You've paid for your phone, and no one can tell you whether or not you can use it. Right?
Some carriers place a lock on your phone, so the device will only work when it's connected to their networks. If you shift your service to a different company, that lock will keep your phone from working.
Years ago, you were forced to make in-person trips and pay big fees to get your phone unlocked. Now, you can work with your provider directly, with no cost involved, to get your phone operating on any network.
If you've bought a locked phone, you have a few extra hoops to jump through. But with a fee of about $30 or less, you can get the issue corrected. You'll need to research your unlocking partner carefully to make sure you don't fall victim to a scam.
Phone Locks Explained
Cell phone companies want to keep their customers, and they'll do almost anything to maintain that connection. For years, they enforced that need with phone locks that were difficult or expensive to override.
That lock is a piece of code written right into the software that operates your phone. To unlock it, a different bit of code must be popped into the software. Without that amendment, your phone will only work when connected to one carrier. There's no way to override that software without getting the new piece of code.
How do companies know whether or not to unlock your phone? They look into your international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) number. You'll find it by:
Looking at the box your phone came in. You should see a sticker with a long number printed on it.
Tapping #06# into your phone. Most devices will show you a popup window that holds your number.
Scanning your phone's settings. In the "About" section of some phones, including iPhones, you'll see your IMEI.
Checking your phone's case. It is sometimes printed on the back, placed on a sticker inside the phone, or engraved into the drawer that holds your SIM card.
This number isn't unique to you. It moves with your phone. Before you can unlock your phone, you'll need your IMEI, as it contains information about:
The phone's original carrier.
Whether it's owned or leased.
Whether it's been reported stolen.
If a company spots a problem in your IMEI, your phone might never get unlocked.
How Much Does It Cost?
Get ready to celebrate: If you own a locked phone, and you purchased that device months ago and have been using it successfully with a carrier, you should be able to visit that company for a free unlocking.
This is a relatively new development. In 2013, wireless companies agreed, according to the Federal Communications Commission, to unlock eligible phones on request for no fee.
The key point to understand here is that the companies can determine whether or not your phone is eligible. And those rules can vary quite a bit from company to company.
For example, if you're cell provider is:
AT&T, you must prove that you've paid your bills and purchased your device. Even then, the company reserves the right to deny any request.
Sprint, you must demonstrate that you've used the phone on the network for at least 50 days, purchased your phone in full, paid your bills, and aren't working with a device that has been reported lost or stolen. If your device was launched before 2015, Sprint won't help. The company doesn't support unlocking on older phones.
Verizon, your job here is easy. Most devices are unlocked when you've paid for them, and all 4G LTE phones are unlocked.
T-Mobile, you must prove that you've used the phone on the network for at least 40 days, purchased your phone, and paid your bills. You'll also need to offer proof of purchase.
These are specific rules, and clearly, they vary from one company to another. But cellular companies have agreed to print up their requirements and make them available to customers. They might be part of your welcome package of paperwork that came with your phone, or you might find rules on the company website.
What if You Bought a Locked Phone?
Snapping up an online phone can save you quite a bit of money, but some devices you buy online come with their locks intact. If you try to use them, you'll see strange warning signs about incompatibility and the need to contact a carrier.
It's frustrating, but with a little legwork and patience, you can get to the right solution.
Visit your carrier first, and bring any paperwork from your purchase. That could be enough to persuade the company to unlock your phone.
For example, Sprint will unlock eligible phones if you can provide the name or the full account number of the former owner. These bits of data prove that you bought the phone through appropriate channels, and if the phone is eligible for the unlock program, the company can tackle this task for you at no charge.
But be aware: Not all companies will do the same. Some carriers are concerned about fraud, and they don't want liability associated with unlocking a phone for the wrong person.
When that happens, you'll need to visit a third-party company to unlock your phone. And often, there is a fee involved.
What Do Third-Party Companies Do?
A third-party company has access to software codes from some, most, or all major cellphone carriers. They will still check the status of your phone to guard against theft and fraud, of course, but they are motivated to unlock your phone, as that's how they make money. You may have fewer hoops to jump through.
Some third-party companies make you bring or send your phone to them so they can do the work in person. Others can send you the code electronically, and they can walk you through the steps required to install the data yourself.
No matter what route you choose, you'll need your IMEI. The company will dash that number through databases to make sure it hasn't been connected to theft and fraud, and if you pass, you'll get your unlock code.
Prices for this can vary, depending on your phone. A quick bit of internet research suggests that these are 2019 prices for unlocking per phone manufacturer:
Apple phones: $32
These aren't extraordinarily high costs, especially when considering that these fees will allow you to use your phone with any carrier.
Just be sure you're working with a reputable company. Nefarious groups can look for your IMEI, so they can mark stolen phones available for use. It's a tricky, technical hack that can render your phone completely useless. Before you hand over your phone and that precious bit of data, make sure you're working with a company that will handle your cargo with care.
Cell Phone Unlocking FAQs. (July 2018). Federal Communications Commission.
Device Unlock Portal. AT&T.
Unlocking Your Sprint Device. Sprint.
Device Unlocking Policies. Verizon.
SIM Unlock Policy. T-Mobile.
FAQs About Unlocking Your Sprint Device. (March 2018). Sprint.