How to Unlock a Cell Phone

Michael Kwan
Unlock an Apple iPhone

It is easier than ever to unlock a cell phone. Most cell phones that are purchased from a wireless carrier in the United States, particularly those subsidized on a contract or purchased with a payment installment plan, are typically 'locked' to that carrier. By 'unlocking' the cell phone, the device can then be used with other wireless providers if the network technology is compatible.

Why Unlock a Cell Phone?

There are two main motivations for taking a locked cell phone and turning it into an unlocked phone.

  • Ease of changing carriers: By going through the process to SIM unlock a phone or tablet, the device can then be used with a different local wireless provider. This makes it possible to switch carriers without having to purchase a new mobile phone.
  • Minimize the cost of international calls: Second, international roaming charges while traveling abroad can be very expensive. An unlocked phone can be used in tandem with a prepaid SIM card from a local carrier at the destination to save a significant amount of money. Unlocking a phone can also increase its resale value.

Is It Legal to Unlock Your Phone?

The history of whether unlocking a cell phone is legal or illegal has taken many turns in the United States. Prior to 2010, the legality of unlocking mobile phones was hotly debated.

Legislative History

  • In 2010, an exception was granted to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, allowing users to unlock phones through software alterations.
  • In 2012, a ruling overturned that exception, deeming it illegal to unlock a device without the carrier's permission.
  • Most recently, the 2012 ruling was overturned by H.R.1123 - Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which was introduced in March 2013 and signed into law by President Obama in August 2014.

Current Rules

The new rules went into full effect in February 2015, mandating that wireless carriers must unlock customer's devices upon request and without additional fee if certain criteria are met:

  • You are a current or former customer of the carrier
  • The account is in good standing
  • All contractual obligations are completely satisfied, including any hardware subsidies or hardware re-payment plans
  • Prepaid customers have had the locked device with the carrier for at least one year

If you are still under contract with the carrier, the carrier is not obligated to unlock your device. If you are not a current or former customer, the carrier has the option to unlock your device for a reasonable fee.

Using an Unlock Code (Most Phones)

Most GSM-compatible cell phones can be unlocked with an unlock code.

Getting a Cell Phone Unlock Code

  • You can acquire an unlock code from your wireless carrier at the end of your contract if all outstanding charges and dues have been paid. Carriers must provide the unlock code for free to current and past customers or for a "reasonable fee" to non-customers.
  • If you are still under contract or still have an amount owed on your subsidized cell phone, you can order an unlock code from a third-party service for a nominal fee. The price for purchasing an unlock code can vary from device to device and carrier to carrier, but it typically ranges from $10 to $50.

To request an unlock code, you will need to know the specific make and model of the phone, the network to which it is locked, and the device's unique 15-digit IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) number.

Using an Unlock Code on Most Phones

The procedure for using the unlock code is generally the same for most compatible cell phones.

  1. Look up the IMEI number of your phone by dialing *#06#, looking underneath the battery, or checking the About Phone section of the Android settings menu. Write this number down.
  2. Ask your carrier for the unlock code or buy the specific unlock code for your device from one of the available online services. Examples of such websites include HTC SIM Unlock, GSM Liberty, CellUnlocker.net, UnlockBase and Unlock4Mobile.
  3. The unlock code can take several hours or even days to arrive.
  4. Once you have the unlock code, turn off your cell phone and remove the SIM card.
  5. Insert an activated SIM card for another wireless carrier with service in your area. For example, if your phone is locked at AT&T, insert a SIM card from T-Mobile.
  6. Turn on your phone.
  7. When prompted, enter the unlock code you received.
  8. If the phone connects successfully to the 'unauthorized' network, your phone is now unlocked.

Caution for Using Unlock Codes

Since buying and using an unlock code from a third-party website is typically not officially authorized or supported, some manufacturers and carriers may void your warranty if you follow such a procedure. Many disregard it and still honor the warranty, so long as the warranty issue is unrelated to the unlocking process.

Unlocking Considerations for Specific Phones

Using an Unlock Code on Nokia Phones

In the case of many Nokia cell phones, the prompt to enter your unlock code may not appear upon boot-up when you insert an unauthorized SIM card. If this is the case with your Nokia phone, try this alternate method.

