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When your pesky wireless contract is finally up, it’s not uncommon to shop around, look for more cost-effective options and take your trusted smartphone with you. There’s just one problem: Your device is most likely “locked” to your old carrier, meaning you can’t just take your old device to a new provider. 

However, if you can unlock your phone (the steps in this process will differ from carrier to carrier) you should have no problem switching providers without purchasing a new device. Let’s take a look at how to unlock a phone and what you’ll need to do to free your device from your old service provider.

What is an unlocked phone? 

Unlocking your phone essentially means that you’re stripping it of any provider locks that prevent the device from operating on a rival network. Once you unlock a phone, you can bring it to any provider that works on a compatible network. 

Is it illegal to unlock your phone?

If you’ve heard whispers about unlocked phones and questionable legality, that’s because it was illegal to do so back in January of 2013. Luckily for consumers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) agreed on “voluntary industry principles” for unlocking wireless phones with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless. 

CTIA industry standards for unlocking phones are as follows:

Disclosure: Providers must reveal their policy on unlocking phones on their website.

Prepaid unlocking policy: Providers must fulfill prepaid device unlock requests within one year of the initial activation. 

Postpaid unlocking policy: Providers must unlock or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices to current and former subscribers after their service agreement or device financing concludes or after the payment of early termination fees.

Notice: Providers that lock devices must notify subscribers when their devices are eligible for unlocking or will unlock the device automatically.

Response time: Providers must unlock eligible devices within two business days of a request.

Deployed personnel unlocking policy: Providers must unlock the devices of deployed military personnel in good standing.

So, unlocking your wireless phone is perfectly legal as long as the providers adhere to the principles above. 

How do I unlock my phone?

As simple as it may sound, each wireless provider actually has a different set of criteria you must meet as well as instructions you must follow to unlock your device.  

You must also be sure that the provider you’re leaving uses the same technology (CMDA or GSM) that your new one does. CMDA phones will not work on a GSM network and vice versa, but if your device is compatible with both types of networks, you can use your phone with any carrier.

AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM network while Sprint and Verizon use CMDA. Therefore, you wouldn’t be able to use an AT&T-compatible device with Sprint’s network. Unlocking a GSM device is often pretty straightforward since you can use the phone on any GSM network once it’s unlocked. 

CMDA phones, on the other hand, aren’t as simple to unlock and transfer. CMDA providers like Verizon and Sprint have a unique database that manages which devices can operate on their network. 

So, if you’re switching up your provider, you’ll have to get permission from your current provider to unlock your phone and permission from your new one to use your phone on their network. CMDA providers do not have to allow your device to work on their network.

Find your provider in the list below to see carrier-specific guides on how to unlock a phone.

How to unlock an AT&T phone

AT&T makes things pretty simple when it comes to device unlocking as long as you have access to your my AT&T account or the provider website. 

What you’ll need:

To unlock your AT&T phone:

  1. Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements specified to unlock your device
  2. Complete and submit the Device Unlock Request form
  3. Open the link in the confirmation email within 24 hours of receipt and note the unlock request number assigned to you

An AT&T representative will be in touch within two business days to confirm the status of your request. 

How to unlock a Sprint phone

For domestic unlocks, you’ll need to contact Sprint Customer Care (855.639.4644). International and military locks will need to get in touch with Sprint Worldwide Care for assistance. 

What you’ll need:

  • Your Sprint account information (name, phone number, account number, password)
  • The IMEI number of your device

To unlock your Sprint phone:

  1. Check out the Sprint unlocking requirements and make sure your device can be unlocked domestically and/or internationally 
  2. Contact the appropriate Sprint Customer Care line and provide the specified account information

Remember, not all Sprint devices are eligible for SIM Unlock and most SIM Unlock-capable postpaid phones are automatically unlocked once requirements are met. Sprint may be able to provide the MSL code of phones that are ineligible for SIM Unlock. 

How to unlock a T-Mobile phone

As a T-Mobile customer, you’re limited to two device unlocks per line each year so be sure you’re intentional about switching providers. Here’s what you can expect when you unlock your T-Mobile phone.

What you’ll need:

  • An unlock-eligible device
  • Your T-Mobile account information (name, phone number, account number, password)
  • The IMEI number of your device

To unlock your T-Mobile phone:

  1. Go over the T-Mobile eligibility requirements to make sure you’ll be able to receive your unlock code
  2. Contact a T-Mobile representative and provide all desired information to verify that you are the account holder on file
  3. Make a note of the unlock code received from your representative

Some supported devices include the T-Mobile Device Unlock app. Device Unlock is only available for Android devices and allows customers to request and unlock their phone directly from the app. Learn more about how to use it at T-Mobile support.

How to unlock a Verizon phone

It’s important to note that as of July 2019, Verizon locks all phones during the first 60 days after purchase. Once the two-month period is up, all Verizon phones automatically unlock. Phones sold before the policy change should have been unlocked prior to purchase. 

If you purchased a Verizon device before July 2019 and it is locked, contact the Customer Service team at 800.922.0204.

For more wireless tips and tricks, check us out on social or bookmark our Resource Center to get updates before anyone else. 

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Taylor Gadsden

Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Taylor is a veteran member of the Allconnect content team and has spearheaded a number of projects, including a data piece on the top fiber cities in the U.S. and a troubleshooting guide on how to connect your p… Read more

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Frequently Asked Questions

What stores unlock phones?

You can buy unlocked phones from a variety of online retailers or direct from phone manufacturers. Perhaps the best place to start looking is Amazon, but you may also consider Best Buy, B&H, Newegg, or Walmart.

How do you unlock your phone?

There are several ways to unlock a phone: Call and Ask Nicely: Call your carrier and ask nicely—if your contract has expired, most carriers (in the US, at least) will unlock your phone for you as long as you’ve paid off anything you owe on the phone.

