A landmark bill finally went into action this week that will allow American cellular customers to unlock their smartphones for free. The process of unlocking may vary between mobile service providers, but you can rest assured that you are now entitled, by law, to carrier-unlock your smartphone.
Carriers had until February 10, 2015 to bring their policies into compliance with this bill, so from that day forth, ridiculous unlocking fees are a thing of the past, bringing the U.S. in line with policies that have long since been in place throughout most of the world.
Some eligibility requirements apply, of course, but I'll outline the process of carrier-unlocking a mobile device in more detail below.
Phones that are purchased from a particular carrier are, for the most part, "locked" to that carrier's mobile network. This means that even if you had a SIM card from another carrier, it simply wouldn't work in your device.
Let's say you are travelling abroad. You can purchase a prepaid SIM card at the airport when you land at your destination, but will it work in your phone? The short answer is no—unless, of course, you've carrier-unlocked your device. If this was the case, your phone is no longer restricted to its original network, and is now free to operate on any carrier you choose.
In the U.S., the cost of smartphones is generally subsidized as a part of your mobile service contract. This is how you can get an $800 iPhone for only $200 up front—the $600 loss your carrier takes when they make this deal is more than made up for with artificially inflated monthly service charges.
But, there's a big drawback to this system. Technically speaking, you do not own your smartphone in this scenario until you've completed your service contract. This means that until you've paid the 24th monthly bill in a 2-year service agreement, the phone still belongs to your carrier.
People who fall into this scenario are not eligible to take advantage of this new law. You can only carrier-unlock your phone for free if you meet the following requirements:
- You purchased the phone outright; or
- You have completed any associated service contract; and
- Are still a customer with the original service provider
That last requirement is a bit tricky. Your carrier is only required to unlock your phone for free if you are still their customer.
If it's an old phone that you purchased from AT&T, for instance, and now you're with Verizon Wireless; AT&T can charge you a "minimal fee" for unlocking the device. However, if you are still a customer with the device's original service provider, they are obligated to unlock your device free of charge upon request.
The easiest way to unlock your eligible device for free would be to give your carrier a call. I've just done it with AT&T, and it was quick and painless. You'll need to do this because your carrier can provide you with your device's Master Subsidy Lock, also known as MSL. With that number in-hand, you can go about unlocking your device.
In the future (meaning phones manufactured from February 2015 onward), MSL will be replaced with the DSU (Domestic SIM Unlockable) system, allowing carriers to unlock devices over the air.
For carrier-specific unlocking policies, please see the following links:
- AT&T Device Unlock Page
- T-Mobile Unlock Page
- Sprint Unlock Page
- Verizon Unlock Page
- U.S. Cellular Unlock Page
You should also be aware of your device's connectivity capabilities. Most phones from Sprint and Verizon operate on CDMA networks, which are not compatible with the global standard of GSM. This means that a Sprint or Verizon phone will probably not work on any other carrier in the world even if it's unlocked.
If you'd like to know what carrier networks your phone supports, have a look at this guide from Andrew. This will serve as an easy way to know if your unlocked cell phone will work on a different network.