Tired of being locked down? Here are the keys to unlocking your phone from a provider

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.

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