When smartphones first entered the market, most devices were purchased through the network provider, locked to that specific carrier. Many of us remember the days of having to call the network provider or walk into the local network shop to go through the multi-hour process of having our brand new smartphones unlocked and set up, and the resulting frustration of learning that the SIM card wouldn’t work in the new, network locked phone. Remember the days when getting a new phone meant getting a new phone number, and having to hunt down every single one of your contacts to give them your number, and put their numbers in your phone yet again?
The biggest difference between an unlocked and locked smartphone is the ability to use your device on other carriers with its existing SIM card. The SIM card is basically the little chip that holds all of your specific phone information and can be– in theory– transferred between phones. The idea, in very simple terms, is that you can put your SIM card in any phone, and when your phone number is called, the phone holding your SIM card will ring. A smartphone that is locked will reject a SIM card from another carrier or as noted above, the GSA/CDMA network.
Why Lock a Smartphone?
- Why Lock a Smartphone?
- What Is the Advantage of an Unlocked Phone?
- Do Unlocked Smartphones Work on Any Carrier’s Network?
- How Do I Know If My Phone Is Unlocked?
- How Can I Unlock My Smartphone?
- Where Can I Buy Unlocked Devices?
- Once My Phone Is Unlocked, What Can I Do?
While it certainly made sense that a carrier would want to lock down the features of their specific models, it made reselling or refurbishing smartphones a difficult process for anyone who wasn’t a high-level tech genius, resulting in tons of smartphone waste. Prior to the Samsung Galaxy S3, most Android phones even had carrier customization in both the software and the hardware, with special carrier-exclusive variants of the Galaxy S2 available on carriers like AT&T (with the “Samsung Galaxy S2 Skyrocket”) and Sprint (the ludicrously named “Samsung Galaxy S2 Epic 4G Touch, later renamed simply “Galaxy S2 4G”).
As a result, these phones were incredibly locked down. Once you upgraded, you were pretty much left with a paperweight of a former phone and another SIM card to add to the collection in your junk drawer. Even the first three of Apple’s iPhone versions were only available on AT&T. It wasn’t until February of 2011 that Apple finally released a Verizon-based iPhone 4, and a Sprint-capable model of both the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S that came later that same year.
As the years have gone by, more and more phones are offered as unlocked, meaning they aren’t synchronized with any particular carrier. Having an unlocked phone, however, doesn’t automatically mean you can use any phone on any network, which we’ll discuss shortly. A bit of information gathering will save you from frustration, so be sure to learn the device’s history as to which carrier originally locked it.
Phone designers like Motorola, Apple, and HTC have gotten really good at allowing users to buy one device and pick the right carrier for them. These manufacturers sell unlocked devices through their own storefronts, or through third-party sellers like Amazon and eBay, allowing customers to easily gain access to devices that work on every cellular provider in the United States (and typically, many European countries as well). Even some service-branded devices ship unlocked and ready to be used on other carriers outside of the original provider, though this is still a rare practice that may involve plenty of restrictions.
Since not all phones ship unlocked from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), it’s important to know whether or not an existing device works outside of the current carrier. In this article, I’ll show you how to double-check the settings to determine whether or not your device is locked, and what you can do about it.
What Is the Advantage of an Unlocked Phone?
Locking or unlocking a phone doesn’t make any difference in installing applications or performing normal smartphone tasks like sending text messages, placing phone calls, and browsing the web. That said, there are a few other differences between an unlocked and locked device. While Apple handles updates for all its phones directly, Android updates are typically pushed out by the carrier after the manufacturer has finished building the software for the device. This means that, on occasion, OS updates for Android devices can get caught up in “carrier testing,” while unlocked devices and devices on other carriers have already finished the update.
This is primarily a problem with Android. Apple’s share of the market is so powerful that it can essentially bypass the restrictions of carriers like Verizon and AT&T. Android manufacturers largely don’t have that kind of clout with carriers; they need to sell their devices in stores to make money on their devices and are willing to load their phone with carrier-branded apps and sponsored bloatware that many Android fans are used to uninstalling or disabling on their device out of the box.
The only Android OEMs with the same kind of power as Apple are Samsung and Google’s Pixel lineup, though even Samsung tends to fall behind carrier lines. In a positive development, Samsung does seem to be working towards a more Apple-like agreement with carriers—the S8 and S8+, along with the Note8, all shipped without any carrier branding—but they still allow manufacturers like AT&T and Verizon to install DirecTV and Go90, respectively.