How do I unlock an Android phone?

For new Android devices powered by Android 5.0 and later, you should root the phone first. Then connect the phone to computer and launch Android Data Recovery on the computer. Now click "Unlock", the phone will be unlocked in a few minutes.

How do you unlock a SIM card?

You can unlock your SIM card by contacting your cellular provider, as carriers are now required by law to unlock SIM cards on request for no charge, assuming that your contract is up. To unlock a locked Verizon SIM card, use the Pin Unblocking Key (PUK), accessed by logging into your Verizon account.

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How to Unlock Your Phone Using Free Unlock Phone Codes

In the US, as in several other countries, mobile carriers sell phones with special offers or price cuts. But such phones are also often locked to their network. You can't swap out the SIM card and use a different carrier's network. Here are a few ways to unlock phones for free, or for a small price, while doing it legally and risk-free.

This article covers free unlock phone codes, as well as how to get your carrier to unlock your phone for free. If you're a Samsung user, there is also a phone unlocking software that might work on several older devices.

Is It Legal to Unlock Your Phone?

The US has flip-flopped on the legality of unlocking phones for some time. But the final verdict by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is resoundingly in favor of the consumer. Yes, it is legal to unlock phones.

More importantly, the FCC has mandated that all carriers should unlock phones for their consumers for free, if a consumer so desires.

That said, you need to know whether your phone is eligible to be unlocked. The FCC isn't giving you a free pass to con the carriers. It explicitly states that you can unlock only "after you have fulfilled the applicable service contract, completed the device installment plan or paid an early termination fee."

So, how can you tell if your phone is locked or not? Well, unless you intentionally bought an unlocked phone, it's mostly likely locked.

Why Should You Unlock Your Phone?

The biggest benefit of unlocked phones is that you are no longer at the mercy of a single provider. You are free to change networks as you see fit, so that you can use the SIM that best works for you in any region of the USA.

Unlocked phones also help tremendously when you're travelling abroad. Land in any country, buy a local SIM card, and use it. It's going to be much cheaper than racking up international call and data charges.

Finally, unlocked phones are excellent backup devices. Whether your main phone isn't working, or someone needs to borrow a device for a few days, an unlocked device gets the job done.

What Unlocking Does and Doesn't Do

It's pretty simple. SIM unlocking a phone is only about letting you use any SIM card from any carrier, as long as it is compatible. You don't get access to any developer features or hidden commands in the phone.

It cannot break the GSM-CDMA limitations of the phone. So, unlocked phones from GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile will let you fit SIM cards from GSM networks. But you can't fit SIMs from CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon. And vice versa.

3 Ways to Unlock Phones for Free or Cheap

Let's say you have a locked mobile phone and want to get it unlocked. You want the safest and least expensive way possible, of course. Here's what you can do.

1. Go to the Carrier

The first and best route is to go to the carrier. If you are eligible to unlock your phone, then it's completely free!

The FCC says: "Participating providers may not charge existing or former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked. Providers may charge a fee to unlock eligible devices for non-customers and former customers."

Here's how to check if your phone is eligible to be unlocked:

If your phone is eligible, then either request to unlock it online or go to a store. Here are the direct links to contact each carrier:

2. Get an Unlock Code Online

Ideally, you should unlock your phone through the carrier. But if you aren't eligible by their terms and still want to unlock it, you'll need to get it done via a third party. But it probably won't be free.

Note: This method is a little iffy to use with iPhones now. We have a full guide to unlocking your iPhone, and we suggest you follow that.

The internet is full of websites that sell unlock codes. Depending on the country you are in, the manufacturer of the phone, and the carrier you use, you should expect to pay up to $30. Don't spend any more than that if the seller asks, because you will find it cheaper elsewhere. You can get some codes for as low as $10.

We checked online reviews and testimonials to find sites that usually work, and offer refunds in case the code didn't work. Here are some of the best:

While all of these are paid websites, you can get free unlock codes on Free Unlocks. This site is a part of the TrialPay network, by which you can get the first code from the site for free. You will need to sign up for TrialPay as a part of it, of course.

Online reports show customers of Free Unlocks repeatedly got the free codes, and successfully unlocked their phones.

3. Use a Free Software for Samsung Phones

If you're using a Samsung Android phone, one desktop software claims to also unlock devices for free. Wondershare's Dr. Fone Toolkit is a paid program for Windows, but the trial version is free.

With the trial version, you can try out the SIM unlocking service for free. You will find it under the More Tools section, and you will need a USB cable to connect your phone to the computer.

Dr. Fone Toolkit is a little old and might not support all Samsung phones, but it claims to work with over 400 models across 60 countries. Here's a full list of supported devices.

And in case you're worried, Dr. Fone has an active customer care service, offers a money-back guarantee, and says the software won't affect your data.

Download: Wondershare Dr. Fone Toolkit for Windows (Free)

It's Better to Buy Unlocked Phones

The next time you are buying a phone, take a moment. The price of a SIM-locked phone is substantially cheaper than an unlocked phone at the outset. But there are hidden costs to this, such as specific tariffs and plans for that phone, and a lock-in period.

It's why we always recommend that you buy unlocked phones and save hundreds of dollars. The flexibility to switch to different mobile plans, as well as the freedom to change SIM cards when you travel, will save you more money than the initial difference between the locked and unlocked handsets.

Image Credit: somrak jendee/Shutterstock


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Mihir Patkar (1273 Articles Published)

Mihir Patkar has been writing on technology and productivity for over 14 years at some of the top media publications across the world. He has an academic background in journalism.

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Red Army - homosexuals committed suicide. (Gayges A.Suvorova T. Love is outside the plan. - M.

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