  1. Turn on your phone with no SIM inserted at all or with a SIM card from your current (locked) carrier.
  2. Enter #PW+UNLOCKCODE+1#, replacing UNLOCKCODE with your actual unlock code.
  3. If the keyboard on your phone is not allowing you to type letters, press * three times to produce the P, * four times to produce the W and * twice to produce the + symbol.
  4. The phone should then display the message "SIM Restriction Off."

Unlocking an Apple iPhone

The best and easiest way to unlock an iPhone is to request the SIM unlock from your wireless provider. Your account must be in good standing and all of your contractual obligations must be met. This is the only method authorized and supported by Apple. It is also important to have a full backup of your iPhone before unlocking it, just in case any data is lost or the iPhone needs to be erased.

  1. Contact customer support at your carrier and request to unlock your iPhone. Some carriers may have web chat or, in the case of AT&T, an online form to request a SIM unlock.
  2. Follow their specific instructions and confirm that your request has been processed. It can take a few days for the unlocking to be fully processed and completed.
  3. Turn off your iPhone and remove the SIM card.
  4. Insert a SIM card from a different carrier.
  5. Turn on your iPhone and complete the setup process.
  6. If you do not have a SIM card from a carrier other than your own, you will need to backup and erase your iPhone. Then, restore your iPhone with the backup.

While there are methods of unlocking an iPhone other than asking your wireless carrier, these other methods run the risk of voiding your device warranty.

Ordering an unlock code from a third-party source can work and Apple may still honor your warranty, but there is no guarantee. Software-based methods, like those that involve 'jailbreaking' your iPhone, will likely void your warranty and should only be used with extreme caution and at your own risk.

Manually Unlocking Select Samsung Smartphones

In addition to requesting an unlock from your wireless carrier or purchasing an unlock code from a third-party website, select Samsung Android smartphones can be unlocked manually by using a system administration menu on the device. The manual unlock method has its risks, as you are tampering with system-level settings, but it is free and can be used even when you are still under contract.

Refer to the article on how to unlock a Samsung phone for instructions on how to unlock a Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2 or Galaxy S4 using the manual method. This will not work for all devices and your phone must be running on a stock ROM of Android 4.1.1 or above.

Unlocking BlackBerry 10 Smartphones

To unlock a BlackBerry 10 smartphone, such as the BlackBerry Z10, you still need to acquire an unlock code. You can request this from your wireless carrier or purchase it from a third-party source like the ones listed above. Once the code has been received, you can proceed as follows:

  1. Open the Settings menu.
  2. Navigate to Security and Privacy.
  3. Select SIM Card.
  4. Under Phone Network Lock, tap on the Unlock Network button.
  5. Enter the unlock code and press OK.
  6. The confirmation message 'Network Code Entered Successfully' should appear.

Special Considerations for Verizon and Sprint Devices

AT&T and T-Mobile are the major U.S. carriers that use GSM technology for their networks and SIM cards for their devices. Unlocking generally applies to devices with SIM cards. By contrast, Sprint and Verizon use a different type of network technology (CDMA) that does not require the use of SIM cards to identify the customer.

However, both Verizon and Sprint do sell devices that have SIM card slots that may support use with other carriers domestically and internationally.

Verizon

As a rule, Verizon generally does not lock its 3G or its 4G LTE devices. This includes the Apple iPhone, which comes SIM unlocked from Verizon. The exceptions to this rule are the Global Ready 3G phones from Verizon (that aren't iPhones).

To unlock these devices for use with other carriers, enter either "000000" or "123456" as your unlock code, as per your device's user guide. If this does not work or you need help, contact Verizon customer support at 1-800-922-0204 or *611 from your Verizon phone.

Sprint

The unlocking policy at Sprint is in line with what is mandated by the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. However, many Sprint devices have been manufactured in such a way that they are not capable of being unlocked (PDF link), including Sprint-branded iPhones. Devices from Sprint affiliates like Boost and Virgin Mobile also cannot be unlocked. This should change with new devices moving forward to be in line with the new regulations.

The Freedom to Choose

With few exceptions, once you have completed a successful SIM unlock on a cell phone, that phone should be unlocked forever with no loss of other functions. This includes if the phone undergoes a factory reset or if the software is updated to a newer version.

An unlocked phone allows you to move between wireless carriers more easily and take advantage of local cell phone service when traveling internationally. If you are concerned about warranty issues and want to stay on the safe side, requesting an unlock from your current carrier is the best option.

How to Unlock a Cell Phone