We should also mention that unlocked devices don’t always have improved support over the carrier models. The unlocked versions of both the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were, infamously, left behind on the Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system for months longer than the carrier models, finally receiving the update in May of 2017. For comparison, carrier models began to receive the update in January, and even the Verizon model (notoriously the slowest of the four service providers nationwide) was updated to the Nougat operating system in March.
Overall, if you’re an Apple devotee, the only difference between an unlocked and locked iPhone is the ability to use your device on alternate carriers easily. On Android, the difference is slightly greater. Software updates will arrive at different times, and your device will include apps and other pre-installed software that may or may not be of interest to you.
You might have carrier branding on the back (or, in some cases, front) of your device, though some manufacturers are finally starting to move away from that. And of course, you’ll be able to easily use your device on your carrier of choice, while still being able to take advantage of features such as WiFi calling and HD Voice on most carriers.
Do Unlocked Smartphones Work on Any Carrier’s Network?
This is a really important question. It’s pretty easy to buy an unlocked smartphone from Amazon—they have an entire section of their website dedicated to them—but not every unlocked device is designed to work on multiple carriers. Cellular technology is a bit complicated, and while the move to a single standard for 4G has simplified things a bit, using a device between all major carriers in the United States is still a bit tricky.
The legacy of a fragmented 3G market lives on. Although LTE is available in most parts of the nation by now, having 3G as a fallback is important for most consumers. And though they can be more convenient when switching carriers, certain unlocked devices don’t support older bands like 3G. Does that mean these users are stuck with locked SIM cards?
Let’s back up a bit.
In the early 2000s, most cellular technologies were built to run on one of two different standards: GSM and CDMA. GSM, or Global System for Mobiles, came around in the 1980s and was adopted by most of the world, including Europe. CDMA, short for Code Division Multiple Access, was built by Qualcomm, a company now known for powering most Android devices on the market.
Both AT&T (known as Cingular at the time) and T-Mobile built their networks off of GSM technology. Because they shared the same network standard, it was easy to move unlocked phones between the two carriers. This continued throughout the 2G and 3G eras, and when it came time to build 4G-based networks, both carriers eventually evolved to LTE, a continuation of the GSM standards.
Verizon and Sprint, meanwhile, chose to use CDMA technology for their devices. Their 1X networks were equivalent to the 2G networks offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. However, CDMA was far more proprietary than GSM. This meant that the cellular information for the device was built into the phone rather than the SIM card, which is how GSM-based carriers stored cellular information. This meant you had to call an activation number when you received a new phone. It also made changing devices more difficult and made using unlocked devices impossible.
This all changed with the move to LTE. Sprint had originally bet on WiMAX technology over LTE, but the speed and connectivity benefits that LTE offered over WiMAX simply won out in the end.
This meant that, as of about 2013, all four carriers in the United States were finally on a SIM-based standard, theoretically allowing for more competition and phones that could operate on any network. But—and this shouldn’t surprise you if you know a lot about US-based carriers—that’s not exactly what ended up happening. Instead, most carriers have taken to using separate frequency bands and limiting the bands used in their exclusive, locked-down devices. While phones that worked on AT&T typically also supported some T-Mobile bands, Verizon and Sprint both supported different bands that kept phones from working together out of the box.
In 2014, this slowly started to change. Motorola was the first major OEM to offer unlocked versions of their smartphones that worked on all providers, with both later entries in their X and G series of devices supporting nearly every major and minor carrier in the United States. This has continued to be a trend with them: their unlocked Moto G4 and Moto G5, along with the Moto Z2 Play and Moto E4 work on most or all carriers out of the box, though with some limitations on AT&T (typically around features like HD Voice or WiFi calling). They aren’t perfect though, as the Moto Z2 Force, their flagship device for 2017, has carrier-specific models for all four national providers.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ are both available as unlocked devices that work on all four carriers, as is the HTC U11—though in the case of the latter, the lack of a CDMA radio means that the device won’t function on 3G when using a Verizon or Sprint SIM card. This is a major problem with certain unlocked devices, so it’s always important to check carrier details in the description of your device before buying. And as far as the iPhone is considered, all modern iPhones, including the iPhone 7, iPhone 8 and iPhone X, use Qualcomm radios that support both CDMA and GSM carriers, which means they work with all major carriers when purchased directly from Apple.
