model, the IMEI number, and the network to which it is locked. If you don’t already know the make and model you can find it on the box, on the back of the phone, sometimes on the back of the battery, or in the instruction manual.

Is it easy to unlock a phone?

As long as you know what you are doing and you follow the steps precisely it’s easy.

Is it illegal to unlock a phone under contract?

It is not technically illegal to unlock a phone that is under contract. However, many cell phone companies lock the device if you have an installment payment plan so that they can guarantee that you will remain with them under contract until the phone is paid off. 

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