Ultimately, there is no simple answer to whether unlocked smartphones work on all major national carriers. Certain phones, especially modern devices released in the current year, are typically built to be used on most carriers since it’s easier for OEMs to build one unlocked model for all four carriers. That said, it depends on your device. If you’re considering purchasing an unlocked device, either new or used/refurbished through a site like eBay, you’ll want to do some research to determine whether or not your device can be used on your current carrier.
How Do I Know If My Phone Is Unlocked?
If you bought your phone through a carrier, either on a two-year contract or a monthly payment plan, your phone isn’t unlocked, even if it does support other carriers. Since you’ve made a contract with that carrier, either through the signing of a contract or (more common these days) through a payment plan, you’ll have to stick around with that carrier until the contract is up or the plan has been paid off. You can do the latter at any time though, and once your device is paid for, if your phone is SIM unlocked, you can use it on any carrier of your choice.
Of course, that’s the major question: how can you tell if your device is SIM unlocked once it’s been paid off? Well, the answer depends on what phone you’re using and whether or not it’s designed to be used on multiple carriers. Let’s take a deeper look.
Is my iPhone Unlocked?
If you’re an iOS user, the answer is pretty simple. Either you bought your device straight from Apple (either for full price or through their iPhone Upgrade Program), through a third-party like Best Buy, or through your carrier.
If you purchased your device from Apple, you had the choice to either buy a model from a pre-selected carrier or to purchase an iPhone without a SIM card. If you chose the latter, your device is already unlocked, and you can use any SIM card with your device and pick up a full signal on any carrier.
That said, pre-selected carrier models from Apple, along with models bought from both Best Buy and carriers all include a SIM card pre-inserted into your device. These iPhones are, for the moment, technically locked to your carrier—but that said, they can almost always be unlocked with little effort on your part, something we’ll discuss in the next section of this guide.
If you don’t remember whether you purchased an unlocked or carrier-specific iPhone, iOS makes it easy to check whether your device is still locked. Dive into the Settings menu on your phone, select “Cellular,” then select “Cellular Data Options.” Here, your device will either display an option for “Cellular Data Network,” which would allow you to select the carrier of your choice, or it won’t, in which case, your iPhone is currently locked.
Alternatively, you can simply power down your phone, place the new SIM card for your new carrier into the SIM tray on the side of the iPhone, then power the device back on. Try to place a phone call or use mobile data to see if your device supports your carrier. If it does, you’re all set to use the device on another network. If it doesn’t, don’t worry—all iPhones can be unlocked by the carrier.
Is My Android Phone Locked?
As with iOS, the easiest way to check if your Android device is unlocked is to simply throw a SIM card from an alternate carrier into your device to test whether the phone works or not. Typically, if you bought your phone through a carrier (as most Android users do) or through a reseller and the listing did not specifically say the phone was unlocked, your phone is probably locked. We’ll discuss how carriers lock and unlock phones below, but if you’re on a contract or a payment plan, your device is probably locked to your carrier for the time being.
How to Check If a Phone Is Locked with IMEI
If you don’t happen to have an alternate SIM card from a different carrier to test out on your device, there is a way to test the IMEI number on your device to determine its locked or unlocked status – visit IMEI.info. IMEI.info has been around since 2012, allowing users to test their IMEI numbers to reveal the status of several pieces of information on their devices. It’s not always correct about certain pieces of info, but typically it can provide you with a general idea of whether or not your device is locked. Alternatively, if you don’t feel secure in inputting your IMEI number into a website, you can contact your carrier’s support for more information.
How Can I Unlock My Smartphone?
Once again, the answer is a bit complex. If your device has the capabilities to pick up various networks beyond the one it was designed for and sold through, then yes, once your phone is paid off, you’re free to stick any SIM card you’d like into your device. For example, the Verizon-based Galaxy S7 edge was sold SIM unlocked, despite having Verizon branding and Verizon apps included on the device. So long as you paid the device off in full, you were free to use it on any compatible carrier. To continue using the Verizon-branded S7 Edge in this example, the built-in bands allowed the phone to function on T-Mobile and AT&T in addition to Verizon, though neither of those carriers offered full compatibility with the phone itself. This means that, though you’ll pick up a signal, both its quality and speed aren’t guaranteed, since the device is missing specific bands that will give you additional functionality.
Here’s the good news: regardless of your operating system, all four carriers have adopted stances on unlocked devices through their network, and if we’re being honest, the answers might surprise you. Here’s what all four national carriers have had to say on whether the devices purchased through their carrier stores (or through resellers like Best Buy) support other carriers.
- Is my Verizon phone unlocked?: Surprisingly, Verizon has been pretty relaxed about customers keeping smartphones unlocked on the carrier. All devices sold through Verizon have a 60 day locked waiting period after activation, but will then be unlocked. Verizon will even allow you to switch the SIM card in the device out for another carrier while under contract (of course, you’ll still have to pay your monthly Verizon bill). There’s no number to call or unlocking code to enter—almost every device sold through the carrier can be used without any effort on your part. Verizon had a history of being one of the more locked-down carriers of the 2000s before the launch of their LTE network, so their total 180 on unlocking devices is refreshing and welcomed.
- Is my AT&T phone unlocked?: Following this link will let you check your unlock status and availability. The general policy is such that you can use pretty much any device sold through AT&T on any other network of your choice, assuming the device is supported by the network you wish to use. Unfortunately, you’ll have to jump through a couple of hoops to get there, but the hoops aren’t too difficult to navigate. For example, your device’s IMEI number cannot be reported stolen or missing, your account must be in “good standing” with no missed payments or large balances owed, and your device must have been active on AT&T for 60 days. Assuming you meet the company’s requirements, which can be determined through their online portal, you can unlock your device for any other supported carrier. The bad news: AT&T only allows five devices to be unlocked per year from your account. You might also need to wait a few days before your request is finally processed. It’s a bit of a headache, but at the very least you can use your device on other carriers once the process is complete.
- Can my T-Mobile phone be unlocked?: The “Uncarrier” stance on unlocking is eerily similar to what we’ve seen from AT&T. Your device must first be a T-Mobile product, must not be reported as stolen or missing, must be connected to an account in good standing, and must be active for 40 days on T-Mobile. When it comes to unlocking quotas, however, T-Mobile is far more strict than their blue cousin: only two devices can be unlocked every year, making it difficult for a family of three or more to leave the carrier at once. Furthermore, you have to ensure your T-Mobile payments on the device are completely paid. Assuming you meet those demands, you can contact T-Mobile’s support to ask for an unlock code for your device. It’s a bit archaic, especially for a carrier that markets itself as the carrier that breaks the rules, but it’s the current system.
- What about unlocking a Sprint phone?: Sprint’s guidelines for unlocking a device are pretty identical to T-Mobile and AT&T. You’ll have to use the device on Sprint’s network for 50 days, ensure your contract has ended or that your lease payment on your device is paid off, hold an account in good standing, and of course, have a device that hasn’t been reported as stolen or missing. Sprint’s documentation on this topic states that phones bought after February 2015 will automatically be unlocked once the device meets these standards, which means you may not have to contact Sprint at all following your device’s lease being paid off. That said, if you do believe you’ve met all the standards mentioned in their guidelines and your phone hasn’t been unlocked, you’ll have to contact their customer service for more information.
To reiterate, you’ll still have to make sure your Android device will work on the carrier of your choice before moving to another carrier (remember: iPhone users can move to the carrier of their choice once they’ve unlocked their devices). That said, it’s typically pretty easy to find those results on Google. Simply search for your device name with the carrier you started on and the carrier you’re moving to, and a variety of sources will undoubtedly answer your question.
One last warning about unlocked Android devices: as we mentioned above, while Apple pushes out its software updates, Android users will be subject to the carrier pushing out the update, assuming you didn’t buy your phone unlocked directly from the manufacturer. This means, while your device is fully functional on another carrier, you may not receive push updates on your phone while using a different SIM card. That’s something to keep in mind before you make the switch from a carrier-branded device.
Where Can I Buy Unlocked Devices?
If you’re looking to purchase an unlocked device, it stands to reason that you’ll want to steer clear of carrier stores. This may sound obnoxious or frustrating, especially if you’ve always purchased your devices from carriers through contracts or, more recently, on payment plans, but any device you buy through a mobile provider will be locked until you pay the full retail price of the device or until your phone contract ends. So instead, you have three choices on where to pick up your phone, and all three have their benefits and drawbacks.
Both Amazon and Best Buy have a wide variety of unlocked devices for sale on their marketplaces. Amazon has a wide variety of phones available on their website that are completely unlocked, from budget devices to flagship models like the Google Pixel. In addition to these devices, Amazon also offers “Prime-exclusive,” a series of phones under the $300 mark. There are some great phones for sale under the Amazon Prime banner, including brand new models that include all the most current technology. That said, you’ll have to be an Amazon Prime member to take advantage of the discounts offered on the phone models. Best Buy also has a wide variety of unlocked devices, which are organized into manufacturer and type for shopping ease. If you’re looking to finance these devices instead of paying for the phones in one lump sum, you’ll have to sign up for their respective store cards, which forces you to pay for the device over 12 months.
If you’re interested in financing and don’t mind missing out on some exclusive models and colors, you can go directly to the manufacturer. Apple will sell you an unlocked, SIM-free iPhone for the same price it sells its carrier models, and with their iPhone Upgrade Program, you can pay similar prices we’ve seen from the carriers while also gaining access to 12 month iPhone upgrades and AppleCare+ included in your price. It’s not a bad deal at all, and while it won’t make your device any cheaper compared to buying the device through a carrier, you at least get the benefit of having a quality extended warranty program. Android manufacturers also sell their devices on their websites typically, and if you search for the unlocked models of their devices, you’ll find them listed alongside the carrier versions. For example, Samsung has its Galaxy line on their website for purchase, with the option to finance the phone over 24 months. Meanwhile, HTC’s flagship U series is only sold in Sprint carrier stores, but you can buy an unlocked model that supports Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T on their website. That said, not all manufacturers offer financing plans, HTC included.
The final method for purchasing your devices is through a seller-based marketplace like eBay or Swappa. You can pick up factory- and user-refurbished devices on those sites, right alongside brand new phones, and eBay listings will typically tell you whether or not the phone is unlocked. If you’re unsure if a phone listed on either store is the unlocked model, typically researching the model number online will alert you whether the device is linked to a specific mobile network or if the device is truly unlocked. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy series has dozens of model numbers referring to specific countries and carriers, but the unlocked model sports a U1 at the end of its model number to differentiate that model from the AT&T or Verizon version. If you’re buying a specific carrier version of a device online, make sure to research the buyer first. If the price seems too good to be true, or the seller is a brand-new account, you could be buying a device that has been marked as stolen or missing, which means it could have difficulty registering on any network, regardless of its locked or unlocked status.
Once My Phone Is Unlocked, What Can I Do?
Finally, a question that has a simple answer! Once you’ve unlocked your phone from your carrier, you can move to another cell provider of your choice, so long as your device is capable of receiving a signal from that provider. For example, if you purchase an iPhone from Sprint, only to discover your house isn’t included in Sprint’s coverage, you can finish paying off the device in order to leave the company, so long as your account is in good standing (see above). After Sprint unlocks your device, you can purchase a T-Mobile or Verizon SIM card, slot it into your device, and wait for the calls to come pouring in.
That said, SIM cards don’t provide any other information beyond the cellular connection for your device (though in some cases, you can save some small amounts of data to your phone’s SIM card, like a microSD card). For example, if you placed your spouse’s SIM card into your device, your phone will adapt to your spouse’s phone line, including the number that people use to contact them. That’s it—everything else, including apps, photos, and music, is tied to either the Apple or Google account tied to the phone inside your settings, or stored on the internal storage of your phone. If you’re trying to set up an old device for a spouse, you’ll want to wipe that device first and set it up as a new phone; beyond a phone number, you won’t gain any other data from the SIM card.
The difference between buying a locked carrier model of a device and an unlocked version has never been clearer. With most carriers no longer offering two-year subsidies on devices, consumers are finally beginning to pay full price for their phones, allowing them more freedom to move between mobile providers. And with the prevalence of LTE in the United States, more and more phones finally support all four national providers at once, giving consumers more selection for their devices than ever before. Before you upgrade your device on a payment plan with your carrier, do your research into unlocked models of your favorite devices. In the long run, choosing an unlocked model with a payment plan through the manufacturer might be a better choice for you and your wallet—especially if you’re ever interested in switching carriers.